In response to Don Peck’s September cover story, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?,” readers looked back on our more prosperous past, assessed the present-day follies of the government and callousness of the super-rich, and offered grim predictions for the future.
A great political realignment is likely coming soon, along the lines of what Don Peck suggests. The foundations of today’s political groupings (strong middle class, strong unions, large religious laboring class, limited campaign contributions) have radically shifted. Many natural alliances have not yet formed. For instance, liberals would make natural anti-immigrant sloganeers (“Immigrants undermine our entitlements!”), while conservatives should be embracing immigration (“Cheap labor makes America competitive!”).
The problem is, neither party seems to be real sure what it stands for at the moment—as exemplified by the Tea Party and President Obama. The radical fiscal conservatives of the Tea Party are willing to undermine national security with military-budget cuts, something unheard-of in the conservative movement. Obama has offered up the sacred cows of liberalism to pay the debts brought on largely by tax cuts for the rich, two foreign wars, and huge bailouts for one of the wealthiest sectors of American industry. The schizophrenic nature of current alliances makes it difficult for either party to offer sensible policy, and gives the extremists much more power in the national debate, because they can at least offer a coherent narrative and a consistent ideology.
I think there’s validity in the complaint about corporate propagandists demagoguing taxes so that the rich can detach from their responsibility to society. But the larger issue might be globalization. There is little loyalty to this nation, because capital can flow wherever the best investments are. It used to be that wealth was recycled into our nation and cities. That’s gone. Local bankers are gone. Local stewards have largely vanished. What we have instead is a kind of branch-office economy that has taken custody of America’s remaining wealth. If there’s a better deal in Asia or Latin America, investment will zip over there in a heartbeat. The truth is that the middle class was always expected to shoulder the burdens of globalization by learning new skills and expecting less security.
Before we concede defeat about the middle class, whose collapse has deprived our economy of its source of demand, why not revisit some of our political decisions over the past few decades? If dramatically cutting taxes on the top 0.1 percent has only accelerated dangerous changes, why not undo the cuts? If political decisions that destroyed private-sector unions (which have dropped from one-third of the private workforce down to 7 percent) have depressed wages, why not reverse those decisions? The super-rich were hardly suffering back then, and everyone else was vastly better off.
This article has a glaring omission—immigration policy. We’ve imported more than 40million new people in just three decades, swamping the middle- and working-class labor markets. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that our population will grow by another 130 million by 2050, and 82 percent of that growth will be driven by future immigrants and their children. How can anyone talk about wage decline and the loss of jobs for working-class males, and simply ignore the impact of immigration policy?
In today’s highly technological world, the booms of the 21st century (in computing, robotics, medicine, etc.) will dwarf the ’90s tech boom as global waves of middle-class job creation. America should strive for leadership in these areas (which will involve increased state spending in certain domains, for instance education), so that when these middle-class job booms happen, they happen here.
As economic stagnation gives way to inexorable contraction later this decade, it won’t be just the middle class that’s in trouble. With global finance in shambles, governments will even have trouble bailing out the financial predators that have been eviscerating the middle class. Greed and usury will once again become sins, and Ben Franklin’s aphorisms will come back into fashion. That is, if we somehow manage to survive the riots and chaos.
When we plugged all the e-mails responding to the September issue into a word-cloud generator, the result revealed that our readers, like the rest of the country, are much preoccupied by concerns about the economy—and that they responded in large numbers to Don Peck’s cover story, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”