New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has written his last New York Times column, but I hope and expect he will stay in the debate. He lived up to the venerable injunction that journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We need his passion.
More than any other columnist, Bob has stayed on the story of the left-out: the poor, and working people whose incomes have stagnated or fallen through the floor. He heard them out and told their stories. He paid close attention when Washington had a chance to act on their behalf, and when, too often, it missed those opportunities or made things worse. He never pulled punches about the scandal of growing economic inequality in the United States -- and in his final column on Saturday, he made sure to remind his readers of how big a scandal it is:
Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.
The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. . . .
Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.
Miles Rapoport, the president of the progressive think tank Demos, put out a statement that captured Bob’s achievement well:
He listens, truly listens to the stories, lives, and voices of ordinary people. He writes about people unjustly accused by the criminal justice system, of people unjustly victimized by the predatory practices that characterize so much of our economy, of the lives ruined by war.
He writes about what is important, and fundamental, like the people whose dream of a middle class life for themselves and their children is slipping away, and the “unconscionable” ways inequality is eating away at our society and our soul.
He refuses to heed the constraints of the world of “excluded alternatives.” The fact that some ideas-- like raising taxes, expanding services for poor and working people, ignoring the deficit hawks in favor of real social investment--are “off the table” in our political debate is exactly why we have needed journalists like Bob to try to expand those boundaries and help us do the right thing as a nation.
Yes, Bob expanded the boundaries. He followed his own star and didn’t care a bit if what he wrote about bore little resemblance to the political agenda that was dominating the capital at any given moment -- even as he also sought to move that agenda in more promising directions. I suspect Bob appreciated the Old Testament prophets of justice: Micah, Isaiah and Amos. Bob’s voice thunders, and it is a righteous thunder.