Is There Any Hope for the Middle Class?

Over the past week Don Peck has been leading an online discussion about his powerful article in the current issue (subscribe!), drawn from his new book Pinched (buy!). C-Span covered his talk last night at Politics & Prose, which you can see here. My additions to the discussion are in parts one, two, and three.

Now readers weigh on the pros and cons of the chances for restoring to America the sense of open mobility and possibility, and the belief in shared rise and fall, that now seem to be lost. First, from a reader who has lived under 16 different U.S. presidents:

>>You ask, "Is America Hardwired for Widening Inequality?  An alternate question might be "Has America's Arteries Hardened to Accept Widening Inequality?"  I believe the answer to the latter is, "Yes!"
All civilizations, including our own, are subject to a natural life cycle, birth... growth... maturity... aging...

I don't believe there's a "pill" out there that is going to make much of a difference in the long run...although the short run is probably all that most of us care about.  The problem is...I'm not sure there's a "pill" out there for even the short run...or worse, even...a "doctor" out there who's wise enough to prescribe one.  And...will this "patient" swallow such a pill, if there were one?
Born in 1921, I've seen our nation rise again and again to do the right thing....but, are our arteries too hard now?<<

Another reader says, let's think again about the role of government:

>>The lame, political insanity of this past year, suggests that now is the time to "reintroduce" the American people to their Federal Government. 

In my humble opinion, the single biggest mistake the Democratic Party has made in the past 30 years (and the Republican Party has exploited) is its failure to recognize the need to educate voters about how the work of the Federal Government contributes to upholding the quality of life, the promotion of technological progress, and peaceful global cooperation for all residents of this huge, complex country, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, geographic region, economic status, or party affiliation. 

I encourage the leadership of this Party to stop taking this task for granted and, as part of the 2012 election process, enlist the help of some of its Hollywood friends to launch a new web site that gives American people a FREE massive, ongoing, public education seminar that "creatively advertises" the work that each and every Federal Department and Agency does, day in and day out, for the American people.  "Reinvention" is not just a private sector imperative.<<

From a retired mathematician, now living in Paris, more about the specific role of government. (This is related to my mention of GPS as illustrating the unexpected commercial and other benefits that can flow from publicly funded research, including for the military):

>>Your idea to choose GPS as a typical unexpected American innovation is right on target.

At least 30 years of (mostly secret) work since two guys at the Johns Hopkins (militarily funded) Applied Physics Lab listened to the Sputnik beep and devised from the Doppler shift a way to predict the bird's trajectory, and, one year later, a way of doing the reverse - to GPS' "civilianization" by Reagan after the Korean 007 plane downing by a Soviet fighter.

In the mean time, they developped the Transit marine navigation system (first users : the Polaris submarines...), atomic clocks, etc., and before all that they had developed the Loran navigation system for the aviation. The work was mostly done at APL, the Naval Research Lab, and the Aerospace Corporation (a DoD funded R&D center created in 1960 to oversee the development of ballistic missiles). Everything was funded by the DOD, at the estimated cost of 8 billion dollars (in 1996 money) merely for the period 1974-1995...

One could of course multiply such examples : computers, solid state electronics, nuclear energy, jet planes (not invented there, but made practical by the US Air Force), satellites of various kinds, the Internet, etc.  [more]
Without the DoD to provide the money for the R&D and the first production orders (e.g. integrated circuits for the Minuteman II missiles), most wonderfull American innovations would have been made much later (or even not yet : who in the civilian sector needed GPS, or even had any idea of it, before it became available ?

Which civilian industry would have been foolish enough to launch itself in such a gigantic project without any "market pull" ?). See Vernon W. Ruttan's book, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?. Military Procurement and Technology Development (Oxford UP, 2006) for a short overview from a more general point of view.

As far as technological innovation is concerned, The American genius since the war has mostly been to build a standard method to systematically transform scientific and technical progress into what I'll call military progress, and then to let private industry flood the civilian sector with the spin-off. It is true that, after half a century (1940-1990) of militarily funded R&D, the US civilian industry now is able to launch very costly fascinating innovations on its own finances, e.g. You Tube, but you should not forget the role of the 1940-90 period, especially since you wrote long ago a book by the title of National Defense.

From a reader who argues that societies can choose how to respond to economic pressures:

>>Although I agree with you that the income gap is widening and the middle class is becoming weaker, this is not inevitable.  Any system is defined by the rules, customs and practices of that system and all of those can be changed. 

We are currently living in a system that most highly values material goods and those most closely associated with the means of production.  Labor and the arts are valued only in as much as the lead to the production of material goods.  Spirituality despite the lip service in our public forum is not widely valued.  Knowledge as represent by our schools and universities Is under attack, especially knowledge for knowledge's sake.  How much do we value labor that doesn't produce anything, but is absolutely critical to our society.  Think maids, child care workers, garbage collectors, etc.
And if we are governed by laws, rules. customs and practices those can be changed.  We've done it before in changing from tribes, to clans, to feudalism and so forth.  There is no reason that we can't develop a system that values people for their humanity in addition to their utility.  We might learn to value people for their contribution to society even if it might not lead to immediate material gain.  I might be dreaming.<<

Finally for now, one of the rare times when I am accused of being a pessimist:

>>Dear Sir,

Your gloominess is contagious. :-(

I've been thinking, there are perhaps two possible ways this can go down:

Scenario one - we continue to be stuck in slow but steady decline, losing ground to the uber-rich a bit more each year, but can not escape our eventual undoing. Then, of course, there will be violent social unrest etc., until some kind of new, slightly better economic and political system emerges. If the President can be mildly successful in holding off/prolonging the middle-class decline, this slow death will just come about a bit later.

Scenario two - The right-wing wins overwhelmingly, the middle-class decline goes much faster, then the unrest and new social order comes sooner.

I hardly know which scenario to be rooting for. <sigh>

Some more ahead, on the unpredictable effects of future technologies. Thanks to all.