Kudoka Theater, Or Why The Middle Class Is Disappearing And What We Can Do About It

On Saturday, The New York Times’ Opinionator published an excellent piece titled, “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class.” It is co-authored by David Autor, an MIT economist who, among other things, specializes in “income inequality,” “impacts of technological change,” and “employment protection.” The article represents a slight pushback against the extreme pessimism that some economists and scholars have advanced as a response to mechanization and computerization, which seem to be bringing us “the end of labor.”

There will be no end of labor, of course. But we are watching what may be the end of the plethora of middle class jobs that once made America widely—as opposed to narrowly—prosperous and made us the envy of the world. As the Times article explains:

Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.

Logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities. Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.

On one end are the “so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity,” which “are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design.” On the other end are “so-called manual tasks” like cooks, truck drivers, and hotel maids, which because “their skills are not scarce,” cannot command high wages. Thus, the conclusion:

Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined.

Timothy Noah, who has written about America’s “growing inequality crisis,” was on MSNBC this morning to talk about the New York Times article and income inequality and the loss of middle class jobs. Noah says the change, which David Autor elsewhere calls “job polarization,” is worldwide, noting that the Japanese have a term for it: kudoka (“hollowing out”). But, Noah continues:

It’s worse in the United States than it is in comparable countries that are facing precisely the same technological challenge. We seem to be handling it worse here in the United States.

When asked why, he explained, an explanation that should ring in the ears of anyone who gives a damn about the possibility of restoring a robust middle class in America:

I think it’s mostly government policy. Things like the minimum wage. Our minimum wage hasn’t gone up for a long time. Our government is pretty hostile toward unions. We don’t have a good early education program. There are all sorts of government programs that in other countries focus more on the needs of the middle class and focus on creating greater income equality.

Get that? Our government, despite what you hear from reactionary Republicans, can help with the hollowing out that technology, great for us in other ways, has caused. Noah offered a few things (he left out advocating for a more progressive tax system) that can help: provide more support for community colleges, which help train “middle skill” workers; make college more affordable;  end government’s hostility toward labor unions; make sure the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy is focused on job creation; and raise the minimum wage.

As far as the minimum wage, here is a video circulating that makes a salient point:

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A Black Chunk Of Republican Economics

On Wednesday the Pew Research Center released a report titled, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier.” I want to highlight just one part of the report:

For the half century following World War II, American families enjoyed rising prosperity in every decade—a streak that ended in the decade from 2000 to 2010, when inflation-adjusted family income fell for the middle income as well as for all other income groups, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. 

You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to connect what happened in the last decade to the policies of the political party in charge when things went south. Here’s a better graph that shows the damage:

That last little black chunk of negative growth is the George W. Bush-Republican Party legacy, the result of a brand of economics that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are at this moment weirdly championing as the solution to our slow recovery from the ravages of that black chunk of negative growth. Go figure that one out.

Here, in case your eyesight isn’t what it used to be:

Say what you want about Bill Clinton (and I have said plenty of negative stuff myself), if you look back at the decade he dominated, a decade in which taxes were raised to pay for the government people wanted, a decade that saw the budget come into balance, and a decade that saw millions upon millions of new jobs created, you have to admit that the following commercial with its simple message is something folks ought to pay attention to:

Tax Cuts

President Obama’s logic is unassailable, regarding his proposed extension of only the middle class tax cuts enacted under W. Bush:

…we all say we agree that we should extend the tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people.  Everybody says that.  The Republicans say they don’t want to raise taxes on the middle class.  I don’t want to raise taxes on the middle class. So we should all agree to extend the tax cuts for the middle class.  Let’s agree to do what we agree on.  Right?

Well, right? Who can’t see the logic in that? This who:

A spokesman for John Boehner said of a threatened presidential veto of a bill that extended the middle class cuts but also included an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy:

We’ve heard it all before, but the president has even fewer Democratic allies in Congress than he did two years ago, when he signed a full extension. No one believes the president would really derail our economy just to fulfill his quixotic desire for small business tax hikes.

