During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney regularly liked to joke that US President Barack Obama wanted the US economy to look “more like Europe.”
In the context of modern US politics, few insults are more stinging. To be European is to be somehow effeminate, irresolute and, perhaps worst of all, socialist. It is the opposite of the “rugged individualism” and “exceptional nature” of the uniquely US experiment in self-government.
However, as a sobering New York Times article last week made clear, the US could have a lot to learn by looking to Europe. According to the New York Times, the US middle class — the linchpin of the country’s phenomenal postwar economic growth — can no longer call itself the richest in the world.
“While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, across the lower and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades,” the Times said.
The US’ poorest citizens lag behind their European counterparts; 35 years ago, the opposite was true.
This was yet one more wake-up call about the reality of the US’ continuing economic malaise. Ask Americans if the country is on the right track — 60 percent say no. Satisfied with the way things are going in the US — only 25 percent say yes. Still think you are a member of the middle class — only 44 percent feel so confident. 40 percent self-identify as lower-class, a 15-point jump since 2008. Among young people, the numbers are even more depressing. Those who place themselves in the lowest tier have doubled in just the past six years.
While a majority of US citizens tenaciously continue to hold dear to the American Dream — that long-standing US ideal that if you work hard anything is possible — more and more people are reporting that the opportunity for social advancement feels increasingly out of reach for them and their children. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more disquieting trend in US society than the fact that those in their 20s and 30s are less likely to have a high-school diploma than those between the ages of 55 and 64.
All of this must seem counter-intuitive to foreign audiences. The US swaggers on the world stage with a certainty and sense of moral purpose that no other country can match. Blessed with practically limitless national resources, a dynamic and diverse population, a relatively stable political system and innovative technological capabilities that other nations can only dream of, how can so many Americans be falling behind — and how can the nation’s leaders allow it to happen?
The answer is disconcertingly simple: We chose this path.
Granted, no one actively set out to attack the middle class in the US. There was not some evil plan hatched behind closed doors to wreak socioeconomic havoc. However, the decline of the US middle class, the ostentatious wealth of the so-called 1 percent and the crushing economic anxiety of the growing number of poor have happened in plain sight.
It is the direct result of a political system that has for more than four decades abdicated its responsibilities — and tilted the economic scales toward the most affluent and well-connected in US society. The idea that government has an obligation to create jobs, grow the economy, construct a social safety net or even put the interests of the most vulnerable in society above the most successful has gone the way of transistor radios, fax machines and VCRs. Today, the US is paying the price for that indifference to this slow-motion economic collapse.