During Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential race, just out of college and back in my hometown of Los Angeles, I worked at the campaign’s Fairfax Avenue office, which was in the epicenter of L.A.’s Jewish community. Someone there (I don’t remember who) got the idea to print up a leaflet that proclaimed, in bold letters, “Nixon is Treyf”—treyf being the Yiddish word for not kosher, filthy, you shouldn’t eat it. The leaflet then went on to list reasons why President Nixon wasn’t good for the Jews. (We didn’t know at the time that Nixon had ordered a purge of Jewish economists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or that would have headed the list.)
America has the Koch brothers, and now California has the Munger kids. Unlike the rightwing Koches, Molly Munger and her brother Charles Jr. entered politics from opposite directions—she’s a liberal Democrat and a champion of inner-city schools; he’s an economic right-winger, a social moderate, and a Republican activist. But thanks to the vicissitudes of California politics and the self-absorption that wealth can bring (their father is Charles Munger, a Pasadena attorney and investor who is the longtime vice-chairman of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment consortium), they’ve come together in the past couple of days to attack the most important measure on the California ballot: Governor Jerry Brown’s initiative to raise taxes on the rich so that the state’s schools and colleges won’t take a massive fiscal hit immediately following the election.
The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before.
What’s weighing President Obama down? In a brilliant essay, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic (and a Prospect alumna) argues that the emotional toll of his job—particularly, of presiding over two wars and having to reckon with their casualties—has emotionally “shut down” the president.
As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010.
And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity and median household income both rose by 102 percent—but that quarter-century was the only period in American history when unions were strong.