A spokesman for Mitch McConnell said:

It’s certainly interesting that the president’s commitment to raising taxes on nearly a million small businesses would extend to him vetoing a bill that, to get to his desk, would have passed in both a Republican House and a Democrat Senate.

Whether Republicans will get away with, as Mr. Obama said, holding the middle class hostage once again in order to protect the wealthy from tax rates that existed under a prosperous Clinton administration, remains to be seen. That will ultimately be up to those 98 percent of the American people who will get the middle class tax cut.

But I want to note here that of those 98 percent, about half of them can’t wait to sprint into a polling station in November and pull the lever for Romney and the Republican Party, which has time and again elevated the welfare of the wealthy over the welfare of the middle class and which has implicitly threatened to bring down the whole American economic house if rich folks don’t get to keep their tax cut.

The reality that so many folks are willing to vote against their own economic interests, as well as the larger interests of the country, is depressing. No, let’s be honest. It is shameful.

America’s Spine Is Aching

A conservative commenter on my blog post, Unions And The Middle Class Declinemade this point:

WHY is middle class income going down, really?

It is not because union wages are on a downward trend. It is because the middle class has yet to figure out that “labor”, rather simple and uncomplicated labor is NOT the way to a middle class life in a flat world. Today one must do more the just punch a time clock. A middle class aspirant must PRODUCE something that really will sell. No they do not have to invent the computer, but they damn well must be ready to IMPROVE the computer that they make.

Otherwise, just go punch a time clock and see what happens to your wages over time.

Here is my reply:

I’m only going to address your comments about the middle class, which, to put it kindly, are utterly ridiculous.

Forgetting that folks who “just” punched a time clock (man, that really galls me that you have such a low opinion of people who made America the economic powerhouse it still it is today) saw their wages rise considerably after WWII, I want to say that whether right-wingers like you acknowledge it or not, folks who teach school, put out fires, make cars on an assembly line, deliver the mail, etc., are producing something. They are producers and there is inherent value in what they do.

But what is the value of their labor? That is partially determined by the dynamic between workers and management (and this part is my focus). If workers utilize the power of collectivizing their labor, of forming unions to bargain on their behalf, it changes that dynamic in a positive way for the workers. The result is higher wages than would have been if individuals bargained on their own (of course, most workers don’t bother to bargain at all).

Altering the dynamic between labor and management is what has been happening in, of all places, China (even apart from the Communist Party-controlled ACFTU).  Guess what the business response was (and is) to the spontaneous strikes and demands for higher wages and working conditions in China? They have threatened to leave there and go elsewhere. Typical.

Finally, to claim that “a middle class aspirant must PRODUCE something that really will sell” is to guarantee that there will never be a strong and prosperous and inclusive middle class. There just aren’t that many folks out there who can create new or improve existing products sufficient to meet your criterion.

In fact, I can’t for a moment imagine the world you describe. What it would look like? Would the middle class comprise only folks who own small businesses? Huh? Would the middle class comprise only inventors? Huh? Would the middle class comprise only people who have to constantly tinker around in their garages to keep up with the Joneses?

You are condemning most of the people who exist in a nation’s real economy—teachers, cops, firefighters, auto workers, construction workers, postal workers, soldiers, etc., to a substandard existence as Americans. Your view is not only full of absurdities, it is pessimistic beyond words.

The people who teach our kids, police our streets, build our cars, deliver our mail, are not only producers, they are the spine of a nation.

Bold Liberalism

It’s time for percolate-up economics for the middle class.”

—Senator Tom Harkin defending the “Rebuild America Act

his post may separate those of you out there who think you are liberals from those of you who really are.

From philosopher John Rawls I learned the “difference principle,” which essentially states that social justice entails creating the kind of society in which the worst among us are as well off as possible. The key to understanding this concept of social justice is to note the phrase, “as well off as possible,” and not mistake it for, “as well off as everyone else.”

My personal application of this idea is that certain social inequalities can be tolerated so long as we have striven to eliminate them in the context of keeping the engine of capitalism running. This implies that restrictions on capitalism are necessary, and that there is a need for redistributive polices, in order to ensure wealth doesn’t become too highly concentrated in the hands of a few.

