Workers now lose a collective $743 billion each year. The top
1 percent gains $673 billion. That's a pretty close match.
If unions had remained strong and Democrats had continued to vigorously press for more equitable economic policies, middle-class wages over the past three decades likely would have grown at about the same rate as the overall economy—just as they had in the postwar era. But they didn't, and that meant that every year, the money that would have gone to middle-class wage increases instead went somewhere else. This created a vast and steadily growing pool of money, and the chart below gives you an idea of its size. It shows how much money would have flowed to different groups if their incomes had grown at the same rate as the overall economy. The entire bottom 80 percent now loses a collective $743 billion each year, thanks to the cumulative effect of slow wage growth. Conversely, the top 1 percent gains $673 billion. That's a pretty close match. Basically, the money gained by the top 1 percent seems to have come almost entirely from the bottom 80 percent.
And what about those in the 80th to 99th percentile? They didn't score the huge payoffs of the superrich, but they did okay, basically keeping up with economic growth. Yet the skyrocketing costs of things like housing and higher education (PDF) make this less of a success story than it seems. And there's been a bigger cost as well: It turns out that today's upper-middle-class families lead a much more precarious existence than raw income figures suggest.
YOUR LOSS,THEIR GAIN
How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?
Jacob Hacker demonstrated this persuasively in The Great Risk Shift, which examined the ways in which financial risk has increasingly been moved from corporations and the government onto individuals. Income volatility, for example, has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. The odds of experiencing a 50 percent drop in family income have more than doubled since 1970, and this volatility has increased for both high school and college grads. At the same time, traditional pensions have almost completely disappeared, replaced by chronically underfunded 401(k) plans in which workers bear all the risk of stock market gains and losses. Home foreclosures are up (PDF), Americans are drowning in debt, jobs are less secure, and personal bankruptcies have soared (PDF). These developments have been disastrous for workers at all income levels.
This didn't all happen thanks to a sinister 30-year plan hatched in a smoke-filled room, and it can't be reined in merely by exposing it to the light. It's a story about power. It's about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms. With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction. And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance. In theory, that's supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone—even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick—that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone. But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.
The heart and soul of liberalism is economic egalitarianism. Without it, Wall Street will continue to extract ever vaster sums from the American economy.
It's not clear how this will get turned around. Unions, for better or worse, are history. Even union leaders don't believe they'll ever regain the power of their glory days. If private-sector union density increased from 7 percent to 10 percent, that would be considered a huge victory. But it wouldn't be anywhere near enough to restore the power of the working and middle classes.
And yet: The heart and soul of liberalism is economic egalitarianism. Without it, Wall Street will continue to extract ever vaster sums from the American economy, the middle class will continue to stagnate, and the left will continue to lack the powerful political and cultural energy necessary for a sustained period of liberal reform. For this to change, America needs a countervailing power as big, crude, and uncompromising as organized labor used to be.
Over the past 40 years, the American left has built an enormous institutional infrastructure dedicated to mobilizing money, votes, and public opinion on social issues, and this has paid off with huge strides in civil rights, feminism, gay rights, environmental policy, and more. But the past two years have demonstrated that that isn't enough. If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we've ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.