Reasons to Doubt the Middle Class Can Be Saved

This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"

I will end my contribution here on an atypically--at least for me--downcast note about the likely development of the problem we have been discussion.

For me this is atypical because - like my colleagues in this discussion - I maintain a healthy and admiring respect for the American system's overall ability to adapt and innovate. That has been true over the centuries, most notably as immigrant groups that seemed to be "permanently" ineligible for full participation in the American system have one after another been absorbed: first Germans in the mid-19th century, then Irish later in that century, then Southern and Eastern Europeans of all ethnicities and "races" (including Jews) before World War I, and the broad sample of the world's population--Vietnamese, Persians, Cubans, Mexicans, Koreans, Russians--in the past half-century. The process of assimilation always causes friction, it's never complete, and it always works alongside the lasting consequences of institutionalized inequality, e.g. from the centuries of Africa slavery and another hundred years of anti-black segregation. But the integration of any given group has almost always been more successful than people would have predicted about that group 20 years earlier.

Like my colleagues, I also assume that scientific and technological breakthroughs, while individually unpredictable, will continue to appear frequently enough to create opportunities we can't now imagine and to solve problems that now seem insuperable. Take the modest example of GPS: barely discussed in economic literature or business predictions a generation ago, now the linchpin of many industries and the base for businesses that never existence before. Genomics will probably make the life sciences the next arena for this kind of predictably-surprising innovation. I'm less confident that the energy field will be so innovative, but I certainly hope it will be.

And, finally still on the optimistic front, I remain impressed by what the vast, lumbering, quarrelsome beast of the American polity can do when jolted out of its normal preoccupations. It's a cliché, but it's still important and true, that for about two months after the 9/11 attacks ten years ago, it would have been possible to address almost any of the "impossible" problems of American politics.

But despite all of that, and remaining upbeat about the prospects for America as a whole and for innovations of all sorts, I honestly don't see what forces are going to relieve the pressure on the middle class over the next decade or so. Barring some catastrophic change in energy prices or world conditions, the globalized production system will continue to develop. And its natural results, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, have been to enrich countries overall, while making their internal income distribution more polarized. (That's because opportunities are greater and more rewarding for those with globally-marketable skills, and competition is more intense for those with commoditized skills. In their different ways, China and the U.S. as whole economies are much richer than they were a generation ago, but both of them also are much less equal in distributions of income and wealth than they used to be.) It is hard for me to imagine a technological breakthrough that would mainly be a great equalizer of opportunity in America or elsewhere. Obviously I hope to be proven wrong on this point.

And in politics - again, Don, we return to the topic of your article. We can, in theory, come up with a number of measures that would offset the squeeze on the middle and the pressures toward the extreme in American public life, such as big national-infrastructure investment projects, (dare I say it) a more progressive tax structure, serious reinvestment in public education in hopes of restoring some of the role it had in the G.I. Bill-era as a creator of opportunity rather than a perpetuator of privilege, and so on. But is it conceivable that either party will make steps like these part of its agenda? Once again I am back in the position of hoping that my pessimistic assumptions will eventually be proven wrong.

Perhaps you can offer contrary hope and reasoning now. In any case thanks for giving us an opportunity to dig into these issues - and let me encourage readers to buy and read your excellent book Pinched, which goes into this whole phenomenon much more thoroughly than we have been able to do here.