Edward Luce of the Financial Times on Saturday had one of the better stories I’ve read lately on the plight of the middle class in America. It’s a long read and worth it.
It’s well reported and well written, with good anecdotes, and it’s written from the perspective of someone who knows America but is still coming at it from the outside.
The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.
The trend has only been getting stronger. Most economists see the Great Stagnation as a structural problem – meaning it is immune to the business cycle. In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.
— Our other business-press pals across the pond, The Economist, also have a look at another part of the underbelly of America—our criminal-justice system. Here’s the headline and subhed:
Too many laws, too many prisoners: Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little
You’ve seen the stats before, but it’s always good to be reminded of them:
Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan.
Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. In Alabama a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle.
— Bryce Covert compares credit cards to the subprime-mortgage industry over at New Deal 2.0.
He She (my bad!) talks about why it’s not good to talk about the problems solely as a personal responsibility issue on the part of consumers:
The responses to my credit card post mimic the response to the subprime mortgage catastrophe, which placed the blame on homeowners who got mortgages without the adequate funds to pay them back. Again, there is truth in this viewpoint. It is true that many people with little to no income bought houses that they couldn’t afford. But why were so many of these mortgages given out? Who gave them? And what were their motives?…
In Elizabeth Warren’s words: “Nothing will ever replace the role of personal responsibility. The FDA cannot prevent drug overdoses, and the CFPA cannot stop overspending. Instead, creating safer marketplaces is about making certain that the products themselves don’t become the source of trouble.”
— Kevin Drum of Mother Jones fires back at Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias over interchange fees.
… on the list of ways in which the poor are screwed, this doesn’t make the top ten. It probably doesn’t even make the top 100. But I hate the idea of dismissing it anyway. The problem is that this is practically a paradigm example of how all this screwing works throughout the financial industry: most of it is small stuff. It’s a few dollars here and there, and banks have a huge incentive to keep it that way. That way nobody really thinks it’s worthwhile to bother addressing even though those dollars add up to billions if you screw enough poor and vulnerable people at a time. And Wall Street does. That’s why this kind of thing deserves attention even if it’s not, by itself, all that big a deal: because there’s a lot of it, and it basically all benefits the haves at the expense of have-nots.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.