There’s something to this analysis from Fortune editor and columnist Geoff Colvin that hits both Obama and Romney for offering agendas that are, he contends, ultimately irrelevant to the problems generating anxiety and disappointment for America’s middle class:
. . . in the 1970s, America’s level of education stopped rising. The high school graduation rate peaked at 77% in 1969 and has since dropped to about 69%; college rates, too, stopped rising. The economy kept demanding more workers with advanced skills, but we stopped producing more. At the same time, other countries relentlessly educated their people, so the U.S. workforce fell from No. 1 in the world to the middle of the pack. Result: The minority of workers with advancing skills became more valuable, while the broad middle got flat or even falling pay.
Then things got worse. The infotech revolution is great for high-wage workers because it turbocharges them; an executive with three screens on her desk and an iPhone in her pocket is enormously more productive. Infotech doesn’t much hurt low-wage workers, many of whom do place-based work (cooking in restaurants, pouring concrete) that can’t be done elsewhere. But infotech makes middle-class jobs disappear; software takes over routine back-office tasks, and infotech coordinates supply chains, so manufacturing jobs can be done by lower-paid workers abroad.
It’s clear what the problem is not. It’s not that the middle class got clobbered in the recession — that is, the recession’s end isn’t rescuing the middle class. Nor is the problem that income inequality increased, because it didn’t during the recession; top earners on average got clobbered even worse in the recession than the middle class did. The problem is that the middle class isn’t supplying the new skills that the world is demanding. We can fix that problem. We fixed it in the early 20th century and again in the 1960s after Sputnik by overhauling our education system. That is mainly a state and local job, not a federal one. Above all, it’s a cultural change. Presidents can do a little but not a lot to make it happen.
As we hear the endless sound bites during the coming presidential contest, we as voters need to grit our teeth and remind ourselves that we know what really needs doing, and it’s mostly in our own hands.
At the heart of the populist message — the kind you often hear from Obama, at the Occupy Wall Street protests, and in certain conservative circles — is the reassurance to most Americans that, “you would be doing just fine if it weren’t for those people.” The “those people” vary, but are usually Wall Street, big banks, big companies, greedy CEOs, companies outsourcing jobs to China, cheaper imports, folks who fly private jets, ATMs, etcetera.
But what if most Americans’ problems are their fault, at least in part? What if they gambled and bought a house they couldn’t afford, hoping to be able to sell it for a profit quickly? What if they took on enormous debts to prepare to enter a profession that was extremely competitive and entry-level jobs were few and far between? What if they ran up enormous credit-card debt because they have poor impulse control and unwise spending habits?
Obviously, some folks in America are in dire straits because of forces beyond their control. Your company goes under, you develop unexpected and expensive health problems, the value of your house plummets when the bubble bursts, your 401(k) shrinks when the market crashes. But Americans are not slaves to the whims of fate. We’re not helpless before the shifting tides of economic and social forces, desperately awaiting the wise and expert hand of the federal government to improve our lives. (If we are, we’ll be waiting a long time.) For more than 200 years, the country has been driven forward by brilliant, determined, perhaps even irrationally optimistic individuals who believed they could achieve dreams that others thought impossible.
Can Americans hear that some of the problems in their life stem from their own mistakes and bad judgments? Or it that something that the electorate could never stand to hear from their leaders? And if that’s the case, doesn’t it make the political environment much harder for the party of individual responsibility, self-empowerment, the free market, and equality of opportunity but not equality of results?
If we really can’t face the notion that we, and not the government, are principally responsible for the quality of our lives . . . are we even really Americans anymore?