Last week I wrote about the crisis of unemployment in Europe. I received a great deal of feedback, with Europeans agreeing that this is the core problem and Americans arguing that the United States has the same problem, asserting that U.S. unemployment is twice as high as the government’s official unemployment rate. My counterargument is that unemployment in the United States is not a problem in the same sense that it is in Europe because it does not pose a geopolitical threat. The United States does not face political disintegration from unemployment, whatever the number is. Europe might.
At the same time, I would agree that the United States faces a potentially significant but longer-term geopolitical problem deriving from economic trends. The threat to the United States is the persistent decline in the middle class’ standard of living, a problem that is reshaping the social order that has been in place since World War II and that, if it continues, poses a threat to American power.
The Crisis of the American Middle Class
The median household income of Americans in 2011 was $49,103. Adjusted for inflation, the median income is just below what it was in 1989 and is $4,000 less than it was in 2000. Take-home income is a bit less than $40,000 when Social Security and state and federal taxes are included. That means a monthly income, per household, of about $3,300. It is urgent to bear in mind that half of all American households earn less than this. It is also vital to consider not the difference between 1990 and 2011, but the difference between the 1950s and 1960s and the 21st century. This is where the difference in the meaning of middle class becomes most apparent.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the median income allowed you to live with a single earner — normally the husband, with the wife typically working as homemaker — and roughly three children. It permitted the purchase of modest tract housing, one late model car and an older one. It allowed a driving vacation somewhere and, with care, some savings as well. I know this because my family was lower-middle class, and this is how we lived, and I know many others in my generation who had the same background. It was not an easy life and many luxuries were denied us, but it wasn’t a bad life at all.
Someone earning the median income today might just pull this off, but it wouldn’t be easy. Assuming that he did not have college loans to pay off but did have two car loans to pay totaling $700 a month, and that he could buy food, clothing and cover his utilities for $1,200 a month, he would have $1,400 a month for mortgage, real estate taxes and insurance, plus some funds for fixing the air conditioner and dishwasher. At a 5 percent mortgage rate, that would allow him to buy a house in the $200,000 range. He would get a refund back on his taxes from deductions but that would go to pay credit card bills he had from Christmas presents and emergencies. It could be done, but not easily and with great difficulty in major metropolitan areas. And if his employer didn’t cover health insurance, that $4,000-5,000 for three or four people would severely limit his expenses. And of course, he would have to have $20,000-40,000 for a down payment and closing costs on his home. There would be little else left over for a week at the seashore with the kids.
And this is for the median. Those below him — half of all households — would be shut out of what is considered middle-class life, with the house, the car and the other associated amenities. Those amenities shift upward on the scale for people with at least $70,000 in income. The basics might be available at the median level, given favorable individual circumstance, but below that life becomes surprisingly meager, even in the range of the middle class and certainly what used to be called the lower-middle class.
The Expectation of Upward Mobility
I should pause and mention that this was one of the fundamental causes of the 2007-2008 subprime lending crisis. People below the median took out loans with deferred interest with the expectation that their incomes would continue the rise that was traditional since World War II. The caricature of the borrower as irresponsible misses the point. The expectation of rising real incomes was built into the American culture, and many assumed based on that that the rise would resume in five years. When it didn’t they were trapped, but given history, they were not making an irresponsible assumption.
American history was always filled with the assumption that upward mobility was possible. The Midwest and West opened land that could be exploited, and the massive industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries opened opportunities. There was a systemic expectation of upward mobility built into American culture and reality.
The Great Depression was a shock to the system, and it wasn’t solved by the New Deal, nor even by World War II alone. The next drive for upward mobility came from post-war programs for veterans, of whom there were more than 10 million. These programs were instrumental in creating post-industrial America, by creating a class of suburban professionals. There were three programs that were critical:
- The GI Bill, which allowed veterans to go to college after the war, becoming professionals frequently several notches above their parents.
- The part of the GI Bill that provided federally guaranteed mortgages to veterans, allowing low and no down payment mortgages and low interest rates to graduates of publicly funded universities.
- The federally funded Interstate Highway System, which made access to land close to but outside of cities easier, enabling both the dispersal of populations on inexpensive land (which made single-family houses possible) and, later, the dispersal of business to the suburbs.
There were undoubtedly many other things that contributed to this, but these three not only reshaped America but also created a new dimension to the upward mobility that was built into American life from the beginning. Moreover, these programs were all directed toward veterans, to whom it was acknowledged a debt was due, or were created for military reasons (the Interstate Highway System was funded to enable the rapid movement of troops from coast to coast, which during World War II was found to be impossible). As a result, there was consensus around the moral propriety of the programs.
The subprime fiasco was rooted in the failure to understand that the foundations of middle class life were not under temporary pressure but something more fundamental. Where a single earner could support a middle class family in the generation after World War II, it now took at least two earners. That meant that the rise of the double-income family corresponded with the decline of the middle class. The lower you go on the income scale, the more likely you are to be a single mother. That shift away from social pressure for two parent homes was certainly part of the problem.
Re-engineering the Corporation
But there was, I think, the crisis of the modern corporation. Corporations provided long-term employment to the middle class. It was not unusual to spend your entire life working for one. Working for a corporation, you received yearly pay increases, either as a union or non-union worker. The middle class had both job security and rising income, along with retirement and other benefits. Over the course of time, the culture of the corporation diverged from the realities, as corporate productivity lagged behind costs and the corporations became more and more dysfunctional and ultimately unsupportable. In addition, the corporations ceased focusing on doing one thing well and instead became conglomerates, with a management frequently unable to keep up with the complexity of multiple lines of business.
For these and many other reasons, the corporation became increasingly inefficient, and in the terms of the 1980s, they had to be re-engineered — which meant taken apart, pared down, refined and refocused. And the re-engineering of the corporation, designed to make them agile, meant that there was a permanent revolution in business. Everything was being reinvented. Huge amounts of money, managed by people whose specialty was re-engineering companies, were deployed. The choice was between total failure and radical change. From the point of view of the individual worker, this frequently meant the same thing: unemployment. From the view of the economy, it meant the creation of value whether through breaking up companies, closing some of them or sending jobs overseas. It was designed to increase the total efficiency, and it worked for the most part.
This is where the disjuncture occurred. From the point of view of the investor, they had saved the corporation from total meltdown by redesigning it. From the point of view of the workers, some retained the jobs that they would have lost, while others lost the jobs they would have lost anyway. But the important thing is not the subjective bitterness of those who lost their jobs, but something more complex.