Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we’ve written about both income inequality and state surveillance at length. Today, however, we want to explore those topics not with the keyboard but with the camera. Presented here are images of a San Francisco that is mired in poverty, beset by barriers, and ruled by surveillance.
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
—George Orwell, 1984
While the phrase “War on Terror” may have dropped from official parlance years ago, the term’s core feature—a violent conflict that knows no limits in terms of time or terrain—remains part and parcel of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we look at the media’s discussion of the current drone war and we’re left wondering whether the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday we learned from The Intercept that NSA surveillance of electronic metadata provides the intelligence behind many drone strikes, and we also learned from the Associated Press that the Obama Administration is weighing whether to kill (another) U.S. citizen via drone strike abroad. Taken together, these reports suggest that the U.S. government’s “Assassination Program”—to borrow the phrase from Glenn Greenwald & Jeremy Scahill—has expanded beyond the realm of reason or rationality. Indeed, that the U.S. government even has such a program should shock and awe those who value national sovereignty, international law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and human dignity. If we are to have any hope of changing the tide of history, however, we must begin to wrestle with the reality that this war has no end. After all—how can we hope to confront what we have not yet understood?
When President Obama declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing” in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, he could only have been intentionally channeling Orwellian DoubleSpeak for that phrase to make sense. In its first of a three-part series on Obama’s counterterrorism practice of targeted killing, for example, The Washington Post (Post) details the “disposition matrix” that the Obama Administration employs to determine whether an individual in the matrix lives or dies. A critical aspect of the Post’s article emerges partway through: the targeted killing program transcends the boundaries of time. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” the Post reports, “there is a broad consensus that such [targeted killing] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” (emphasis ours). That time frame—another decade—would drag the drone war into 2024. Some Administration officials apparently conceded 2024 may be closing the curtain too soon on targeted killings, noting there was “no clear end [in] sight” for the program, and that there are plans to “continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years” (emphasis ours). And despite presiding over the implementation and expansion of these very programs, President Obama speaks with a straight face about moving away from a permanent war footing. How can that be? Obama has also allowed the NSA to launch surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM that, like the targeted killing program, suggest the government is engaged in a conflict that is almost infinite in scope and duration.
And don’t take our word for it. Obama’s SOTU—yes, the same speech where he spoke of moving off the war footing—itself presages a conflict on which the sun will never set. “While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” Obama intoned, “the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks” (emphasis ours). Numerous aspects of that sentence should immediately jump out to careful readers. Notice that while the President suggests the war is over with one hand (al-Qaida is on the “path to defeat”), with the other hand he informs us the war is not really over at all (it has grown to include “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali”). And look at the countries Obama mentioned. Mali? Do most Americans even know where that is? (Answer: West Africa). More critically, what are U.S. drones doing in Yemen and Somalia? We—and the public in general—have essentially no idea. Obama has refused to release most of the legal memos that outline his alleged authority to engage in targeted killing, and so despite having previously assured Americans “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” we only get a glimpse into the drone war during the occasional news story such as when a U.S. drone strike converts a Yemeni wedding into a family funeral. Iraq is also mentioned as a site of extremist activity to “disrupt,” which is somewhat curious given that here is a video Obama declaring the war in Iraq is over—back in 2011. How can the war in Iraq have ended in any meaningful sense if, three years later, we are actively “working with our partners” to “disrupt and disable” extremist activity there and around the world? It seems that the way to get America off the war footing (at least in DoubleSpeak) is to kill more people. This is not hyperbole: Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor and there’s no end in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel is (yet another) drone strike.
