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America’s Disappearing Middle Class

Three articles in Saturday’s papers highlight the decline of the middle class in America. The largest and most pertinent one is in the Financial Times where Edward Luce writes about “The Crisis of Middle Class America.” He says:

The annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

In today’s America if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe.

“I have this gnawing feeling about the future of America,” says [economist Michael] Spence. “When people lose the sense of optimism, things tend to get more volatile. The future I most fear for America is Latin American: a grossly unequal society that is prone to wild swings from populism to orthodoxy, which makes sensible government increasingly hard to imagine.”

The New York Times has a front page article on the how the slowing recovery is dimming the outlook for jobs. It says that businesses are doing well and are investing in capital, but are not hiring.

The crucial driver of growth in the second quarter was business investment in such things as office buildings and equipment and software. Such activity rocketed up at an annual rate of 17 percent in the second quarter, compared with a 7.8 percent increase in the first. The equipment and software category alone grew at an annual rate of 21.9 percent, the fastest pace in 12 years.

The fact that businesses seem to be investing more in equipment than in hiring may be a reason consumers have been reluctant, or perhaps unable, to pick up the pace of their spending.

“There are limits on the degree to which you can substitute capital for labor,” Mr. Ryding said. “But you can understand that businesses don’t have to pay health care on equipment and software, and these get better tax treatment than you get for hiring people. If you can get away with upgrading capital spending and deferring hiring for a while, that makes economic sense, especially in this uncertain policy environment.”

Finally, in a NYT op-ed, Bob Herbert wrote about what corporate American has done to workers. He said:

Many … workers were cashiered for no reason other than outright greed by corporate managers.

From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent.

Worker productivity has increased dramatically, but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong.

Germany and Japan, because of a combination of government and corporate policies, suffered far less worker dislocation in the recession than the U.S. Until we begin to value our workers, and understand the critical importance of employment to a thriving economy, we will continue to see our standards of living decline.

It is sad that US tax policy favors capital so much over labor that it discourages businesses from hiring. I am beginning to think that the destruction of the middle class started with the Reagan tax cuts. It has taken more than a generation for that effect to become apparent, but nevertheless, there it is. One reason it didn’t show up earlier was that Reagan was such a nice guy, he couldn’t bring himself to hurt people. When it became obvious that the huge cuts in government services that his advisers wanted to go with the tax cuts would badly hurt ordinary Americans, Reagan balked, and as a result we got the beginning of the huge budget deficits that we are wrestling with today. But the Republicans have never given up on their “starve the beast” policy of cutting government services by cutting tax revenues. So, the Republicans under Bush II and Reagan have been responsible for some of the largest deficits. They have also been responsible for a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the upper class. In particular by eliminating the estate or “death” tax, they have created a hereditary aristocracy in America, something that we thought we had left behind when we rebelled against Great Britain. There are no titles, yet, but there are all the other trappings of an aristocracy.

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