By Dave Faries
Editor 

A Middling Matter

 


A number of articles appeared in print recently cringing over the future of America’s vaunted middle class.

Once upon a time, white collar jobs and well paid union labor—as well as a global war that left this country in a most enviable position as the only completely intact, up-to-date industrial complex on earth—ensured that a good chunk of the population had access to merchandise and other aspects of the good life.

Yet all the while, it seems, modernization incubated the seeds of middle class destruction. Well, that’s what I’ve been reading, anyway.

Worried experts divide the blame between the ongoing Great Recession and computerized technology that doubles in power and capacity every 18 months or so while carving its way through our economy.

Information technology, robots and the like eliminated many careers. Not so long ago operators connected long distance calls, travel agents arranged flights, attendants pumped gas and members of congress actually addressed the needs of…oh, sorry—a bit off track there. When you called for product support, most likely the person on the other end spoke a local dialect.

Technology began eroding many of those occupations before the recession. The economic collapse of the late 2000s wiped out an additional 7.5 million jobs. Fully half of these paid what most of us consider middle class wages—ranging somewhere between $35,000 and $70,000 a year.

Since the recession “ended” (according to economic measures) in 2009, only a tiny fraction of the 3 million or so jobs created in the “recovery” provide a middling lifestyle.

It’s easy to blame technology for this gap. Way, way back in my undergraduate days, my computer programming textbook exclaimed in glowing terms how technology had already replaced many repetitive working class tasks. In the future, it continued, software would take over creative work, such as product labeling and design, thereby freeing the middle class to live lives of leisure.

I’m paraphrasing the book here.

At the time I questioned this blasé approach to reality. People thrown out of work with no real access to income do not necessarily “live lives of leisure.”

Yet all of this current gloom over the middle class and its demise ignores the lessons of history.

During the initial phases of the Industrial Revolution in England, thousands of skilled craftsmen lost their jobs. Karl Marx observed the destruction and predicted a severe backlash in tomes like “The Communist Manifesto.”

After much suffering—and I have to be clear that 19th Century factory labor wasn’t kind or pretty—the economy righted itself.

When technology was applied to farming, livestock and crop prices tumbled while the cost of adapting to modern practices jumped. During the Great Depression, returns on farm and ranch labor fell by half, causing many rural Americans to lose their homes and land. Less than two percent of agricultural producers today are small, independent family farms.


Yet this country continues to help feed the world.

Way back when, those in the know insisted that radio meant the doom of newspapers. Decades later, television spelled the end of radio—and of newspapers. The advent of the Internet was supposed to wipe out all three.

Change is inevitable. It destroys and creates at the same time.

We may mourn the loss of Ward Cleaver, “Father Knows Best” and the comfortable life won during the nation’s great 1940s-1960s expansion. But we should understand, inherently, that conditions in life rarely follow a steady course.

I will say the erosion of America’s middle class is troubling, as is the growing gap between rich and poor. Capitalism depends upon the ability of consumers to pay for products in an ever-growing spiral. To chop away the support system is to cause its collapse.

Yet history records so many rebuilding efforts—some of them violent, others long and strenuous, a few smooth and easy—that I’m inclined to believe we may be in the midst of one of those economic reshuffling periods that come around once in awhile…although it hardly affects me personally.

Most writers never approach within sight of middle class wages.

 

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