Do Democrats Really Believe Americans Are Worse Off Today Than in the 1970s?

 

In last night’s Democratic debate from Las Vegas, Bernie Sanders highlighted a key bit of modern Democratic economic theory: “The middle class of this country for the last 40 years has been disappearing.” Things have been going to hell since Nixon! (It always goes back to Nixon, doesn’t it, progressives?)

But things have not been going to hell for decades. Sure, the middle class – defined as households earning between $35,000 and $100,000 — probably has been shrinking. But through 2000, a New York Times analysis reveals, “the shift was primarily caused by more Americans climbing the economic ladder into upper-income brackets.”

New York Times

I might also point out that, according to CBO,  the “cumulative growth in the inflation adjusted after-tax income [including transfers] of households in the 21st to 80th percentiles” was an estimated 40 percent from 1979 though 2011. Could-should be better, but that’s not flat.

031115middle

How about the American Dream of upward mobility? A landmark 2014 study from the Equality of Opportunity Project examined millions of tax records and found that mobility has change little in nearly half a century.

And as I wrote in my The Week column recently:

Stagnationists often point to U.S. Census Bureau data as proof that the typical American family is little better off than when Reagan took office in 1981. As economist Martin Feldstein recently pointed out, that data show real median incomes rose just 0.3 percent a year from the middle 1980s through 2013, or about 10 percent total. Not flat, exactly, but pretty darn close. And that performance looks especially weak when one considers real per person economic growth rose by 1.8 percent annually over the period, reflecting widening inequality. Again, the rich got richer, everyone else not so much. It sounds convincing.

The problem is that Census data paints an incomplete picture. A University of Chicago poll of top economists earlier this year found that 70 percent agreed that the Census conclusion “substantially understates how much better off people in the median American household are now economically, compared with 35 years ago.” How far off are those numbers? Maybe quite a bit. Feldstein argues that they fail to take into account shrinking household size, the rise in government benefit transfers, and changes in tax policy. They also measure inflation in a way some experts thinks overstates the true rise in living costs. He notes that when the Congressional Budget Office took all those factors into account, it found median household income had risen by 53 percent since 1980, five times as much as the narrower Census figures.

And it could be even higher. A lot higher. A growing number of economists are questioning whether our existing measures of economic growth and inflation are suited to the digital economy. A recent Goldman Sachs analysis suggests we may be understating annual economic growth by nearly a third due to our inability to accurately measure how vastly improved software and hardware are boosting productivity. Likewise, government data ignores the consumer value of free internet services like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Put it all together, and Feldstein thinks real median household income may have risen by 2.5 percent a year over the past 30 years, not 0.3 percent. That would suggest a doubling of living standards over the past generation. And even those figures ignore welfare gains from rising life expectancy, which economists Charles Jones and Peter Klenow think could equal a full percentage point a year.

Now none of this is to say the 2000s have been some economic golden age or that high-end inequality has not risen. But what Sanders and many other progressives are doing is painting a distorted economic picture that smears American-style capitalism and the pro-market turn that began in the late 1970s. Why? To argue for a high tax and spending social democracy here just like in Scandinavia. (Of course, the Scandinavia as a “social democratic paradise” is a myth.)

Let me again point out what Obama economic adviser Jason Furman wrote in 2006 remarking on an economic debate between pessimist Larry Mishel and optimist Stephen Rose:

But the facts are not entirely irrelevant…. I would much rather we all… spend our time figuring out what to do about rising inequality. But… Rose is right, people are substantially better off than they were 30 years ago…. [T]oday’s workers are earning more than their counterparts did 30 years ago.

Ignore the statistics for a second and use your common sense. Remember when even upper-middle class families worried about staying on a long distance call for too long? When flying was an expensive luxury? When only a minority of the population had central air conditioning, dishwashers, and color televisions? When no one had DVD players, iPods, or digital cameras? And when most Americans owned a car that broke down frequently, guzzled fuel, spewed foul smelling pollution, and didn’t have any of the now virtually standard items like air conditioning or tape/CD players?…

A long life — it’s four years longer today than it was in 1975. A college education — 38 percent of young adults are enrolled today, compared to 26 percent back in 1975. A home — also more common today than in 1975 .. .

Some of the wage statistics that Mishel tosses around suffer from a number of limitations, virtually all of which bias the picture in the same way. The biggest one is that wages … are reported after the cost of increasingly generous and technologically advanced health insurance is factored out … . Health isn’t the only problem with the wage data; other benefits have grown as well — in addition to the fact that the wage comparisons rest on a measure of inflation that is almost universally believed to be biased and ignore the influx of immigrants who weren’t in the data back in the 1970s.

There are 11 comments.

