Remember, the Question Is “Are YOU Better Off?” Not “Is Your Boss Better Off?”

The Romney campaign has started asking the snitch, Ronald Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?” And partly because Obama’s advisors don’t have a ready answer, and partly because Democrats are misconstruing who’s being asked the question, it’s actually a tremendous risk for Democrats.

Before I get into why, let me caveat by saying that, at the moment, we’re not facing the kind of catastrophe we were facing in September 2008 (though that could change, depending on what happens in Europe). And Mitt’s preferred policies would exacerbate all the things I’m going to point to–Obama may not be fixing them adequately, but Mitt’s policies would almost universally make them worse.

But that’s not the response Democrats are giving to the question. Consider the way Josh Marshall answered the question: by pointing to GDP and job losses.

GDP, of course, measures productivity. And the last three years have continued (accelerated, actually) a long-term trend in which employers don’t share productivity gains with employees.

And while jobs aren’t being lost at the rate they were in 2008, that’s only part of the picture. First, much of the decline in unemployment came from people leaving the work force. And as a NELP report showed the other day, the jobs that have been created are disproportionately lower wage.

  • Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
  • Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.

What this means in real terms is that many people had, but lost, a middle class job in 2008, but now have a working poor job. Is a shit job better than the middle class job they lost? The increasing predominance of lower paying jobs is just one of the reasons why median income has fallen over the last three and a half years. That trend, too, is longer term, but has continued to get worse in recent years.

And consider what else has happened in those last 4 years: people’s net worth has been gutted. That’s predominantly because of the housing crash, but its means two things when translated. First, a whopping 11.4 million Americans are underwater on their homes. That’s declining some in the last few months as prices begin to turn around, but still almost a quarter of Americans are still struggling on a monthly basis with the effects of the housing crash that the banks have been rescued from.

Then there’s the millions of Americans who have lost their home in the last four years, often after having been defrauded for thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees in the interim. Are these people–the victims of both the now bailed out banks and inept housing policy–better off than they were four years ago?

And along the way, what little savings that wasn’t a home people in both categories had has been gutted.

Is a person who had savings but just lost a middle class job four years ago better off than a person who, after having exhausted her savings and unemployment insurance finally took a dead-end job that doesn’t pay the bills but at least puts food in bellies? Cause that’s the trend we’re seeing in many places.

That’s the reality that Democrats need to face when answering this question. In many places–including swing states like NV and MI and FL, which were among the hardest hit by the housing crisis–we’ve seen a deterioration of the middle class over the last four years, that, outside of the beltway, is the lived reality for far too many people.

Now the one winning answer Democrats have is that the reason things aren’t getting better–what’s holding the recovery back–is looters like Mitt Romney. As Mitt Romney himself admitted, he is the guy replacing middle class jobs with ones that don’t pay the bills. And he’s gotten fabulously wealthy doing so.

Mitt Romney is the poster child for why things aren’t getting better, because Mitt’s entire philosophy and life history has been about not sharing the wealth but instead off-shoring it, about gutting the middle class, about continuing and accelerating the downward trend we’ve seen since the 1970s. Many people aren’t better off than they were four years ago, but that’s because people like Mitt got bailouts and instead of being patriotic, they were greedy and didn’t share.

To the extent people aren’t better off, it’s often precisely for the same reasons Mitt is better off. That needs to be the Democrats’ response.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    Well, that’s part of the reason, surely. The main reason is the capitalist class is doing what it always does, expropriate the main derived value that society can produce by the labor of its members.

    But another reason, more to the point of the past few years, is that the Democrats didn’t take any extraordinary measures to deal with the serious unemployment problem after the crash. While Eastwood lies about the amount of jobs lost, he and the GOP nevertheless hit a nerve: there’s way too many million workers jobless, and the Democrats did very little to address that problem. Instead, all of Obama’s domestic political capital was put into a program that offers less than universal health care coverage by mandating that everyone pay money to private insurance companies. Only if you swallow the Democratic Party propaganda swill is that a winner with the voters.

    Instead, the Democrats are answering with the now-typical brand of fear politics, particularly around GOP threatened attacks on abortion rights, and on who Romney might nominate to the Supreme Court. Why does this fail to convince me? Well, it’s the same things I heard in the elections in 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, 1988, 1984, 1980, and 1976. (Roe v Wade was in 1973.)

