With all the yapping from the Housing Industrial Complex about the American Dream as embodied in the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with no prepayment penalty, it is timely to take a broader look at the American Dream.
In a recent presentation on C-SPAN of his book "The American Dream: A Cultural History" at the New York Public Library, Lawrence Samuel examined how it has evolved throughout the post-World War II period from the point of view of the middle class.
The middle class itself requires some definition, and from the outset. Samuel defines it not as a given level of income, but as the middle third of percentile rankings of net worth, a more comprehensive measure that smoothes out the effects of fluctuations in income. Thus, even though the middle class may expand, shrink or almost disappear by some measures, a third of the population will always be in it by this definition.
Samuel notes that there has been "a lot of chatter" about the middle class and that President Obama has referred to it numerous times in speeches, calling it "the defining issue of our time." (I would call the financial crisis the defining issue of our time, but the two are to some extent related.)
Samuel dates the emergence of the middle class to the period between World Wars I and II. (Of course, World War I was originally called The Great War.) Over the long run, Samuel finds, the middle class has become fewer in number and has lost political power, and this state of the middle class is an important cultural issue.
After World War II, with the exception of a couple of severe recessions, the country enjoyed a long period of prosperity. In Samuel's words, "The middle class in the 1950s enjoyed the bounty of the tough years (of Depression and war)."
During the postwar period and into the 1960s, factory workers were able to get jobs that paid well enough to support a middle-class lifestyle, meaning they could shop at mid-level stores and occasionally stores like Nordstrom, they could eat out occasionally and take vacations away from home.
However, Samuel dates the breaking up of the middle class to the mid-1960s, due to counter-culture influences and a tiring of LBJ's Great Society. (I doubt that the public ever tired of the Great Society, which was reborn under the Texas Bushes, but the public is tired of trying to pay for it.)
In the 1970s the economy went from bad to worse, as "stagflation" set in due to the effects of trying to support the Vietnam War and the Great Society. War in the Middle East gave the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries the power to raise oil prices, and the United States adopted gas rationing. Americans broadly identified with the middle class, and Samuel says they loved Jimmy Carter. (Picture Carter emerging from Air Force One carrying his own garment bag, which we now know was empty.)
Samuel doesn't use the word malaise, but ultimately the word came to define the Carter years. Samuel identifies a bifurcation of the middle class into an upper middle class, the so-called yuppies, who adopted a conspicuous lifestyle, and a lower middle class that was left behind. He attributes this split to the Reagan tax cuts, which drastically cut rates for the upper brackets from the extremely high rates that prevailed in the postwar period.
In the 1980s the number of employees at McDonald's exceeded that of General Motors. In order to maintain a middle class lifestyle, households had to maintain two or more jobs. For this, Samuel blames the demands of the lifestyle, not Ronald Reagan.
In the 1990s, lower middle class families suffered wage declines due to outsourcing and went into debt, living paycheck to paycheck. For the upper middle class, the tech economy and the stock market boomed in the Clinton years due to a "crazy" bubble in tech start-ups that would crash at the turn of the decade/century.
Finally, from 2000 on, the financial sector pulled away from the rest of the economy, so that by 2005, the top 1 percent of earners received as much as the remaining 99 percent, and the top 5 percent came to account for a third of consumption, so that the middle class effectively disappeared.
Samuel points to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as the leading exponent of aiming policy to the middle class, proposing reductions in property taxes and college tuition. (Schumer wrote a book, "Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time," addressed to a mythical middle-class family he called the Baileys.)
Samuel observes that Obama ran on an appeal to the lower middle class, but the moved toward the middle. (Readers are probably thinking that Obama personally became a conspicuous consumer, especially of lavish vacations in upscale locales with high-class golf courses and a helicopter for the first dog.)
Samuel concludes that both parties are appealing rhetorically to the middle class, but it is effectively gone. (The implication is that the model for the lower middle class is to hold three jobs, but these jobs are hard to find and employers restrict the hours of work in order to avoid having to pay benefits, including Obamacare.)
His long-term thesis, and one definitely worth pondering, is that the establishment of the middle class during the pre- and post-World War II periods were an aberration, and the squeezing of the middle class so decried by politicians represents normality.
So whenever you hear candidates wax eloquent over the American Dream and the middle-class lifestyle, whether or not the rhetoric is accompanied by strains of "America the Beautiful," that would be a good time to hit the mute button or change the channel.
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