Top-Down Class Warfare

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Top-Down Class Warfare


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


It is difficult for a liberal to raise concerns about irresponsible corporations without being accused of class warfare. The Wall Street Journal recently ridiculed Al Gore for "schlock populism" and cynical "business-bashing."

In truth Gore's criticism is carefully calibrated and directed against assaults that affect the broad middle class. The vice president goes after drug companies for price-gouging, managed care companies for second-guessing doctors, tobacco companies for marketing products to kids, and Hollywood for purveying violence. Most voters agree with Gore. But the vice president hasn't attacked corporations in general. Nor has he addressed America's gross disparities of income and wealth, or the fact that tens of millions of full-time jobs fail to pay a living wage, or the abuses of welfare reform. That brand of class politics takes exceptional political courage because most of America considers itself middle class.

The real class warfare in America today is top-down, as it has been ever since Ronald Reagan. The proposed Bush tax cut, which would bestow 43 percent of the money on the top 1 percent of earners [see Robert McIntyre, "Tax Wars," page 23] is just the beginning. The general conservative assault on social endeavor is occasionally principled and libertarian, but can be usefully understood in terms of class.

The rich don't need government because they can simply opt out--to private schools, exclusive clubs, gated communities, personal physicians, nannies, limousines, and helicopters. The rest of us depend on basic public services and social infrastructure. Starve Medicare, and you ration health care for those with a limited ability to pay. Cut federal help to schools, and you deny upward mobility to the children of the nonrich. Refuse to address the job-family straddle faced by working parents, and you assault every child whose parents cannot afford expensive private day care. That's class warfare, big-time.

Collective purpose is not just about social investment. Deregulation has been a backdoor form of class warfare. A generation ago, industries such as airlines, electric power generation, trucking, telephone service, hospitals, and banks were all government-regulated. Supposedly, deregulation would help consumers, but its practical effect has been a mixed bag. Airline fares have come down on average (along with service), but prices today are a crazy quilt, and average prices actually fell at a faster rate before deregulation. The whole airline system is now a mess. Likewise, electric power. Ditto banks. Ditto telephones. Verizon recently advertised that it is now possible to have your local and long-distance service conveniently provided by the same carrier. Imagine, one phone company! What will the free market dream up next?

But if it's a mixed blessing for consumers, deregulation has been devastating for blue-collar workers. …

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