John Edwards has finished his celebrated poverty tour, making obligatory stops in hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods in New Orleans, decrepit Delta towns in Mississippi and Arkansas, up through Appalachian backwaters and finally home to Washington.
Now he ought to sit down for a good read with "The Forgotten Man," a new book by the economist Amity Shlaes. She shows how he's looking through the wrong end of his binoculars, emphasizing poverty and not the prosperity expanding the economy that lifts the poor. The public seems to understand what he doesn't. He has to bring up his poverty program because no one else will.
Mr. Edwards has forgotten "The Forgotten Man." Franklin D. Roosevelt first used the forgotten man in a speech in 1932, when he applied it to the poor man, the old man, the sick man and the man at the bottom of the economic pyramid. That forgotten man needed government help. In another earlier version, the term applies to well-meaning social "progressives," whose economic analyses ignore the man who bears the heaviest burden for paying for all the do-good programs. The forgotten man is the tax-paying working stiff. Joe Sixpack, as we called him a generation ago.
"The Forgotten Man" is coerced through taxes to pay for dubious social programs. He's the little guy who forever works, usually votes, sometimes prays, "but always pays." Like Roosevelt, John Edwards can't understand how the rich and prosperous are crucial to helping the poor. He wants to raise taxes on the rich even when it inhibits economic growth. Like Roosevelt, he doesn't understand how rigid laws dictating or encouraging higher wages won't reduce unemployment.
The Edwards emphasis on poverty (like Lyndon Johnson's infamous "war on poverty") is likely to end in ashes. Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, observed in The New York Times that people who vote don't think of themselves as poor, and are unlikely to identify with his message. "Even if they may be poor, many of them don't think that they are."