    Now it’s not for nothing that such fear politics works (sometimes). The GOP neanderthals surely would like to push their anti-choice agenda as far as they can, even unto, for some of them, the establishment of an American Christian Taliban ruling over us all.

    But, as a result of following such fear politics, women’s rights are actually being eroded, and the SCOTUS appointees of Democratic Presidents are not looking all that visionary. Instead, a deal has been made with the Democratic Party to nominate pro-Wall Street and pro-Pentagon/pro-CIA candidates who will not make a peep as the military, intelligence, financial, corporate, and academic establishments continue to rule unbridled over a broken population, whose own leaders — populist, union, etc. — have either been coopted or destroyed via political oppression.

  2. Brindle says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    Sounds very similar to the ratchet effect:

    http://smithbowen.net/linfame/stopme/chapter02.html

    “The American political system, since at least 1968, has been operating like a ratchet, and both parties — Republicans and Democrats — play crucial, mutually reinforcing roles in its operation.

    The electoral ratchet permits movement only in the rightward direction.

    The Republican role is fairly clear; the Republicans apply the torque that rotates the thing rightward.

    The Democrats’ role is a little less obvious. The Democrats are the pawl. They don’t resist the rightward movement — they let it happen — but whenever the rightward force slackens momentarily, for whatever reason, the Democrats click into place and keep the machine from rotating back to the left.”

  3. der says:

    With a $22/hr. job a family could afford a $10 Red Robin burger, now making $9/hr. the stop is at 5 Guys for a $5 pile-it-on-with-the works-make-a-salad-out-of-it-junior cheeseburger-also too-fill up 3 ketchup cups – family sharing experience. At some point Red Robins managers will figure out that they have to feed their familys too and prices will adjust to wages.

    Deflation coming.

  4. P J Evans says:

    @der:
    Probably more accurate to say that businesses will finally figure out that if people aren’t being paid enough to have money left over at the end of the month, they won’t buy stuff they don’t absolutely need.

  5. guest says:

    Besides taking us down the drain less quickly that the R’s have planned, the big problem I have is now the Dems OWN all the fuck ups and corruption that should have been hung around the R’s necks after Buscheney. They own the tax cuts for the rich, they own the continued assaults on civil liberties, they own high unemployment, they own the failure to reform and reregulate the financial sector.
    So not only are the Dems in a better place to hurt us more with a Grand Bargain, they also prevent any alternative vision or voices from being put forth in an organized and national means. One policy, two speed settings.
    Which is why I’ll be bracing myself for the worst while hoping for a Romney win in November. And why I think the powerbrokers for the .0001% will in the end help Obama pull this one out.

  6. P J Evans says:

    @guest:
    Not likely to need pulling out; no one likes Romney and Ryan much. Their performances in Tampa didn’t help them. They come across as the guys you avoided in high schools because they thought they had all the answers.

  7. OrionATL says:

    there’s much here to agree with. let me add this;

    democratic candidates are notorious (in my mind) for foolishly following foolish advice from campaign advisors.

    as a class, they seem not to have their own deeply-held view of what our society could be, of what we should be working together to become.

    rather, they are infinitely malleable with respect to their political values.

    with notable individual exceptions, e.g., russ feingold, alan greyson, they are as an air force of drones, guided by their campaign managers who themselves haven’t lived the middle class and working class life since college, if ever.

  8. masaccio says:

    If you want a real bath in the crazy of Republican economic theory, read the comment section on any of the financially oriented sites, like Zerohedge or Reuters or Bloomberg. The crackpot theorists have taken over in the minds of millions.

  9. MadDog says:

    OT – Via CNN:

    Suspected U.S. drone strike kills civilians in Yemen, officials say

    “A U.S. drone strike targeting al Qaeda suspects in Yemen killed 13 civilians, including three women, three security officials in the restive Middle Eastern country said.

    “This was one of the very few times when our target was completely missed. It was a mistake, but we hope it will not hurt our anti-terror efforts in the region,” a senior Yemeni Defense Ministry official told CNN. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue…”

    As I commented yesterday, there has been a divergence in the reporting of this latest strike.

    AP’s piece (see my comment from yesterday linked immediately above) describes the incident as “Yemeni warplanes killed 14 civilians in an errant airstrike”, but the Yemen Post (see that same comment from yesterday) says that it was a US drone strike that somehow went awry.

    In a further comment of mine yesterday, I stated that I took the Yemen Post piece with its obvious local sources more seriously than the AP piece. Now with CNN backing the Yemen Post piece, I think the matter is settled. Note that the AP still hasn’t changed their story.

