I grew up in the middle of America, in the middle of the middle class and was weaned on the middle of political ideology. I was given a perspective that lends itself to making reasonable observations and, perhaps, less myopic than a scientific approach might require.
I relate to Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist who wrote the books, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and draws sociological conclusions about human behavior, motivation and success from observation and statistical analysis.
His use of anecdotal evidence, however, allows his critics to denounce him for not being scientific and to dismiss his conclusions as “banal,” while I, on the other hand, find observation combined with stories to reveal patterns, compelling. I am drawn to them, in much the same way we are drawn to great actors who have the ability to transform into someone new (yet real) by embodying behaviors they’ve observed.
With this process in mind, I would like to share my “observations,” from the middle, as they relate to the principle arguments in politics today; our economy, healthcare, stimulus spending and the Middle Class….
In 1980, President Carter’s grain embargo, along with bad weather and floods, conspired to put the Midwest, my home state of Iowa, in particular, into a serious recession. Infrastructure was falling apart, farms were foreclosing, and land values were dropping. When Ronald Reagan became president a year later, his implementation of “Trickle Down” to reverse the national recession gave industry a boost (and did reverse the recession), however, it did little to bolster an agricultural economy.
Even Iowa’s substantial industry was connected to argriculture with John Deere and other farm implements and therefore saw a serious decrease in production. And while Reagan revisionists like to claim that he cut taxes and never raised them, he actually approved 13 tax increases and many of them changed tax breaks that were once afforded to farmers.
George Bush, Sr. as his Vice President even proclaimed that in Reagan’s 2nd term “taxes might have to be raised again,” but when Reagan did not raise them (and secured his legacy), Bush looked foolish as he began his campaign for president in 1988. Iowans did not relate to George Bush, or perhaps they could tell that George Bush couldn’t relate to Iowans, but either way, Iowa voters already feeling disenfranchised by Reagonomics, went for Dukakis by a fairly large margin.
George Bush won the election, however, on the promise of “no new taxes” as that appealed to voters nationally, but, it was a promise he could not deliver as he came under intense pressure from House and Senate Democrats to reduce the huge debt and he agreed to some raises. His refrain “Read my lips- no new taxes” was exploited by Pat Buchanan (and subsequently the press) and the public’s apprehension about him surfaced and they saw him as untrustworthy.
As a result, Iowa went blue and voted for Clinton and Bush lost his bid for re-election. I have a theory that if you could get Bush Sr. in a room, give him truth serum, and ask him, “What do you really think of Ronald Reagan?” you might have to shield yourself from the spit that will launch from a vitriolic, obscenity laced tirade.
Iowans are resilient people; a quality of rugged, midwestern work ethics and stubborn Hawkeye pride and the state began to recover by 1990. Hard work, good crops, cooperating climate and a streamlined industry rebuilt Iowa into a leaner and stronger economy and Iowa’s new template would now weather the worst of times yet to come.
A decade of relative prosperity followed galvanizing Iowa’s economy and once again, Iowa went blue in 2000, voting by the sliver of a whisker for Al Gore. The fact that it wasn’t a wider margin was indicative of the fact that Iowans are, by nature, conservative and did not like the…naughty proclivities of President Clinton. In fact, Iowa was a pretty good barometer for the rest of the nation as Gore received more popular votes than Bush by the slimmest of margins; margins so slim that it was possible for Bush to…well, we won’t get into that here.
One of Bush Jr.’s first directives in office was to engage Reagan’s Supply Side theory by implementing a tax cut that lowered taxes, to any substantial degree (4.5 %), for Americans at the top of the economic pyramid. While most Americans did receive a small break, it was no more than a smokescreen to assuage anger since many other costs were going up, healthcare costs being one of the greatest examples.
Personally, while I did see $400 come back from my taxes, my family healthcare costs rose 45% from 2004- 2008, without any discernable reason except to widen the margins of insurance providers.
The question, however, remains, “Did the Bush tax cuts work?” Well… there was an initial bounce from increased spending, but, it did not create jobs and an economic slowdown followed. The tax cuts, for the record, were opposed by the Bush administration’s own Economic Advisement Council and a memo was sent to Bush stating: “These tax cuts will worsen the long term budget outlook…will reduce the capacity of the government to (invest) in schools, health, infrastructure, and basic research… and generate further inequalities in after-tax income”…and that they did!
The view from the middle isn’t strictly about the Midwest, it is about the Middle Class, and unemployment rose significantly within their ranks while the wealthy got wealthier (surprise!) from a feeding frenzy off a market with lax regulations. The divide, across America, between rich and poor grew to its widest gap in history.
The average American observed a new, even wealthier, class emerge as giant new homes were being built
and the suburban ranch houses in once considered well-to-do neighborhoods were now only starter homes. The bar was raised significantly in terms of what constitutes affluence and Americans, true to our nature, wanted to be part of the success.
People wanted to feel connected to the “American Dream” and the finance world was all too happy to oblige. More people bought homes outside their means (after all, they were being told that they could) and the sparsely regulated market was luring them in with subprime bargains that borrowed against the inevitable equity that would accumulate. Of course the brokers knew that no market grows forever without eventually leveling, but they were, in the meantime, making big money.
People borrowed on credit to buy the toys (flat screens, i-Pods and Playstations) being waved in front of them and went to better restaurants, they took bigger vacations and made more home improvements while they traded home equity to make it happen. The financiers knew the collapse would come, but they would be able to weather the storm until recovery, so why not keep the gravy train moving along? In fact, the investment class profitted from collapse with clever short schemes and when financial Armageddon set in, the financiers knew, all they would have to say is, “Those people signed their names on those contracts! We didn’t force them- they should never have bought what they couldn’t afford!”
Two wars were costing us 300-400 billion dollars a year with less revenue to the tune of nearly 4 trillion dollars over 8 years, while most Americans were paying a higher cost of living, going into serious debt ,and the housing market was selling derivatives upon derivatives and about to go bust. The wealthy were not expanding business, rather they were expanding their holdings, productivity fell and un-employment rose. BOOM! Collapse! By October of 2008 we were knee deep in a recession that was only going to get worse before getting better, and while recovery ebbs and flows today, the reactions to it remain contentious.
Even Bush saw stimulus recovery as necessary and enacted the first giant package as well as the initial bailouts of the “Too Big to Fail” corporations. Obama inherited a financial catastrophe and essentially continued the recovery platform that Bush had initiated, but as partisan politics go, we tend to hold the party accountable that is in office rather than look at even immediate historical evidence.
The divide between left and right became truly hostile when the healthcare debate began. My personal feeling is that access to medicine falls under the auspices of government in a great and powerful country (and I personally was disappointed because the bill didn’t go far enough) and I subscribed to the numbers, and my own experience, that showed how much we were currently spending on un-managed healthcare (and wasting).
I hear consistently from the right wing that “America is on the wrong path under Obama” but I have to wonder what was the path we were on before the Obama Administration? The Romney/Ryan/Boehner/et al economic plans imply that we should go back to the neoliberalism (trickle down policy) that padded and protected the pockets of the wealthy while leaving the rest of us vulnerable to the greed that ALWAYS results.
Some Republican candidates said during last year’s campaign that we needed to “stay the course” and weather the disastrous recession and allow for a Machiavellian “adjustment” where we thinned the herd to re-balance the system. That’s great…unless you’re one of the herd.
The point is, the middle is where it’s at, but the middle in America is being squeezed into non-existence, not only economically but ideologically, as well.