26 January 2007

I’d like to make some comments about Senator Jim Webb’s (D-VA) speech that followed President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address. Specifically, the senator made a pair of points that I had heard him make before in an NPR interview. These points so blatantly contradict each other, they deserve special attention, particularly since they are evidently part of his planned stump speech.

I don’t have a transcript of the post-SOTU speech, but the gist of the two points that Senator Webb juxtaposed are as follows. First, he notes that the ratio of CEO’s salaries to those of the average person is increasing dramatically. He mentioned a couple of figures that I didn’t write down, but the specific details can be found in an article called "Class Struggle" that he wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page:

"[T]he average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960’s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much."

Needless to say, the senator implies that this is a bad thing and clearly expects his audience to share his outrage.

Then, on the heels of this observation the senator glowingly invokes a favorite saying from Andrew Jackson, that "you measure the health of a society not at its apex, but at its base." (I obtained this exact quote from the NPR interview. In the post-SOTU, he made essentially the same point, using the same reference to Jackson.)

Why on earth would Senator Webb choose this particular quote to support his first point? In fact, it directly contradicts it.

I don't know the context of this Andrew Jackson quote, but I like it because it points to one of the side benefits of a free, capitalist society: that its poorest and least skilled citizens benefit immeasurably from the achievements of others. Taken literally, Jackson’s quote rings quite true. A society is best gauged not by looking at its kings and ministers, the trappings of which could be either expropriated from the people or propped up superficially by any Potemkin, but by observing the liberty and prosperity of its lowest members, who should be left free to be productive in their own capacity. Indeed, if we look at "the base" of societies around the world, it becomes quite obvious that the standard of living of a poor man is directly proportional to his individual liberty. What matters (or should matter) to a poor man, of course, is how prosperous he is in absolute terms, not how much richer his neighbor is.

But in his first statement, the senator said the exact opposite. In essence, he declares that he is most concerned about the ratio of salaries, the so-called "gap" between rich and poor. If we hold him to this position, it follows that he completely disregards the importance of the absolute standard of living of Americans. It matters not to the senator if even the poorest Americans are wealthier today than in the past, and live like princes compared to average or even "wealthy" citizens of dictatorships. What the senator resents is simply that some Americans earn more than others. If he cared about elevating the poor, Senator Webb would embrace laissez faire capitalism. Instead, he rallies an envious public with a vague indignation that suggests that their interests would be served if only those greedy CEO's were knocked down a peg.

Now, it is hardly unusual to catch Democrats in blatant contradictions. But it is stunning to see an intelligent man not only say it with a straight face, but repeat it from one interview to the next.

And what is really disheartening is to see it swallowed whole by the public.