Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Sources of Middle Class Anxiety

In today's New York Sun Robert Samuelson argues that middle class anxiety results from an economy that generates greater returns at the expense of greater risk. He claims that we are better off because many of us have purchased technologically advanced consumer products like flat screen televisions and high speed internet access but at the same time the fluidity that a market economy requires has made us less secure. Mr. Samuelson's argument is half right. Americans are less secure, but they have bought less security at the price of stagnant real wages. In the past 36 years wages have increased at lower rates than in any prior period of American history.

According to the Census Bureau, in the 23 years from 1947 to 1971, American males' real incomes in 2006 dollars increased from $17,967 to $31,915, an increase of 77.6%. In 1971 Richard M. Nixon abolished the international gold standard. In the 35 years from 1971 to 2006 American males' real wages increased from $31,915 to $36,011, an increase of 12.8%. The reduction of increase from 77.6% to 12.8% is 83.5%. This is unquestionably the slowest wage growth in any 36-year period of American history.

In contrast, a 1971 dollar was worth $.55 in 1947, an inflation rate of 1/.55= 181.8%, while a 2006 dollar was worth $.20 in 1971, an increase of 1/.20 = 500%. Moreover, the consumer price index was doctored in the early 1980s to omit house prices, price increases of which have been the primary source of economic anxiety among the middle class until this past year. Thus, while real incomes increased at the slowest rate in American history between 1971 and 2006, 12.8% over 35 years, prices increased at the fastest rate in American history over the past 35 years, 500%, and their increase was understated.

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