The economic parabola of the American middle class is interesting and no end ironic. Americans used an industrial revolution to create mass affluence and considered that progress. Now America is deindustrializing and reducing mass affluence while calling that, progress. Man seems a comic species!
Herbert hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign promised prosperity; its motto: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” is now historic. The irony of political promises; he delivered the Great Depression instead. Barack Obama campaigned on hope and change and remained wisely vague on what those meant, but increasing numbers of citizens are now hoping for change. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough agreement upon what change is wanted, which leaves many politicians uncertain of what to promise.
One notable difference between the upward and downward legs of the American middle classes’ affluence is the upward leg’s lack of political leaders up front giving themselves credit for the accomplishment whereas the entire Left is leading the way down.
The first inarguable sigil of middle class dissolution was the mom’s leaving home to go back to work. That reflection of declining incomes was trumpeted as a feminist victory. If it was any sort of victory, it was a Pyrrhic one, leaving men, women and children with heavier loads to bear under more stressful circumstances.
Two major factors underlying that family devaluation were the governments’ perpetual inflation that continually reduced what a dollar would buy (a new 1937 Chevrolet could be had for $750.) and the endless rise in the cost of government, that now takes over 30% of the national income. Together, these have made an illusion of the union-driven rise in worker wages. The real beneficiary has been the government. The technological explosion of labor-saving devices has reduced jobs at work but cushioned the loss of mom at home. Government has quietly recognized reality by shielding increasing numbers of financially stressed folk from income tax; nearly half the “taxpayers” now pay no income tax and a large portion of those receive subsidies via ‘refunds’ paid from other people’s money instead.
That more wealth has shifted toward fewer people and less wealth has shifted toward more people is widely reported. America’s middle is no longer the world’s most affluent. That will accelerate as the country’s rising debt must be repaid by the citizens and as the country’s illusory labor price drives more production offshore. We now have a world economy that the Soviets proved cannot be fenced out. We will become progressively impoverished until we can again compete.
That downward leg of the parabola will move faster with government policies that raise energy costs and labor prices while limiting the amounts of available energy. The impoverishment will be clarified as the impending policies of simpler diet, restricted living space and reduced private transport come to be.
America’s leaders have bought the ideas, periodically recurrent, of Thomas Malthus, who said around 1803 that our birthrate would outstrip our food production and we would starve. We had a ‘green revolution’ instead and waste enormous quantities of food too. With different leaders, we might pursue technology to retain the historically rare American middle, but that would require a quality of political leadership that today, seems unavailable.
Perhaps human societies follow a law akin to gravity: what goes up, must come down. History surely suggests the possibility. We don’t know and the future, as always, lies ahead out of sight. But it seems that, lacking a revolutionary change in trajectory, the American middle class is fading back into the traditional human model: some wealthy and a lot of proletarians. Add that irony that so many of us seem to be going gladly.