If you believe Lou Dobbs and most politicians on the campaign trail, you would think the great American middle class has basically vanished—squeezed to death by falling home values, rising medical and tuition bills, and competition from low-wage workers in Mexico and China.
Today’s Washington Post business section provides a valuable reality check. In a story headlined, “An Upside for the Middle Class: Lost Amid the Stresses Are Gains in Standard of Living,” reporter Michael A. Fletcher provides an even-handed assessment of just where the American middle class stands today.
The article reports what the doomsayers have been saying about rising levels of consumer debt, “flattening wages” and rising income inequality. But it also quotes from a range of experts that trade, technology and economic growth have raised the standard of living for most Americans.
Here are a few facts from the Post article that you won’t learn from CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight:
Items once considered luxuries—dishwashers, central air conditioning, video cameras—are now common. The average size of new homes has increased 40 percent in the past generation. And as many consumer items cost less, Americans are shopping more. In 1991 the average American bought 33.7 pieces of apparel; by 2002 he or she bought 48 items, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor. In 2005, she said, Americans were projected to discard more than 63 million computers.
Americans are twice as likely to travel overseas than they were in 1980, and overall they spend more than ever for other recreation, including sporting events, movies and plays—the mark of an ever-improving quality of life, some researchers say.
Of course, supporting a middle class family can be and often is hard work. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be panicked into grasping for big-government solutions to an economic crisis that does not exist.
For a more in-depth look at how most Americans are faring in this era of expanding trade and globalization, you can check out my recent Cato study, “Trading Up: How Expanding Trade Has Delivered Better Jobs and Higher Living Standards for American Workers.”