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Liberals’ Inequality Narrative Ignores Role of Free Trade, Unionbusting

The Occupy movement forcefully injected a long-taboo topic—America’s appalling “banana republic”-level economic disparities—into the mainstream political debate.Liberal MSNBC show host Lawrence O'Donnell speaks at the Television Critics Association in 2010. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

That inequality has immense implications, from falling wages, to deteriorating healthcare coverage, the overgrown financial sector, and the decline of America's productive base. Such sweeping inequality, deeply rooted in our economic and political system of legal payoffs and policy paybacks, has been intensified by union-busting and globalization.

But even many of America’s most liberal mainstream politicians and pundits have narrowed the debate over inequality, perhaps out of a desire to shield President Obama from any pressure coming from his left. The issue of tax inequities has soared in importance, exposing the privileged status enjoyed by CEOs and hedge fund and private equity executives like Mitt Romney. But other crucial dimensions of inequality painfully experienced by ordinary Americans have been crowded out.

For example, the liberal and likable Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s The Last Word, declares in a TV ad that all the talk about “class war” amounts to a battle over a proposed 4 percent increase in tax rates for the super-rich. Really, Lawrence?

The richest 1 percent did not triple their share of the nation’s income during the last three decades—to the current 24 percent—simply through the tax system alone. Nor did the tax system allow the wealthiest 1 percent to capture nearly 9/10 of productivity gains in recent years, representing a $3 billion upward shift in income.

American media employ a disproportionately large share of pundits who either deny or defend the riches accruing to America’s "job creators”—ranging from the outraged George Will to the sly discounting of the problem by NPR’s Adam Davidson. They are accompanied by a chorus of leading voices—Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, to name just two, who gloss over the inequities caused by global corporate supremacy.

Even the supposedly liberal pundits—E.J. Dionne, Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Ezra Klein and Richard Wolffe, among others—are remarkably confined in their discussions of inequality. They almost never refer to the 35-year campaign of union-busting by Corporate America, in which 90 percent of union organizing drives are greeted with high-pressure resistance from management, according to Christopher Martin's 2003 book on media coverage of labor, Framed!.

The crucial fact that 31,358 workers get fired in a typical year while trying to unionize their workplace, according to author Philip Dine, is almost uniformly omitted from liberal pundits' explanations of U.S. inequality. Only in their coverage of public-employee battles in Wisconsin did MSNBC hosts like Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz discuss union-busting and its role in pushing down wages and eliminating workers’ voice on the job.

The other central weapon in the class war against workers—the threat or actual relocation of production to brutal low-wage conditions found in Mexico and China—has been almost entirely absent from the comments of MSNBC hosts and guests.

John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's and author of the superb 2000 book on NAFTA,“The Selling of Free Trade, believes that too many liberal and progressive commentators and pundits have been afraid of criticizing President Obama on a fundamental issue of loyalty to working-class interests. “The so-called liberal media and even its leftish fringe are almost all in the bag for Obama,” said MacArthur, whose book extensively details the almost-unanimous endorsement of NAFTA by the US press corps in 1992 and 1993.

“Obama has been terrible on these issues of globalization,” says MacArthur, pointing to his abandonment of his promise to re-negotiate NAFTA. (The President has even failed to enforce the weak side agreements on labor and environmental issues, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).

Yet the liberal politicians and media voices who should be challenging the role of free-trade and union-busting in driving down wages and increasing inequality have almost uniformly remained silent. While liberal on a wide variety of issues, pundits like Dionne and Wolffe continue to adhere to the free-trade faith without examining its consequences in lost jobs, depressed wages and devastated factory towns.

Others seem to be operating from the notion that any criticism of Obama will weaken his chances for re-election. “Meanwhile, Obama’s raising money from all the corporate interests who benefit [from free trade],” MacArthur notes. “People who should be speaking out—like Sen. Sherrod Brown [D-Ohio]—are just not doing it."

Auto bailout far from ideal

To be a bit more specific: Obama’s “bailout” of the auto industry has been portrayed by liberals, especially Ed Schultz, as an unalloyed success. Led by Wall Street financier Steven Rattner, the program caused tens of thousands of GM and Chrysler workers to lose their jobs; federal funds allowed a Chrysler engine-production unit to be shifted from Kenosha, Wis. to Saltillo, Mexico; the number of GM cars imported into the country from Mexico, China, and elsewhere is almost doubled; and no vacant plants were converted to the domestic manufacturing of mass transit equipment.

The valid criticisms of the bailout, raised by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, auto industry expert Prof. Harley Shaiken and others have been borne out, but nonetheless almost entirely forgotten. In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama highlighted the auto industry bailout as one of his signature achievements.

MacArthur notes that when Obama aide David Axelrod was interviewed by CNN’s Candy Crowley, she asked him how the auto bailout was different from what Mitt Romney had done at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that laid off workers and shut down plants. “Axelrod was really left fumbling for an answer,” he said.

The point is not to sink Obama with a fusillade of criticism about the off-shoring of jobs promoted by the free trade agreements he pushed through Congress, but to hold him at least minimally accountable on issues that are crucial to workers so that we do not see an electoral re-run of 2010 this year, when alienated blue-collar workers stay at home, and some vote Republican.

“Here we have the right wing attacking Romney about Bain Capital plundering companies and shutting down plants and moving jobs overseas. The left wing ought to be making a similar critique of Obama,” MacArthur says.

Without any audible and visible pressure to aggressively move to lift wages and control the export of jobs, Obama will simply fall back on pleading with executives to engage in “insourcing” jobs, and then exaggerate the importance of a minor, perhaps inconsequential, trend.

But most of the public, wary of free-trade agreements, knows that the trickle of jobs returning to the U.S. is far smaller than the torrent headed to China and Mexico, a torrent that continues to decimate the families and communities that were once part of the nation’s strong industrial base.

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