Roosevelt’s Reads

By Mark Roosevelt, president

Mark RooseveltI had intended to write about three great chroniclers of suburban, middle-class America in our days of economic dominance: Updike, Cheever, and the great but less well-known Richard Yates. But, as I wrote, it felt so dated that I chose instead to write about articles, mostly from The New York Times, on two profound social, cultural, economic and political trends. Perhaps next month I will get to these three male behemoths from an era that feels more long- ago than it really is, or I might write about several mystery writers I love who effectively evoke place, particularly Donna Leon, who writes novels set in Venice as well as wonderful, more esoteric books about that city, opera, and food.

To follow-up on last month’s theme of our fast-changing society, there is another still underestimated and under-discussed demographic trend that will have profound implications for, well, pretty much everything. The April 13, 2012, Sunday Times Book Review contains an article on Liza Mundy’s new book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family. This is becoming, finally, big news. On March 26, 2012, the book was Time’s cover story.

What is going on? A great deal, and probably much more than we yet know. We do know that for quite a while now male wages have been stagnate while female wages keep rising. We know that women in dual-earner families now earn 47% of family earnings, that approximately 40% of employed wives outearn their husbands, and that young single women outearn their male counterparts in every major American city. And we know that these trends are accelerating fast. Education is an area of particularly dramatic change. Women now earn 57% of all bachelor degrees and comprise 60% of all graduate students. At small liberal arts schools such as Antioch, women outnumber men by numbers that increase every year. 70% of our accepted students this year are women. And perhaps most significantly, even before the ramifications of this shift in educational achievement are fully felt in the market place, women already hold more than half—51%—of the most prestigious job classifications—jobs deemed to be “management and professional.”

It is also important to remember that a stubbornly resistant wage gap remains, even if it may not last much longer and is much smaller for younger women. More importantly, there are significant “lagging indicators.” For example, as Meg Wolitzer noted in “The Second Shelf” (New York Times Book Review, March 30, 2012), “women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world,” struggling to make it to “the upper shelf.” And men still dominate critical places of power—in politics, high-level judicial positions, and corporate leadership. These will likely be even more resistant to change than the overall wage gap, as they represent deep cultural identifications that outlast trends bubbling up from beneath.

But the bubbling is profound and the questions raised are equally so. Mundy asks, “In what way, if at all, do the sexes need each other now that the old economic bonds have been broken?” That is a very long way from being worked out, and Mundy’s take on it—that these changes will be freeing to both men and women—is far more optimistic than many others. Men are floundering. Men continue to rate forging deep personal relationships as less important than women, and in April the Pew Research Center reported that they are now also less ambitious in the workplace. 66% of women ages 18 to 34 rated career high on their list of priorities, compared with only 59% of young men. So what, one might wonder, is the focus of young men today?

Of course it is also good for us at Antioch to ask what we should learn from this data. Because of the Horace Mann Fellowship as well as other factors, the students coming to Antioch tend to be from families at the lower end of the economic ladder. And the status of boys and men is declining faster in this stratum than in more privileged ones. Young men who are not from privilege get into college in lower numbers and drop out of college in much higher numbers. Overall, American colleges do not offer sufficient supports for struggling students, and Antioch’s retention rates in the past have not always been strong. We must be prepared to offer multiple academic and non-academic supports to all our students, but will need a particular strategy for young men.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most alarming of all recent trends—the dramatic growth in wealth and income inequality—has reached a level only before seen right before the Great Depression. But again, most people seem only dimly aware of how astounding and unusual this trend is in historical terms. The April 16, 2012, New York Times contains an article, “For Two Economists, the Buffett Rule Is Just a Start,” about the Frenchmen Emmanuel Saez, who teaches at Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty, who teaches at the Paris School of Economics. They offer a little history lesson, and have a twist, with which I sympathize, on the word “radical.” In remarking on how the proposed Buffett Rule, a 30% minimum tax on incomes over $1 million, would do very little to reverse the extensive gains of the top 1% in recent decades, Piketty says “that the United States is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality. People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.”

And they point out that it does not need to be this way, nor, unlike what many people think, has it always been this way. “In a way, the Unites States is becoming like Old Europe, which is very strange in historical perspective,” Piketty says in the article. “The United States used to be very egalitarian, not just in words but in actuality. Inequality of wealth and income used to be much larger in France. And very high taxes on the rich—that was invented in the United States.” Since incomes of the top 1% grew an astounding 94% from 2000 to 2007 alone, proposals such as the Buffett 30% rate are actually very modest relative to historical norms. Despite this fact, they get described as “radical” attempts at “massive wealth redistribution.” What is actually aberrational are the current tax rates, as the marginal rates on high incomes are near historic lows. That rate was 91% while FDR was president and stayed above 50% until Reagan’s presidency.

Ah, history. Historians should note how much the political dialogue and rhetoric has changed, and that today’s rhetoric obscures the radical income gains of the very wealthy, the truth about our historically low tax rates on upper-income earners, and the extraordinarily limited political debate about what tax policies make sense at this time. Instead, the media seriously report charges of “socialism” and “class warfare” leveled at President Obama, whose policies, like those of President Clinton, are those of a moderate to conservative Democrat. Let us remember that in 2010, President Obama, supported by former President Clinton, acquiesced to Republican demands to extend the regressive Bush tax cuts, despite the fact that these tax advantages go primarily to upper-income Americans. That same year we began the soft recovery from a very harsh recession, and 93% of the resulting economic gains went to the top one per cent.

To give much needed perspective to this debate, journalists should report on earlier fights in the 20th Century, when, unlike today, rhetorical vitriol went both ways. One telling example would be to look back to FDR at the end of his bitter 1936 campaign for re-election. At a rally at Madison Square Garden, surrounded on the stage by his patrician family, he spoke words unlike any we could imagine hearing from a prominent elected official today. Consider the following statements on his battles with entrenched interests:

“They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage of their own affairs. We know that government by organized money is as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.”

As reported in H. W. Brands biography, A Traitor To His Class, at this point “the crowd erupted. They cheered and stamped their feet so long that Roosevelt had to ask them to be quite. Gradually they calmed down.”

FDR continued: “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness met their match.” As Brands notes this was followed by “another outburst, longer and louder than before. Roosevelt paused for the shouters to fall silent.” Then he said that “I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

Now, that sounds a bit like “class warfare.” And this reminder of past debates should open up a useful discussion of why the political response to the Great Depression was so much more robust than the response to our recent economic crisis. Along those lines, the Times article ends with Piketty observing that the Buffet Rule’s proposed 30% tax rate “is three times smaller than the 91% of Roosevelt. And inequality is greater than in the time of Roosevelt.”

But listening to most of the political dialogue today, who would know it?

At Antioch we have a responsibility to lend perspective to the debates of the day. These perspectives must not be dictated by adherence to a particular political philosophy; in fact, we serve our students poorly if they are asked to wrestle with limited ideologies. Students should understand the anger of both Tea Party and Occupy activists, and they should understand their historical roots.

And these dramatic changes in American economic life, changes that, for example, have eroded many gains made by African Americans in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, should inform our economic model. The Horace Mann Fellowships are allowing us to recruit and support students for whom college is a significant financial stretch. Generous alumni support is making this possible. Only by keeping our costs down and through extensive fundraising will we be able to continue this support. So it is worth saying again –we who work at the College, as well as the students we are privileged to serve—are grateful to all of you who are making this possible.