The experts weigh in on the state of the U.S. middle class
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"I think that there are two lies that have been sold to America by conservative free-market fundamentalists. One is trickle-down economics, the notion that the wealthy are the people who create jobs and they need to be paid more and we will get the benefits, and I think Americans are beginning to understand that trickle-down economics is bunk. The wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, and yet the median wage is going nowhere."
"The second mythology is that anybody with enough guts and gumption will become wealthy someday, and so we don't want to constrain high salaries or raise taxes because someday you may hit the jackpot. I think Americans are beginning to sense that that second mythology is a lie as well."
"We're a very rich country, and we've gotten a lot richer over the last 30 years, and there's no fundamental economic reason that Americans of more modest means could not be relatively more comfortable and secure. The argument that the middle class has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps is kind of misframing this."
"If I'm a middle-class family, I can save for retirement or I can take that money and bid for a house in a better school district and worry about what to do when retirement comes, and I think that second option is so much more compelling for families with young kids. Retirement, that's 40 years away. Who knows, maybe there will be a program to take care of us then, but right now unless you get the kids in a decent school you're never going to be able to go back and deal with the loss from that."
"Income inequality in Sweden before taxes is about the same as in the U.S., but after taxes, it's much lower. So how are the rich doing in Sweden? By all accounts it's very much better to be rich in Sweden. You drive on roads that are well-maintained and you have an excellent transit system, you're not resented by people because they know you're carrying a fair share of the load and you have smaller mansions and smaller coming-out parties, but so what?"
"I certainly believe in different wages for different people. I'm not some radical thinking everyone should be paid the same. But there is a point where inequality starts to undermine not just the economy but our democracy."
"What people have been watching in the Middle East with these dictators -- one of the reasons that resonates with us is because we know that these dictators have all the money and the rest of the people are poor. I'm not saying the U.S. is like that, but that illustrates that at some point, inequality does undermine any political system and undermines any economic system. And it certainly is the case that we're heading towards that."
"We want everybody to have the same ability to be successful, and of course that's just not true. We have inequality at the starting gate. I find American workers are likely to give themselves more credit than they are due when they are successful, but [they] also give themselves more blame when they're not successful."
"In terms of defining whether our society is moving in the right direction, conservatives focus more on equality of opportunity and not equality of outcome. We don't need everyone to earn the same amount of money. But we also wouldn't say that we've maintained this wonderful dynamic system that does have equal opportunity. There are a lot of problems with our educational system."
"The biggest donators to the Democratic Party are the teacher unions, and they have the interests of the teachers at heart, not the students. At the same time, there are many charter and private schools in poor neighborhoods that have blown the myth that poor students can't learn. It's just a matter of whether our system is set up to get the right teachers teaching students."
"If inequality is being driven by a more specialized economy so that people who are earning a lot of money are doing it because they're being very productive and creating all this value for the rest of Americans -- take Steve Jobs of Apple; we were happy he made the money -- that may not be such a bad thing. But if the inequality is being driven by a weak educational system, we need to address the education system."
"I care about income inequality, and other things being equal, we should be more equal. But we've been pretty successful in this country in allowing markets to take us toward greater prosperity and then having government play a role in redistributing income that wouldn't be redistributed by markets."
"I'm amused when people talk about this being the new Gilded Age and say we can go back to the Roaring '20s and all the inequality that existed then and it's greater today."
"That conclusion is not sustainable. There was virtually no income tax then, there was no Social Security System, there was very little in the way of government transfers to provide protection to Americans like unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare, so when you looked at income in the 1920s, that was people's actual income, but today, despite what people think, we have a progressive income tax, and the top 1 percent of people pay 38 percent of that income tax."
"Today, we have an entire Social Security system that allows people to retire at 62 and live another 15 years without working anymore. None of that existed in the '20s."
"I think it's a distraction to emphasize this notion that the rich are getting richer. That's why my work says yeah, the rich are better off, but so are the poor and middle class, and once you start counting things appropriately, things haven't been as good as they were up through 1969, but there still has been significant improvement in the bottom and middle classes since then."
First Published November 14, 2011 12:00 am