Like an exhausted sprint specialist vainly trying to finish strong in a 1500 meter race, the United States is getting lapped by opponents previously thought to be second rate. A recent New York Times study details the falling fortunes of America’s middle class, no longer the wealthiest middle class in the world. Nineteenth-century America gave improved definition to the term middle class, originally used in England during the 1850s. Historian Charles Morris says that in America – unlike aristocratic and socially stratified Europe – the term worker was a job description rather than a marker of class status.* For a long time, American social or economic mobility (work hard and move up) was also the envy of the world. That’s no longer the case; like the sprinter who can’t finish a distance race with any strength, America no longer leads its competition in social mobility.
Let’s keep it real: there are two important considerations as this conversation continues. Firstly, let’s not feel sorry for the American middle class. To live in middle class America is to experience – within historical and current contexts – great blessings of material consequence. Middle class Americans have wide access to goods and opportunities; yesterday’s luxuries have become today’s necessities, and there are also plenty of new gadgets. Compared to other developed nations, the American middle class yet grades out far above average in most economic categories. The other important consideration, however, is that the share of wealth and income held by the very richest in America has increased, in the last thirty-five years, to historically dangerous levels. One only needs to look to the Gilded Age and the roaring ’20s (which helped create the Great Depression) to discover that an economic system top-heavy in rewards is not only unsustainable in the long run, but it exacerbates social inequalities.
Here’s a crucial overlooked reality: Income differences within a society matter more than income differences between countries. Does a middle class kid have it better in the United States than in China? By material measures: yes. But income inequalities have a tendency to increase status competition within a society, often times to the detriment of that society’s common good. Ever seen “poor” kids in the United States, whose parents might need food assistance to feed their families, wearing expensive sneakers? Status competition within a society influences a poor kid and his family to make a decision economically ill-advised but socially needful.
A question: Do you want to live in a society where the very richest continue to get far richer and social inequalities increase as a result? It hasn’t been like this for most of our history, but the United States in this current day is one of the most economically unequal countries on the face of the earth . . . that’s not a good race in which to be a front-runner.
Charles Morris, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, Holt (2006), 13-16.