Playing to the Middle

Friday, January 29, 2010


If you believe the conventional wisdom of both the White House and the punditry, America’s middle class is under attack, in decline and threatened with total extinction. But who exactly are the middle class and where is the evidence of their impending doom? Economist Stephen J. Rose says the rumors of the middle class demise are greatly exaggerated.

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Comments [18]

david from San Diego

I'm tired of economists. They told us to outsource all the blue colar jobs to Japan, China etc...downsize was a good's been a disaster....

Feb. 05 2010 06:00 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Again, Bob didn’t need to make those arguments but, when writing to this website you aren’t speaking to the people who are eating up propaganda like this unrebutted.

Right now conservative Republicans are on C-SPAN basically talking about disbanding the United States of America and in red states candidates are standing up for a platform of secession. Moreover, I am quite confident that they choose this viewing as preferable for family viewing as anything Hollywood is spewing tonight. One humorous break had Dawson’s Creek meets Buffy the Vampire Killer meets Men in Trees, which stopped dead, along with several channels on my Comcast sending me to those Republicans talking about having the states take back total control of the schools or Obama with the Senate Democrats which I had seen.

Stop allowing yourself to be distracted. Start calling into the C-SPAN talk shows. The level of discourse from Democrats there could use an infusion of fresh blood..

Feb. 03 2010 11:04 PM
Y. Brody from Paris, France

George Orwell would have just loved this interview. In his book 1984 he described the concept of doublethink as "to know and not know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them...and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself."

"BOB GARFIELD: So what you’re saying is that to properly report on this subject you have to be able to hold two ideas in your head at the same time, one, that wealth has not necessarily been evenly distributed and, two, that nonetheless the middle class has done pretty well.

STEPHEN J. ROSE: Correct..."

Just like in Orwell's book, we hear the guest smoothly cancel out the truth--that most Americans are working a lot more hours, producing a lot more, and getting paid the same as 30 years ago--with convoluted and manipulated data like: "Real income per capita from 1980 to today is up like 65 percent. That’s an average, of course. And if all gains were shared equally over the last 30 years, their standard of living would have been up 48 percent across the board. In my data I show it’s up 32 percent. 32 percent is far way from zero." Huh? Without more data this does not make sense, to my ears anyway, and Garfield fails to ask for clarification or to remain skeptical of the meaning of the numbers the guest cites. Instead, we are simply led to believe that what we thought was true--that the socio-economic situation for the average American has tanked in recent decades--is really only one version of the truth. At the same time, don't you know, life for the average American has also gotten much better. Sorry guys, but I don't follow. What are listeners to do when a media analysis program is content to stop at such irrational thinking while at the same time pretending to do precisely the opposite? What a disappointment.

Feb. 03 2010 02:08 PM
Gary Duell from Portland OR

And the worst thing is that the host didn't call the guy on his idiotic assumptions & vague definitions. This is becoming all too common on NPR. No doubt the neocons have infiltrated the editorial board and if anyone besides bullet-proof Bill Moyers calls a spade a spade, apparently their career is over. I hate to see Bill go.

Feb. 02 2010 05:48 PM
Gary Duell from Portland OR

Well, that's one of the smarmiest, dumbest interviews I've ever heard. I would've expected it on FOX, though, not NPR. Surely NPRs editors can do better than to host incompetent and/or dishonest wonks like Stephen Rose. There is plenty of reality out there to deal with. All the comments, except for Mr. Evan's pander to the clueless Right, are apropos.
The main truth-killing statement Mr. Rose made, in the same breath, was that the middle class had in fact kept pace with the super rich: average income increased blah blah blah. Average.
For some real facts, see
Please NPR, first a bubble-headed Texas Teabagger mom, now lying or stupid "economists". Get a grip.

