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Wednesday, April 23, 2008 01:40 am

Bitter? You should be!

The economic pie is growing, but workers get a smaller slice

Untitled Document U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, destiny’s tot, recently suggested that blue-collar Americans are feeling bitter about their financial condition, and critics have been whaling on him ever since. How dare Obama suggest that people are bitter? Americans are not bitter! Americans are happy, proud, peppy, content, and optimistic! Maybe. But if millions of them are not bitter or angry at this point, there is probably something wrong with them. In his new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times writes, “Since 1979, hourly earnings for 80 percent of American workers (those in private-sector, non-supervisory jobs) have risen by just 1 percent, after inflation. For male workers, the average hourly wage actually slid by 5 percent since 1979 . . . the nation’s economic pie is growing, but corporations by and large have not given their workers a bigger piece.” 
A 1 percent raise in almost 30 years? Still not bitter?
And who is getting ever-larger chunks of pie? The Wall Street Journal has isolated some of the most energetic pie pigs: “The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19 percent in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8 percent set in 2000, at the peak of the previous bull market in stocks. The bottom 50 percent earned 12.8 percent of all income, down from 13.4 percent in 2004 and a bit less than their 13 percent share in 2000.” 
You can be sure that a substantial portion of that bottom half of the population is living in small towns similar to the ones in which Obama sniffed out a degree of bitterness. Even the 1 percent increase in hourly wages over the last generation or so is illusory. During the same period, unavoidable expenses — such as medical insurance, child care, and transportation — have expanded explosively. Whatever progress that’s been made in living a little better has been achieved by working a lot harder — and a lot longer.
“In a survey by the Families and Work Institute,” Greenhouse writes, “two-thirds of employed parents responded that they didn’t have enough time with their kids and just under two-thirds said they didn’t have enough time with their spouses. The typical American worker toils 1,804 hours a year — 135 hours more per year than the typical British worker, 240 hours more than the average French worker, and 370 hours more than the average German worker. No one in the world’s advanced economies works more.”
Compared with workers in other countries, where the standard of living is as high or higher than it is in the U.S., Americans — with fewer and shorter vacations — are worked like donkeys. Politicians repeatedly insist on telling the voters that America is the richest country in the world, which is true enough, but it also provides little comfort to the massive population of underappreciated workers, in small towns and big cities, who don’t get their share. Every election season, candidates pretend to tear up as they assure millions of Americans who are working for less — or not at all — with the phrase the Clintons made famous: “I feel your pain.” That empty empathy will get you a bag of groceries in the basement of that church across town.
This year, the politicians are back with their speeches about how they are going to arrange for vocational classes so the voters will be able to compete in the 21st century. The first decade of the 21st century is already almost over. Time to drop that line, lest the small-town people turn bitter.
Obama is getting drubbed for saying that people, in their bitterness, are looking to God and their guns. If you had to choose to whom you would turn for economic assistance, Hillary or God, who would you be clinging to? As for the guns, American politicians, with their frequently broken promises, are just lucky that they aren’t picking birdshot from their derrières.

Nicholas von Hoffman writes regularly for The Nation, is a columnist for the New York Observer, and is the author of 13 books, including Citizen Cohn. 
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