As a liberal, I’m not afraid of stating that notion openly and defending it not only on the grounds of justice or fairness, but on the grounds that a society whose abundance is not shared by most of its citizens cannot long endure as a stable entity.

Having said that, here is an excerpt from The Nation:

Senator Tom Harkin announced today a broad economic plan that he will introduce shortly in the Senate—one well to the left of the current White House proposal and aimed directly at reviving the middle class.

Harkin’s legislation, which he dubs the “Rebuild America Act,” touches on virtually every area of American economic policy: it revamps the tax code, initiates a wide array of public spending meant to goose the economy, pushes for fair trade laws, and retools laws and regulations that affect middle-class families.

Here are some proposals in the bill, which is divided into “three basic categories”:

Economy and Job Boosters:

  • $300 billion (over ten years) for roads, bridges, sewer-water systems, levees and rural infrastructure
  • $20 billion (over ten years) in school modernization funding (From Harkin’s summary: “Grants are distributed to states based on poverty and population and States must describe how they will consider the impact of potential projects on job creation and give priority to eligible entities that use green practices and serve the largest percentages of low-income populations, among other things.”)
  • Boosts funding for agencies that regulate trade in order to better enforce fair trade policies
  • Helps states fund the hiring of teachers, public safety workers and other public employees
  • Provides a formula for matching grants to the states for “the modernization, renovation, and repair of early childhood education and care facilities, k-12 public schools, and community colleges
  • Establishes a program to help local communities “in efforts to undertake comprehensive energy systems renovations strategies” for the 21st century which will “enhance energy security and lessen environmental impacts”
  • Provides competitive grants for ensuring that Americans “obtain the skills and credentials needed to enter into and advance in high-quality jobs”
  • Provides loan guarantees so small manufacturers with work orders can get loans to expand

Middle Class Stabilizers:

  • Increases child care subsidies for working parents and grants to the states to “encourage the development of high quality child care programs”
  • Ensures that workers, particularly white-collar workers categorized as independent contractors, earn time-and-a-half overtime pay
  • Raises the minimum wage to $9.80 over two and a half years and then indexes it to inflation; raises the minimum wage for tipped workers “to 70% of the federal minimum wage”
  • Requires employers to offer workers paid sick days
  • Strengthens the National Labor Relations Act, making it easier for workers to join unions and increasing penalties on employers for blocking unionization.
  • Improves benefits “for current and future Social Security beneficiaries” by changing the method of calculating the benefits, which “when fully phased in” would increase benefits by $800 per year; also the law bases future increases on the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly rather than the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Wage Earners
  • Phases out the Social Security tax cap on wages

Tax Changes:

  • Raises the capital gains rate (to 28% for higher-bracket earners) and closes the carried interest loophole
  • Institutes the “Buffett Rule,” which ensures that Americans “with annual income over $1 million, pay no less than a 30% effective tax rate”
  • Creates a Wall Street “speculators tax” of three basis points on common financial securities trades
  • Acquires “$65 billion over 10 years from large financial institutions…that received emergency financial assistance” through TARP
  • Ends tax breaks for companies that “ship jobs overseas”
  • Protects workers’ pension funds by strengthening the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and by adding protections for workers who pensions are threatened by bankruptcy

As The Nation’s George Zornick points out, Harkin’s legislation overlaps much of the recently announced “Budget for All” from the House’s Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Now, everyone knows that the chances of getting this or similar legislation passed is exactly zero. But that’s not the point. Too often Democrats start with a compromise and give more and more until we are essentially debating Republican proposals (see: the Affordable Care Act).

It is time we start the conversation on our own terms.

Laugh Until You Cry

Governor Mitch Daniels, former W. Bush budget director (thanks, Mitch), said in response to Mr. Obama’s address on Tuesday:

As Republicans, our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots. We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.

Daniels claims that the “first concern” of Republicans is for those who desire to “climb up life’s latter.” Now, I’m going to pause right here and give you time to grab a tissue and wipe the tears of laughter from your face…

Back? Good. Let’s move on and look at Daniels’ last sentence:

We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.

