Posts Tagged ‘history’


Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.


*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.


Special mention

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Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*


For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

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And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

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Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.


*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.

The original premise of this post was going to be the fact that, finally, we find ourselves beyond the Red Scare. Thus, the space had been created to “move forward without forgetting” the positive role that Communism and Marxist ideas have played in the United States.

And then I read about the case of Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate in New York City, who’s being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations.

The representative told Ms. Bloomberg that she could not tell her the nature of any allegations, nor who had made them, but said that she would need to interview Ms. Bloomberg’s staff.

Then one of her assistant principals, who had met with an investigator, revealed to her exactly what the allegation was, one that seemed a throwback to another era: Communist organizing.

It seems, then, we haven’t moved entirely out of the shadow of the period (from 1930 to 1975) when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated a wide variety of public employees and private citizens, including (in 1947) the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, for their suspected “disloyalty and subversive activities.”*

It is perhaps even more remarkable then that, in 2017—which, lest we forget, marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of volume one of Marx’s Capital and the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution—the New York Times published Vivian Gornick’s piece titled “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

In that essay, Gornick reminisces about growing up in a world of “progressives,” at the center of which “were full-time organizers for the Communist Party, at the periphery left-wing sympathizers, and at various points in between everything from rank-and-file party card holders to respected fellow travelers.”

They were voyagers on that river, these plumbers, pressers and sewing machine operators; and they took with them on their journey not only their own narrow, impoverished experience but also a set of abstractions with transformative powers. When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them. They spoke and thought within a context that lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity into which they had been born, and gave them the conviction that they had rights as well as obligations. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians with a founding myth of their own (the Russian Revolution) and a civilizing worldview (Marxism).

They also knew that Communists and fellow travelers had, during the party’s 40-year existence, played an important role in every progressive movement in the United States.

every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor; party lawyers defended blacks in the South; party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia; farm workers in California; steel workers in Pittsburgh. What made it all real were the organizations the party built: the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils.

All of that came to end, of course, with the second Red Scare, the McCarthy witch hunts and the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (Nikita Khrushchev revealed the incalculable horrors of Stalin’s rule). But, now that we are partly overcoming our historical amnesia, we can begin to remember the enormous contributions of the Party and its sympathizers in many different political, cultural, and media projects that promoted peace and economic and social justice in the United States.
So, where does that leave Bini Adamczak’s new book, Communism for Kids? On one hand, it was issued not by some small left-wing publishing house, but by MIT Press.

Once upon a time, people yearned to be free of the misery of capitalism. How could their dreams come true? This little book proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism. Offering relief for many who have been numbed by Marxist exegesis and given headaches by the earnest pompousness of socialist politics, it presents political theory in the simple terms of a children’s story, accompanied by illustrations of lovable little revolutionaries experiencing their political awakening.

And yet, as Zachary Volkert reports, the book is “getting a heavy push back from conservative media.”

Does that mean we’re back to where we started? In many senses, yes. Just as the attack on the labor unions in the 1920s and the ravages of the first Great Depression created fertile ground for the Communist Party and other left-wing movements in the United States, similar events in recent decades have left us with many people who yearn “to be free of the misery of capitalism.” And both periods have witnessed right-wing reactions against those progressive movements and ideas.

Now, of course, we live in an age marked by a right-wing president and the most popular politician who happens to be on the Left—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I still believe only the latter represents the way forward.


*The title of this post is a line from the “Solidarity Song” (written for Brecht’s play “The Mother”), which subsequently became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe.


Special mention

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On the eve of their presidential election, the French people and politicians continue to debate how they should respond to the end of “Les Trente Glorieuses,” a period that appears to receding into ancient history.

Except, as it turns out, for those at the very top, for whom the last thirty years have been quite glorious.

According to new research by Bertrand Garbinti, Jonathan Goupille-Lebret, and Thomas Piketty, between 1983 and 2014, average per adult national income rose by 35 percent in real terms in France. However, actual cumulated growth was not the same for all income groups:

the growth incidence curve is characterized by an impressive upward-sloping part at the top. Cumulated growth between 1983 and 2014 was 31% on average for the bottom 50% of the distribution, 27% for next 40%, and 50% for the top 10%. Most importantly, cumulated growth remains below average until the 95th percentile, and then rises steeply, up to as much as 100% for the top 1% and 150% for the top 0,01%.

