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Money Talks

Why do we never hear from the working class on op-ed pages?
August 24, 2011

Last week, eighty-year-old billionaire Warren Buffett whipped up a media frenzy when, in an op-ed for The New York Times he urged the government to “stop coddling” super-rich folks such as himself. Tax us, he pled.

On Monday, we heard from another member of the nation’s gray and super-rich class, this time on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal Harvey Golub, seventy-two, former chairman and CEO of American Express and a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s executive committee.

Mr Golub was not happy with Mr Buffett:

Over the years, I have paid a significant portion of my income to the various federal, state and local jurisdictions in which I have lived, and I deeply resent that President Obama has decided that I don’t need all the money I’ve not paid in taxes over the years, or that I should leave less for my children and grandchildren and give more to him to spend as he thinks fit. I also resent that Warren Buffett and others who have created massive wealth for themselves think I’m “coddled” because they believe they should pay more in taxes. I certainly don’t feel “coddled” because these various governments have not imposed a higher income tax. After all, I did earn it.

Before you call him greedy, Mr Golub asks readers to consider some things, including the fact that “almost half of all filers pay no income taxes at all.”

Mr. Buffett and Mr Golub, are both, of course entitled to their opinions, and it’s good to hear the various views of that highly representative subset of old white men who have made more than most can ever dream.

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Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we also got to hear from someone in that “almost half” that doesn’t pay income tax at all (often because they can’t afford to)? Maybe they could tell us how they’re doing, who they resent, and what seems fair to them. While political debate in the past few years has centered on issues critical to working class Americans—like health care and entitlement reform, unions, taxes—America’s most prestigious op-ed sections rarely feature contributions from actual members of the working class on these issues. (The same could be said about war fighters on America’s wars).

Studies have shown that few have suffered more in recent decades than the working poor, who work hard for not much: according to the non-partisan Working Poor Families Project, the number of low-income working families (ie a family of four making less than $41,226) increased by 350,000 between 2002 and 2006, even before the recession and during a period of economic growth. In 2006, there were 9.6 million low income families, which made up 28 percent of the population.

Hearing these voices might also be instructive for the part of the country that gets all riled up about this large non-income-tax-paying population, members of which are often characterized as undeserving and lazy. The study found that 72 percent of these low-income families worked, an average of one and a quarter jobs. In the same period, the number of jobs that paid below the poverty threshold increased by 4.7 million.

But instead, as pointed out by the Op-Ed Project, “an initiative to expand the range of voices we hear in the world,” American op-ed pages are dominated by the viewpoints of a “tiny fraction of society—mostly western, white, privileged and overwhelmingly male.”

While The Op-Ed Project focuses primarily on promoting gender balance, the country could also benefit from hearing viewpoints that are held outside of corporate boardrooms, political offices, and the ivory towers. Some of the nation’s op-ed pages claim they strive to do this. David Shipley, writing in 2004, one year into his stewardship over The New York Times op-ed pages, said the following about curating the section:

Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans. It’s incumbent on them to say something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.

The Wall Street Journal is less ambitious in the scope of its op-ed pages. The paper requires submissions be exclusive, timely, and ‘jargon-free’. The Washington Post gives similar requirements for submissions.

So how well do the papers do at providing diversity? Given that Warren Buffett, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen, Gordon Brown, Gloria Steinem, former US national intelligence director Dennis Blair, and noted bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel were among the 114 unique op-ed contributors (a few of these, mostly Sunday contributors, had multiple op-eds), of the past thirty days, one might wonder if it does help getting published in the New York Times to be a little famous.

From my analysis of the past month’s bylines, New York Times readers were treated to the views of forty-one academics (ten at Ivy League institutions), forty writers and journalists, nine presidents and one vice president of an organization or think tank, four current and former political office holders. While the contributions opined on a wide variety of topics—“Why do Russians hate ice?” to “Drones Alone are not the Answer” —and reflected geographic diversity, they originated from a rather narrow class of well-educated and successful individuals. When contributions did occasionally focus on working class issues—“Isolated, Vulnerable and Broke” told of the fast decreasing fortunes of Hispanic families in America—they were expressed in the voice of an Ivy League academic.

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal’s contributors represent an even narrower and more important class than that of the Times. In the past thirty days—I counted 130 unique contributors—Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Senator Patty Murray (twice), and Karl Rove (multiple times) opined for the Journal. There were seven writers with connections to the American Enterprise Institute (Golub among them) and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. There were also a good number of academics, journalists and business leaders.

The Wall Street Journal may be a paper primarily for the business minded, but the business-minded could also benefit from perspective outside its bandwidth, to get a sense of how policies affect people, and perspectives—those of workers and consumers —they should ultimately be interested in.

Part of the problem may be a lack of submissions, and perhaps these op-ed pages are as representative as the submissions they receive. But if that’s the case, it surely wouldn’t be difficult for papers to find individuals from the “other half” with worthy (and fresh) things to say. Perhaps editors could take a more active role in soliciting contributions; certainly the Internet has proven that there are lots of articulate people out there who want to speak their minds. For editors, it could be as easy as looking for blogs and combing comments.

Readers should, of course, hear about issues from the people who know and understand them best. This means academics, journalists, and policymakers, sure; but there should also be space for the perspective of people that live the issues, not just those that study them.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.