The Growth of Moderation

“The economic and social structure of the country,” writes SUMNER H. SLICHTER,one of our leading economists and the Lamont University Professor at Harvard, “has undergone a near revolution.”In the article which follows, Mr. Slichter documents beyond question the powerful expansion of the American middle class; he explains why this has come about; and he shows that the voice of the middle class is the voice which is now demanding moderation in both political parties.


THE demand for moderation that all observers note as a growing characteristic of American politics is not merely attributable to current, prosperity. Behind this demand arc impressive changes in American economic and social conditions that have escaped general attention because they have been occurring so gradually. In the last forty or fifty years, however, these changes have produced a near revolution in the economic and social structure of the country.

Three principal long-run developments account for the slowly growing demand for moderate policies:

1. The traditional middle-class occupations have been growing faster than other kinds of jobs.

2. The composition of the middle class and the economic connections of its members have changed. As a result, the attitudes of members of the middle class toward economic issues have changed.

3. Great changes have occurred in the distribution of family incomes, enabling a considerable proportion of wage earners to adopt pretty much the same standard of consumption as professional and technical workers and as many administrators.

It is evident from these changes that the evolution of American society has followed a course very different from that frequently predicted a generation or so ago. At that time it was widely believed that technological change, the rise of big business, and the struggles between the classes would slowly wipe out the middle class. It was also widely predicted that, as the United States became older and more industrialized, class lines would sharpen and conflict between the classes would become more severe. But class lines have been becoming more and more blurred, and the demand for moderation in public policies appears to be coming from all groups in the community.

Let us see how the changes in economic and social conditions that have stimulated the demand for moderation have come about, and then let us consider briefly the broad implications of these changes — not only their effect upon politics but also their effect upon the economy and upon the culture of the country.

The growth of middle-class occupations

The traditional middle-class occupations are those of self-employed business owners (farmers, shopkeepers), professional and technical workers (some self-employed and others employees of business concerns and the government), salespeople, and clerical workers. In 1910 the workers in these occupations constituted 39.6 per cent of employed persons; in April, 1956, they formed 45.8 per cent — in spite of a big drop in the number of selfemployed farmers from 17.3 per cent of employed persons in 1910 to 6.l per cent in April, 1956. In the borderland between the traditional middle class and the laboring class are the skilled craftsmen. If these are counted in the middle class, the middleclass workers constituted 51.3 per cent of the labor force in 1910 and 59.1 per cent in April, 1956.

Behind the growth of middle-class employments lie changes in methods of business management, changes in technology, and changes in the kinds of goods and services demanded by consumers. About fifty years ago American business concerns began to discover the uses of staff executives. These are experts in various fields, such as engineering, accounting, marketing, personnel, industrial medicine, public relations, who advise the line or operating executives in making decisions and who, in some cases, help line executives carry out policies. There has been an enormous growth in these occupations and in the clerical workers to help the staff officers. For example, about the year 1900 business began to discover that record-keeping pays. At that time there was no cost accounting in American industry — indeed, very little accounting of any kind. The entire country had only 250 C.P.A.’s; today there are over 40,000. Other kinds of staff experts, such as time-study men, market analysts, personnel men, industrial physicians and nurses, who were virtually unknown fifty years ago, aro today numbered by the thousands. Engineers, who were fairly well established in industry by 1000, have increased twenty times in the last half century — from 41,000 in 1900 to about 850,000 today. The latest development has been the addition of industrial research departments which employ over 200,000 research scientists and technologists and which industry is expanding just as rapidly as the colleges and universities can turn out trained men.

Technological change is another influence that has increased the relative importance of the middle class. Not only has it increased the demand for engineers, chemists, physicists, time-study men, and other technical and semi-technical workers, but cheap mobile power, made possible by the gas engine and the diesel, has drastically cut the demand for wielders of picks and shovels and for unskilled farm laborers. As a result, the number of common laborers has dropped from 8.9 million in 1910 to 5.9 million in April, 1956, and from one fourth of the employed persons to one eleventh.

Finally, rising family incomes have helped the middle class to grow because they have increased the number of families that can afford the services of professional workers — teachers of all kinds, doctors, dentists, writers, and entertainers.