The truth is that if voters continue filling Republican prescriptions for what ails us as a country, we will, indeed, “always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves,” because the soon-to-haves will always be waiting and hoping for their economic boat to be floated by trickle-down economics.

Americans throughout history have tended to believe that with hard work they could at least better themselves economically. And for more than a generation now, the meme spread by the Republican Party has been that if you just let the “job creators” enjoy more and more of the wealth of this country, then anyone can become, say, a Mitt Romney, even if few people have the stomach to get rich the way he has become rich.

But even if becoming a Romney-like “have” has always been beyond most folks’ expectations or desires, it remains true that economic mobility is the foundation of the American Dream. But upward mobility and income distribution in the U.S. is not what they should be and are certainly is not what they need to be in order to keep the American Dream from becoming the American Mirage.*

From our country’s founding, most Americans have believed that government should have some role—we have always argued over the size of that role—in ensuring that everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic position and reducing—reducing, not eliminating—inequality. The Preamble to our Constitution indicates that our government was formed, among other things, to “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.”

Surely we can all agree that our domestic tranquility and general welfare are threatened by the gross economic inequality we see around us. Surely we can agree that, in the richest country the world has ever known, the grit and determination woven into American workers’ DNA, manifested in their willingness to work hard and play by the rules, ought to count for more than just earning enough to stay alive.

With the slow death of middle-class-creating unions in this country (remember also that the wages of even non-union folks are higher because unions exist), and with corporations—conscious only of the bottom line—shipping away jobs or keeping wages low and cutting benefits for their American employees, the prospect of improving things for working folks looks bleak.

And it should be obvious that in the face of such bleakness is where government—the people’s government—can act such that Americans today can enjoy what Americans used to enjoy, best expressed by President Obama in his State of the Union address,

the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.

In other words, a hard-working American could at least expect to move into the middle-class, if not become a “have” of the stature of a Mitt Romney.  I can say without fear of contradiction that most American workers don’t get up in the morning, go to their low-paying jobs, work hard, come home to their families, fret over the cost of health care and the price of gasoline, all in the hopes of one day having Romney-like tax returns, with all the excitement of parking money in the Cayman Islands or in Swiss bank accounts.

And since I believe strongly that Romney will become the Republican nominee, I think it is important to understand what he thinks about all this. Something he said recently—without rehearsal—gives us an insight into how he views America’s income inequalities.

From NBC’s Today Show:

MATT LAUER: When you said that, “We already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy,” I’m curious about the word “envy.” Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or is it about fairness?

ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you’ve opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. And the American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.

LAUER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?

ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it’ll fail.

To Romney there are “no fair questions about the distribution of wealth” outside of those discussed in “quiet rooms.” And for President Obama to point out the need to do more to address the problems we have with what Lauer called “the distribution of wealth and power in this country,” is an act of “dividing America” and somehow threatens, for God’s sake, “the concept of one nation under God.”

If you hear Mitt Romney say, as he has said before, that “Republicans are about middle-class America” and that he is “fighting to help middle-class Americans get better jobs and better incomes,” remember that interview.

And if you ever hear Mitch Daniels or any other Republican say again that their “first concern is for those waiting…to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder,” feel free to laugh, long and hard.  Just keep a tissue in your pocket.

___________________________

* From a piece in The Washington Post (“The downward path of upward mobility“):

The most comprehensive comparative study, done last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that “upward mobility from the bottom”…was significantly lower in the United States than in most major European countries, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. Another study, by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany in 2006, uses other metrics and concludes that “the U.S. appears to be exceptional in having less rather than more upward mobility.”

“Race To The Bottom,” Or Why The Middle Class Is Doomed

The interesting political question in this country is whether or not there’s any wage floor which is too low.”

— Linda Kaboolian, a lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard

____________________________

Who would have ever thought that America—the bleeping United States of America—would be a low-wage haven, but, alas, it has become one:

Corporate profits are higher than ever, but for many workers, things just keep getting worse.

