The PD's editorial section had an interesting piece over the weekend comparing the American economy to the seating choices on commercial airliners: First class is getting cushier and more expensive, and coach is getting more and more like a crowded bus.
The column, by Harold Meyerson of the liberal-leaning American Prospect, highlights the truth behind the old adage that "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer." And a new addition to that adage in today's economy is, "…and the middle class disappears."
This is backed up by statistics and demographics. Meyerson points out that between 2009 and 2011, the incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent of American families grew by 11.2 percent, while those of the remaining 99 percent shrunk by 0.4 percent.
So, how do we turn the trend around and begin the restoration of America's middle class? Or, as Meyerson might put it, how can we create more legroom in the middle of the plane?
Some – particularly the most conservative elements of the Republican Party – suggest that the answer is to downsize our government, reduce our tax burden and then sit back and let the American economy pull itself up by its bootstraps. This has some broad appeal, particularly since government – and particularly our federal government – seems incapable of getting anything done these days.
But it ignores reality. The American economy is driven by a corporate agenda framed by Wall Street, and it is that agenda that is responsible for the current squeeze of the middle class. As former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Hedrick Smith wrote in Sunday's editorial pages, continuing down that road is a recipe for more of the same.
Here are some of the statistics Smith used: Productivity by the American workforce increased by 97 percent between 1945 and 1973, and the income of the average family rose 95 percent in that same period. In other words, he said, Americans reaped the benefits of their hard work during that period.
More recently, however, the benefits of hard work have gone not to workers, but to CEOs and stockholders. Since 1973, productivity has risen by 80 percent, but average family income has increased by just 10 percent – and much of that gain can be attributed by more women entering the workforce.
Meanwhile, in case you haven't heard, corporate profits are at an all-time high.
And here, let's bring into the mix a third story from the weekend papers. On Page 1 Sunday, a New York Times article examined the public's "changing labor attitudes" in relation to the possibility of a strike by union members who work for Bay Area Rapid Transit. At a time when private-sector workers are seeing their wages stagnate and their benefits erode, support for public-sector unions may not be as strong as it used to be, the story suggested.
But no matter how you feel about the dispute between BART and its unions (and yes, it is time for all public employees to pay a share of their pension costs), the American middle class won't be restored by taking back the gains public employees have achieved over the last couple of decades.
The solution isn't to drag all workers to the back of the plane. It's to bring more from the back up to the middle.