From business owner to employee

During the last forty years the proportion of the middle class who arc self-employed (farmers, business owners, independent professional workers) has dropped and the proportion who are employees has risen. Naturally employees, even well-paid employees, tend to see many matters from the point of view of the employee rather than from the viewpoint of the business owner or of top management. Thus far middle-class workers who are employees have shown only limited interest in unionism, but airplane pilots, actors, train dispatchers, and yardmasters are well organized, and there is some unionism among engineers doing routine work, and among teachers, draftsmen, journalists, salespeople, and office workers.

Part of the change in attitudes among middleclass workers comes from changes in their economic connections. The proportion of them who are employed by business is diminishing. Most teachers work for the government, and so do an increasing proportion of administrators, engineers, accountants, lawyers, and scientists. These employees are concerned with serving the public rather than with helping enterprises make money, and in some cases they are concerned with regulating private industry.

Still others are trade-union officers or employees and represent the interests of wage earners in dealing with business. Since the middle class is increasingly composed of employees rather than of self-employed persons, and since a growing minority of the middle class do not work for business enterprises, it is not surprising that the interests of business owners carry less and less weight in the thinking of the middle class.

The sense of belonging

The narrowing of the differences in incomes during recent years has been almost sensational. Between 1935-36 and 1950 the average income among the one fifth of the families at the bottom of the income scale gained 78 per cent in purchasing power but the average income of the 5 per cent of the families at the top of the income scale gained only 17 per cent in purchasing power.

Two influences have been mainly responsible for cutting the differences in family incomes. One has been the strong ambition of people to improve their lot. This ambition, together with the availability of free or almost-free public education, has greatly increased the reluctance of many persons to accept unskilled jobs and has increased the number of persons qualified for skilled or technical jobs. As a result, the wages of unskilled workers have risen faster than the wages of skilled and professional employees—in spite of the fact that industry has loss and less need for common labor and more and more need for skilled and technical workers.

The second influence narrowing the differences in family incomes has been the entrance of women (particularly wives) into industry. In 1940, one out of eight married women worked in industry; at present the ratio is about one out of four or less. Married women are most likely to work when the income of the husband is low. Among non-farm families in which the husband earned $3000 a year or less, the proportion of wives in the labor force was about twice as large as among the families in which the husband earned $5000 a year or more. Most of the family incomes of $6000 to $10,000 are made possible because the wife works — for in two out. of three such families the wife is a wage earner.

Because the gap between the wages of the unskilled and those of skilled and technical workers is narrower than formerly, and since one out of four wives is a wage earner, the nature of the husband’s occupation no longer determines family income. For example, one out of five families of skilled craftsmen has an income of more than $7000 a year. But among professional and technical workers the proportion is one out of six, and among sales and clerical workers, only one out of seven. About 72 per cent of the families of managers and non-farm business proprietors have incomes of less than $7000. Hence one out of five skilled craftsmen and their families are able to live better than more than seven out of ten managers and business owners. In such a society class lines naturally become quite blurred. Many a wage earner has just as much cause to worry about how government spending affects his income tax as does the typical manager, doctor, or lawyer.

It is not surprising that skilled or semi-skilled workers, whose children go to high school or college, who own homes, drive cars, have television sets, and who in general live as well as a large proportion of lawyers, doctors, salesmen, foremen, and teachers, do not think of themselves as belonging to a class apart. They feel very much members of the community and are inclined to adopt pretty much the same variety of viewpoints on most public issues (money for schools, higher taxes on gasoline, stricter zoning laws, foreign aid, publicly-owned water power, defense spending, general tax cuts, help for agriculture) as other members of the community.

Middle-of-the-road voters

It is becoming clearer every day that these economic and social changes are strengthening the demand for middle-of-the-road policies, and the most astute present and recent leaders of both parties — President Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Thomas Dewey — have been quick to note it. The movement toward moderation during recent years has come from both the right and the left. Much of the middle class has moved from a position of great conservatism to a middle-of-the-road position. Since many middleclass workers are employees and are also identified with management, their views of issues reflect a mixture of the employee viewpoint and the management viewpoint. Wage earners, too, have been moving toward a middle-of-the-road position — the result of their increasing ability to live in the same way as other parts of the community.

