We’ve heard it repeatedly that our politics has descended into tribalism, but if it has, then to what end?
We seem to have lost the purpose of government as evidenced by the fact that while our problems grow, Congress cannot find the will to act. There are those who believe in limited government, that downsizing the federal government while at the same time relying on the private sector to find solutions, is the surest way to improve social welfare.
Reducing the size of the public sector (downsizing the federal government) makes sense in a society whose income levels are becoming more equal not less. In the U.S. in 2019, per capita national income was $66,022. In a world with an even distribution of income, for the “traditional” family of four, that would sum too $264,088. Unfortunately in 2019, the median family income was only $68,703, with the bottom 20 percent of American families earning no more that $25,600, receiving not 20 percent of national income, but only 3.1 percent.
In a society where larger numbers of families are less and less able to provide for themselves, shrinking the federal government and its programs is cruel.
Since the late 1970s we’ve known that our nation has an infrastructure problem that is most noticeable in our highways, and yet we refuse to increase the federal gasoline excise tax to fix our highway system. With falling gas prices, a tax hike could have been accomplished while still allowing the public to experience some level of price decline. We could have experienced the best of both worlds – better roads and lower gas prices giving consumers a rising level of real income. But the Republican pledge to never raise taxes killed any chance of improving our highway system.
However, it’s more than highways that suffer from our tribalism. Last week Sen. Mitch McConnell pledged that his caucus would oppose every part of the Biden infrastructure bill. Their logic is that the bill would increase the budget deficit and thus the national debt to unsustainable levels. Sadly, the national debt argument is the go to excuse for conservatives whenever the opposition party has an expenditure proposal – an argument that is ignored when they hold power.
Productivity gains and population growth set the limits on a nation’s economic growth. But our native birth rates are below replacement levels. Without immigration our population and our economy would be shrinking. Can our tribes agree on an equitable compromise?
Undocumented immigrants work in our lowest paying most dangerous jobs, pay taxes and add to our GDP growth, but we can’t find a way to grant them some form of legal status, thus robbing them of Social Security benefits and other legal protections they deserve. We’re not even charitable enough to allow them to receive stimulus checks.
When Republican’s proposed a prescription drug plan, Democrats objected, when Democrats proposed a plan to offer subsidies to families to buy private insurance, a true market solution to high health care premiums, Republicans opposed it. Neither Medicare Part D, nor the Affordable Care Act, actually lowered the cost of drugs or health care to the nation as a whole. Both programs offered subsidies to consumers, with the taxpayers picking up the tab, while profits for the health care sector skyrocketed.
The real wage of male workers with a high school degree was higher in 1973 than it was in 2018. Family incomes are higher today only because more married women are working (56.3 percent in 1976 compared to 69.6 percent in 2017). We work 500 more hours more per year than our grandfathers, and our families are carrying staggering levels of consumer debt.
If we had indexed wages to the inflation rate from the inception of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the wage rate for minimum wage workers would be $22 an hour today or $45,760 per year. That’s $19,560 above the poverty level for a family of four, which for all practical purposes would have eliminated poverty in our country. But because of our tribalism we haven’t acted on the minimum wage since 2009, which explains why in 2019, 34 million Americans lived in poverty.
Ultimately only we can end tribalism. Everyone claims that Washington is broken. We claim that we want our elected officials to compromise. We blame the politicians who we say can’t or won’t find common ground. But that’s being disingenuous on our part. We elect and then reelect the same politicians who we then claim won’t compromise.
Sadly, our tribalism reflects the desire of some to acquire political power for power’s sake. What else could explain the fact that while the problems we face have been with us for decades, our political leaders repeatedly fail to act.