Media outlets must write candidly about a war that appears to have no end, otherwise the debates surrounding the tactics, strategy, and legality of the drone war will reverberate into an echo chamber where they will be heard only by the speakers themselves. In the interim, those running the drone war and targeted killing programs will likely continue their actions more-or-less unchanged. A good example of this phenomenon is exemplified in the AP article cited above regarding the latest U.S. citizen abroad the Obama Administration has set its sights on. The AP begins its piece noting the targeting of another American citizen “underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.” Read that sentence carefully. Why didn’t the AP say, for example, that the Obama Administration’s targeting of yet another U.S. citizen underscores a drone war gone out of control? Or that it underscores the increased acceptance of the (in our view, absurd) proposition that it’s OK to kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process? If, as The New York Times has reported, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” then wouldn’t yet another targeting of a U.S. citizen just a few years later underscore something slightly more fundamental than “the complexities” of Obama’s “stricter targeting guidelines”? Various news outlets have already reported that Obama’s new guidelines are nothing but Orwellian “pure wind,” devoid of any real substance and designed to make murder respectable. To make matters worse, the AP article itself quotes Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah for the proposition that “[s]o little has changed since last year[.]”
The evidence suggests Shah stands correct, not just for last year but for many more before that. If and until journalists understand that the U.S. government is firmly implanted on a permanent war footing—in other words, understand that Obama’s SOTU was primarily delivered in DoubleSpeak—we will continue to witness the expansion of a drone war that has no end. And if that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in the company of the protagonist of 1984, for as we know, “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”
“To understand the nature of the present war—for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war—one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive.”
—George Orwell, 1984
The Intercept—a new digital magazine from First Look Media—recently published its inaugural piece by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill detailing the revelation that “the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes” stems from analysis of metadata taken from electronic surveillance and geolocation technologies. While the article raises an important and troubling aspect of the ongoing drone war, it runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees by focusing on the method of collection prior to a drone strike rather than the drone strike itself. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we understand the purpose of the article was to report on drone targeting methods but we also believe this analysis is incomplete. The reason for this is simple: civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries where these strikes occur are not necessarily concerned with how the U.S. government obtains information prior to a drone strike—they are concerned with the fact that the strikes are happening in the first place. In short, the problem is not so much the use of metadata for targeting as it is the use of drone strikes in general.
An exhaustive report on the civilian impacts of drones published by the law schools at Stanford & NYU, for example, makes clear that these strikes are often discussed with regard to the drone war’s efficacy. Greenwald & Scahill frame their report in The Intercept in largely the same vein, referring to the metadata collection for targeting as “unreliable” or “fallible,” which may lead an unsuspecting reader to conclude that accuracy and reliability are the only questions here that matter. As the Stanford/NYU report Living Under Drones explains: “[t]hat framing, however, fails to take account of the people on the ground who live with the daily presence of lethal drones in their skies and with the constant threat of drone strikes in their communities” (emphasis ours). And that’s precisely the major—and critical—piece of the drone war that’s missing from The Intercept’s analysis. Whether drones attack via signals intelligence (SIGINT) or human intelligence (HUMINT), the end result for civilians in the vicinity of the strikes remains unchanged: horror and trauma.
Readers unaware of the extreme psychological costs the drone war can exact on civilians may be tempted to focus exclusively on the question of strike efficacy. Western journalists may be interested in the conversation as to whether SIGINT or HUMINT lead to more accurate drone strikes, but we’re confident that Afghan, Yemeni, and Pakistani civilians are not really interested in that conversation. What does the origin of the intelligence matter for those who live in areas where a drone strike can occur at any moment and any time? Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The New York Times have reported that “[d]rones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants” (emphasis ours). The Living Under Drones report echoes—and clarifies—that theme when it says “[i]mportantly, those interviewed for this report also described how the presence of drones and capacity of the US to strike anywhere at any time led to constant and severe fear, anxiety, and stress, especially when taken together with the inability of those on the ground to ensure their own safety” (emphasis ours). Notice that no one interviewed for the thorough Stanford/NYU report mentioned the origin of drone strike intelligence as a problem—the various civilians interviewed for the report clearly identified the problem as the drones themselves. Indeed, the report cites a Pew Research survey indicating that 97% of Pakistanis view “drone strikes as bad policy” (internal citations omitted).
