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The situation of the middle class is a hot topic these days, and rightly so. In addition to James Carville and Stan Greenberg's recent book, It's the Middle Class, Stupid, new books are out by Donald Barlett & James Steele, Jeff Faux, and Mike Lofgren.Together, they advance our understanding of middle class issues significantly.

Barlett and Steele have been sounding the alarm about middle class decline since they wrote the first newspaper articles forming the core of 1992's America: What Went Wrong? In The Betrayal of the American Dream, they tell the stories of everyday Americans, many of whom they kept up with after interviewing them for previous books. They date the beginning of the decline of the middle class to the 1970s, which I think is correct since that is when real wages for production and non-supervisory workers began their forty year decline. They emphasize the central role of Congressional and Presidential decision-making that has given us tax rules favoring the 1%, laws allowing private equity and other corporate raiders to raid pension funds and break contracts with unions and retirees, trade agreements, industry deregulation (which they see as highly destabilizing for the middle class), the destruction of retirement via the assault on pensions and their replacement with 401(k)'s, and the devastation of offshoring.

Their proposed solutions include raising taxes on the rich, and to consider instituting a financial transactions tax (also known as a Tobin tax, after its first proponent) or a gross receipts tax, which would be harder to dodge than the corporate income tax. Barlett and Steele argue further that we need to rebuild manufacturing and reduce the trade deficit, with high tariffs if necessary. They propose massive investments in infrastructure and education, including job training. Finally, they argue that the financial fraudsters who caused the 2008 financial crisis need to be prosecuted. Surprisingly, they say little about getting money out of politics, though they do mention it in their prologue as well as the well-funded corporate propaganda machine.

Jeff Faux, founder of the Economic Policy Institute, was fighting trade agreements long before mainstream economists were willing to admit that maybe free trade isn't always good for everybody, especially workers in the United States. His book, The Servant Economy, is a dystopian vision of the future of the middle class if present trends are not reversed. His basic argument is what he calls an "end-of-empire story," that the U.S. can no longer sustain subsidized capitalism, global military dominance, and middle class prosperity. He argues that the country's former economic and military dominance gave it a "cushion" that was able to sustain the middle class, but that the pressures of international trade and global competition have eroded that cushion along with the nation's ability to achieve all three of the goals mentioned above.

For Faux, much of the problem stems from the increasing U.S. trade deficit, which figures in prominently throughout the book. The rise of finance relative to manufacturing is a key problem as well, one which has made the Democratic Party more dependent on Wall Street Money, which led to Clinton ending Glass-Steagall and Obama treating bankers with kid gloves after he came into office. Worse, as we saw in the 2011 debt negotiations and other instances, the President has made it clear that he thinks there needs to be cuts to Social Security.

"Hope is not a strategy," according to Faux, and he devotes an entire chapter to what he calls "the shaky case for optimism." He foresees a "politics of austerity" that will mean cuts to middle class programs, the continuing loss of good jobs to the trade deficit, and slowly declining living standards and economic security for the vast majority of Americans for decades to come.. He calls cuts to Social Security and Medicare "a done deal." To me, perhaps the single most depressing statistic in the book relates to the much hyped "onshoring" phenomenon: GE has moved some production from China to Louisville, but the workers there make $13/hour compared to the $22/hour they formerly made.

What, then, is to be done? In a talk Faux gave at the Economic Policy Institute August 15th, he explained that he didn't see the need to give a laundry list of policy proposals because, first, he had done so in previous books, and second, there was no point in it unless we change government decision-making. Thus, it is essentially a one-point program, a constitutional amendment that ends corporate "personhood" permanently. This would also have the effect of overturning Citizens United. Without that, he argues, there is no hope.

Lofgren's book, The Party Is Over, is a Republican-eye view of what went wrong, beginning with Newt Gingrich's takeover of the Republican Party. While highly critical of the rightward, anti-science turn of his party, he argues that the Democrats are not much better, and have suffered from extremely bad messaging (he says the stimulus act should have been called the "jobs bill," for example). Interestingly, his major recommendation is to cut trillions from defense spending and redirect it to infrastructure. Of course, he wants to get the money out of politics, too, but cutting defense is his most distinctive policy proposal.

Taken together, these books are largely complementary, though each has its own distinct emphasis. Faux's book, in my opinion, is the best of the three, though also the most depressing. His vision of a likely future is far too plausible to take lightly.

Originally posted to Kenneth Thomas on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 09:39 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Readers and Book Lovers.

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