Take the situation unfolding at Caterpillar Inc.’s London, Ontario plant. The company, the world’s largest heavy machinery manufacturer, is insisting that Canadian workers take a 50 percent pay cut, give up their current pension plan and swallow a significant reduction in benefits. On Jan. 1, Caterpillar locked out the plant’s 465 workers, refusing to let them do their jobs until they make these sacrifices.

In the last three months of 2011, as Caterpillar was pressing Canadian workers to give in to its requests, the company reported a 44 percent surge in profits from the previous year. Now, if workers continue to resist, Caterpillar appears to be threatening to take their jobs out of the country. Not to China or Mexico, but just over the border to Muncie, Ind., where desperate Americans are eager to take any job — no matter how low the pay.

Let this be clear: Caterpillar isn’t facing hard times; it is not in financial trouble; it simply desires to make even more money by employing “desperate Americans” who will work for $24,000 a year—and without a union—doing what middle-class Canadians were doing for about twice that.

“In the small picture, Caterpillar is a really hard employer, but the big picture here is obviously the race to the bottom,” said Linda Kaboolian, a lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard, who studies workplace issues and has closely tracked the company’s practices through the decades…

“The larger story is that an extraordinarily profitable company like Caterpillar has determined that a fair standard of living for a semi-skilled manufacturing employee is $24,000 a year,” Kaboolian said. “Let’s face it — every time workers lose a fight like this, American business gets a clear message that you can ratchet down the wages a little further.”

This, my friends, is what America has become, after years of union-bashing, wage-slashing, middle-class thrashing economic policies, mostly supported by the Republican Party.

My God, people. Look at what we have become. A Fortune 500 Company now views America like Americans used to view Mexico and China.

More Bad News From The Class War Front

As if we needed any more examples of how the middle class has been on the wrong end of the class war over the last generation or so, a disturbing story on NPR this morning began like this:

As companies have been moving away from traditional pension plans, they have been shifting employees to new retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, that transfer the cost — and the risk — to workers.

The reason for the shift, according to the companies themselves, is because the traditional pension plans were “unsustainable.”

Except that it turns out they weren’t unsustainable.  Ellen Schultz, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of, Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder And Profit From The Nest Eggs Of American Workers, says that those companies that had pension plans for their employees “were well-prepared” for the increasing cost of not only the pensions but of “high health care costs for the retirees.”

Schultz told NPR:

The plans were in fact significantly overfunded. They had more than enough to pay every dime for every person currently employed and already retired.

What happened?  Hey, we’re talking about corporations here.  We all know what happened. In order to increase profits and bump up executive compensation to more-money-than-God levels, the companies “used assets in the plans to pay for other things.” And thus:

Schultz says there was a massive transfer of wealth over the past two decades, from a multitude of retirees to a small number of executives. But while she calls her book Retirement Heist, she concedes that nothing that happened was illegal.

“When you have a properly funded plan, it doesn’t matter how many retirees you have or how long they live,” Schultz says. “It’s not the fact that you have a lot of retirees; it’s the fact that you have abused the pension plan.”

If you want to learn how some of this abuse has taken place, check out an article Schultz wrote three years ago for The Wall Street Journal  that goes into detail about how some companies screw their would-be pensioners. 

Think about it: You work many years for a company, deferring justly-earned compensation until retirement, and when you are ready to pack it in, voilà, you find your pension has been devalued because the honchos in the company have used the pension fund to supplement the benefits of—who else—other honchos.

Read all about it and then come back and tell me how Obama is starting a class war.

Out Of The Mouths Of Conservatives

I know it’s common for people like me to say that the Republican Party is a footslave of corporations. And I know it’s easy for folks on the Right to tune out that truth, but what if it came from a right-winger?  Huh?  Would that help?

Yesterday on Morning Joe, during a discussion on the Wisconsin fiasco, conservative Republican Joe Scarborough asked conservative Republican Pat Buchanan a question relative to his presidential run in 1992 and 1996:

Scarborough: Pat, you have gone against the Republican Party time and time again; talked about the vanishing middle class; talked about over the last 30-40 years the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer…and a lot of people that supported Pat Buchanan n ’92-’96 were fed up union workers in the rust belt. So, I’m a little surprised by your position on collective bargaining, that you think they need to break these public unions.  Doesn’t that go against what you’ve been fighting for over the past 15-20 years?