    Which leads me to ask the following questions:

    Did the US (CIA, JSOC, or the White House) try to pawn this massacre of 14 Yemeni civilians off on the Yemeni Air Force?

    Did Yemen’s “President” Hadi agree to cover this up for his American backers by conning the AP?

    And finally these 2 last questions:

    Why are we hearing nothing on this massacre but crickets from the normally voluble Blabbermouth Brennan or anyone else in the Obama Administration?

    Why haven’t our stellar journalists of the 4th estate even bothered to ask anyone in the Obama Administration about this US drone strike massacre?

  10. joanneleon says:

    Uh oh, they let Axelrod answer this question.

    “Here’s what I can say, Chris,” answered Axelrod, who advises Obama’s reelection campaign. “We are in a better position than we were in the economy in the sense that when the president took office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month, and the quarter before he took office was the worst since the Great Depression. We are [now] in a different place: 29 straight months of job growth and private sector jobs. Are we where we need to be? No.”

    And David “People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate” Plouffe.

    “I think the American people understand that we got into a terrible economic situation, a recession — the Great Depression is the only one the country has ever seen like it,” Plouffe said, before pivoting to a broad criticism of Romney’s policies.

    Stephanopoulos tried once more, but Plouffe dodged, saying Romney would make things worse.

    Link

    The magical genius Davids. This really is and has been all along the unofficial campaign slogan : “Romney would be worse.”

    Remember this from last summer?

    “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said, according to Bloomberg. “People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate, they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’ ”
    Link

    Well I guess he was partly right in that they don’t vote based literally on those numbers but come on, they do vote based on the real life effects of those numbers on them and the people they care about.

  11. OrionATL says:

    @MadDog:

    why?

    because everyone in charge of anything military/political in washington has spent the last week knoshing cocktail weenies with the fourth terroire*.

    * “terroire” – a term dreamed up by frenchies meaning “the taste of dirt”, or sometimes just “dirt”,

    or more recently, and radically, “terroirests of the truth”.

  12. Frank33 says:

    Michael Hayden is a rotten creepy spymaster, behind the 24/7 spying of all Americans, Stellar Wind.

    Hayden is a blabbermouth, revealing all sorts of secrets. Plus, he wants the USA to fight Israel’s wars.

    A decision on attacking Iran need not be taken at present, as current assessments point to its achieving nuclear-weapons capabilities no earlier than 2013 or 2014, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Michael Hayden told Haaretz on Monday…

    Iran’s nuclear program would pose a difficult challenge to any military, as it is not a raid, and Israel’s resources are more limited than those of the U.S.,” Hayden told Haaretz.

    “There is no absolute certainty that all targets are known,” he added. “They will have to be revisited – which only the U.S. Air Force would be able to do

  13. 1,000 Yard Stare says:

    “I think I’ve been very resilient and resistant and optimistic, up until very recently,” said Ellen Pinney, 56, who was dismissed from a $75,000-a-year job in which she managed procurement and supply for an electronics company in March 2008.

    Since then, she has cobbled together a series of temporary jobs in retail and home health care and worked as a part-time receptionist for a beauty salon. She is now working as an unpaid intern for a construction company, putting together bids and business plans for green energy projects, and has moved in with her 86-year-old father in Forked River, N.J.

    “I really can’t bear it anymore,” she said, noting that her applications to places like PetSmart and Target had gone unanswered. “From every standpoint — my independence, my sense of purposefulness, my self-esteem, my life planning — this is just not what I was planning.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/31/business/majority-of-new-jobs-pay-low-wages-study-finds.html

  14. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: Right–that was part of my point made in the first paragraph.

    There are answers to this, answers that could be a plus for Obama. But instead of sending out a competent woman to be on the Sunday shows–I guarantee you Debbie Wasserman Schultz is smart enough to answer this question–they sent out a couple of dicks who made it the story for the day.

  15. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Democrats haven’t done much to help their base; in many ways, they have arrogantly dismissed it as having no one else to turn to. The GOP, and Romney in particular, would have and will make their lot much harder to bear.

    Mr. Obama takes that as his cue to do nothing for his base, lest it “distract from his agenda”. He gives his supporters that answer on most issues, from his inability to restore the rule of law to enacting inadequate domestic relief during a longlasting depression that for many people will be permanent. That’s not a response anyone, Democrats or Republicans, should let Mr. Obama get away with.

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