Working families and other myths

Posted: Aug 18, 2000 12:00 AM
In 1992, during one of the presidential debates, Bill Clinton slipped and said "this show" when he meant to say "debate." But show was much more accurate (Bill Clinton only tells the truth inadvertently). This is even more true of the political conventions, which once involved floor fights and high drama (remember the Republican convention of 1976?). Today, of course, they are scripted productions meant to boost the party and the party's nominee. So be it. But must they be so relentlessly saccharine? In the past, candidates handed out free beer and other inducements to folks who showed up at political speeches. Today, we are offered a less satisfying meal of "personal" testimonials meant to warm our hearts and endear these politicians to us. And it seems we must now endure moist endorsements from the candidate's wife, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Both parties are guilty of this, but Hadassah Lieberman took the new tradition to cringe-inducing lengths when she volunteered to tell us "personal" details about "the love of (her) life." Please. Whatever made her think that a political convention, with klieg lights, a cast of thousands and millions watching on TV or listening by radio, is the place for personal talk? What is the bedroom for, politics? Actually, she does know better because she proceeded to relate not personal matters (thank heavens) but rather how committed "Joey" is to his life's work. When they were not telling charming quotidian tales of Al Gore the great dad, or Joe Lieberman the supportive husband (hmm, wonder why the Democrats are at such pains to laud their team as family men?), they played some of the greatest hits from the Democratic charts. Among these are affirmative action (Lieberman had to make burnt offerings to the quota gods), "choice" (no, no, not in education, in baby terminating) and gay rights (judging by the applause meter, this truly floats the delegates' boats). And nearly every speaker spoke of the Democrats' devotion to, and intention to, protect "working families." Actually, by my reckoning,
every speaker at the Democratic Convention invoked "working families." Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., warned that "we can pass laws to help people or we can frustrate the hopes of working families ..." Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, promised that Democrats understand "the real concerns of working families." And Al Gore, in a speech in Michigan, accused George W. Bush of favoring the wealthy, whereas he was on the side of "working families." "I'll fight for tax cuts that go to the right people, to the working families who have the toughest time paying taxes and saving for the future." What does this phrase mean? Certainly the delegates seemed to know. Is a "working family" a family that votes Democrat? Context suggests that "working families" are those who must work hard to make a living, in contrast to the rich who keep bankers' hours. But bankers' hours have gone the way of the typewriter. In fact, as research by MIT economist Dora Costa and others has shown, hours worked by the college-educated have been increasing and those worked by the non-college-educated have been declining since 1940. At that time, the rich really did work fewer hours than the non-rich, but no longer. Today, those in the top 10 percent of earners work an average of 52 hours a week, whereas those in the bottom 10 percent of earners work only 45 hours. Professor Robert Haveman of the University of Wisconsin estimates that most of the recent increase in income inequality among male wage-earners has been a matter of choice. In other words, some people choose to work more and earn more, and others choose more leisure and less income. Al Gore wants to offer tax relief to those "who have the most trouble paying taxes." But that agenda is going to present problems. A quick glance at the tax tables reveals that the top 10 percent of income earners pay 63.2 percent of all taxes, and the top 1 percent pays a third of all taxes. If you really want to provide tax relief, you're going to have to give it to those who pay the lion's share of taxes -- the hardest working families in America.