“It’s the economy, stupid” has become a bromide of American political discourse. Ignoring that the majority of voters rarely vote according to their actual class interest, pundits and journalists continually recite the phrase that James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign director, coined to explain his strategy to convince the public to change presidential leadership in the middle of a recession.
The obtuse and odious Trump priesthood is betting that Carville’s wisdom resounds in 2020, which is why whenever its members appear on television they mindlessly parrot the declaration that “the economy” is booming, or as the president himself likes to boast, “The economy is the greatest we’ve had in history.”
The Carville phrase is in desperate need of a rewrite, and here is a more accurate political law: Anyone who says “the economy” is stupid.
In a country as large as the United States, the use of one word to summarize the material, financial and fiscal life of every city, region, demographic and industry as if it operated as a collective has always been shortsighted and simpleminded. Generalizations are often sloppy, but it is particularly reckless to think and speak — not to mention govern — as if the economic situation of the impoverished South Side of Chicago were identical, or even approximately equivalent, to the economic life of the wealthy North Side. Even if one could intelligently speak of a cohesive city economy, it would require significant delusion to then imply that the “economy” of Chicago resembles that of Gary, Indiana, only a few miles away.
A closer look through the magnifying glass reveals the elementary truth of Karl Marx’s observation that divergent class struggles sketch different economies even in the same industry, or company for that matter. Jeff Bezos and an Amazon warehouse worker who has to beg for a break to urinate do not live in the same economic universe. Yet the world’s highest paid pundits speak as if the ephemeral “economy” — as opposed to the daily reality of working people — were a thing that actually existed.
To present their case that their favorite abstraction applies to the experience of wage earners and average voters, owners of private planes will rattle off a series of facts, figures and data points, all of which coalesce to create a statistical Potemkin village.
Yes, the unemployment rate is at a historic low, but it does not take into account the millions of laborers who are “underemployed” — working part-time hours when they are in desperate need of full-time, salaried work — nor does it even acknowledge the existence of the large number of Americans so distraught and despondent over their own privation, and the economic devastation of their surroundings, that they have not applied for a job in a year or longer.
When President Bill Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich’s Congress to pass “Welfare to Work” reform, requiring welfare recipients, including single mothers without access to affordable child care, to enter the labor force, they demonstrated a typical condescension and paternalism toward the poor. No such lectures about “personal responsibility” were delivered to the wealthy, who were just beginning to destroy the housing market, and prepare the table for the Great Recession of 2008. The justification for “ending welfare as we know it,” to use another popular perversion of language from the 1990s, was that any job is better than no job.
That work-at-all-costs philosophy is now an unspoken guide of economic analysis in the United States. Since the crash of 2008, 75 percent of new jobs pay less than $50,000 a year, and a large percentage barely pay above minimum wage. This period of low-wage job growth, in a country where millions of people already fall under the degrading classification of “working poor,” has transformed into a second Gilded Age: Eighty-five percent of post-recession income growth has occurred among the top 1 percent of earners.
As an indication of how Americans are surviving the Serengeti Plain of cutthroat corporate capitalism, the unemployment number means nothing. The stock market, no matter how many self-congratulatory CEOs and oblivious financial reporters declare otherwise, means the same. The richest 10 percent of Americans own 84 percent of stocks. Barring a crash, which would reverberate throughout the entire country, the daily rise and fall of Wall Street has no effect on most Americans. A good day for the Dow might lead to a better tip for the pool boy at a hedge fund manager’s third home, but it won’t have any influence on the waitress at the diner on the other side of town, the family farmer across the state, or the home health care worker helping an elderly diabetic inject his insulin — a drug he could not afford if he were not on Medicare.
The truth is that “the economy,” as most of the commentariat discusses it, does not exist. It is an illusion, a phantom that is never quite visible. What do all of the economic forecasts mean for the 58 percent of Americans who have less than $1,000 in savings, or the 28 percent who have no savings at all? They are one misfortune away from financial obliteration.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many young families have no choice but to “go deep in debt to stay in the middle class.” Whether “the economy” grows by 3 percent or 3.5 percent next quarter will have no relevance in the lives of Americans who are manically juggling thousands in credit-card debt and student-loan payments, along with the ordinary expenses of living, all while praying with every breath that their children don’t get sick, their car does not break down and their landlord does not raise the rent.
There is no “economy” for most poor and working-class Americans. There is only everyday life.
The same is true for the whining plutocrats at the top of the American hierarchy who will feel no pain or anxiety if the stock market dips slightly or the GDP rate drops. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, which paid a heavy fine to avoid further punishment for its role in the collapse of the housing market; Leon Cooperman, a billionaire hedge fund manager; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates all recently broke out the world’s smallest violin to complain about their potential persecution from Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. If anyone could repair the reputation of Vladimir Lenin — forget Bernie Sanders — it is a group of multimillionaires and billionaires literally crying (at least in Cooperman’s case), at the mere prospect of paying more taxes while millions of Americans suffer without health care, adequate nutrition and shelter.
Donald Trump exposed the charade of “the economy” when, after signing a massive tax cut for the wealthy, he told his friends at Mar-a-Lago, “You all just got a lot richer.”
Trump’s rare moment of honesty is a useful reminder that anyone who says “it’s the economy, stupid” is being stupid.
Focusing on real life makes for a more intelligent conversation, and could also make for a better country.