Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Rise and Decline of the Middle Class

My first "real" job out of college was working for a plastics manufacturing corporation located in Manchester, Connecticut. One of my managers was an organization specialist from Gent, Belgium. During the course of one long conversation he explained to me how America had benefited from World War Two. He told me that as a result of the war, the manufacturing capabilities of the entire world had been wiped out. From England, to the rest of Europe, and from Russia to Japan, factories were in ruins. After the war, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you had to buy American.

This one factor greatly stimulated the expansion of the middle class. Coupled with the array of social programs and "safety nets" that were instituted decades earlier by the American government as a result of the Great Depression, as well as the ensuing baby boom, the American middle class grew and prospered.

My conversation with Abe was in the early 1980's, during a recession, much milder than our most recent one. Abe warned me that the rest of the world had rebuilt their factories since the war. They had "modernized", and were in an advantageous position to compete with American manufacturing, which had not, modernized that is.

Decades have passed since my conversation with Abe. There has been a revolution of technology and information. New products have been designed and new factories have been built. Though most great inventions are born in the United States, more often then not as a result of subsidies from America taxpayers, manufacturing and distribution continues to be relegated to the rest of the world. And this is a result of politics and business practices, and has nothing to do with modernization.  Remember that Henry Ford realized it was good business to pay employees enough to buy the products they built.

Ironically, or maybe not so, the Counterculture of the 60's and 70's was primarily comprised of baby boomers, a product of the thriving middle class. Despite the many defects of the movement, it caused indelible changes to our societal structure in the realm of civil rights, sexual mores, women's rights, and our attitudes towards war. One of the factors that ended the Counterculture movement, and at the same time cemented in place many of the "causes" and social issues fostered by the movement, were the actions of Patty Hearst and those of the Mansion family. The establishment through compromise and change, and a sort of "bringing into the fold", absorbed positive elements of the movement and, at the same time, condemned and ended the violence.

The middle class, a source of change in recent American history, is rapidly declining. And much of the progress is being undone. Perhaps this is why the Republicans and the financial aristocracy are doing everything they can to destroy it.

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