Week In Politics: Executive Orders; Income Inequality

Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, of the New York Times.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now with thoughts on the week in politics, I'm joined by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And with the president's jobs bill seeming to go nowhere in Congress, this week the White House issued some executive orders, one to help homeowners refinance, another to ease student loan debt. David, let's start with you. Meaningful steps or does this show a diminished presidency?

BROOKS: Worthy, but very small. I mean, the student loan, all that stuff, there's only so much the president can do without Congress. So, he took some steps, infrastructure bank that were sort of in the right direction, but extremely small steps. The most important one happened a couple of weeks ago. Some waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act, which they did unilaterally.

And those also, best described as good ideas, but probably vastly overstepping the grounds of the presidency. And some in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, are beginning to fight back. But it's the only game in town; it's pretty small steps.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think this has been the most consistent in discipline that Obama's been about what he's doing or saying since he was inaugurated. He started out on the jobs bill. We're looking at 9 percent unemployment. That's what the country wants him and Washington to do something about. So, first, it was pass this bill. When that failed, the new slogan is, we can't wait, so he's going to do what he can himself to say, if those guys won't act, I will.

Will these things make a huge difference? No. The student loan problem is real and it's good to recognize it. I was told by somebody in the mortgage business that the mortgage changes may help more people than they think. I think the key is, is he better off now than he was two and a half months ago? Yes. He was cratering in the polls in early August. If you look at the New York Times or Gallup Polls, he stopped the slide and he's inching up just a little bit.

BLOCK: I want to ask you both about a report on income inequality that was released this week by the Congressional Budget Office. And it shows that for the very, very top earners in this country, the top 1 percent, income skyrocketed over the last 30 years by 275 percent. As a slice of the overall economic pie, that 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of national income. I'm curious about the lessons you take away from those numbers. E.J., let's start with you.

DIONNE: Well, first of all, I am so struck by the fact that we've had growing economic inequality for a long time and we are finally talking about it. It is finally an issue at the heart of our politics. And I think that's in part because of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I think that's why the Occupy Wall Street movement is getting very positive numbers in the polls. The New York Times poll, is it, CBS showed 43 percent said they agree with Occupy. Only 27 percent don't.

This is an enormous problem. Some of it is public policy, particularly tax policy, and some of it is economic changes that we haven't worked to counteract. So, I, for one, am very grateful we are finally talking about a problem we should have been talking about a long time ago.

BLOCK: And, David, do you hear it at all the same way that E.J. does?

BROOKS: Well, I think a lot of us have been writing about it a lot for a long time. First, my pet peeve. If you take the income inequality in the last three years, they cut off at 2007. Last two years, there's been a dramatic decrease as the income for the top 1 percent has gone down about a quarter. But that's a small thing. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that income inequality is widening. And what's scary is that it's not only income inequality, it's interacting with social inequality.

So families in 1964 looked very similar up and down the income scale. Now, college-educated families have half the divorce rates, they have half the obesity rates, half the smoking rates, social trust, wide gaps between college-educated and uneducated. I saw a study recently, the social networks for people with college degrees are double the size of the social networks for people with high school degrees.

So these wide gaps on education lines which, as E.J. said, are partly economic structure, partly tax policy, partly changes in family structure. Very stubborn, very deep and something we should be addressing on many different fronts.

BLOCK: It's interesting, too, when you square these numbers on income inequality with the New York Times, CBS News poll that E.J. mentioned, people were asked, do you feel the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair? Sixty-six percent said it should be more even and about the same percent, 65 percent, said taxes should be increased on households earning a million dollars a year or more. So, in terms of the political discussion in the presidential campaign, what do you think America is saying and who's listening? E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I hope everybody here is listening. And incidentally, the wealth inequality has grown even more than the income inequality. And people know this. And I think it's amazing how trendy the Washington conversation is, how quickly will-o'-the wisp people can change. We were sitting here a couple of months ago and everybody was claiming the deficit is the biggest problem in the country. Suddenly, people are looking at what I think is the much deeper problem.

I think this has really been very difficult for the Republicans. They do not want to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to do anything about the deficit. And I think their position is more problematic now than it's ever been, because of this public reaction.

BLOCK: And, David, we touched on this last week, as well. Does this issue become a galvanizing force for Democrats? Or can Republicans leverage it in their direction?

BROOKS: Yeah, there are two approaches. There's a redistribution approach, which I think the Occupy movement and maybe the Democrats are embracing. There's a meritocratic approach, which is you give people the tools to compete and succeed, you create a growing economy. I don't think there's any reasons Republicans should shy away from that.

If you look at the public attitudes on redistribution, according to the General Social Survey, the number of people who support redistributionist policies have plummeted in the last three years. People want a sense that everybody has a chance, which they do not have right now. But that doesn't mean that you necessarily have to have redistributionist policies.

DIONNE: I think David has just described the false choice, which is if you want more growth you - actually you'll probably grow faster if you have more equality. And many of the good things David calls for cost money, which means the government does have to invest in those things to grow the economy, and to help people out. And we don't have the revenue for that, and we're going to have to get the revenue to do it.

BLOCK: OK, we'll have to leave it there. David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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