In 1965, a worker who made $10 an hour could afford to buy a house, buy a car and raise a family in fairly comfortable circumstances. I know, because my family did this. We felt ourselves to be part of the middle class.
In 2019, this wage results in a family living in poverty. If a person makes between $20,000 to $30,000 a year today, their family essentially lives from paycheck to paycheck. The upper middle class probably make more than $50,000 a year. CBS Money Watch on Jan. 29, reported that 40 percent of Americans live one paycheck away from poverty.
With 40 percent of Americans living one paycheck away from poverty, we live in a two-level economy (ignoring the really rich for a moment). This is a major structural problem with our capitalist economy, similar to the structural failures that led to the Great Depression of 1929.
Certainly, the American economy has had tremendous growth spurts. But, since 1929, capitalism has been limping along with the Keynesian corrective techniques of deficit spending applied by the government.
I believe economist John Maynard Keynes originally only wanted just enough deficit spending to get the economy moving again. On its own, no deficit spending should be required of a healthy economy. It is with some irony that the so-called fiscally responsible Republicans have been the biggest Keynesians, with ballooning deficit spending since Ronald Reagan.
Finally, with Donald Trump, their mask has been removed. Trump Republicans realize that our economy depends on deficit spending. Paying off a business’ debt keeps the business afloat. Paying off the national debt would, ironically, suck all the money out of the economy.
Solving the deficit spending problem, however, will not help the structural middle-class problem of a two-level economy. Reducing the ever-increasing prices of homes available for sale in a community would require a nationwide recession – painful for millions.
This is a difficult-to-change structural problem. However, Keynes provides a clue to a solution. As Keynes used a corrective technique to fix capitalism, we need to find corrective techniques to deal with the social problems of a two-level middle class.
This two-level economy is a large-scale structural problem that is on a continual worsening trend. The real estate problem is being tackled by numerous innovative techniques, such as renting out bedrooms, building homes from ocean-going storage boxes, negotiating with builders to set aside a percentage of apartments as low-cost housing.
Caring state and local governments are providing subsidies for housing seniors, the homeless and the mentally ill. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is a large funder of subsidized housing, as well.
All these approaches are necessary because governments care about their citizens. They are also necessary because our economic system fails to house everyone without government support.
To address social problems for individuals also requires corrective techniques. This is to start from the wrong premises, however. It is better to begin with the idea that most Americans are essentially normal, healthy people. They are intelligent, caring and seeking a good living. They care about our country and the well-being of others. Wouldn’t this describe 90 to 95 percent of Americans (and Europeans and Asians and Africans and North and South Americans)?
To lead a good life depends on each person developing a sound sense of self and morality by the time they become adults. Education of adolescents needs to work towards these goals, without violating a person’s freedoms or personal dignity.
The German thinkers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, coming from opposite poles, achieved the same insight: Each person as they reach adulthood must create their own moral code. They can take insights from everywhere -- parents, teachers, books, religious leaders -- but they must create an original code for himself or herself by age 18. By doing this, a person begins to define who they are and what kind of person they want to be.
This is an empowering exercise. It must be done carefully, though, with a full effort to be consistent with the laws of one’s society. By a doing this, you create a picture of who you want to be even if you don’t know what your career goals are. This defines your personal character. Almost nothing is more important for our society.
Gary Leimback, Salt Lake City, is a retired technical writer and philosopher who is deeply concerned about the future of America.