Bush & Kerry: A Big Divide

George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


Twenty years and five presidential elections ago, Walter Mondale said that Ronald Reagan’s economic policy was turning America into a “nation of hamburger flippers.” Although the recovery from the steep 1981–1982 recession was well under way by election time, and American businesses were employing four million more people than they had four years earlier, the increase in jobs was entirely in the service sector. All other industries combined—manufacturing, construction, mining—had shed more than 800,000 employees. Moreover, American workers’ wages had, on average, failed to keep pace with inflation.

In this year’s election John Kerry could level something like the same accusation at George W. Bush. The recession that began in March 2001 ended the following November, but American businesses are still employing 900,000 fewer people than they did when Mr. Bush took office. Employment in industries other than services is down by 2.6 million. And after rising during the first year or so of the economic recovery, wages are again falling in real terms. (Despite substantial gains during the Clinton years, average weekly pay remains below what it was when Reagan took office.)

Mr. Bush might honestly reply that his goal is a nation not of hamburger flippers but coupon clippers. The policies he has put in place during his first term, including sharply lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains and the phased elimination of estate taxes, are supposed to encourage Americans to save more. The policies on which he is campaigning for a second term, including tax-favored savings accounts for health care, personal accounts to replace part (and perhaps in time all) of Social Security, and further tax breaks for savings accounts of whatever purpose, have the same rationale. Mr. Bush’s declared goal is the “Ownership Society.”

Clipping coupons sounds a lot better than flipping hamburgers. Many Americans would probably welcome the prospect of receiving a good chunk of their income from simply cashing interest and dividend checks, instead of having to show up at work. Government policies that promise to give people more such checks to cash therefore have a certain appeal—far more than policies that throw them in increasing numbers into low-end service-sector jobs. The “ownership society” promised by Mr. Bush may not have the ring of the New Deal or the New Frontier, but as an election slogan it appeals to aspirations many Americans hold.

The idea raises two questions, however. First, do Mr. Bush’s policies offer a serious prospect of bringing about such a society? Or do they really amount, for most Americans, to a road toward hamburger-flipping dressed up with misleading labels advertising coupon-clipping? Just as important, how do Mr. Kerry’s proposals differ, both in their declared aims and in their likely practical consequences?

The more fundamental question is what Mr. Bush’s policies will imply, if the nation embraces them, about the value to be attached to work. Ronald Reagan’s brand of…

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