This post from Joe Conason led me to Mark Lilla's analysis of contemporary conservatism's populist chic. Its anti-intellectualism, he says, stands in stark contrast to its earlier intellectual seriousness.
More: Here's a link to the article by Jane Mayer that Mr. Lilla mentions, the one that explains how McCain wound up choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. It takes a long detour through conservative activism before it gets to the Palin pick, but that's why the piece is interesting.
On Jan. 22, 2001, when President George W. Bush took over the White House, the Nasdaq was in the midst of a post-dot-com freefall. Bush had the bad luck of taking office just before the economy went into a recession that March. But after a mini downturn, the American economy experienced a period of recovery and expansion, with the gross domestic product growing at a steady clip and productivity surging 22%. That measure of prosperity, however, hasn't translated into gains for most families.
In 2000 the median U.S. household income was $50,557 (adjusted for inflation), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seven years later, the median income fell to $50,233. "That might not sound too bad," says Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University, "but normally, median income increases. That's not good news for the middle class." Consider that the median household income would be almost $64,000 had paychecks kept pace with the GDP.
While workers' paychecks have stagnated, corporate profits jumped an average of 10.8% per year, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. "The fact that middle-income households ended up below where they were in 2000 despite strong productivity growth—that's the heart of the problem," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. "It's one thing if you're looking at a period like now, when the macroeconomy is dysfunctional, but for most of this decade the economy has been pumping along." However, economists at the conservative American Enterprise Institute counter that claims of income stagnation are overblown, pointing out, for example, that household income data does not take into account total compensation, including companies' burgeoning contributions to employee health insurance.
Even though inflation has not been severe for most of the decade, the cost of living has outpaced wages. The consumer price index has risen by 25% since January 2001, while core inflation jumped 18%. But the core consumer price index can be deceptive because it excludes food and energy. Once, after reporting that core inflation had been relatively tame that quarter, Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein came back to the office to find an irate e-mail: "Hey, dummy, what the hell do you think we spend our money on?" The point was taken: When energy and food skyrocket, families feel it.
And skyrocket they have. In early 2001 you could fill your car with regular gas for $1.47 a gallon. But on Oct. 24, three months after regular unleaded peaked at $4.11 a gallon, the average cost was leveling off around $2.78, according to the AAA online Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Grocery store sticker shock has been almost as acute. Take, for example, the price of a dozen eggs, which has risen 97% since 2001, from a nationwide average of $1.01 to $1.99. "You could look at inflation and think it hasn't been that much of a problem, but in fact, if you look at the components of the middle-income consumption basket—tuition, housing, childcare, gas, food—all of those have been rising a lot more quickly," says Bernstein.
I don't do a lot of driving, since I work at home, which means that I wasn't affected by rising gas prices as much as most other people. Naturally, I've been affected by the rise in food prices, but not unbearably so. My biggest financial pain has come from my health insurance.
I don't know about you, but my premium goes up about 15 to 20 per cent every year, not counting the special "welcome to the age of 45" rate increase I received a few months ago. Consequently, over the past five years my monthly payment has increased about 125 per cent. And this is just for an individual policy. I shudder to think about how parents with children are dealing with their rate increases.