Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

GOP leaders: Struggling Americans simply have it too good


In a recent interview with Politico about the dangers of forcing a government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked briefly about an unrelated topic. His response reveals a lot about how he and many of his fellow Republicans see the world:

Asked about the improving economy, McConnell scoffed: Business leaders tell him they have "a hard time finding people to do the work because they’re doing too good with food stamps, Social Security and all the rest."

I find that reaction fascinating and all too revealing.

First, with a jobless rate down to 5.1 percent, business leaders OUGHT to have a harder time finding workers. It's a good thing, a sign of progress that the grumpy McConnell ought to celebrate not bemoan, and it has nothing to do with food stamps or Social Security. In fact, according to the supposed law of supply and demand, as the jobless rate falls, employers ought to be forced to compete for workers by paying them more, just as they have to pay more when any commodity becomes more scarce. That too would be a good thing.

Yet so far that hasn't happened. There's very little evidence that employers are responding to a tighter job market by raising wages. To the contrary, wage growth continues to lag well behind GDP growth, and economists are perplexed as to why.

Second, McConnell comes from a state where the median household income has fallen significantly and is now $10,000 lower than the national average. Kentucky also has the fifth highest poverty rate in the country. Yet when asked about the economy, McConnell's reaction is not to take the side of his own constituents, people who are struggling to make ends meet in an increasing punitive economy. Instead, he instinctively sees the world through the eyes of employers who are frustrated that they might have to begin paying people a little bit more and give their workers a slightly larger share of the pie.**

As McConnell candidly put it, he believes that struggling lower-income Americans just aren't struggling enough. The economy isn't punitive enough. They have it too good. He believes that programs such as Social Security and food stamps have to be cut back so that people become more desperate, allowing employers to hire people at even lower wages, with even fewer benefits, so that corporate profits can rise above their already historic levels. That's his idea of needed economic reform.<

Finally, contrast McConnell's position with that of Donald Trump, who over the weekend lambasted soaring compensation for CEOs and pointed out that CEOs often hand-pick the board members who then set their salaries.  "It's a shame, and it's disgraceful," Trump said on "Face the Nation." " …  you see these guys making enormous amounts of money, and it's a total and complete joke."****  Trump has also ridiculed his fellow Republicans for their fixation on cutting Social Security, Medicare and other programs.

And he's the one leading in the polls, while McConnell and his fellow Republicans in Congress have a 12 percent job-approval rating, a 10-point decline from just four months ago.

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** For the record, the national SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) caseload peaked back in December 2012, almost three years ago, and has since fallen by 2.3 million recipients. In McConnell's home state of Kentucky, SNAP caseloads have fallen by 7.8 percent in the last year alone. And the average monthly SNAP benefit is $117.84 per person in Kentucky, or less than $30 a week.

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**** Just last week, the CEO of United Airlines was forced to resign in disgrace after becoming a central figure in a federal bribery investigation involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  But thanks to the agreement that he negotiated with the United board, Jeff Smisek walks away with an additional $4.9 million lump sum "separation payment" from the airline. He will also remain eligible for financial bonuses, will get lifetime free flights and will receive 60,746 shares in United worth an additional $3.4 million. Again, this is an employee forced out by a major corruption scandal.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.