Feb. 02 2010 05:27 PM
David Winn from New York

This issue was debated by Rose and others in the American Prospect in 2006. Unfortunately, many of the links to rebuttal essays on the Prospect site are broken, so below I've posted the link from the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, which seems to have more working links:

Jan. 31 2010 10:35 PM
Ben Leet from San Leandro

Edward Wolff wrote Top Heavy, and I'm going to quote an essay from the Fall of 2001 that appeared in Milken Institute Review, "My core results are worth repeating: more than half of the gains in wealth from 1983 to 1998 accrued to the top 1 percent of households, and more than 90 percent went to the top 20 percent. The number of millionaires doubled from 1983 to 1998, and the number of deca-millionaires quadrupled, with most of the growth in their ranks occurring after 1989." Emmanuel Saez, a professor at U.C. Berkeley also shows (see Striking It Richer, August, 2009) that the top 1 percent received 65% of the economy's gains between 2000 -2007, and that from 1982 to 2007 the top 10 percent increased their share of the national income from 33% to 49.7%. There are 36.5 percent of the workforce who either have 1) no job, 2) not enough job and want full time work, or 3) are working for poverty level wages. (see Stephen Rose should be balanced on NPR, as many economist can show he is not counting the most people count. Wealth or net worth or savings for the median family has dropped by 36% since the onset of the recession, and now is at the 1992 level and close to the 1982 level. (see Edward Wolff, Pathways, Fall 2009, Stanford University, Center for the Advanced Study of Poverty and Inequality) You might also check out,,, and my own, The author of the above article in Dollars and Sense, Sam Pizzigatti may give NPR an interview.

Jan. 31 2010 06:24 PM
Jim Giddings from Greenville NH

I recommend an article in a recent issue of "Dollars and Sense" magazine ( entitled "Have the Rich Won?"

The author points out that in 1974 the top 1% of households averaged $380,000 in 2007 dollars. Now they average $1.4 million. During the same period, the average annual household income of the bottom 90% went up by $47.

I was a young worker in 1974 and my job I paid for health coverage without deductibles and allowed me as a single man renting a small apartment to put aside money every month as savings.Today, my daughter needs to share a house with several roommates and just got to the point where her employer covers health insurance. I suspect she is not putting anything into savings.

As I understand it, there is no "middle class" in the sense of a large number of people living on a combination of wages and investments. In my experience, most of us are living on wages and salaries, with no significant investments. We are working class, not some kind of hybrid of worker and boss.

Jan. 31 2010 05:29 PM
Not a Chance

Though I can't disagree with the first several points you made in your post, I would hardly call any of the points from my post #1 "luxuries."

I accept your take about what is all too typical in America, but stick by my point that Stephen J. Rosen is clueless about the issue of whether or not America's middle class is eroding.

Jan. 31 2010 04:46 PM
Rick Evans from Northeast

Frankly, I found Stephen J. Rosen's comments quite refreshing. Pandering to the middle class has become a national political and media obsession when Americans consume and trash more than ever.

Houses are 50% bigger than 40 years ago while families are smaller. One of the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. is storage for all the STUFF that won't fit in America's 50% bigger houses.

Starbucks became successful convincing the yuppies and yuppie wannabees to squander $4 or more per day for $0.25 worth of coffee and cream; not far behind is Dunkin' Donuts and its unyuppies .

Years ago gas stations realized they could make more selling bottled water and soda than gasoline. And, Ted Turner showed cable companies that consumers would happily pay $100 even $150/month for TV WITH commercials and even with hours of paid programming.

And when did we go from paying off car loans to being serial car lessees? If the middle class feels like it's struggling it's because it has swallowed the notion that what used to be luxuries are now necessities.

Jan. 31 2010 03:14 PM
kate lint from seattle

OTM really let this man get away with a straw man argument.
He insists that he's arguing against those who say the middle class received "zero" and the upper class "100%" of the benefit of increased incomes. Who ever said that? Bad interview.

Jan. 31 2010 03:11 PM
growin from st. louis

I agree with the above commentators. I was left feeling disconcerted after this piece because this man's assertions do not at all match my realilty. My husband and I both have to work to live a comfortable life while trying to save a little, and we still have college bills to pay for our son. Our adult sons have jobs that pay only $7-8, which now seems standard unless you go into the business field. As stated above, there are no pensions and nonexistant or minimal health care for this generation coming up. May I suggest having a rebuttal to this piece by interviewing Thom Hartmann, who wrote "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class."

Jan. 31 2010 12:06 PM
Agathon from New York

I agree with the commentators above. This piece is an unfortunate (and unusual for you) demonstration something that really bothers me in current reporting. It just seems like someone wanted to show off by bringing on a clever counterintuitive argument. If there's one thing you guys should have learned from the last 2 years, it's that any economist with an agenda can tailor a select data set to conform to his or her opinions. What's next, an interview with the author of "DOW 36000" claiming that people made money out of the stock market in the last decade? Be honest, did you really check any of his claims out? You definitely need to revisit this.

