Friday, January 6, 2012


Here's a brief essay expanding on a post I made at The Agenda:

The typical discussion of the middle class begins with a tale of statistical woe. We are often told, for instance, that median household disposable income has remained virtually flat from in the last several decades. Strictly speaking, this is true. Such examples of middle class compression form the basis for narratives of how the American dream is being crushed and requires an active countervailing force to resist that pressure.

Chuck Schumer has done more than virtually any politician in voicing that narrative. Yet his success comes in equal measure from voicing tales of doom, as well as cannily recognizing the ways in which middle America has changed in order to offer up government solutions to satisfy people's new needs. To the extent that we confront a larger government, it is because Americans have increasingly bought an ideology — “Schumerism” — that sells government spending as the solution to the problems of an increasingly affluent middle class.

This rising wealth stems from the continuous productivity advances of the last several decades, which have yielded enormous improvements in the typical American quality of life. One telling statistic comes from the CBO, which estimates that a typical family of four received in 2010 an overall pre-tax compensation of $94,900. In some sense, the vast majority of Americans are millionaires — not of course in terms of their immediate access to assets, but rather in the raw earnings potential a typical family can expect over a lifetime. This reflects a degree of prosperity unimaginable in 1958, when John Kenneth Galbraith already considered the pattern of private wealth to constitute unbelievable affluence. Families with two-earners or more education than average can expect to earn even more.

Thus, in comparisons with generations past, Americans find themselves with a lower need for government than ever before. If the goal is simply to ensure a basic absolute level of income, the insurance and welfare aspects of government are less necessary than they ever have been.

That simple economic logic has had drastic implications for both political parties. Democrats in particular have been forced to adapt to new economic realities. Their core constituencies have simply evaporated as the working class has graduating in income; College education has increasingly become the norm; and union membership has plummeted. If the voting patterns based on education and income had remained fixed from, say, the 1970s -- Democrats would simply be politically annihilated. In order to remain electorally viable, Democrats have been forced to appeal to the demands of an increasingly wealthy and educated public.

This appeal has rested on a potent and incisive understanding of the demands of wealthier households. As an Atlantic profile of Chuck Schumer explained:

 “A lot of times, what Democrats say are the struggles of the middle class are not really the struggles of the middle class,” says Jim Kessler, a longtime Schumer adviser and a vice president of Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank. “They’re the struggles of people who are actually poor. So when people in the middle class hear you talking about these things and calling them middle-class problems, they actually think you’re talking about someone else’s problems.” 

For Chuck Schumer and other politicians from both parties, this represents potential crisis as well as an opportunity. Conceivably, the rising affluence of the middle class could result in a lower dependence in government. But if politicians could target the new demands of increasingly wealthy households, government could expand to fit new niches. The result has been a government increasingly tasked with handling the pressures of new middle class life.

A full reckoning of these programs begins with the tax code and the various deductions that enable off-balance sheet subsidies to favored consumption categories. The Treasury estimates that all income tax expenditures will reach $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2011. The largest of these categories include the exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and the mortgage interest deduction - both of which subsidize middle class consumption of healthcare and housing.

The universal nature of Medicare and Social Security constitute the two other pillars of government spending. Regardless of the essential merits of these programs, their universal status guarantees millions in subsidies to Americans capable of financing their own retirement and future health expenses.

In the pivotal areas of government focus — housing, healthcare, and education — the genius of Schumerism lies in government's ability to sell itself as a solution to problems created by its other various branches. For instance, as the Economist Ed Glaeser has emphasized, high housing costs faced by residents of the coasts areas owe in large part to onerous restrictions on construction and rent control. Yet instead of supporting free market attempts to cut down on such regulation, such housing policies generate additional pressure to regulate housing prices or generate additional housing finance to make home purchases more affordable.

The same is true in education. Education costs have spiraled in part due to increasing demands for educational amenities. For instance, the student-teacher ratio has plummeted from 22.3 to 15.6 in the last forty years, while educational facilities are better than ever. The stranglehold that public provision and unions place on the structure of K-12 education has ensured steady inflation in education costs. Yet politicians have successfully sold parents on the idea that the real problems with education lie in insufficient funding for their local schools -- to be financed through additional rounds of government funding.

In healthcare, the imposition of government mandated fee-for-service has been directly responsible for spiraling growth in this sector. Amy Finklestein, an Economist at MIT, for instance has roughly estimated that roughly half of the increase in real per capita health spending from 1950 to 1990 may be accounted for by the spread of insurance - in particular government mandated insurance. Medicare has enshrined a low-deductible fee-for-service model that is popular with voters, but has proven destructive to pocketbooks. The healthcare deduction provides additional incentives for labor compensation to be drawn in the form of health insurance.

