Economic class stratification: the challenge of our time
The Millennials are the first generation of Americans who will see their living standards decline from that of their parent’s generation. The combination of harshly reduced living standards (enforced by the Wall Street/Washington austerity consensus), accompanied by markedly decreased job security and constant competition for scarce employment opportunities, has created a toxic social environment that is making it very hard for young people to launch properly into adult life and take on family and community responsibilities.
The Millennials are the ‘Hunger Games’ generation. I pray for them. We have failed them profoundly.
Marriage rates are plummeting across the developed world, as fewer and fewer young people have the requisite level of economic security to put together the stake necessary to launch into the ordinary life cycle of education, career, engagement, marriage and child-rearing, and dignified death in retirement. The profound levels of economic insecurity are reflected in the disintegration of the social values that accompanied that traditional life cycle. Alienation is the base-line emotional default for large sectors of young people.
Social connections are tenuous, there is no generally received ethical narrative, and levels of social trust are low. Ancestral and familial ties have been atomized, along with most traditional norms for proceeding through life judiciously. I feel very bad for many of the young people I meet. They have been cut loose, without a map or compass, into a very tricky socio-economic reality. It will be hard for many of them to form lasting, intimate relationships.
They are being downgraded toward second world economic conditions by the 40-year hegemony of the global corporate elites, beginning in the Thatcher/Reagan era. That’s when capital flows became truly global in scale, outstripping the power of national governments to rein them in through progressive taxation and financial regulation, coupled with the decimation of the union movement through corporate regulatory capture of the National Labor Relations Board.
The bargaining power of the working classes in America and Britain, which had been based on widespread union representation, has been on a downward slide, even as worker productivity has markedly increased. The Anglo-American model, working in tandem with the rise of Chinese state capitalism (with a billion powerless low-wage workers driving down the price of labor), has put the more advanced Western European social democracies under relentless economic pressure to adopt the austerity agenda or get pushed into bankruptcy.
American culture has descended into bitter decadence and cruel, hyper-competitive social behavior has become normative, as an increasingly alienated and angry American middle class is sinking inexorably down to the lowest common denominator of the global working class. American exceptionalism ended when the corporate sector purchased sufficient political power to re-engineer the American economy to reset domestic working class conditions to the terms dictated by their global market system. This was not an act of nature. It was a calculated, well-executed political agenda, designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of the plutocracy without regard for the social welfare of the populace.
Another world is still possible, hard as it might be to see how to surmount the deep structural political and economic impediments to enacting a progressive agenda. That progressive project, fully empowered by broad popular support, would place the health of the society and the sustainability of the ecosphere above the ruthless dynamic of massive private wealth accumulation for the .01 percent ruling elites and the big payoff to the 10 percent (the professional/managerial class that staff the Wall Street economic machine).
Progressive economists like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman predict we are reaching a tipping point at which a critical mass of the society will lose their emotional attachment to the plutocratic “free market” system, because they are not getting cut in on enough of the action to secure their loyalty. Obama’s remarkable recent speech on income inequality at the Center for American Progress demonstrates that the tea leaves are being read. Even Pope Francis has weighed in to emphatically denounce “trickle-down” economics. You know that you’re in trouble when the Pope starts scolding you!
America has been down this path of radical mal-distribution of social wealth at least twice before the 2008 Wall Street Crash. The ‘Robber Baron’ era of last quarter of the 19th century, and the ‘Gilded Age’ of the 1920s were similarly marked by expropriation of ever greater share of social wealth at the top, coupled with low wages and the consequent crippling debt burden forced on the general population. In all three cases, the economic system became unstable and the financial sector collapsed.
The ‘Robber Baron’ decades created a political reaction in the form of the first Progressive Era under Teddy Roosevelt, which established the foundations of Federal government in its current form, funded by progressive taxation and politically empowered through federal agencies to curb the excesses of corporate power. The ‘Gilded Age’ and the subsequent Great Depression resulted in FDR’s New Deal, which was extended by LBJ with the Great Society reforms. That was the last big step forward for the progressive movement, and it has been under constant assault by the conservative forces ever since.
We are still waiting for the full political response to this latest failure of capitalism. The election of Barack Obama was the first step, mostly as an expression of hope for a more humane political economy. The Obama Administration has not had the power (or the will) to enact a truly transformative economic agenda. I see the outlines of that project taking shape under the influence of the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, which is pushing the administration to think outside the Washington/Wall Street austerity consensus. Our modern day robber barons may end up regretting denying her the chance to head the Consumer Protection Agency! She would have been a lot less of a threat to their project in that role than she is as a U.S. Senator with broad public support and a national media platform.
The next test will come in the 2014 election, which will determine whether we remain in gut-wrenching and demoralizing political gridlock or start forward momentum towards enacting the progressive vision of shared prosperity and planetary sustainability.