Timothy Noah

Eric Cantor, Lake Wobegon Egalitarian


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) was supposed to give a major speech about income inequality at the University of Pennsylvania this afternoon, but he cancelled it, apparently fearing that protesters would disrupt the event. Now that I've read the prepared speech text, though, I wonder whether he cancelled because ... well ... he didn't have much to say on the topic. The speech consists mainly of platitudes about America as the land of opportunity and praise for his saintly grandma who fled Eastern Europe, "worked day and night and sacrificed tremendously to secure a better future for her sons,"  and, "if she were still alive today ... would be blown away to know that her grandson is not only a Member of the U.S. Congress, but now the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives."

Finally he gets to the point:

"There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society. They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream."

So ... people who have earned success shouldn't pay their fair share? 

Cantor goes on to say in effect that these people should be left alone because they create jobs. He cites Steve Jobs. "Through his example, you can see that America needs more than a jobs plan. It needs a Steve Jobs plan. In a Steve Jobs Plan, those who are successful not only create good jobs and services that make our lives better, they also give back and help everyone move just a little bit further up the ladder and everybody wins." Actually, as I noted on the sad occasion of his untimely death, Steve Jobs, though a remarkable man and an admirably creative entrepreneur, was not much of what Cantor likes to call a "job-creator" (assuming we're talking about jobs created inside the U.S.). Henry Ford had more than 100,000 people working for him just in Michigan's River Rouge plant during the 1930s. That's more than twice as many people as Apple today employs around the world.

The manufacture and marketing of the iPod, which set the consumer world on fire during the aughts, employed, in 2006, a grand total of 41,170 people (that's Apple employees and non-Apple employees), of whom a mere 13,920 were in the U.S. This was a year when the total number of iPods sold jumped from 42 million to 88 million. Of the 13,920 U.S.-based employees, the number of production workers was 30. That is not a typo. You could throw a party in the dead of winter for all the Americans who, in 2006, physically assembled iPod components (all of them chip fabricators, as it happens) without renting a backyard tent. One big pot of chili could feed the whole bunch. You'd just have to make sure not to invite the non-Americans who physically assembled iPod components that year, because they numbered 19,160. Include them, and you'd have to rent out the local sports arena.

"Instead of talking about a fair share or spending time trying to push those at the top down," Cantor says, "elected leaders in Washington should be trying to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and the opportunity to earn success up the ladder. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to meet in the middle of the ladder." That's a knock, I think, on dwelling on median household income, which fell (discounting inflation) by about 3 percent between the year the last Republican president took office and the year he left. (It's fallen about 2 percent under the current Democratic one.) "We should want all people to be moving up and no one to be pulled down," Cantor concludes. Well, yes, we should want that to happen, because wanting people to fail isn't very nice. But unless we all live in Lake Wobegon (where the children are all "above average") uniform upward mobility isn't actually possible. The thing about mobility is that people have to move up and people have to move down.

Cantor's income inequality solution is to elevate all of the bottom 99 percent in incomes up to the top 1 percent. That would shut up the Occupy Wall Street crowd for sure! A more practical solution--and one that doesn't violate the laws of mathematics--would be to encourage mobility, by all means (the U.S. has actually fallen behind most of western Europe in this regard) but also to pay close attention to what happens to the people who don't make it to the top. The bottom 99 percent contribute to prosperity too, and lately they haven't had much to show for it. Cantor seems not in the slightest bit curious as to how that happened.

Update: I originally inserted a couple of "[sic]"s into one of the quotes from Cantor's speech. But after reading some critical comments below I decided I was being too snotty, and that they distracted from my main point. His grammar stinks but that's not my real quarrel with him.

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