By BOB HERBERT
I think of the people running this country as the mad-dashers, a largely confused and inconsistent group lurching ineffectively from one enormous problem to another.
They've made a hash of a war that never should have been launched. They can't find bin Laden. They've been shocked by the subprime debacle. They're lost in a maze on health care.
Now, like children who have eaten too much sugar, they are frantically trying to figure out how to put a few dollars into the hands of working people to stimulate an enfeebled economy.
They should stop, take a deep breath and acknowledge the obvious: the way to put money into the hands of working people is to make sure they have access to good jobs at good wages. That has long been known, but it hasn't been the policy in this country for many years.
Big business and the federal government have worked hand in hand to squeeze the daylights out of working people, stripping them (in an era of downsizing and globalization) of much of their bargaining power while ferociously pursuing fiscal policies that radically favored the privileged few.
My colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, took a look at income patterns in the U.S. over the past few decades in his new book, "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill)."
From 1980 to 2005 the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.) But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during that period. The standard of living for the average family has improved not because incomes have grown, but because women have gone into the workplace in droves.
The peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973 — when the average income per taxpayer (adjusted for inflation) was $33,001. That is nearly $4,000 higher than the average in 2005.
It's incredible but true: 90 percent of the population missed out on the income gains during that long period.
Mr. Johnston does not mince words: "The pattern here is clear. The rich are getting fabulously richer, the vast majority are somewhat worse off, and the bottom half — for all practical purposes, the poor — are being savaged by our current economic policies."
His words are echoed in a proposed stimulus plan currently offered by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. (The plan is available on its Web site, epi.org.) Stressing that any stimulus package should be "fair," the authors of the institute's proposal wrote:
"The distribution of wages, income and wealth in the United States has become vastly more unequal over the last 30 years. In fact, this country has a more unequal distribution of income than any other advanced country."
Economic alarm bells have been ringing in the U.S. for some time. There was no sense of urgency as long as those in the lower ranks were sinking in the mortgage muck and the middle class was raiding the piggy bank otherwise known as home equity.
But now that the privileged few are threatened (Merrill Lynch took a $9.8 billion fourth-quarter hit, and the stock market has spent the first part of the year behaving like an Olympic diving champion), it's suddenly time to take action.
There is no question that some kind of stimulus package geared to the needs of ordinary Americans is in order. But that won't begin to solve the fundamental problem.
Good jobs at good wages — lots of them, growing like spring flowers in an endlessly fertile field — is the absolutely essential basis for a thriving American economy and a broad-based rise in standards of living.
Forget all the CNBC chatter about Fed policy and bargain stocks. For ordinary Americans, jobs are the be-all and end-all. And an America awash in new jobs will require a political environment that respects and rewards work and aggressively pursues creative policies designed to radically expand employment.
I'd start with a broad program to rebuild the American infrastructure. This would have the dual benefit of putting large numbers of people to work and answering a crying need. The infrastructure is in sorry shape. New Orleans comes to mind, and the tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
The country that gave us the Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe ought to be able, 60 years later, to reconstitute its own sagging infrastructure.
There are also untold numbers of jobs and myriad societal benefits to be reaped from a sustained, good-faith effort to achieve energy self-sufficiency. Think Manhattan Project.
The possibilities are limitless. We could create an entire generation of new jobs and build a bigger and fairer economy for the 21st century. If only we were serious.
By BOB HERBERT
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