Now, that’s just a wonderful question.  Although a Republican, Buchanan is not a believer in free trade, which has decimated many union jobs.  In fact, he wrote a book against free trade called, The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy.  I have sympathy for some of his arguments in the book, although I haven’t finally adjusted my erstwhile conservative thinking on the so-called free trade issue. It’s complicated, as they say.

But what is not complicated is that Republicans have completely sold out to what passes for free trade in this world and Buchanan has called them on it for years.  And Scarborough was right to point out his inconsistency in appealing to unionists in the past and his present defense of Governor Walker’s assault on public employee unions in Wisconsin. 

Here is Pat’s answer to Scarborough’s question, which was a dodge, but pay particular attention to the ending:

Buchanan: Well, I think the trade policy of the Republican Party has virtually destroyed middle America. It’s virtually destroyed these auto workers and these other unions, Joe, because, you know, people moving their factories out to China, it’s an easy thing to stop, but the big corporations control the Republican Party.

There you have it.  From the mouth of a conservative Republican:

The Republican Party has virtually destroyed middle America.”

The big corporations control the Republican Party.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Obama On Republicans: “What Is It About Working Men And Women That They Find So Offensive?”

Obama’s Labor Day speech to a union crowd in Milwaukee yesterday hopefully is just a down payment on some tough campaigning the President will have to do, if he is to mitigate the damage the sluggish economy is going to do to the Democratic Party this fall.

He said he is going to do make these kind of speeches “across the country between now and November,” and let’s hope he’s true to that word, even if he should have started this kind of thing months ago. 

The speech focused on the middle class, which is appropriate for an audience full of union members, since it was unionism that played a large role in assembling a once-thriving middle class in America, even if an ungrateful—an increasingly poorer—American workforce is buying into the anti-union propaganda funded by business interests, disseminated with the help of their political affiliate, the Republican Party.

Since I find that reading a speech leaves a different impression than hearing it, here are some excerpts from Obama’s remarks yesterday:

I believe this with every fiber of my being:  America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class, and the chance for everybody, no matter how humble their beginnings, to join that middle class, a middle class built on the idea that if you work hard, if you live up to your responsibilities, then you can get ahead; that you can enjoy some basic guarantees in life.  A good job that pays a good wage. Health care that will be there when you get sick.   A secure retirement even if you’re not rich.   An education that will give your children a better life than we had. These are simple ideas.  These are American ideas. These are union ideas. That’s what we’re fighting for…

Now, anybody who thinks that we can move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it’s going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up, you’ll never see it. If that’s what you’re waiting for, you should stop waiting, because it’s never happened in our history.  That’s not how America was built.  It wasn’t built with a bunch of folks at the top doing well and everybody else scrambling.  We didn’t become the most prosperous country in the world just by rewarding greed and recklessness.  We didn’t come this far by letting the special interests run wild.  We didn’t do it just by gambling and chasing paper profits on Wall Street.  We built this country by making things, by producing goods we could sell.  We did it with sweat and effort and innovation. We did it on the assembly line and at the construction site…

We did it by investing in the people who built this country from the ground up –- the workers, middle-class families, small business owners.  We out-worked folks and we out-educated folks and we out-competed everybody else. That’s how we built America.

The President then turned to his administration’s accomplishments, an attempt at “building our economy on a new foundation so that our middle class doesn’t just survive this crisis“:

I want it to thrive.  I want it to be stronger than it was before.

And over the last two years, that’s meant taking on some powerful interests — some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time.  

And they’re not always happy with me.  They talk about me like a dog.  That’s not in my prepared remarks, it’s just — but it’s true.

Not only do they talk about him like a dog, but often like he’s an uppity negro who wants to destroy white culture, but that’s for another day. 

The President ran through some of the things the administration has done: financial reform, health insurance reform; eliminating the subsidies that went to banks for student loans; tax cuts to 95% of working Americans, tax cuts to small business owners, tax cuts to clean energy companies, and tax cuts to companies that create jobs in America, rather than export them abroad; “sound and long-overdue” investments in national infrastructure, including the electric grid and broadband Internet.

