Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

The true difference between Obama, Romney

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
September 24, 2012 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
David Frum says the candidates have contrasting answers to the decline of wages in America.
David Frum says the candidates have contrasting answers to the decline of wages in America.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: American workers have been losing ground for decades
  • He says President Obama's answer is to make up for wage declines with government aid
  • Romney's view is that government can't prop up wages but should enable innovators, Frum said
  • Frum: The candidates won't fully own up to their visions, but you can read between the lines

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

Washington (CNN) -- If you listen carefully, you can hear something important being debated in this election, in fact one of the most important questions of them all:

What hope is there for the average American worker?

Once upon a time -- in the far-off days after World War II -- the average worker could look forward to a steadily rising standard of living. You didn't have to be anyone special or do anything special. Just keep doing your job, and over the three decades from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s you could expect your wages to double. And that's after inflation.

David Frum
David Frum

That was a long time ago.

Even before the Great Recession, wages tended to stagnate or decline, except for the most skilled workers in the most robust industries: technology, finance, and so on. The middle stayed put; the top pulled away. There's little reason to expect that situation to change after recovery arrives.

Opinion: Republicans risk being the party of mean

We live in a world of global competition now, where even white-collar jobs can be outsourced to India. If the jobs can't be exported, then the workers are imported, via legal or illegal immigration. Outside the government sector, unions wield little clout -- where they exist at all. For those reasons and others, the wage share of the economy had already sunk to record lows as of 2007.

What -- if anything -- should be done? Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each have answers, although you have to listen carefully to reconstruct them.

Romney: Obama believes in redistribution
Clinton: No one could fix mess in 4 years
Should business put people before profits?
New ads boost political war of words

Here (as I read it) is President Obama's answer. (These are my words, except for the speech quote.)

Purely free markets won't be generating wage increases any time soon. There's just too much low-wage competition out there. But we can do two things. As I outlined in my November 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, we can put more people to work in jobs funded by government contracts, where government can ensure high wages and benefits. That's what I meant when I said,

"[M]anufacturers and other companies are setting up shop in the places with the best infrastructure to ship their products, move their workers, communicate with the rest of the world. And that's why the over 1 million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed, they shouldn't be sitting at home with nothing to do. They should be rebuilding our roads and our bridges, laying down faster railroads and broadband, modernizing our schools -- all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores.

"Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there. But as a nation, we've always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed."

Government contractors can't employ everybody, however. So we'll plump up the low wages of those in the purely private economy with a growing array of wage supplements. We top up low pay with the Earned Income Tax Credit. We've added 14.6 million food stamp beneficiaries. After 2014, we'll be enrolling as many as 17 million additional low-wage workers in the country in Medicaid. We've increased subsidies for college tuition, and we subsidize heating fuel costs as well.

Vote for me, and government benefits and government employment will compensate for the wage increases the private job market does not deliver.

Mitt Romney has called the president's vision a "government-centric" one - and that seems exactly right.

Here's the Romney alternative (again these are my words, not his):

I probably can't deliver rising wages for the typical worker any better than the president can. That's why I hardly talk about wages at all -- they're barely mentioned in my most important economic policy statement, the 57-point plan I released last year.

My concern is less with the typical worker and more with the most ambitious and most talented. I want to protect the "right to rise," as my supporters in the conservative media often phrase it. Under the president's approach, that right will be crushed by the weight of debt and taxes -- and what's debt, but future taxes?

Instead of greater subsidies for those content to stay where they are, I offer lower taxes to those who want to better their condition. Their hard work and innovation will yield benefits for everyone.

OK, maybe money wages haven't risen much since 1973 for the typical worker. But today that worker has a safer car, a bigger house, and smarter appliances. He or she enjoys products and services unimagined in 1973: personal computers, cellphones, video on demand. Food, furniture, and vacations are all cheaper and better. You can choose Coke with zero calories, and you don't have to line up at the DMV to renew your license plates. All these improvements were brought to you by people who got rich along the way -- and so will the next wave of improvements after that. The president's call for higher taxes on the rich will only stifle and slow consumer progress.

The president is offering higher taxes to support more benefits. I'm offering lower taxes to drive more improvements in the private economy and better products and services for you. Vote for me.

Don't expect the candidates ever to speak that frankly -- too risky. But if you pay attention, you can discover the inner message behind the warm fog of campaign rhetoric. So there's your choice, America: because while we may have put 100 new cereal varieties on the shelves, at the voting booth it's still just Red or Blue.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT