A lost decade for the middle class

Today is Patriot Day and I feel much safer now that George W. Bush is no longer in the Oval Office to use it for his political purposes. But he achieved a great victory for his base while in office -- creating a lost decade for the middle class while enriching the 400 most highly paid taxpayers. Of all his accomplishments none is greater than creating a political machine that persuaded almost half the country to vote for a candidate who represented the interests of the top one percent.

How bad have things been for the middle class during the decade which ended with Bush's last year in office? The median household income has fallen two percent since 1998 from an inflation-adjusted $51,295 to 2008's $50,303. Meanwhile, the decline in Bush's last year in office, 3.6 percent from 2007's $52,163, was the biggest one on record. The reason for the decline was that so many people shifted from full-time to part-time work.

While the middle class suffered, the top 400 taxpayers earned hundreds of millions and paid a lower tax rate than did the median family. In 2005, smack in the middle of Bush's presidency, those top 400 earned about $250 million a year and paid a 17.2 percent tax rate. Meanwhile, families making $50,000 to $75,000 paid more -- 17.4 percent of their far smaller income to the government. And that's not all. In 2007, the top 0.001 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages -- about twice the figure for 2000.

What did Bush have to do with this? He cut $1.3 trillion worth of taxes, 32.6 percent of which went to the top 1 percent of earners. And thanks to $7.8 million in contributions from Ameriquest, a subprime-mortgage company, President Bush pushed his Ownership Society initiative to get poor people into mortgages they could not afford so that Wall Street could engorge itself on borrowing to buy toxic waste.

In 2004, 122 million voters turned up at the polls. Bush's economic policies boosted the wealth of a few hundred thousand of those voters to the detriment of millions. Yet he was able to get nearly half the eligible voters to cast their ballots for him. That truly is a patriot victory of unprecedented scale. How did he do it?

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter.

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