The risk of getting old with no pension is also rising. In 1980, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms gave their workers "defined-benefit" pensions that guaranteed a fixed amount of money every month after they retired. Now it's down to under 10 percent. Instead, they offer "defined contribution" plans where the risk is on the workers. When the stock market tanks, as it did in 2008, the 401(k) plan tanks along with it. Today, a third of all workers with defined-benefit plans contribute nothing, which means their employers don't either.
And the risk of losing earnings continues to grow. Even before the crash of 2008, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at University of Michigan found that over any given two-year stretch about half of all families experienced some decline in income. And the downturns were becoming progressively larger. In the 1970s, the typical drop was about 25 percent. By late 1990s, it was 40 percent. By the mid-2000s, family incomes rose and fell twice as much as they did in the mid-1970s, on average.
What Romney and the cheerleaders of risk-taking free enterprise don't want you to know is the risks of the economy have been shifting steadily away from CEOs and Wall Street -- and on to average working people. It's not just income and wealth that are surging to the top. Economic security is moving there as well, leaving the rest of us stranded.
To the extent free enterprise is on trial, the real question is whether the system is rigged in favor of those at the top who get rewarded no matter how badly they screw up, while the rest of us get screwed no matter how hard we work.
The jury will report back Election Day. In the meantime, Obama and the Democrats shouldn't allow Romney and the Republicans to act as defenders of risk-taking free enterprise. Americans need to know the truth. The only way the economy can thrive is if we have more risk-taking at the top, and more economic security below.