Does The Middle Class Really Have It So Bad?

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 21 2013 @ 11:06am


Scott Winship pleads with middle-class Americans to recognize their prosperity:

Politics is about prioritizing. The more time, energy, and dollars we spend on the overstated economic problems of the middle class, the less we can devote to the poor. The poor are certainly better off than in past decades, but one in five American household heads still reported that sometime in 2010 they worried about whether their food budget would fall short before the month ended. Only 13 percent of children starting in the bottom fifth will end up in the top two-fifths in adulthood (compared with 63 percent of children who start out in the top two-fifths).

It is time to shift our focus to all that we have rather than that which we do not. It is time to renew our commitment to the American Dream of upward mobility — to help those facing long odds of occupying the most desirable positions — even as we recognize that the broad majority of us have never had it so good.

Tyler Cowen takes on another aspect of Winship’s argument – that, for developed nations, high rates of growth cannot continue indefinitely:

Most importantly, I think high rates of economic growth will resume, at some (unknown) date in the future.  Note that in a very broad data sample, stretching across centuries, rates of growth for the technological leaders are on average rising, as shown by Paul Romer.  It was a big deal in the 17th century when England started to manage an average of about one percent growth a year, but today we would call that a kind of stagnation.  The Great Stagnation is a temporary slowdown in growth, not the permanent end of new ideas.

I find myself wondering if  the Great Dislocation across the globe and the Great Stagnation in the developed world are not two sides of the same coin. We had it easy for so long, then we defeated communism and crikey, as the Aussies say, the world came back to play our own game. We are in an utterly different world than 1989 – let alone the year time stopped for the GOP: 1980.

My worries are that the cultural premise of so much of this debate is that material wealth is the core goal of human society and that its relentless accumulation has no serious consequences on the environment. The first is a surrender to the world which Christianity, if it still existed with any cultural force, should do all it can to resist – because it does not, in the end, make people happy or good. The second is undeniable. Tyler, like Manzi, sees growth as the possible solution to the environmental crisis growth has created. I sure hope they’re right and have come to see the futility of somehow making this growth somehow carbon-free by just taxing or controlling carbon when technology has actually made it cheaper, more plentiful and domestic. But that surely depends on some great technological breakthrough we cannot know or predict. And if we are wrong, and growth creates a carbon Rubicon from which the planet will never be able to escape, then welcome to life on Mars.

Anyway, hope your Thursday is going swimmingly.

(Image from XKCD)