Jan. 31 2010 11:05 AM
Darrel Plant from Portland, OR

Also the author of "Blinder baloney: today's scare talk of jobs outsourcing is grossly exaggerated". From 2008.

Seriously, claiming that he was a member of the Clinton administration is hardly a ringing endorsement of Mr. Rose's economic credentials. Most of the economists from that era were the people who helped drive the economy into the ground over the past fifteen years. Not that Mr. Rose thinks it has. I guess if you were partially responsible for it, then there's plenty of reasons for you to try to convince people that things aren't so bad after all.

I notice that he never actually does define what "middle class" means in his own mind. And it's true, if you extend the upper end of "middle class" into the $250K+/year range, things don't look as bad. But only a small percentage of Americans have household incomes at or above that level, and there's a word of difference between raising a family on $250K and $40K.

Jan. 30 2010 06:02 PM
beyond left from colorado

Totally correct, Not a chance
I was shocked to hear a totally shallow and misleading explanation about the erosion of the middle class on this program.
The piece never gave a real definition of what middle class was or is. In the last 8+ years between the losses from the housing bubble, the trash mortgage products sold by brokers and banks, and the overleveraged bets on inflated mortgage backed securities that financiers made and lost setting off the recession there has been almost no growth in most people's net worth. The 80's and 90's gains (skewed toward the upper 20%) don't make up for a 10 yr stagnation for most people. And the 80s weren't all that good for the middle class. Lots of deindustrialization of steel and manufacturing, permanently subtracting high wage, high benefit union jobs which was a staple of the post war boom in income growth. I witnessed this first hand, watching the south Chicago steel mills and car plants get decomissioned during the 80s.. Interest rates were at historic highs (I remember feeling lucky getting a 10.5$ conventional loan), credit was tight for most people. More and more "middle class" families became 2 income households during this time.

Jan. 30 2010 04:33 PM
Not a Chance

I suppose I should make a final point.

The realities of the recession have apparently changed the playing field.

I've now heard many experts claim that the jobless rate and recession are going to drive down wages for myriad obvious reasons:

employers getting to be picky and offer less money,
employers being forced to offer less money,
more competition among qualified applicants, etc.

While wages stagnate at a rate not seen for generations, the wealthy are making more than ever as the stock market and certain high wage industries are doing quite well.

This circumstance should create an even more quickly widening wage gap than has been seen for generations.

How far back can your guest's data possibly go?

Jan. 30 2010 02:06 PM
Not a Chance

... one more thing.

My mother worked for only six years of her life, and even then only because she wanted an experience outside of home life... not because family finances required it of her.

Two incomes seem to be a requirement these days in order for a family to stay afloat (apart from the ethical questions pertaining to gender equality).

Jan. 30 2010 11:57 AM
Not a Chance

Your guest for this segment is clueless.

My Dad got a pension for his retirement... who gets a pension anymore, save those with government or the most elite jobs? My Dad did not have an elite job.

My parents generation was told that rent/mortgage and utilities should never amount to more than 25% of their net income... who can keep those expenses below 25% today except the wealthiest percentile?

My parents were able to do well without ever accumulating debt, save when buying their home or a new car... who doesn't have to rely on credit occasionally today, again save for the highest earning percentile?

My parents had first rate medical coverage.

My parents grew up in a generation where their kids had access to first rate, cheap or free recreational facilities and parks... most of those types of facilities seem pretty dilapidated or non-existent today.

When I started working and living on my own thirty years ago, food accounted for a relatively small portion of my income... today it ranges between 20-25% of my income.

Your guest is talking only about take-home pay, which is a small part of the middle-class picture, and a small part of what it takes to raise a healthy, happy and safe family.

... evn at that, his data is questionable, as I have seen data showing the percentage of Americans who attain median income. This is the best way to guage "middle-class income," and apparently the wealthiest Americans have skewed income upwards in the last thirty years that fewer and fewer Americans reach the median every year.

I think you need to re-visit this piece and invite a guest who knows what the hell they're talking about.

Jan. 30 2010 10:48 AM

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