Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Galbraith on the threat to the US middle class

Jamie Galbraith, always worth listening to. From Muddling Towards the Next Crisis: James Kenneth Galbraith in conversation with The Straddler Winter 2013:

The story that is often told about what’s happened to factory jobs, and what’s happened to wage rates, is not a good way of getting at the threat to that existence. The typical story is that median wages peaked in 1972 and have been stagnant and falling since then. As a result, it must be the case that people who are working now are much worse off than they were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. That’s not an accurate story - at least not up until the crisis in 2008—because over that period the labor force became younger, more female, more minority, and more immigrant. All of these groups start at relatively low wages, and they all then tend to have upward trajectories. So there’s no reason to believe that life was getting worse for members of the workforce in general. On the contrary, for most members of the workforce it was still getting better. Plus they had the benefit of technical change and improvement in the other conditions of life.

The real threat to the middle class is not there, it’s in the erosion of the programs I just mentioned. That is to say, it’s in the attack on the public schools, it’s in the squeeze on higher education, it’s in the threat to Social Security. When you look at housing, you have a very large unambiguous loss. Millions of people have been displaced, but many, many more have lost the capital value of their homes. They won’t be able to sell and retire on the proceeds.

So I think there is a threat to the middle class, but if I were talking about it in political terms, I wouldn’t be giving an abstract statistical picture of wages. This doesn’t connect to people’s experiences. If I were designing the boilerplate rhetoric of a popular movement, I would take a blue pencil to these statistical formulations. I don’t like the stagnant median wage argument—I think it obscures what actually happened. And I don’t particularly care for the “one percent” argument. I understand it has a certain power, but one can be much more precise about what it is you want to attack, and what it is you want to preserve and to build. I would cut to the chase: we need to tear down the financial sector and rebuild it from scratch in a very different way.

No comments: