Is America Hardwired for Widening Inequality?

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This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" Read Don's debate introduction here.I'd like to shift the discussion slightly. Now that we've approached various aspects of the challenge, the dangerous consequences of a global and national economy that may be headed down again rather than up, technological changes, forces of globalization, the pluses and minuses of immigration (which we all agree is more plus than minus), the necessity but difficulty of education as a "solution" to the problem, the cultural ripple effects of an America that is polarizing in all ways -- I'd like to consider whether it is even possible for the U.S. to think about "solving" the problem at all.

Here's what I mean. As I keep pointing out, I've spent a lot of my recent life outside the United States. In many ways foreign exposure always serves as a reminder of American achievements that are taken for granted from inside the country. (For instance, despite its obvious racial and cultural tensions, the United States really has gone further along the challenging path of integrating people from diverse backgrounds than many other nations have). But it also is a reminder of achievements -- rather, adjustments -- that may come to seem impossible even to consider in the United States.

For instance: I often go to Australia, where I have a post at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Some of Australia's blessings (incredible beauty, less-beautiful but highly valuable exportable natural resources) and curses ("tyranny of distance") are simple results of Australia's placement in the world. But there is a powerful middle-classness to Australia's social bargain that is the result of customs and deliberate policies. The minor symbol of this is the expectation, at least for men, that if you're getting into a taxi, you'll sit in the front seat, like a mate, and not in the rear, like someone being chauffeured around. And the general disdain for the creepy and demeaning-all-around custom of tipping. Instead: prices are high, wages are high, taxes are relatively high, and there is a sense of "middle-ness" to many aspects of life, from income distribution to expectations of public services.  Australians sometimes complain that their country is too middle-minded, with a result of enforcing conformity or putting a ceiling on ambition or innovation (and yes they have their plutocrats). But to Americans this shared sense of being in things together often serves as a reminder of something we think has changed -- something we've lost -- from the post-World War II generation.

Similarly: I was interviewing officials of two big and obviously successful German-based multinationals recently, Siemens and Mercedes Benz. Nobody would consider these firms backwards or not with-it in any way. Around the world they obviously compete very successfully with the highest-end American, Japanese, Chinese, or other firms. And they are globalizing and "outsourcing" their production systems with the best of them. Yet the officials I spoke with took it absolutely for granted that one of their corporate goals would be to do what they could to maintain high-wage manufacturing jobs inside Germany. Not their only goal, of course, nor one that in itself offsets the worldwide range of wage differentials, nor one that, as I say, has kept these companies from moving many jobs to lower wage countries.. But in contrast to their counterparts at, say, GE or Ford, who would describe an increase in U.S.-based jobs as a hoped-for byproduct of a better "competitive environment," the Siemens and Mercedes people spoke as if this were one of the corporate goals that at least deserved deliberately consideration within their plans, and not a mere PR challenge.

Now, the problem with examples from someplace else is precisely that they are from elsewhere. My colleagues at The Atlantic know one of my maxims as a reader: I stop reading any book or article the instant I come across a sentence that begins, "In Sweden, they...." We are not Sweden, or even Germany or Australia, not to mention Japan or Korea or far more fundamentally different societies like China. It is possible to see, when we look at Germany or Australia, and arrangement that is similar to America's in many ways -- but at a different equilibrium point when it comes to the very middle-class issues we are discussing here.

This is a long prelude to a question I turn back to you, next, Don. You've now spent a year writing about the crisis of the middle class -- in the world as a whole, but especially in America. Given the traits that make America distinctive, in good ways and bad, did you end up believing there are ways we can make any difference in the speed or direction of this trend? And by "we" I mean America as an entity, as opposed to whatever sauve-qui-peut efforts we make as individuals. If it's mainly a matter of atomistic individual adaptation, that's useful to know, if not encouraging.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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