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from The Great Debate:

The middle class’s missing $1.6 trillion

The United States was the world’s first middle-class nation, which was a big factor in its rapid growth.  Mid-19th-century British travelers marveled at American workers’ “ductility of mind and the readiness…for a new thing” and admired how hard and willingly they labored. Abraham Lincoln attributed it the knowledge that “humblest man [had] an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.”

Most Americans still think of themselves as middle class.  But the marketing experts at the big consumer goods companies are giving their bosses the unsentimental advice that the middle class is an endangered species. Restaurants, appliance makers, grocery chains, hotels are learning that they either have to go completely up-scale, or focus on bargains for the struggling and budget-conscious.

Current income surveys, for statistical reasons, usually segment families by broad categories, which obscure the recent radical shift of income to a thin stratum of the super-rich. Well-to-do people may buy $100 coffee pots, but the lion’s share of the income growth has been going to folks with five houses and staff to make the coffee.

For the last 15 years, an international consortium of economists has been building data bases on the income shares of the richest people in the developed countries, based on pre-tax market income including capital gains and tax-exempt income, and excluding government transfers. The American data reveals the greatest inequality by far, followed by Great Britain.

from The Great Debate:

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

from The Great Debate:

Obama’s small steps won’t fix inequality

President Barack Obama is taking on the challenge of increasing the United States’ all but stagnant economic mobility.

He wants, he said in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, to both “strengthen the middle class” and “build new ladders of opportunity” into it. His modest plan -- modest so that it does not need the congressional approval he’s unlikely to receive -- includes raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers and offering workers a new workplace retirement savings account option.

from The Great Debate:

‘Democratic wing’ of Democratic Party takes on Wall Street

The chattering classes are fascinated by the Republicans’ internecine battle to redefine the party in the wake of the George W. Bush calamity and the Mitt Romney defeat -- from Senator Rand Paul’s revolt against the neoconservative foreign policy, to intellectuals flirting with “libertarian populism.” Less attention has been paid, however, to the stirrings of what Senator Paul Wellstone dubbed “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” -- now beginning to challenge the Wall Street wing of the party.

Perhaps the strongest demonstration of this was the barrage of “friendly fire” that greeted the White House’s trial balloon on nominating Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve Bank. More than one-third of Democrats in the Senate signed a letter supporting Janet Yellen, now vice chairwoman of the Fed. More than half of the elected Democratic women in the House of Representatives signed a similar letter. Many were appalled at the notion of passing over the superbly qualified Yellen for Summers, with his notorious record of denigrating and dismissing women.

from The Great Debate:

Rebuilding America’s high-wage economy

Good for President Barack Obama for emphasizing the need to restore America’s middle class. However, the actual proposals in his new summer offensive would not go very far toward that worthy goal.

America is moving, at an accelerating pace, toward an economy with tens of millions of poorly paid service jobs at one end, and a relatively small number of astronomically compensated financial jobs at the other. In between the fast food workers, who demonstrated this week for a living wage, and the hedge fund billionaires is a new creative class heavily based on the Internet. But the web entrepreneurs are too narrow a segment on which to rebuild a broad middle class.

from David Rohde:

Two American families — and two Americas

Over the last 20 years, two middle class American families -- the Stanleys and the Neumanns -- have done all the right things. Milwaukee natives, they worked hard, learned news skills,  and tried to show their children that strivers would be rewarded.

But their lives -- as captured in an extraordinary Frontline documentary -- are an American calamity. Followed by filmmakers for two decades, they move from dead-end job to dead-end job, one of the couples’ divorces, and most of their children spiral downward economically, not up.

from The Great Debate:

America’s wage crisis

Representatives of Providian Staffing offer positions to job seekers in Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2012. Employers REUTERS/David McNew

Working families are suffering today in a wage crisis. Job quality is eroding, the ranks of low-wage workers are expanding and income inequality in America is downright shameful.

from The Great Debate:

The radical right-wing roots of Occupy Wall Street

If there’s one thing that united Occupy Wall Street with the Tea Party movement from the very beginning, it’s a virulent aversion to being compared to each other.

The Tea Partiers started sharpening their knives before the Occupation even began. Two weeks before last year’s launch Tea Partisan blogger Bob Ellis wrote a post entitled “Socialists Plan to Rage Against Freedom on Constitution Day” – all but daring the lamestream punditry to compare the “infantile” plans of “spoiled children” to “throw tantrums” and “thumb their nose at the American way of life” to the beloved movement that “sprang up from nothing a little more than two years ago in the face of a Marxist president and Marxist congress.”

from Breakingviews:

When shareholder democracy trumps the real thing

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This column appears in the May 14 issue of Newsweek.

It’s worrying to think that shareholder democracy is needed to rectify shortcomings of the real thing. Yet this week two of the nation’s biggest corporations will give their investors precisely that opportunity. Motions on the ballots at the annual meetings of Bank of America and 3M will effectively act as referendums on the U.S. Supreme Court’s flawed decision in the Citizens United case to effectively hand companies the same freedoms of speech accorded to people. Happily, supporting proposals to restrict the use of corporate money in politics isn’t just good for democracy, it is good business.

from Breakingviews:

Even Predators’ Ball saves a dance for 99 pct

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It’s easy to spot vestiges of the old Predators’ Ball at this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference. The Ferraris and Bentleys jamming the Beverly Hilton driveway, for example, are evocative of the annual shindigs that Michael Milken put on for his Drexel Burnham Lambert clients in the go-go 1980s. Yet there’s a consensus emerging even among this elite demimonde that the rising disparity between the rich and the rest is a problem in need of attention. They disagree, however, on the solutions.

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