Yet the resulting high costs of healthcare become arguments for why additional subsidies and regulations are required. The latest iteration of this vicious cycle is PPACA -- another system of subsidized insurance coverage (again, for increasingly wealthy Americans) who cannot afford insurance in government-fixed markets.

The final mechanism of creeping demands for government support comes through taxes. It is true that taxes, as a share of GDP, have remained relatively constant; and that marginal tax rates are relatively low by historical standards. But if the tax burden has remained constant in the face of rising GDP -- that implies a government growing at the rate of income. Even as we have become richer and better capable of weathering the storms of economic insecurity, the government has steadily found new programs to satisfy new demands created by more income.

The cost of these programs has taken a heavy toll on the middle class's balance sheets. In The Two Income Trap, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi painted a dire picture of middle class evolution by presenting the balance sheet of one family in the 1970s and another in the 2000s. The two families, the authors argue, end up with a similar discretionary income - a sign of the middle class’s stagnation. Yet as Todd Zywicki has pointed out, a key factor behind this seeming stagnation is the fact that a typical family in this situation can expect to see their tax liability grow by 140%.

The result has been a middle class pressure cooker. If families don’t feel as rich as the $94,000 they receive in compensation, it’s because households have felt their post-tax compensation suffer due to a variety of cost pressures — coming either directly from the government (in the form of higher taxes) or indirectly in the form of greater regulations and higher costs in fields like housing and healthcare. Yet rather then offering fundamental reforms to alleviate those cost pressures, politicians like Chuck Schumer have instead offered individualized government programs as the solution. The benefits of those programs are clear and immediate to struggling households; the long-run costs are less visible but serve to escalate the long-run cost pressures and create demand for future entitlement and public spending.

Another form of relief has come from extending lines of credit. Wall Street and big government have common interests in many fields, a relationship personified by Chuck Schumer’s excellent finance contacts. Wall Street is happy to purchase government debt and extend credit to consumers. As Raghuram Rajan argued in Fault Lines, increases in credit serve as another palliative to the fundamental stresses in the middle class balance sheet — stresses induced in no small part by the government. Fannie and Freddie, too, drastically expanded their operations starting in the late 90s. Today, the federal government backs over 58% of the mortgage market, including virtually all new mortgage originations. This flow of credit enables the sort of housing consumption that the new middle class demands, but cannot afford due to cost pressures elsewhere.

Collectively, in essence, we have decided to delegate the task of household consumption. Instead of purchasing goods ourselves, we have the government spend and regulate consumption for us. Such a decision might have made some sense if the government were an effective arbiter of spending. Unfortunately, it is not -- too many government programs are badly functional and breed the very cost pressures that they were designed to counter.

It is easy to see how the broad coverage of such government entitlement and spending programs might generate instant political appeal. But the demands to ensure universal access to such programs have another source -- the belief among many liberals that programs meant for the poor will be poorly funded. The argument goes that even if universal access and broad spending may benefit individuals who strictly speaking could afford services on their own; such buy-in is essential to ensure the continued stream of services to the truly needy. The richer, in this reading, cannot truly empathize with the poor unless they receive the same services -- so it's essential to ensure that the rich continue to consume Medicare and send their children to public schools.

The logic behind this sentiment is questionable. Medicaid, for instance, has seen steady rises in public funding over the decades, even if recessions leave state governments temporarily stressed and reluctant to expand that program. It's not at all clear that buy-in from relatively prosperous sections of society is necessary to ensure the continued success of public programs. Many European countries for instance combine greater spending on the poor in relative terms with more expansive spending in general — while America directs a greater proportion of government spending to the rich.

But more fundamentally, ongoing fiscal challenges will heighten the challenge of large-scale spending on both the middle class as well as the poor. Rather than serving as the guarantee that the poor will receive sufficient spending of their own, middle class entitlement programs increasingly compete with those programs for funding. And the political life that they have taken on ensures continual sources of funding, while programs for the poor are increasingly on the cutting block.

In an age of austerity, we can no longer afford an expansive welfare state — at least without corresponding increases in taxation that even Democrats have been reluctant to endorse. Yet the pressures of an aging population and rising healthcare costs will result in enduring budgetary costs. The only solution is to trash Schumerism, and accept that increasingly affluent Americans must pay their own way.

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