Friday, August 30, 2013

Nice Speech, Though

George Condon of The National Journal wrote Wednesday

Here he was, an African American twice elected to the nation's highest office.

Half a century ago, that was beyond the imagination of those who gathered on the Mall. They were fighting for the right to vote, the right to ride buses, the right to get work. They dreamt (sic) of winning city council seats. But a little boy who had just turned two, liberated by the gains won by those who marched, dreamt (sic)  bigger. Because he did – and because they marched – Obama did not have to say anything.

Fifty years from now, few will remember what he did say. But they will remember that he was there to represent the country.

Martin Luther King is remembered less today (or at least the past few days) for having been at the March on Washington than for the speech he gave.  While President Obama will be remembered for having been there on Wednesday,  he would have been remembered even more vividly if he did not appear.  At least, I think so and-given that he did appear- we'll never know otherwise.

But we do know that in the most meaningful portion of Obama's speech the President declared

For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.

The graph below (period of 1948-2011) from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrates that growth in productivity has far outstripped the growth in wages, even without accounting for the lag in total compensation, which has been even more severe because of a relative reduction in employee benefits through time.

The President could have used the occasion of his speech to call for a higher federal minimum wage which at $7.25 per hour is $1.12 lower than it would be today ($8.37) if it were adjusted for inflation.  And if it were adjusted for productivity growth, the minimum wage would be $16.54 in 2012 dollars, according to Dean Baker.  And he might have informed the nation that economic mobility in the U.S.A. now is exceeded by that in Europe.

Yet the President could have ended on an uplifting note, applauding the thousands of fast food workers who went on strike Thursday in dozens of cities across the country.  And that, more than any speech given by Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or anyone (save possibly John Lewis) is a greater way to celebrate the the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King who, we are supposed to forget, was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting striking sanitation workers.

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