If we want social / economic renewal, we have to make it easy to climb the ladder to middle class security for anyone willing to adopt the values and habits of thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work.
Let’s stipulate that the rise of the middle class is the core driver of expansion, innovation and democracy and the decay of the middle class is the core source of economic / political / social disorder and decline.
The pathway to middle class security has profound social, political and economic consequences. As people acquire means, they can afford more education, and they have a stake in the system that needs to be defended / advocated. This advocacy nurtures a diversity of views, democratic / legal institutions and a free press.
As the book The Inheritance of Rome detailed, the egalitarian aspects of Roman rule continued to influence everyday life for hundreds of years.
It took centuries for feudalism to eradicate these holdovers from Roman rule (for example, peasant ownership of land).
The rise of ths middle class broke the stranglehold of feudalism by encouraging free movement of labor and capital, and strengthening weak central governments to the point that feudal fiefdoms answered to the central government again, as in the Roman and Carolingian eras.
The key factor that determines the rise of a middle class is the relative ease of laborers becoming middle class. In the classical Roman era, freed slaves often ended up doing very well for themselves and becoming middle class, as the class boundaries were porous enough to enable craftworkers and small merchants to improve their lot in life.
This boils down to this question: are thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work enough to transform a family from penury to middle class?
If the answer is “yes,” then the ladder to middle class security is open to anyone who adopts these values / habits.
If the answer is “no,” then the ladder to middle class security is not open to everyone, and the economy stagnates.
Broadly speaking, virtually anyone who rigorously adopted thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work in the fifty years from 1946 to 1995 could (once they married and gained a two-income household) eventually afford a family and a stake in the system–a house and/or small business, a pension, etc.
Once financialization and globalization rose to dominance and distorted the economy with increasing wealth and income inequality (“winner take most”), this was no longer the case.
Workers of average skill, motivation and wages who adopt thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work can no longer afford a family or a stake in the system–at least in high-cost, enormously unequal locales.
This is true not just of the U.S. but globally.
This reality has fueled two trends of decay: 1) a dependence on speculation as the only means to “get ahead” and 2) “laying flat” / “let it rot”–giving up on marrying, having a family and acquiring a stake in the system.
Once these aspirations are only available to those with the right connections or extraordinary drive / talent, society and the economy decay and collapse under the weight of inequality–an inequality defended by those who made it to the top and want to preserve the status quo as it is.
This is the driver of decay and collapse: once the elites devote themselves to suppressing adaptations and defending extremes of wealth-income-power inequality that benefit them, the system loses the adaptability that arises from a broad-based middle class.
The top 10% want the status quo to continue as is, even as the bottom 90% fall behind. When enough of the bottom 90% decide to “let it rot,” the entire structure collapses under its own weight.
If we want social / economic renewal, we have to make it easy to climb the ladder to middle class security for anyone willing to adopt the values and habits of thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work. The dominance of a class of self-interested insiders and rentiers precludes this, as this class will expend the last of its resources defending the corrupting inequality that has enriched them so gloriously.
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