We have not heard from one of the older themes of neo-liberalism in a while – so much so that we are in danger of forgetting it. But we shouldn’t, because surely it will come back, bad penny that it is. This is the theme that, as a New York Times story put it in 1992, the accusation that politicians “tell people what they want to hear”.
In 1992, this was a strong theme in the Democratic party. All the young wonks had driven out the bad New Deal relics, and they were ready to tell people what they didn’t want to hear: we couldn’t afford any of that new deal garbage any more!
What we needed to do was freeze the minimum wage, help the “poor” by expanding the earned income tax credit, and wean the middle class from their addiction to “special interest” stuff. All that porkbarrel stuff. All that stuff that the government did – which, tragically, denied the private sector of its opportunity to go in and do a better job of, say, piling up debts so that people ended up serfs off the credit card companies to maintain their lifestyle.
In the context of 1992, the fear that he was "telling people what they wanted to hear" made candidate Bill Clinton jettison his early promise to lower income tax for the middle class, pleasing a now semi-forgotten dweeb named Tsongas, a neo-lib hero who went about telling people not to look at the massive inequality that had resulted in a historic jump in the amount of concentrated wealth at the top – but to look at their own lousy lives, lousy habits, and their freeloading tendencies, and allow politicians to punish them good and proper.
Cause of, uh, the deficit.
That terrrribble deficit.
This fell like music on the ears of the New Democratic wonks. When candidate Clinton was elected president, he even appointed an economist to advise him from the “Progressive Institute”, a dude name Robert Schapiro, whose claim to fame was to dismiss minimum wage raises as old hat. New hate was the kind of negative income tax stuff advocated, in the sixties, by Milton Friedman.
Here’s a coda to this little story of idiocy. In 1994, the economy started picking up again. Very respectable growth. 3 percent. Per capita income was up 1.8. But, economists admitted, “puzzled”, median household income actually fell Gee, how did that happen? Most of the benefits “flowed to the wealthiest Americans.” Everyone, according to the Times, was puzzled. Peace. Prosperity. “The numbers may help explain voter discontent that threatens to turn next month’s elections into a nationwide rebellion, despite an expanding economy and relative international peace.”
The election of 1994 sealed the deal, as the GOP romped, with their contract for America, while the Dems went down, holding the line on not "telling people what they wanted". The Clintonites decided in the aftermath to double down – helping the “poor” and preaching the doctrine that the middle class would be best helped by the private sector. The inequality of 1993 exploded. But for a while, the business cycle lifted the working class - the median income set.
Ah, the "poor". How did the "poor" figure into all this.
This concern for the poor sounds morally astute. But in fact it is sociologically dumb. It is no coincidence that the neo-libs went on about the poor even as the plutocrats cleaned up. Because this moral crusade is sociologically dumb: the “poor” are not a class in the usual sense. People who are middle class go into and out of poverty. And the poor aren’t the beggars on corners, but the part time workers at Amazon. Poor doesn't describe a position in the system of production of the capitalist economy, because that would, uh, reminds us that the workers make the wealth. The rhetoric around the “poor” is used, consistently, by neo-libs to bash socialist policies like free tuition at public colleges and universities. This, we are told, only helps the “middle class”. By such dribble the supposed parties of the “left” have been drowned.
The recent article by Joe Lieberman, of all rotten people, is a reminder of what that politics was about. For Lieberman, Ocasio-Cortez is a great threat to our republic, a politician who just “tells people what they want to hear.” And we can’t have that!
It does look like there is a blue wave coming. I fear, however, that it will dissipate in the kind of puddles of dribble that Dem honchos have favored since the 90s. I fear there will be more talk about the deficit than about inequality. Let's hope that the old fossile neo-libs don't crawl over Dem politicos, cause if they do, we really are doomed.