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The Big American Question

Walter Russell Mead

Just a few weeks ago, the press was hailing the glories of the Obama economic recovery; now that the election is over, a darker picture is beginning to emerge. Life expectancy is falling in the United States for the first time in generations, and a recent study found that the percentage of 30 year olds earning more than their parents did at the same age has fallen to historic lows. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Economists and sociologists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California set out to measure the strength of what they define as the American Dream, and found the dream was fading. They identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, using tax and census data, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age.

In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age, they found. In 2014, that number fell to 51%.

The gloom can be overplayed; one reason young people are earning less is that as more Americans go to college and graduate school, their earnings timeframe shifts. If your father was an auto worker and you have a Ph.D. in petroleum geology, your father earned more than you did for his twenties and into the early thirties. But once you get out of graduate school you narrow the gap, and you are likely to be able to work for more years than your father did, so your lifetime earnings will be considerably greater.

Even so, the trend is a disturbing one, and especially for blue collar sons and daughters of blue collar parents, for whom the gap won’t necessarily close in future years.

The standard Democratic narrative about this is that under-regulation is the culprit: that back in the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s, we had systems of tight regulation and high taxation that made the economy work for the little guy. Plutocratic corporate class warriors dismantled those structures in the 1980s, and ever since the world has been sliding back into a Dickensian nightmare of unregulated capitalism red in tooth and claw.

If that were the story, you would expect that the Obama years would have seen a beautiful resurrection of income equality and growing opportunity across the United States. And you would also expect that highly regulated economies like Italy and Greece, with their generous welfare systems and networks of laws aimed at protecting little guys, would be celebrating a long boom. The EU as a whole, where regulations are tight, minimum wage laws are strict, and government constantly works to keep capitalism from showing its fangs, should be leaving India, China and Vietnam coughing in its wake as it rockets to prosperity past the weakly regulated, hyper-competitive Asians.

For leftists, the sad fact that blue collar workers haven’t rallied to Democrats is a sign of how stupid, racist, and easily-fooled the poor idiots are, and the apparent prescription is to speak more slowly on some days in the hopes that the workers’ tiny minds can gradually be induced to perceive larger truths, and to scream insults at the racist and misogynist working class on other days because they aren’t coming up the learning curve quickly enough.

We’ll see how well that works, but Republicans have problems of their own. Trump may have lost the popular vote, but across the United States Republicans are more firmly ensconced in power than at just about any time since the 1920s. They will now be expected to deliver, and they will be judged harshly if they fail. If life expectancy continues to fall and Millennials continue to fall behind past generations on the economic ladder, the public will turn elsewhere for answers. With the Clintonista center-left, the Obamian left-liberals and the Bushie center-righties more or less discredited for now, one hesitates to speculate where Americans might turn next if Trumpian populism is another god that fails. Perhaps Americans will give up on politics, embrace a culture of cynicism and despair, and look at politics as a kind of reality TV show. That dynamic was already present in 2016, and we could see more of it in future years.

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