two modes of invading private property; the first, by which the poor plunder
the rich" sudden and violent; the second, by which the rich plunder the poor,
slow and legal."
--JOHN TAYLOR, An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814)Do you recall a time when the income of a single schoolteacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? I do. In the 1950s, my father, Ed Reich, had a shop on the main street of a nearby town, in which he sold women's clothing to the wives of factory workers. He earned enough for the rest of us to live comfortably. We weren't rich but never felt poor, and our standard of living rose steadily through the 1950s and 1960s.
That used to be the norm. For three decades after World War II, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the earnings of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. Over the last thirty years, by contrast, the size of the economy doubled again but the earnings of the typical American went nowhere.
Then, the CEOs of large corporations earned an average of about twenty times the pay of their typical worker. Now they get substantially over two hundred times. In those years, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 9 to 10 percent of total income; today the top 1 percent gets more than 20 percent.
Then, the economy generated hope. Hard work paid off, education was the means toward upward mobility, those who contributed most reaped the largest rewards, economic growth created more and better jobs, the living standards of most people improved throughout their working lives, our children would enjoy better lives than we had, and the rules of the game were basically fair.
But today all these assumptions ring hollow. Confidence in the economic system has declined sharply. The apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the economy have undermined the public's faith in its basic tenets. Cynicism abounds. To many, the economic and political systems seem rigged, the deck stacked in favor of those at the top.
The threat to capitalism is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for growth and stability. When most people stop believing they and their children have a fair chance to make it, the tacit social contract societies rely on for voluntary cooperation begins to unravel. In its place comes subversion, small and large-- petty theft, cheating, fraud, kickbacks, corruption. Economic resources gradually shift from production to protection.
We have the power to change all this, re-creating an economy that works for the many rather than the few. Contrary to Karl Marx, there is nothing about capitalism that leads inexorably to mounting economic insecurity and widening inequality. The basic rules of capitalism are not written in stone. They are written and implemented by human beings. But to determine what must be changed, and to accomplish it, we must first understand what has happened and why.
For a quarter century, I've offered in books and lectures an explanation for why average working people in advanced nations like the United States have failed to gain ground and are under increasing economic stress: Put simply, globalization and technological change have made most of us less competitive. The tasks we used to do can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.