In "Shaken and Stirred" (January/February Atlantic), Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong report that median annual household income has risen 13 percent in twenty years. During those twenty years, however, didn't the number of workers in each household increase? Aren't those years during which Mom and even the high school students went to work? We learned to call those developments "women's liberation" and "job training for the kids." Am I not correct that the median income of individual full-time workers in the United States has been falling since about 1973? I'd be happy to be told that I'm misreading the statistics.
Edward F. Bergman
City University of New York
New York, N.Y.
As our nation hemorrhages jobs to the lowest bidder, Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong offer a glimmer of hope. But they concede that "the approaching economic shock will be greater in magnitude than anything in recent historical memory." The ripple effect of this "shock" will extend well beyond the economic implications addressed by the authors.
Globalization identifies a new round of winners and losers. Brokers in the global market will most likely be among the winners. Meanwhile, middle-class American workers—with American wages, benefits, and environmental standards—will not compete effectively.
Foreign markets lack the protections that were developed through great effort in this country. The social transformation that created a sound middle class in our nation was demanding and gradual. It nurtured stakeholders in our continuing experiment in self-governance. Globalization, on the other hand, undermines the process. It will devastate middle-class wages, benefits, and protections. Will the ongoing experiment in self-governance weather the loss of a middle class?
John F. Rohe
I take issue with Robert Reich's comments on Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong's "Shaken and Stirred" (Letters, March Atlantic). Reich asserts that most of America's service jobs won't be offshored because they are "in person-to-person services such as retail, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, surface transportation, education, child care, elder care, and the construction trades." But most of these are low-skill, low-wage starter jobs. The higher-skill, higher-wage jobs can be offshored quite easily, beginning with all management jobs. Supervisors may be needed locally, but managers can be in India or China, thanks to teleconferencing and same-time data delivery. Companies are doing this already, and it will only become more logical and cost-effective—and more prevalent—in the very near future. Even lawyers, by and large, can be located anywhere in the world. (Most never see the inside of a courtroom, and don't need to.)
Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong reply:
Alas, Professor Bergman is reading the statistics correctly, and carefully. For a full generation (with the welcome exception of a spurt during the late 1990s), median individual incomes have gone nowhere; certainly not up. Yet the very top incomes (the top five percent, and especially the top one percent) have soared. Household incomes have held up largely because of more (and also relatively better-paid) jobs for women, though a cumulative increase of 13 percent over twenty years is not very impressive. And all this gloom omits the eroding reliability of benefits. Nothing on the horizon looks likely to reverse this long-term squeeze. There is little possibility in the average household of sending another member off to work, although we might expect to see a greater number of kids returning home after finishing their education in order to share expenses and uncertainty.
As for John Rohe's point, we weathered the Gilded Age, after all. And the Gilded Age spawned progressivism. We are hopeful.
I agree with Jonathan Rauch ("Bipolar Disorder," January/February Atlantic) that American political life is far more divisive than American cultural life in general. Although he offers a worthy explanation for the ascendancy of extremism within the major political parties, I find a very curious conundrum here. If middle-of-the-road citizens command the demographic landscape, why aren't moderate politicians getting more votes?
I think the answer has to do with the difference between how cultural goods and political goods are delivered in the United States, and with the silence of the silent majority Rauch describes.
In our market economy, where there are niches for ever thinner slices of the populace, the prevailing sentiment is that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Our consumer institutions have learned that in order to survive they must cater to our every individual wish. We, in turn, have come to expect nothing less than complete satisfaction. This is widely accepted as both good and normal.
In politics such a transaction simply isn't possible.
The core idea of American life is essentially one of individual empowerment. Call it life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; this is the great cultural consensus that we live by. However, in practice the idea has often metamorphosed into something else: American culture is about winning. In business and sports (as if there is a difference anymore) it's about being the biggest and the best. In spirituality it's about personal salvation. In the arts it's not about making a living but about making a killing. Through victory, salvation, or recognition comes the validation (either personal or public) that we all crave.
Similarly, the core idea of American political life is individual enfranchisement: government is accessible and accountable to every single one of us. This, too, has transformed into a substantially different belief: that government is there to serve each of us personally. But governing is not about victory or defeat. It is about process and action—achieving the greatest good for the many while protecting the few. Yet the only gateway to governing is a political process that requires winning. Therefore the politician needs to reach out to each voter in a personal way.
These days, roughly speaking, 40 percent of the population will always vote to the right, and 40 percent will always vote to the left. Some 20 percent remain in the middle to decide. In pursuing that 20 percent politicians have discovered that it is not sufficient to propose good works that will have the broadest appeal. Because our cultural consensus is based on individuality, citizens are no longer so easily motivated by popular sentiment. So rather than moving the centrist voter across the line to one side or the other, politicians are forced to move the center line past the voter. They need to create partisanship for its own sake.
There are two ways to be a partisan politician. One is to hold extreme views of your own. By this means you draw your own partisans to the polls. Most politicians prefer to exercise this option through the use of (relatively) subtle clues. The other, more important method is to accuse your opponent of holding extreme views. The intent in this case is to drive moderates away from your opponent. This was a major strategy of both Kerry and Bush.
In other words, in a political world shaped by passionate extremism at both ends and complacent moderation in the middle, a politician's most effective tactic is simply to scare people into voting for him. As we all know, fear is a powerful motivator.
Minority players in any political establishment must be made to feel that their interests are sufficiently respected, or else they will not consent to participate in that establishment. It may seem quaint, but the simple truth is that political life in a democracy is all about compromise and cooperation. Forfeit this, and no amount of cultural peace may save us.