In his State of the Union address and subsequent appearances, President Obama has been focusing on the lack of “opportunity” for working people instead of using the phrase “income inequality,” and this shift has officially become A Thing:
Some of the arguments against the shift make sense on the surface. “Opportunity” sounds great, but “income inequality” is measurable in a way that “opportunity” isn’t. That’s why the Republicans are happy to talk “opportunity” but squeal “class war” when “income inequality” comes up.
Not being a politician myself, if I were to give the SOTU speech, I’d repeat these four outrageous facts for the entire hour:
The six members of the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 41% of Americans (127,000,000+ people).*
The bottom half of the world’s population (about 3.5 billion people) owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.**
Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.**
In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90% became poorer.**
Obama’s speech was pretty strong, but he definitely did talk a lot more about “opportunity” than “inequality,” which I initially found disappointing, if understandable given the political realities and the absurd hysteria of the wealthy and powerful (see Perkins, Tom).
However, I think — for once! — William Saletan over at Slate had it right:
The conventional view of Obama, repeated in last night’s Republican response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), is that he “talks a lot about income inequality.” But as a description of Obama’s speech, that isn’t quite right. Obama used the words equal, equality, and inequality just eight times. He used opportunity and opportunities 14 times. He used work, workers, working, workforce, and hard-working more than 60 times. Thirty-six of those references were directly about economic labor.
The distinction is important. Most people think income inequality is fine—in fact, it’s proper—when one person works harder than another. Obama’s argument isn’t just that the economy has left incomes unequal. It’s that the economy is failing to honor work.
That’s a damn good point. When Republicans obsess over welfare benefits, we’re quick to attribute it to racism, and we’re not wrong to do so: Wingnut politicians have been flogging deliberately racist tropes about welfare since a holy fusion of semolina flour, eggs, olive oil and milk formed the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the Big Bowl.
But there’s a “fairness” component too — a sense of aggrieved justice among working class people who labor for substandard wages in unregulated industries and get screwed by banks and creditors. Obviously, these folks would be better off directing their ire at the true culprits rather than others who are also downtrodden, but the GOP has made a living off pitting groups that share common interests against each other.
Possibly the shift to “opportunity” is part of a larger attempt to call the Republicans’ bluff on the notion that Joe Sixpack Jr. and Tagg Romney both get a fair shake in America. If that’s the case, and if the word “opportunity” gets through in a way “inequality” does not, I’m all for the switch.
*Oxfam briefing (links to PDF)