The shift toward the middle of the road is reflected, on the one hand, in the success of the Republicans in increasing their share of the labor vote as the party has become more liberal and, on the other hand, in the success of the Democrats in holding a good part of the managerial and professional vote acquired during the depression of the thirties, as these groups have gradually become less business-minded. In 1952 the Republican and Democratic parties each had a large part of the vote of the skilled and semi-skilled workers — 45 per cent for Eisenhower, 52 per cent for Stevenson, and 3 per cent for other candidates. The proportion of trade unionists preferring Republican presidential candidates increased from 20 per cent in 1936 to 39 per cent in 1952 and to 56 per cent in May, 1956. On the other hand, in 1952, 32 per cent of the professional and managerial workers, traditionally a conservative group, preferred Stevenson and 2 per cent preferred minor candidates.

The result of these two movements from the right and the left toward the center has been a demand for the welfare state, but for a rather mild form of welfare state. Most people wish the government to give help to various groups in the country — considerable protection to employees and to farmers against economic hazards, considerable help to small business, retired persons, disabled workers, and fatherless children. But there is no strong demand for drastic changes in economic institutions or policies — for radical changes in the control of industry or in the relations between government and industry. If either party were to offer an extreme program, it would quickly find itself with only a handful of supporters. There is nothing for the two parties to do except to compete for the votes of the moderates.

A more rapidly growing economy

The economic and social changes of the last generation have had profound effects, not only upon politics but also upon the economy of the country, and they raise important questions for the future of American culture. The principal effect upon the economy has been to make consumers play a more active role in determining the demand for goods, and thus to make the economy more dynamic. Competition in consumption has always been keen in the United States, but it has been made keener in recent years by the rise of low incomes relative to large incomes and by the consequent weakening of class lines. The growing competitiveness of consumption is clearly shown by the rapid growth of consumer credit. One of the great uses of consumer credit is to enable families to buy things that their neighbors do not yet possess. Another use is to enable families to keep up with their neighbors by buying without further delay things that their neighbors already have.

Keen competition in consumption helps the economy grow since it causes demand to expand ahead of personal incomes. Obviously such an economy grows more readily than one in which the volume of consumption is almost completely determined by the size of personal incomes. Many economists have seriously underestimated the capacity of the American economy to grow because they have believed that consumers play only a passive role in determining the demand for goods — merely spending their incomes rather than initiating increases in demand more or less independently of changes in their incomes.

Challenging cultural issues

The recent economic and social changes in the United States also raise very fundamental questions about the future of our civilization. Many people of high ideals are concerned lest a philosophy of moderation interfere with the ability of a country to improve the condition of its people. Is a country that loves moderation, that wishes to enjoy its prosperity, that strives for peace of mind, capable of having the aspirations and the ambitions and the determination that great advances in civilization require? These advances demand strong dissatisfaction with some aspects of things as they are and strong resolution to change those conditions. Will the habit of being moderate prevent the people from adopting high ambitions and developing a stubborn determination to achieve them?

I suspect that a spirit of moderation is usually favorable to progress. So far, the greatest obstacle to progress has not been disagreement about objectives or ideals, but division among the supporters of widely accepted ideals as to how best to achieve them. Time and again noble causes have been discredited because their supporters have insisted on moving ahead rapidly with untried methods. Willingness to proceed slowly step by step and to experiment on a small scale with ways and means (a spirit of moderation) would have produced more progress.

As for the danger that a spirit of moderation w ll weaken our ambitions and aspirations, protection will come from the growing influence of science upon men’s thinking. Science is a spur to progress because it forces new responsibilities upon us. It does this because it gives us far more control over our environment than any previous age has possessed. Incomplete as our control still is, it is sufficient to rob us of the comfortable excuse that we might as well ignore a condition or a problem because, as men used to think, not much can be done about it anyway. Today, for the first time in history, men must face the fact that they have the capacity, if they have the will, to do something about most problems that confront them. With science forcing new problems on our attention and showing us that we can probably do something about them, we are well protected from the danger that a spirit of moderation will prevent the community from seeing the faults in existing institutions and from entertaining strong ambitions to make the world a better place.