The reporting in The Intercept may lead an unwary reader to conclude that drone strikes in and of themselves are not necessarily bad policy, but rather that the drone targeting practices should be refined and/or restrained. While that’s a laudable goal and we agree that The Intercept raises crucial questions about the drone program, we think the article is incomplete without mentioning the larger problem with the drone war itself. Greenwald and Scahill critique the metadata targeting with phrases such as “rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground” and “the government’s targeting tactics are fundamentally flawed,” but these phrases may lead some readers to walk away believing the only important question is how the U.S. government obtains information relating to drone targeting. Some readers may even conclude that HUMINT is a viable solution here. But the article itself undercuts that argument. In the context of metadata collection and the risk of killing innocents, Greenwald & Scahill quote their anonymous JSOC source as saying “We don’t have people on the ground … as we do where we have a strong foothold, like we do in Afghanistan” (emphasis ours). Elsewhere in the article, however, we are told that “during a single year in Afghanistan—where the majority of drone strikes have taken place—unmanned vehicles were 10 times more likely than conventional aircraft to cause civilian casualties” (emphasis ours). How can one believe HUMINT would lead to more accurate drone strikes when the article itself informs us the country where the U.S. government has a “strong foothold” and plenty of HUMINT has a large ratio of inaccurate attacks? As Jane Mayer has written in The New Yorker, “[drone] strikes are only as accurate as the intelligence that goes into them. Tips from informants on the ground are subject to error[.]”
Here at the FEW, we keep an eye on the media so that readers don’t walk away from reporting with unwarranted conclusions. And while we admire and applaud Greenwald and Scahill’s previous work on related issues, we fear that some incautious readers may conclude from the article that (a) a major question about drones is the accuracy of the intelligence behind their strikes and (b) HUMINT would lead to more accurate strikes. We believe neither proposition is true. As noted above, the article itself—and common sense—indicate that HUMINT (particularly in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) may not necessarily be any more reliable than SIGINT when it comes to drone strike targeting. More fundamentally, however, the article glosses over the psychological trauma the drone war can inflict on civilians, regardless of the method of intelligence-gathering used for a strike. Those interviewed in the Stanford/NYU report spoke of a “wave of terror” overwhelming a community at the sound of a nearby drone. Another said that “drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep.” The report itself draws a blunt conclusion: “US drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan.” Notice the Stanford/NYU conclusion is not “US use of metadata for drone targeting is extremely unpopular in Pakistan” but rather that what is unpopular are U.S. drone strikes. Period.
Improved targeting of drone strikes won’t necessarily remedy that problem—the visceral and palpable hatred of drone strikes by those on the receiving end of them should be clear at this point—as a separate report published by Columbia Law School & the Center for Civilians in Conflict emphasizes our main point: “[u]nlike deaths and property loss, which may affect one or more families, the fear associated with covert drone strikes affects nearly everyone in a community” (emphasis ours). Even if one entirely removed metadata analysis from drone strike intelligence analysis, then, that still would not address the question of the psychological fear and trauma that afflict virtually all civilians in countries where the drone war is active. Indeed, the general reaction of many in the establishment media has so far been: does the report in The Intercept indicate we should move more to HUMINT for drone strikes? This perspective ignores the realities on the ground for Afghan, Yemeni, and Pakistani civilians who must live with the fear of a drone strike occurring at any moment for years on end. The question of whether drone-strike intelligence should come from HUMINT or SIGINT may be critical to some Western journalists, but we are skeptical that the question has much relevance for civilians on the ground. We want to conclude with a quote from the Stanford/NYU report, which captures a bit of what it must be like to live in an area at the receiving end of a drone strike: “Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”
“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
—Thomas Jefferson, 1787
Whether by design or dimwittedness, yesterday’s article in the Washington Post (WP) by Ellen Nakashima reporting that the National Security Agency (NSA) “is collecting less than 30 percent of all Americans’ call records” misleads far more than it informs. Critical information about the phone records collection program rests deep in the article and the overall tone is NSA-friendly. Put bluntly, the article sounds as if it were published by a PR department—not a cantankerous press. We know this because none of these facts from the article were chosen to be emphasized in the headline:
- “One former senior official acknowledged that 100 percent [collection] was the goal”
- “In 2006 … the NSA was collecting ‘closer to 100’ percent of Americans’ phone records”
- “[T]he agency in 2009 struggled with compliance issues, including what a surveillance court found were ‘daily violations of the minimization procedures set forth in [court] orders’” (emphasis ours)
That’s just selecting three. Considering those quotes and others are buried deep in the article, the WP opted for an overall story arc that makes the NSA appear comparatively benign and well-intentioned—and its editorial decisions regarding style and presentation reinforce those themes throughout.
