In general Progressives like to extract data that supports further government intervention. One such myth (or trope) is that “the middle class is stagnating, and something must be done!” As two of my favorite economists, Mark Perry and Donald Boudreaux, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “This trope is spectacularly wrong.”
The myth has been promoted for so many years it has taken on an undeserved credibility. As they note,
A favorite “progressive” trope is that America’s middle class has stagnated economically since the 1970s. One version of this claim, made by Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, is typical: “After three decades of flat wages during which almost all the gains of growth have gone to the very top,” he wrote in 2010, “the middle class no longer has the buying power to keep the economy going.”
They proceed to pull apart all the pieces of the argument, noting that inflation as measured by the government overstates it by not accounting for vast improvements in product quality and variety: “Would you prefer 1980 medical care at 1980 prices, or 2013 care at 2013 prices?”, they ask.
And what appears in a paycheck isn’t the total story. Fringe benefits – health insurance, employer pension contributions, paid vacation and sick leave – now amount to “almost 31% of total compensation,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Thirdly, the mass influx of women and immigrants into the work force have kept wages low while providing jobs for them. This has had the effect of, statistically speaking, keeping wages (0n average) low.
But the economists save the best for last: what about the average American’s standard of living over the past many years? How has that been doing? After all, people don’t work for wages, they work for a standard of living. They point out that the average American not only lives longer, but it costs him less to buy his necessities along the way. They note that someone born today has a life expectancy of 79 years which is five years longer than in 1980 and ten years longer than in 1950. And those “necessities” like food, automobiles, clothing, footwear, household furnishings, housing, utilities? They take just 32% of disposable income today compared to 53% in 1950 and 44% in 1970.
Despite assertions by progressives who complain about stagnant wages, inequality and the (always) disappearing middle class, middle-class Americans have more buying power than ever before. They live longer lives and have much greater access to the services and consumer products bought by billionaires.
Facts are stubborn things.