Excerpt from: CAN THE MIDDLE CLASS BE SAVED by Don Peck

"... In October 2005, three Citigroup analysts released a report describing the pattern of growth in the U.S. economy. To really understand the future of the economy and the stock market, they wrote, you first needed to recognize that there was “no such animal as the U.S. consumer,” and that concepts such as “average” consumer debt and “average” consumer spending were highly misleading.

In fact, they said, America was composed of two distinct groups: the rich and the rest. And for the purposes of investment decisions, the second group didn’t matter; tracking its spending habits or worrying over its savings rate was a waste of time. All the action in the American economy was at the top: the richest 1 percent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 percent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation’s treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets. It was this segment of the population, almost exclusively, that held the key to future growth and future returns. The analysts, Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod, and Narendra Singh, had coined a term for this state of affairs: plutonomy.

In a plutonomy, Kapur and his co-authors wrote, “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few.” America had been in this state twice before, they noted—during the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. In each case, the concentration of wealth was the result of rapid technological change, global integration, laissez-faire government policy, and “creative financial innovation.” In 2005, the rich were nearing the heights they’d reached in those previous eras, and Citigroup saw no good reason to think that, this time around, they wouldn’t keep on climbing. “The earth is being held up by the muscular arms of its entrepreneur-plutocrats,” the report said. The “great complexity” of a global economy in rapid transformation would be “exploited best by the rich and educated” of our time.

Kapur and his co-authors were wrong in some of their specific predictions about the plutonomy’s ramifications—they argued, for instance, that since spending was dominated by the rich, and since the rich had very healthy balance sheets, the odds of a stock-market downturn were slight, despite the rising indebtedness of the “average” U.S. consumer. And their division of America into only two classes is ultimately too simple. Nonetheless, their overall characterization of the economy remains resonant. According to Gallup, from May 2009 to May 2011, daily consumer spending rose by 16 percent among Americans earning more than $90,000 a year; among all other Americans, spending was completely flat. The consumer recovery, such as it is, appears to be driven by the affluent, not by the masses. Three years after the crash of 2008, the rich and well educated are putting the recession behind them. The rest of America is stuck in neutral or reverse.

Income inequality usually shrinks during a recession, but in the Great Recession, it didn’t. From 2007 to 2009, the most-recent years for which data are available, it widened a little. The top 1 percent of earners did see their incomes drop more than those of other Americans in 2008. But that fall was due almost entirely to the stock-market crash, and with it a 50 percent reduction in realized capital gains. Excluding capital gains, top earners saw their share of national income rise even in 2008. And in any case, the stock market has since rallied. Corporate profits have marched smartly upward, quarter after quarter, since the beginning of 2009.

Even in the financial sector, high earners have come back strong. In 2009, the country’s top 25 hedge-fund managers earned $25 billion among them—more than they had made in 2007, before the crash. And while the crisis may have begun with mass layoffs on Wall Street, the financial industry has remained well shielded compared with other sectors; from the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2010, finance shed 8 percent of its jobs, compared with 27 percent in construction and 17 percent in manufacturing. Throughout the recession, the unemployment rate in finance and insurance has been substantially below that of the nation overall.

It’s hard to miss just how unevenly the Great Recession has affected different classes of people in different places. From 2009 to 2010, wages were essentially flat nationwide—but they grew by 11.9 percent in Manhattan and 8.7 percent in Silicon Valley. In the Washington, D.C., and San Jose (Silicon Valley) metro areas—both primary habitats for America’s meritocratic winners—job postings in February of this year were almost as numerous as job candidates. In Miami and Detroit, by contrast, for every job posting, six people were unemployed. In March, the national unemployment rate was 12 percent for people with only a high-school diploma, 4.5 percent for college grads, and 2 percent for those with a professional degree. ...."

Don Peck is a features editor at The Atlantic. This essay is adapted from his new book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About

The Activist Middle

This is an Atlantic Magazine article by Don Peck, whose book, "Pinched: How the Great Recession has narrowed our futures and what we can do about it. ", is number one on our selected reading list. We all need to be aware of what he says here. For the Middle Class, this is a very, very important read.

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