The second paragraph, for example, informs readers the headline is “likely to raise questions about the efficacy of a program that is premised on its breadth and depth, on collecting as close to a complete universe of data as possible” (emphasis ours). First, notice how Nakashima writes that the 30% figure will raise questions as the program’s efficacy, as opposed to its constitutionality, and second how she implicitly suggests the NSA’s collection of 30% of Americans’ call records is not enough. And did you catch how an article that began by suggesting the NSA is collecting comparatively little phone data segues directly into describing how the NSA is in fact intent on collecting virtually all of it? We’re unclear as to why the WP emphasized the former part of that question over the latter, but their decision highlights a narrative that portrays the NSA positively.
Like many establishment media outlets, the WP would likely respond to our criticisms by invoking what they always do: “objectivity.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), however, we want to make clear that claim cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Think about it. The examples above should suffice to demonstrate that, regardless of the facts in any given situation, one can always emphasize certain things over others to provide the story a frame or narrative. And fundamentally there’s no problem with that, since gathering facts and assembling them into a coherent story is part and parcel of journalism. The problem arises when these decision-making processes are described as “objective” when they are so obviously not.
Journalism, like everything else, involves decision-making. The WP’s headline was the result not of “objectivity” but of their subjective determination that the story about an NSA presently collecting 30% of all Americans’ call records made for a better lead than the story about an NSA intent on collecting it all. (Those remain, of course, only two possible narratives out of many). We’re unclear on why they made that choice, but there can be no doubt they made a choice. Indeed, they engaged in subjective, decision-making processes for the article’s entire life cycle. If and until establishment journalists acknowledge that their trade is fundamentally about subjective decision-making—in other words, accept reality rather than deny it—they do themselves, and the public, no favors.
“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. … You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
—George Orwell, 1984
With government surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM stretching the definition of “watched” to limits previously unimaginable, the future looks set to bring us closer to a literal interpretation of Orwell’s observation above. Craig Timberg’s recent article in The Washington Post sketches the contours of how we might get there: the next generation of surveillance cameras. These cameras, which are mounted onto Cessnas or tall buildings, command a bird’s-eye view of a large area as they hover above it continuously, collecting “a wealth of data” along the way. (Here’s the WP’s graphic of how this works). Since these cameras “can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time,” the future of surveillance looks brighter than the future of privacy. Unfortunately, the WP’s reporting on these cameras fails to explain adequately the tension between surveillance and privacy, and here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we aim to bring you the stories the establishment media tends to overlook.
The WP’s analysis of privacy rights, for example, leaves a huge chunk of the story unexplained. Timber writes that “[c]ourts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant. But the lines remain fuzzy as courts struggle to apply old precedents … to the rapidly advancing technology.” What he fails to note is that any and all discussion of “unconstitutional searches” or “old precedents” refer to 4th Amendment constitutional analysis. And as any lawyer worth your time will tell you, the 4th Amendment only applies—a critical point, in our view—when there is “state action.” Put another way, when private individuals & corporations launch these next-gen surveillance cameras into the sky, any notion of 4th Amendment rights vanishes into the clouds and ceases to exist.
