The New York Times carried a very important news story today as
its front-page lead. It revealed in devastating detail how American
workers have lost ground on wage incomes during this
so-called economic recovery. Only it's not news really. You might say,
it represents an elaborate "correction" on Page One. Long overdue, but
welcomed and I think of great significance.
Until now, the Times, like most leading newspapers, has stuck
with the orthodox economist's view of what has occurred during the
lopsided recovery engineered by George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan at
the Federal Reserve. Profits booming, productivity improving smartly,
robust GDP growth. What's not to like?
Times editors did not seem to notice the dark side of this
story--the negative impact on the wages of Americans in non-supervisory
jobs (that's 82 percent of the workforce). Their wages stagnated and
even declined in real terms, discounted for inflation. This helps
explain why typical Americans did not join the cheering--they are
losing ground and borrowing more to keep afloat. Last year for the
first time since 1933, the family balance sheet went negative, that is,
I congratulate the two skillful reporters who produced the article--
Steven Greenhouse, who covers labor, and David Leonhardt, who covers
economics--and congratulate the Times for giving it the play
these facts deserve.
But I am left with this question: Why now? These facts have been
visible for at least three or four years. I have written variations on
the same theme numerous times in The Nation [see for example "The One-Eyed
King," on the actual impact of Greenspan's long reign at the Fed.
The Economic Policy Institute,
probably the most respected think tank with a liberal-labor
perspective, has expertly described what going on again and again. So
have other voices.
What changed at the Times? I think we are witnessing an
important "course correction" in the approved perspective shared and
sanctioned among governing elites. "Correct thinking" is changing among
the influentials. Nothing confirms this so much as the New York
Times changing its view of things.
The facts have been quite stark for years, but to recognize what was
happening to wages would open a taboo subject--globalization's
devastating impact on America's broad middle class. If elites
acknowledged that connection, not to mention harsh disloyalties to
workers practiced by the leading US corporations, the policy thinkers
and politicians might have to address the larger political question:
What, if anything, does the government intend to do to reverse this
long-running trend of deterioration?
The mainstream press, as I have written more than once, mainly takes
its cues from the top-approved authorities and orthodox experts. This
season, reporters and editors could observe that several heavyweight
influentials are beginning to acknowledge the wage reality, albeit in a
cautious, euphemistic manner.
Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin of Citigroup, leading correct
thinker for Democrats, launched the
Hamilton Project to examine swelling inequality and related
questions. Early this month, Bush's new Treasury secretary Henry
Paulsen startled the press by also acknowledging the seriousness of the
wage deterioration. Even the new Fed chairman Ben Bernanke took a swing at the problem last week.
In short, it's now okay to for the mainstream to talk about the
subject. They won't be called heretics or protectionists or
backward-thinking Luddites. This is genuine progress. We are not there
yet, but the country is at least creeping slowly toward an honest
debate about America's role in the global trading system.
If my analysis is correct, we may soon even see Times columnist
Thomas Friedman write about the broad deterioration of US wages. He is
the preeminent cheerleader for the global system that exists, but I
have never seen him address the wage question frontally beyond telling
workers they need to get better educated. I can't wait to hear what he
has to say.
For 17 years William Greider was the National Affairs Editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He is a former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, where he worked for fifteen years as a national correspondent, editor and columnist. He is the author of One World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People?. Greider has also served as a correspondent for six Frontline documentaries on PBS, including "Return to Beirut," which won an Emmy in 1985. Raised in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, he graduated from Princeton University in 1958. He currently lives in Washington, DC.
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