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  1. donald todd Inactive
    donald todd
    @donaldtodd

    All the propaganda tells them that everyone else is worse off.  It is an incessant drumbeat pounded into the consciousness of everyone who watches or listens to the Democrat Party or its appendages such as ABC, CBS, NBC, Moral Swamp NBC, Collapsing News Network, National Progressive Radio, Slate, and other black holes of the left.

    Being of an emotional bent which favors tears over thought these dim bulbs don’t bother to check the reality, they just repeat it, bumper sticker fashion, to one another and reinforce it in those mental rubber rooms where they live.

    • #1
  2. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    donald todd:All the propaganda tells them that everyone else is worse off. It is an incessant drumbeat pounded into the consciousness of everyone who watches or listens to the Democrat Party or its appendages such as ABC, CBS, NBC, Moral Swamp NBC, Collapsing News Network, National Progressive Radio, Slate, and other black holes of the left.

    Being of an emotional bent which favors tears over thought these dim bulbs don’t bother to check the reality, they just repeat it, bumper sticker fashion, to one another and reinforce it in those mental rubber rooms where they live.

    I think people assume that they are doing okay, but everyone else must be suffering horribly. Especially black people. (The astonishing progress of the Black middle class is, according to Eugene Robinson, likewise overlooked). And Republicans have not been good at offering the message that we’re in fairly good shape economically because, of course, things have to have gotten dramatically worse under Obama, or why vote for a Republican?

    So you have apocalyptics on both sides. On the left it’s “racism, the environment, the situation of women and the plight of the middle class have never been worse.” On the left it’s “abortion, the Middle East, and the erosion of decent values” have never been worse.

    On either side, politicians have a vested interest in “things have never been worse,” because they want you to hire them to make things better. If America really isn’t so bad, who needs Bernie? Or the Donald?

    • #2
  3. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Great info, JP.  Thanks.

    It does not appear that the graphs above account for changes in family and household structure, which make matters appear worse — or perhaps, more accurately, less improved — than they really are.  I believe that the percentage of the population that is married has decreased significantly over the past 40 years, which manifests in the data as a decline in household or family income.

    I suspect that people get the impression that matters are worse for 4 main reasons:

    1. Simple nostalgia — they forget that in the 1970s, we barely dreamed of cell phones, personal computers, or big-screen TVs.  I suspect that middle-class people today have a far more prosperous lifestyle than in the 1970s.
    2. Less savings — perhaps more people feel economically vulnerable due to lower savings rates (I resemble this remark, compared to my father, for example)
    3. Less perceived job security
    4. Greater income increases at the top end of the scale, which is shown by JP’s tables — so middle-class people feel worse off because they are relatively poorer compared to the wealthy, even though their absolute income and living standards have increased.
    • #3
  4. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    Wasn’t Nixon a Liberal Progressive Republican ?  Wage and Price Controls etc?

    • #4
  5. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Worse than the 70s? Who cares. What they do know is that the are worse than they were a decade or more ago.

    • #5
  6. Linc Wolverton Member
    Linc Wolverton
    @LincWolverton

    As noted in an earlier comment, family structure is important.

    Consider a household, for example, with two married wage earners with total household income of $100,000.  Suppose the couple splits up so that there are now two households earning, for illustration, $50,000 a year each. Middle class incomes have fallen, and there are now two households with low incomes. A deterioration in the statistics.

    The greater irony, to me, is that the lower incomes emerge because society is wealthy enough that it can create, on paper and on average, lower household wealth. From wealth, society is allowed to create two needier households.

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Everything is fine.  We should ask Barack Obama to serve a 3rd term.

    • #7
  8. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    @TheReticular#7: why a third term? Just adjust his second term to last longer. I am sure that our wonderful constitutional scholars and lawyers can wiggle a way to do it legal like.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Fake John Galt:@TheReticular#7:why a third term?Just adjust his second term to last longer.I am sure that our wonderful constitutional scholars and lawyers can wiggle a way to do it legal like.

    Sounds more like a job for the IRS and DOJ.

    • #9
  10. Tedley Member
    Tedley
    @Tedley

    Great analysis, James. As Rush likes to point out, the young are pretty much ignorant of what happened before they were born. Anyone under 35 would have no memory of the Reagan revolution. Their support for Bernie’s policies would primarily sprout from what they’ve heard from teachers and the mainstream media.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    In the mid-late 18th century, Americans were prosperous like nobody the world had seen to that time.  Yes, there were dislocations and dissatisfactions, but they were doing well.  So they revolted and threw off the GOPe of the day, and ended up being even more prosperous.

    (No, I don’t have data on this.  It’s just the sense of history I have from a lot of reading.)

    • #11

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