In other words, the only thing limiting what private individuals & corporations can do with these surveillance cameras is their imagination, technology, and any relevant regulations. That’s it. Timberg himself notes that “businesses and even private individuals can use [these cameras] to help identify people and track their movements” and that “giant defense contractors … are eagerly repurposing wartime surveillance technology for domestic use[.]” The intrepid journalist at the WP never asks why businesses might want to hover cameras in the sky for hours on end or why contractors want to “repurpos[e] wartime surveillance technology” for deployment over U.S. soil (emphasis ours). But instead of questioning who benefits from having “an unblinking eye in the sky,” the WP cites examples that make the surveillance technology seem either innocuous or beneficial. The article cites Ross McNutt—President of the Orwellian-named company Persistent Surveillance Systems—for the proposition that “[a] single camera mounted atop the Washington Monument … could deter crime all around the Mall.” And although an ACLU report bluntly concludes that “video surveillance has little to no positive impact on crime,” readers of the WP are left with the impression the evidence is inconclusive.
The primary fault with the WP article on forthcoming surveillance technologies, in short, is that it appears more fascinated with the technological wizardry of these cameras than it does with protecting privacy rights. This is made clear in the article’s very structure, which places “privacy concerns” at the tail-end, as if the right to privacy was an afterthought rather than a core concern. Given the rapid proliferation of surveillance cameras, we believe public-interest reporting should focus more on privacy and legal implications that may affect millions of people rather than the technological inventions that will most likely only benefit a select few. Recent revelations from Edward Snowden only underscores the point that limitless and ubiquitous surveillance threatens all of us. The time is fast approaching, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “when silence becomes betrayal.”
Journalists and the public must speak loudly in defense of privacy rights so that we do not unwittingly sacrifice the light of liberty on the altar of surveillance. And while there are clear and significant differences between Orwell’s dystopia and the present, some parallels undoubtedly exist. Ask yourself, do you have “no way of knowing whether you [are] being watched at any given moment”? If you use the internet (i.e., if you’re reading this) then let’s be clear: the answer to that question is “yes.” With each passing day, it makes more and more sense why sales of 1984 skyrocketed last year in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. Perhaps, then, the establishment media has embraced another quote from 1984 as a guide to its surveillance reporting: “Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.”
“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,
and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
—George Orwell, 1946. “Politics & The English Language”
Although it is unclear whether President Obama was purposely channeling Orwell in his State of the Union address, there can be no doubt that his comments regarding drones and surveillance were nothing but pure wind. For a man renowned for eloquence and fluency while speaking from the pulpit, the loquacious orator was curiously tight-lipped when it came to drones and surveillance. The reason is simple: hope and change aren’t coming.
On the matter of drones, for example, Obama could only offer the following: “I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones.” Anyone remotely familiar with the drone war knows this to be untrue. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that Obama has launched a record number of drone strikes. How many, you ask? Well, as of this writing, he’s authorized “eight times as many as were launched in the entire Bush presidency” (emphasis ours). How is this a “limit” in any meaningful sense of the word? Unfortunately, Obama has refused to release many of the legal memos outlining the alleged justifications for drone strikes, leaving the public with no independent way to confirm whether “prudent limits” exist in reality or as a figment of imagination.
But perhaps when Obama spoke of “prudent limits” he was referring to drone strike scope rather than frequency. But that doesn’t make much sense either. After the death-by-drone of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, The New York Times’ (NYT) Scott Shane reported that “it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing” (emphasis ours). Separately, Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the NYT explain that Obama—presumably as part of his “prudent limits” on drone strikes—redefined “combatant” to include all military-age males in a strike zone. As the NYT explains, this tactic “did little to box [Obama] in.”