He then announced his newest initiative:

…today, I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America’s roads and rails and runways for the long term.  (Applause.)  I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world.  We used to have the best infrastructure in the world.  We can have it again.  We are going to make it happen.   This is a plan that will be fully paid for and will not add to the deficit over time – we’re going to work with Congress to see to that. It sets up an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on the smartest investments.

It will continue our strategy to build a national high-speed rail network that reduces congestion, travel times, and harmful emissions. It will cut waste and bureaucracy by consolidating and collapsing more than 100 different, often duplicative programs. And it will change the way Washington spends your tax dollars; reforming the haphazard and patchwork way we fund and maintain our infrastructure to focus less on wasteful earmarks and outdated formulas, and more on competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck.

Now, all of that sounds good, but Obama recognized political reality and hammered Republicans:

…But there are some folks in Washington who see things differently. You know what I’m talking about.When it comes to just about everything we’ve done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says no.  Even on things we usually agree on, they say no. If I said the sky was blue, they say no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.  

They just think it’s better to score political points before an election than to solve problems.  So they said no to help for small businesses, even when the small businesses said we desperately need this.  This used to be their key constituency, they said.  They said no.  No to middle-class tax cuts.  They say they’re for tax cuts; I say, okay, let’s give tax cuts to the middle class.  No. No to clean energy jobs. No to making college more affordable. No to reforming Wall Street. They’re saying right now, no to cutting more taxes for small business owners and helping them get financing.  

You know, I heard — somebody out here was yelling “Yes we can.” Remember that was our slogan?  Their slogan is “No we can’t.”   No, no, no, no. 

I mean, I personally think “Yes we can” is more inspiring than “No we can’t.”  To steal a line from our old friend Ted Kennedy:  What is it about working men and women that they find so offensive?  

And my favorite part of the speech, which Obama has delivered in various forms on other occasions:

Look, the bottom line is this:  These guys, they just don’t want to give up on that economic philosophy that they have been peddling for most of the last decade.  You know that philosophy — you cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires; you cut all the rules and regulations for special interests; and then you just cut working folks loose — you cut them loose to fend for themselves.

You remember they called it the ownership society, but what it really boiled down to was, if you couldn’t find a job, you couldn’t afford college, you were born poor, your insurance company dropped you even though your kid was sick, that you were on your own.

Well, you know what, that philosophy didn’t work out so well for middle-class families all across America.  It didn’t work out so well for our country.  All it did was rack up record deficits and result in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I mean, think about it, we have tried what they’re peddling. We did it for 10 years. We ended up with the worst economy since the 1930s and record deficits to boot. It’s not like we haven’t tried what they’re trying to sell us. 

Now, I’m bringing this up not because I’m trying to re-litigate the past; I’m bringing it up because I don’t want to re-live the past.  

It’d be one thing, Milwaukee, if Republicans in Washington had some new ideas, if they had said, you know what, we really screwed up, and we’ve learned from our mistakes; we’re going to do things differently this time. That’s not what they’re doing.  

When the leader of their campaign committee was asked on national television what Republicans would do if they took over Congress, you know what he said? He said, we’ll do exactly the same thing we did the last time. That’s what he said.  It’s on tape.

So basically, here’s what this election comes down to. They’re betting that between now and November, you’re going to come down with amnesia. They figure you’re going to forget what their agenda did to this country. They think you’ll just believe that they’ve changed.

These are the folks whose policies helped devastate our middle class.  They drove our economy into a ditch.  And we got in there and put on our boots and we pushed and we shoved.  And we were sweating and these guys were standing, watching us and sipping on a Slurpee.  And they were pointing at us saying, how come you’re not pushing harder, how come you’re not pushing faster?  

And then when we finally got the car up — and it’s got a few dings and a few dents, it’s got some mud on it, we’re going to have to do some work on it — they point to everybody and say, look what these guys did to your car.  After we got it out of the ditch!  And then they got the nerve to ask for the keys back!  I don’t want to give them the keys back.  They don’t know how to drive.  

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