I should like to return yet again to the Piketty, Saez, Zucman paper, about which I have written these past two days, because it is centrally important to my thinking about American politics, but first I must respond to the interesting questions posed by Michael S. concerning the turmoil in British politics [see the comments section on yesterday’s post.] I realize that I am violating one of the sacred principles of blogging by saying this, but I simply do not know enough either about the British parliamentary system or about Brexit to have a coherent opinion regarding the possibility of a second referendum. I could, of course, pontificate – what else, after all, is a Blog good for? – but I am so clueless on this issue that I would not even know which is the reliably left-wing side of the issue, let alone [as Michael S. asks] the anarchist position. There, I have said it. There are some things I just don’t know anything about. I hope Google will not decommission my Blog as a consequence.
Without endlessly repeating myself, let me come back to the broad outlines of the Piketty et al. paper, and try in this post to think about what it tells us about the lived experiences of the several groupings on which it concentrates. Specifically, how do the experiences of the Bottom 50th in the last two generations differ from those of the Middle 40th to 90th? I refer to “two generations” rather than a span of time [roughly 1980 to the present] because I am interested in what it is like to grow up and grow old in one or another of those segments of American society.
Remember, the central and defining fact of human existence is the endlessly repeated life cycle: birth, childhood, young adulthood, mature adulthood, old age [assuming you are fortunate enough to make it that far]. As Erik Erikson and many others have noted, our lived experience of what happens to us is powerfully shaped by what we learn to expect when we are young and then either have confirmed or disconfirmed by what happens to us as we grow older.
To those born roughly when my parents were young, in the years before the First World War, the defining experiences were that war, the boom years that followed, and then the Great Depression. People of that generation could see the poverty and fragility of old age, and then experienced the threat of unemployment, only lifted by the Second World War. The Social Security Administration was established in 1935, and by the time the war years were behind us, people were seeing the radical alteration in the arc of the life cycle that it brought. Thirty years later, in 1965, Medicare began, and that, coupled with increases in life expectancy, transformed the expectations most people had of retirement and old age. By the end of World War II, life expectancy in the U.S. was barely up to the age at which Social Security kicked in, although of course if you made it past early childhood the prospects were much better.
Putting all of this together, we can conclude that children and young adults of the Bottom Half in the early ‘80s could see, looking around them, large numbers of grandparents and aging parents whose Golden Years were protected by Social Security and Medicare. This was simply a part of the background expectation of their lives. They did not think of these transfer programs, as economists like Piketty et al. do, as part of their income. They took them for granted. So when, for the next thirty years and more, their cash-in-pocket income either barely kept pace with inflation or actually declined, they did not say, “Ah, but we must take into account our future Social Security and Medicare.” Instead, they felt things slipping away. What is more, they completely lost the easy confidence of their parents that each generation would have things better than the generation just before.
The life experiences of the Middle Class, so called, were completely different. Social Security for them was not the only thing between decent old age and desperate poverty. Rather, it was a convenient add-on to pensions, investments, and other protections of the non-earning phase of the life cycle.
The Bottom Half watched as politicians ceased to concern themselves with their needs and anxieties, and instead spoke endlessly, obsessively, about a Middle Class of which they were not really members. To be sure, for reasons of race, White members of the Bottom Half identified themselves as “Middle Class,” by which for the most part they meant “Not Black.” But they were not really part of that ever-better-off 50th to 90th, and they knew it.
As has happened so often before in many, many countries, they turned their anger not on the 50th to 90th, whose life chances continued to improve, nor on the Top 10th, whose wealth soared into the stratosphere, but on the Black and Brown fellow Bottom Halfians, who by and large were doing even worse than they.
These are the realities that have shaped American politics for two generations. Even Bernie’s clarion call for Free College spoke to the burdens of debt of the 35% of Americans who earn college degrees, or maybe to the 55% who start college, whether they finish or not. It had nothing to say to the thirty-five or forty percent or more who never enroll.
The challenge we on he left face is to craft an integrated program of legislative proposals designed to alter the basic 50/40/10 shape of the American economy. Clearly it will require major inroads into the already accumulated and relentlessly accumulating wealth of the top 10%, but it will as well require breaking down the division between the next 40% and the bottom 50%.
I do not have a clear vision of what those proposals might be, and I welcome discussion from all of you reading this blog.