When you hear Obama invoke “prudent limits” on drone strikes, then, you should remember this is political language designed to mask the reality that, when it comes to drone strikes, there seem to be very few limits.
If the President was vague on drone strikes, he was even more amorphous and laconic on surveillance—according to him, all we need to know is that “working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs.” In this context, how can the word “reform” be anything but pure wind? No explanation or details of what “reform” might mean were forthcoming, leaving us to conclude that Obama wanted the word to mean whatever the listener wanted it to. If that wasn’t demoralizing enough for those seeking substantive surveillance reform, Obama’s modifier—“working with this Congress”—essentially guarantees that reform will come at a later, indeterminate point in the future.
In short, although Obama promised us “a year of action,” we’ll have to wait far longer than that for substantive, transparent reforms of drone strikes or surveillance practices. Viewed in the context of Orwell’s observation above, the State of the Union did little more than deploy political language in an attempt to give meaning to empty turns of phrase. The address, as H.L. Mencken might have observed, was delivered as if the audience were “a great horde of stoneheads gathered around a stand.”
President Obama is widely anticipated to address economic mobility and economic inequality in tonight’s State of the Union speech. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we know you’ve been down this road before. Obama will deliver his speech tonight with verve and poll-tested rhetoric, media pundits will take his words at face value and pen their reaction pieces accordingly—but little, if anything, will change.
As H.L. Mencken observed of Warren Harding’s inaugural address a little under a century ago, the stump speech—“the thing is always a stump speech”—is created for those who “do not want ideas—that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures.”
We are confident that Obama’s speech will not disappoint in that regard.
All one has to do is look at last year’s State of the Union to see that a “rising, thriving middle class” was already a theme back then. Obama’s 2013 address invoked the need to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class[.]” But as Mencken so eloquently pointed out, these phrases are little more than “rumble and bumble,” “flap and doodle,” “balder and dash,” devoid of meaning and divorced from reality.
For example, last year Obama flatly declared “Our economy is adding jobs,” as if the discussion on the economy ended there. A follow-up question might be: what kinds of jobs is our economy adding? As Harold Meyerson explains in his exhaustive study of American workers, low-wage jobs made up 21% of the jobs lost during the recession but more than half the jobs created since the recession. By contrast, middle-income jobs made up 60% of jobs lost during the recession and only 22% of jobs created since. In short, our economy may be adding jobs, but the money those jobs are paying workers isn’t adding up to much. Middle-income jobs have evaporated and lower-wage jobs are on the rise. But in Obama’s view, this critical detail is not worth mentioning since, well, “our economy is adding jobs.”
Obama also told us last year that “everybody who’s willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead.” That is nonsense. UC Berkeley Professor of Economics Emmanuel Saez recently published a report that makes clear Obama’s rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to reality: from 2009-2012, average incomes for those in the top 1% of household earners increased by 31.4%, whereas the average incomes for the rest of us—literally, the bottom 99% of American household earners—grew by just 0.4%. How can Obama tell us with a straight face that everyone who works hard has an opportunity to get ahead with numbers like that? Based on Professor Saez’s analysis, are we to conclude that 99% of Americans don’t work hard? It’s hard to imagine how one can “get ahead” with 0.4% income growth over a three-year period.
Income inequality is a serious issue facing America today, but don’t expect Obama’s soaring rhetoric tonight to bring hope or change for America’s unemployed, underemployed, or underpaid. We’ve all been here before and we’ve all heard the same platitudes of sonorous nonsense. But for those of you wondering why the President’s optimism about the economy doesn’t seem to match the economy as you’re experiencing it, you should read the pieces by Meyerson and Saez linked above as a starting point.
We’ll have more to report on Obama’s State of the Union later this week, but in the interim we suggest you review Drew DeSilver’s work for the Pew Research Center outlining some basic facts about economic inequality in America and Noah Chestnut’s post over at The New Republic further detailing wealth and income inequality.