The contrast with the earlier, 1950-1983 period is particularly striking. In effect, during the “Thirty Glorious Years,” Garbinti, Goupille-Lebret, and Piketty observe the exact opposite pattern: growth rates were very high for the bottom 95 percent of the population (about 3.5 percent per year) and fell abruptly above the 95th percentile (1.5 percent at the very top). However, as is clear from the chart above, between 1983 and 2014, growth rates were very modest for the bottom 95 percent of the population (about 1 percent per year) and rose sharply above the 95th percentile (3 percent at the very top).

As we know, similar patterns hold for the United Kingdom (which voted for Brexit) and the United States (which elected Donald Trump).

The key question in France, in the first and second rounds of the presidential election, is how French voters will respond to a political economy that has generated thirty glorious years only for those at the very top.


Who’s running away with the surplus, those at the top or those at the very top?

In a new study on “income inequality in the 21st century,” Fatih Guvenen and Greg Kaplan note that recent increases in inequality in the United States need to be understood in terms of trends of and, especially, within the top 1 percent. That’s particularly true when, instead of using Social Security data (which capture labor income), they turn to Internal Revenue data (which capture all forms of income).

While I agree with Guvenen and Kaplan that historically there have been significant differences between the incomes of the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent—those at the top and those at the very top—in my view, they tend to exaggerate the differences and lose sight of the fact that the two groups have become one.

Clearly, as can be seen in the chart above (based on data from Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman), the average income of those in the top tenth of one percent has risen much more than that of the top one percent. From 1979 to 2014, the average income of those at the very top has risen 277 percent compared to an increase of 183 percent for those at the top. But, of course, the average incomes of both groups have soared compared to that of the bottom 90 percent, which has increased only 27 percent over the same period.

And while they’re right, the rise in capital income much more than labor income helps explain the rising share of income of those at the very top, especially in recent decades, the fact is both groups—whether in the form of labor or capital income—have managed to capture a rising share of the surplus.

Where do those incomes come from?

The following two charts illustrate the composition of incomes of the top 1 percent and top 0.1 percent, respectively.



One way of making sense of the way those at the top and those at the very top manage to capture a portion of the surplus is by distinguishing between a labor component (in various shades of blue in both charts) and a capital component (in shades of green). When added together, the two components represent the total share of national income that goes to the top 1 percent (which rose from 11.1 to 20.2 percent) and the top 0.1 percent (which rose from 3.9 to 9.3 percent) between 1979 and 2014.

The labor component comprises two categories: employee compensation (e.g., payments to CEOs and executives in finance) and the labor part of noncorporate business profits (e.g, partnerships and sole proprietorships). Capital income can be similarly decomposed into various categories: interest paid to pension and insurance funds, net interest, corporate profits, noncorporate profits, and housing rents (net of mortgages).

As can be seen in the top chart above, by 2014 the top 1 percent derived over half of their incomes from capital-related sources. In earlier decades, from the late-1970s to the late-1990s, a much larger share of their income came from labor sources. They were the so-called “working rich.” This process culminated in 2000 when the capital share in top 1 percent incomes reached a low point of 49.4 percent. Since then, however, it has bounced back—to 58.6 percent in 2014. Thus, the “working rich” of the late-twentieth century are increasingly living off their capital income, or are in the process of being replaced by their offspring who are living off their inheritances.

Much the same trend, in an even exaggerated fashion, is true of those at the very top, the top 0.1% (in the lower chart). More than half of their income has always come from capital-related sources. They were never the “working rich”; they were always for the most part “coupon clippers.” The share of their income from capital-related sources was already 60 percent in 1979 and continued to grow (to 63 percent) by 2014.

What this means, in general terms, is the growth of inequality over decades is due to the ability of those at the top and those at the very top to capture a large portion of the growing surplus. But there has also been a change in the nature of that inequality in recent years, at least for those at the top—which is not due to escalating wage inequality, but to a boom in income from the ownership of stocks and bonds. They’ve now joined the ranks of the “coupon clippers,” who are able to use their accumulated wealth to get their share of the surplus.

It looks then as if those at the top have either turned into or been replaced by rentiers, thus joining the existing owners of capital at the very top—thereby mirroring, after a short interruption, the structure of inequality last seen during the first Gilded Age.