Here is what I believe is going on. Class warfare has been the main staple of leftist ideology for hundreds of years. Especially in the 1980s, we heard over and over again in the media about how the top fifth of households was increasing its share of aggregate income. The implication was that the pie was fixed, so that the gains of one group came at the expense of the rest. But conservatives effectively demolished this argument by showing that the pie was getting larger. The real income of all groups was increasing and everyone was better off, even if some were more better off than others.
The left then shifted its argument to imply that those in each income class were essentially the same people year after year. This justified a redistributionist tax policy even if the well being of every income class was rising. It didn't matter that the data used to justify this policy were before-tax incomes, meaning that even confiscatory tax rates would have no effect on the outcome, or that the data also omitted most welfare benefits, meaning that practically everything government does to equalize incomes was completely ignored.
But the strongest argument conservatives had was data showing significant fluidity of income. Those well-off today were often poor tomorrow, and those born poor were often able to lift themselves into higher income brackets. In short, the existence of income mobility utterly smashed the liberal premise and forced a withdrawal. In the Clinton years, the left simply ignored a continuation of the same trends that it found so objectionable in the 1980s.
Now the left is back flogging the same issue in hopes of getting itself back in the win column. But first it has to cope with the reality of mobility among income classes. Toward this end, it is trying to redefine it. Now it is no longer whether or not there is significant mobility -- the left concedes that point. The question instead is whether mobility today is greater than it was in the past. This shifts the focus away from the large level of mobility to its change over time, thus obscuring the issue.
In future columns, I will look at specific aspects of this new campaign and what the true facts are. For now, just be aware that the game is afoot.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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