A kinder, gentler Mike Lee?

A few weeks ago, just after the end of the shutdown, Senator Mike Lee gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation. The tone made me wonder, “Who are you and where is Mike Lee?” The partisan firebrand was nowhere to be seen, and in its place was this reasonable sounding man who claimed the GOP’s message wasn’t relevant to most of the country, that they’d lost their rich intellectual tradition from the Reagan era, and – finally! -  said conservatives needed to come up with an alternative to health care reform rather than just throw rocks at Obamacare.

Now, we in Utah believe in repentance. If a kinder, gentler Mike Lee has arrived, it would be a great thing for our state. He does seem like a genuinely nice guy, if somewhat misguided, so I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – even if the probable incentive for this possible change of heart is his cratering approval numbers.

But in the spirit of “bringing forth fruits meet for repentance”, I’d like to concentrate on one important aspect of his speech. Senator Lee admitted we need to do something about the broken ladder of upward mobility in America. The gap between rich and poor is greater than any time since the Great Depression, and studies show economic mobility in our nation is lower than any other developed country. If a child is born to a poor family, the barriers to her rising out of poverty in America are nearly insurmountable. Surely this must be considered one of the most pressing issues we face.

I’m wondering if Sen. Lee is ready to acknowledge that some dearly held Republican policies have contributed to this serious problem.

Take supply side economics. The admitted goal of these policies was to transfer more of the nation’s ongoing wealth to the “job creators”. Hence the huge cuts to upper income tax rates and investment and inheritance taxes, coupled with payroll tax increases and elimination of middle income tax exemptions and cuts to social programs for the poor. We now know from hindsight these policies also resulted in an explosion of “rent-seeking capitalists”, who make their fortunes not from creating new wealth but by transferring existing wealth into their own pockets. (Dylan Rattigan coined the colorful term “greedy b**tards” for this type of capitalist.)

The claim was that the benefits from these policies were supposed to “trickle down”. The evidence is indisputable: Instead, there was (using a term coined by Utah business tycoon and mid-20th century Federal Reserve chair Marriner Eccles) a “giant suction pump” pulling all the nation’s wealth into the hands of a few at the top.

Which of these policies is Senator Lee now willing to admit helped create today’s huge gap between rich and poor, and what changes would he support to reverse the trend?

Here’s another thought: Conservatives hold up the 1950’s as a time when everything was right in America, but one characteristic of that period was that almost 40% of American workers belonged to a union. It is no coincidence that the stagnation in middle class wages correlates to a huge drop in union membership.

Conservatives like to point to anecdotes that demonstrate union corruption (some of which are a half-century old), but occasional bad apples are found in every human endeavor. I didn’t see any Republicans calling for the end of corporations after Enron and Tyco. The fact is that large corporations will always have a power advantage over workers, and collective bargaining is one way to mitigate that imbalance. Large retailers like Costco and Starbucks have proven you can pay your employees a livable wage with benefits and remain profitable. As they have in the past, unions could help make these fair practices more universal.

Is Senator Lee willing to take the lead in ending the long-standing Republican animosity to organized labor?

Yes, there are non-political factors that have contributed to the wealth gap like the rise in technology and globalization, but the fact remains that other developed nations have done far better than we to ensure the fruits of economic growth are shared by everyone. Senator Lee is correct. America’s huge gap between rich and poor is a serious problem. I hope he will follow the example of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s in admitting the policy failures of his own party and take the lead in charting a new course.


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