Let us set Karl Marx to one side and try to get some sense of the state of things as we see them here in the United States in the third decade of the 21st century. I do not have a coherent story to tell about this so these will be somewhat scattered remarks but perhaps they can prompt an interesting discussion.
I am someone whose personal memories go back more than 70 years, and certain things strike me as I look around me at the United States. The first, not surprisingly, is the very great inequality in income and the much greater inequality in wealth. Thinking of America as a collection of households rather than individuals, I see a country in which median household income is something less than $70,000 a year, which means that half of all households take in less than that. But there are a number of very wealthy households which each year earn the equivalent of a millennium of the median. Think about that for a moment and just try to get your mind around it. There are households that in one year earn as much as the median household would earn in a thousand years. Wealth of course is much more unequally distributed than that. One could without difficulty but together a foursome for bridge whose collective wealth was greater than the accumulated holdings of one half of all the people in the United States.
As Thomas Piketty showed us in his very useful book, the progressive diminution of the inequality in the distribution of wealth which took place during the years when I was a young man was not a harbinger of things to come but a 30 year anomaly caused in large part by the effects of a worldwide depression followed by a world war. The structure of inequality that existed in the late 19th century and in the very earliest decades of the 20th century has now reasserted itself in the early years of the 21st century with no sign of doing anything but getting worse. Some critics of Piketty took him to task for lumping together private home ownership with productive resources under the heading of “wealth.” There is some merit in that criticism and if you drop out private homeownership from your calculations the inequality in the distribution of wealth is of course enormously greater.
Ownership of capital is, by and large, in private hands but there are several extremely important exceptions that complicate the economic picture. Think for a moment about four major spheres of activity in the United States: education, medicine, the military, and local, state, and federal government. Elementary and secondary education in America is almost entirely public, not private, despite the best efforts of Betsy DeVos. Tertiary education is a more complicated picture in America, although not in the same way in other advanced capitalist economies, but in the years after the second world war the public higher education sector grew much more rapidly than the private sector and continues to dominate the university and college world despite efforts now to undermine public control of higher education. The military, which is an enormous institutional structure absorbing a great deal of social resources, is also almost entirely public, once again despite the best efforts of the brother of Betsy DeVos. Finally government is no longer, if it ever was, merely the Executive Committee of the ruling class and has become an extremely large part of the economy.
Despite these exceptions, it remains true that productive capital is for the most part privately owned, so that the collective wealth of the country cannot easily or significantly be put to uses that are collectively decided upon.
With the perspective of more than seven decades, I find several things about those years extremely striking. The first is the contrast between the steady increase in the productivity of labor and the stagnation of real wages for a large portion of the economically active part of the population. The second is the important change in the proportion of the population of working age. At one end, the almost sevenfold increase in the number of people with four-year college degrees means that for at least a third of young people the age at which they enter the labor force full time has been put off for four years or more. A corresponding change has taken place in the proportion of the population who are beyond working years. Much of the increase in life expectancy over the past century is a result of a dramatic reduction in infant mortality, but if you compare life expectancy at age 65 now with what it was when I was young you will find that those reaching the end of their work life can now on average expect to live twice as long as they could back then. The Social Security program was instituted at the time when most people living long enough to get Social Security benefits could expect to get them for only a few years. Now they can expect 15 years or more of Social Security checks.
Thus even during periods of full employment, a smaller proportion of Americans is supporting a larger proportion of the young and the old. This fact makes the grotesque inequality of income and wealth even more of a pressing problem. An extraordinary story in the New York Times last Sunday summarized population data that point to a worldwide decline in fertility with profound implications for the economic organization of 21st century countries, capitalist or otherwise. The statistic that stunned me was a projection that between now and 2100, the population of China will in all likelihood drop from 1.4 billion to 700 million!
To bring to a conclusion these scattered observations and reflections, let me say just a word about what the pandemic here in the United States has taught us about labor in the 21st century. When things were going well, before the pandemic hit, it was easy and comfortable and terribly advanced to talk about the fact that everyone these days was in the information business, working on a computer or cell phone, not with a shovel or harvester. Then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden everybody was talking about “essential workers” whom society could not afford to send home for several months to keep themselves safe. Doctors and nurses of course were considered essential workers, but so too were bus drivers and grocery store clerks and meatpacking workers and farmers and long-haul truckers and everyone else who makes it possible for all of us to survive day by day. Needless to say, the touching celebrations of these essential workers did not actually reach so far as to increase their wages any. But it was a helpful reminder that even in this postindustrial information age, we really do need the labor of the men and women produce our food, clothing, and shelter. Happily, as the pandemic comes to an end, we can go back to pretending that those people do not exist and we can go on paying them miserable wages so that Jeff Bezos can buy MGM.