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A History of America's Disappearing Middle Class

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The following is excerpted from the keynote speech delivered by Paul Krugman at the Economic Policy Institute's recent conference on The Agenda for Shared Prosperity.

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If you look back across the past 80 years or so of the United States, what you see is that in the 1920s, we were for practical purposes still in the gilded age. That may not be the way the historians cut it, but in terms of the actual distribution of income, so far as we can measure it in terms of the role of status and general feel of the society, we were still an extremely unequal royalist society.

By the time World War II was over, we had become the middle-class society that the baby boomers in this audience grew up in. We had become a much more equal society. That high degree of equality began to go away -- depending on exactly which numbers you look at -- during the late 70's, maybe a little earlier than that. And at this point we're basically back to pre-tax and transfer to the levels of inequality that we had in 1929.

So there is this great arc to the middle class, away from gilded age to middle-class society and then back to the new gilded age, which is now what we're living in. And there are really two puzzles about that. One of them is a political puzzle, which is why instead of leaning against these trends, politics has actually reinforced them. Why it is that U.S. politics moved left in the age of a relatively middle-class society, and moved right as society got more unequal?

A naïve view of politics would say that, "Gee, when a few people are winning a lot and most people are lagging behind, people ought to be voting for more social insurance and more progressive taxation, not less." And we have some understanding of why that doesn't happen. It has to do with the role of money, organization and all of these other things that affect politics. That story also helps us understand why politics gets so nasty.

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Why have we become a much more unequal society once again? And the standard, what economists like to say, is "Well, it's all invisible hand. It's all market forces." The history doesn't seem to look like that, if we ask how did the society we had in 1947, which is when a lot of our data start, come into existence.

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By the time you wake up in 1946 or so, it's highly equal. And how did that happen? A lot of it was more or less deliberate compression of wage differentials during World War II. But if you were or had standards, supply and demand for different types of labor, you'd say that should last only as long as the wage controls lasted. It should have sprung back to where it was, but it didn't. It actually stayed quite equal for another 30 years at least. You ask, what buttressed that? Well, partly it's the rise of a powerful union movement, which is at least in large part a change in the political climate, but then remained in place for several decades more.

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And it remained for quite a long time. Now, that started to come apart roughly 30 years ago, and there's been a large increase in inequality since then. As people probably know, I've written about the part that is sort of polite to talk about, which is the rising premium for highly educated workers. But that's only part of it. Even more spectacular is the increase in inequality of the far-right tail of the income distribution.

The CEOs and high school teachers who got roughly the same number of years of formal education haven't exactly had the same growth in income over the past 30 years. So, there's this vast increase in inequality at the top. What do we think caused that? I actually just had to do a class on that. It was in my international trade class, but we were doing the trade and inequality stuff.

So we've got skill bias and technological change, which is shifting demand towards highly educated workers. We've got growing international trade with increased imports of labor-intensive products further reducing demand for less educated workers. We have immigration, possibly similar in its effect to trade. We have the falling real value of the minimum wage contributing at the bottom end. We have some affected unionization driving the change in income distribution.

Finally, in terms of at least the after-tax distribution, we have changes in taxes which have, in general, reinforced rising inequality. It could be true, but it's kind of funny that all of these different things should be working in the same direction. In "Murder on the Orient Express," there is an elaborate conspiracy that means that all 12 of the potential suspects were actually in collusion. It's a little hard to see how all of these factors and economics are in collusion.

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Obviously, private sector unions were very important in the U.S. 30 years ago and have very nearly -- not completely, but very nearly -- collapsed, and they are down to eight percent of private employment. Why did that happen? You will often see people saying -- well, that's because of de-industrialization, and because of the decline of manufacturing. But that is actually not right. It's not right in two ways.

First of all, arithmetically, most of the decline in unionization is a result not of the decline in manufacturing share, but of the decline of the unionization of manufacturing itself. So the big thing that happens is that there is a collapse of unionization within the manufacturing sector and then of course also a smaller share of manufacturing in the economy, but it's much more dramatic on the collapse within the sector.

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Now we have a service economy in which there are a lot of large service sector enterprises. Not to put too fine a point on it, but why exactly couldn't Wal-Mart be unionized? It doesn't face international competition. There is no obvious reason why it wouldn't be possible to have a strong union in Wal-Mart and in the big box sector and other parts of the economy. And just think of how different the whole political economy would look if the service sector enterprises were unionized.

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I went back and was looking at what people said about executive compensation when it was low, just 40 or 50 times the average worker salary. [Here are] some quotes: "Managerial labor contracts are not, in fact, a private matter between employers and employees." "Parties such as employees' labor unions, consumer groups, Congress and the media create forces in the political media that constrain the types of contracts." And so on down the line.

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So back when executive pay was low, 40 or 50 times average pay, it was actually the defenders of higher executive pay that complained that it was actually non-market forces that were constraining executive pay. Now of course that disclosing of pay has happened, the same side of the debate says it's ridiculous to claim that social norms and political forces have any role in this. But I think it's actually quite clear that it did. We can argue about which is the natural market outcome. But the point is, in fact, that we had a society 25 years ago in which there were some constraints imposed by public opinion, by strong unions, by a general sense that there were things that you don't do.

And maybe that led firms to make a decision to think of there being a sort of tradeoff between a "let's have a happy high morale" workforce, or let's have a super star CEO and squeeze the workers for all we can. There were some things that tilted the balance in that decision.

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The ability of the bottom 80 percent of the population to get a bigger share of the total pie -- I think that if we get there, we may be surprised at just how successful we are at moving ourselves back, at least part of the way, to the kind of middle-class society that people like me grew up in.

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As long as corporate America continues buy the influence necessary to pepetuate the rampant importation of foreign workers (legal and illegal) to glut the US labor market, unions have no bargaining power. We supposedly have a worker shortage as wages and benefits fall. Something doesn't add up in that equation.

As soon as the illegal alien embracing unions and left wingers realize this...maybe we can turn it around. Unfortunately the Teddy Kennedy's of America continue to pander in counter-productive directions that are the problem instead of the solution. They claim to be for American workers while embracing illegal aliens and calling for more increases in immigration quotas that benefit their party politically at the polls.

The unions nowdays are more interested in union cards than Green Cards. In other words they will sign up anybody whether US citizen or illegal alien that pays dues into their dwindling treasuries. They are no better than the crooks in corporate America out for the cash. They are part of the problem...not a part of the solution.

The truth is that US immigration was a trickle from 1924 until 1965 when the floodgates opened. Look at the timeline in the article and draw your own conclusions about when the middle class started shrinking. The answer is obvious, but many refuse to want to see it.


"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave."

"...for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX)

Testimony to the House Immigration Subcommittee, February 24, 1995

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As long as Californians and the Kennedy's can get cheap landscaping who cares about the middle class.


"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies."

Senator Barack Obama
Senate Floor Speech on Public Debt
March 16, 2006



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