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A Lack of Labor

As unions' role in U.S. society has faded, real economic debate in presidential campaigns has been reduced to cliches.

September 03, 2000|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — Labor Day isn't what it used to be. Yesteryear's huge crowds of cheering unionists who filled places like Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit are no more, and the confusion over what's still what in the booming new economy has made the presidential-campaign debate about economic issues a thin mix of smug cliches. The peril is that this overconfidence will come back to haunt the next administration.

This doesn't have much to do with Vice President Al Gore's new neo-populism--probably at least one-third to one-half sincere--that has clearly done him a lot of good (8-10 points worth) in the polls. Sure, there is a large phony quotient: Populists don't usually graduate from prep school and Harvard, and Gore didn't attack the really big industries that have given him money (technology, telecommunications and entertainment). However, his pitch made basic political sense by undercutting Ralph Nader's third-party competition, baiting GOP-leaning industries that the public already distrusts (oil, drugs, insurance and tobacco) and hitting the Bush family with one of its least-favorite political strategies.

The late Lee Atwater, campaign manager for former President George Bush, admitted after the 1988 election, "The way to win a presidential race against the Republicans is to develop the class warfare issue, as [Michael] Dukakis did at the end. To divide up the haves and have-nots and to try and reinvigorate the New Deal coalition." Four years later, populist rhetoric--"the rich get the gold mine and the middle class gets the shaft"--helped elect Bill Clinton and beat Bush Sr. Small wonder it's now unnerving the Bush Jr.

But despite this new hint of pizazz, the economic debate between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Gore barely goes beyond taxes and prescription-drug benefits. When it comes to the underlying domestic and international economy, both candidates are singing from the same establishment hymnal. The 9-year-old economic up cycle is bound to keep rolling. The Federal Reserve has everything under control. Cheap goods from China and Mexico are a boon because they keep inflation down. It's unfair to say rising wealth concentration is leaving the median family in the dust, but, hey, globalization is the future, even if it costs factory jobs--and, off the record, contributors love it.

Three or four decades ago, the clout of the U.S. labor movement would have made this kind of politico-economic nonchalance impossible. Not now. In some ways, "labor" has become a counterproductive word--too physical, even too uncool--to describe the activities of the huge majority of Americans in the service or knowledge industries. They're no more attuned to the pain of manufacturing workers being swept aside than late-19th-century industrial workers and middle class were to the plight of struggling farmers.

Then and now, great economic transformations riding on the back of new-wave booms are confusing for people in the middle, disastrous for the less skilled and ill-educated, and enormously rewarding for those with capital, skills and education. The latter tend to control both policymaking and the national debate. So it is in 2000. It's this broad complex of economic issues that represents the dangerous omission in the national debate.

Consider: The current business-recovery cycle is almost 10 years old, longer than any before. Thus the prospects for its continuance--six months, one year, two?--ought to be a sidebar to every Washington policy discussion. But that would unnerve the stock market. It would also disrupt bipartisan happy talk about everything we seemingly can now afford.

Like previous boom cycles in the late 19th century and earlier in the 20th, the boom of the 1980s and 1990s has been marked by an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else. If you look at the top 30 families and individuals in the annual Forbes 400 list for 1999, the range of their fortunes is 10 times higher than the top 30 of 1982; yet, in this same period, median family income barely stayed ahead of inflation. Obscene CEO-to-worker pay ratios are more of the same. But where's the debate?

So, too, for the increasingly central role of the Federal Reserve Board in the U.S. economy. The Fed, which makes no secret of its distaste for increases in employee wages and benefits, has open and official ties to the banking industry, which it bails out whenever required. But the Fed can do no wrong.

Globalization--a vague word for letting U.S. corporations shift investments and hiring plans overseas--is too important to multinational firms with big Washington lobbies and even bigger checkbooks. Bush and Gore will dissect the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, normalization of trade with China, Mexico and "fast track" when Miami has a 12-inch snowfall.

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