The Washington Post today has launched a multi-part series on the decline of the American middle class, and I’m kind of excited about it. The Post of course is a pillar of a Mainstream Media establishment that’s grown distant from Main Street. As with its peers, even when its largely Ivy League- or equivalent educated reporters and editors and columnists do turn their attentions to Everyday Americans (and yes, we sure need some new synonyms on this score!), they tend to view them as blue-collar lunks (and lunk-ettes) whose only hope for progress is some combination of better education, a more generous welfare state, and (more recently) fiat wage increases.
The first installment of the series is certainly a compelling description of one instance of decline – which, revealingly, centers on skilled workers in advanced manufacturing. (At the same time, much of the aerospace work spotlighted was defense-related, whose ups and downs stem mainly from major non-economic dynamics.) And the subject has been a long-time focus of reporter Jim Tankersley. Perhaps most promising – he says he’s going to offer a master theory for the middle class’ plight, so it’s clear that considerable thought has gone into this project.
But as you sharp-eyed readers have noticed, I began by saying I was only “kind of excited.” On top of wanting to withhold final judgment until I see the entire product, I’ll be waiting to see how Tankersley handles trade and globalization issues. My two main reasons:
First, it’s already a Mainstream Media cliche to observe that “trade” or “foreign competition” or “globalization” has been a significant loser on net for most Americans. Yet the problem with such analyses is that they portray these developments as impersonal forces that result from natural, and usually ultimately beneficial, changes such as new technologies that make international business networks much easier to establish and manage, or the adoption of free market practices by many low-income economies after the fall of the Soviet Union.
These changes have undeniably taken place. But what’s typically missed is the role played by human decisions that were anything but inevitable – chiefly, the Cold War-era decision to build up and strengthen allies in Europe and Asia through massive import buying without insisting on reciprocity, and the post-Cold War decision to add to those policies trade deals with low-income countries that were tailor-made to foster production and job offshoring. And decisions made by human beings that are not inevitable can be reversed.
My second reason for waiting-and-seeing re the Post series has to do with my view that these trade policies have been the single most important cause of middle class decline. Their overarching effect has been to divorce the fortunes of Big Business and Big Finance from the fortunes of the rest of the U.S. economy. As a result, they were crucial to setting in motion a wide range of changes usually portrayed as purely domestic – from a new corporate governance philosophy that elevated shareholder welfare over all else, to de-unionization, to the nation-wide neglect of public schools and infrastructure, and eventually to the credit and housing subsidies showered on Main Street to try to make up for income decline and keep the political peace and the economic power structure intact. Without understanding how global and domestic trends have been interacting in recent decades, there’s not much hope for reform that will not only buttress the middle class, but put the entire economy on a much more durable foundation.
From what I know of Tankersley, his series will add to public (and media) understanding of the middle class even without recognizing and making the above points. Here’s hoping that it’s not also a missed opportunity.