Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Mysteries of the middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 28, 2013 18:28 UTC

If you are worried about the Western middle class – and we all should be – you may have started to have some doubts about the virtues of flexible labor markets. In theory, flexible labor markets should make our economies more productive, and all of us richer, by making it easier for people to do the work the economy needs and to stop doing the work it doesn’t.

In practice, though, some economists who once championed flexible labor markets without reservation, like Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have begun to have second thoughts. Acemoglu doesn’t doubt the positive economic effects of flexible labor markets, but he has begun to be concerned about their political and distributional consequences. They might help the economy grow overall, but they may also be contributing to the hollowing out of the middle class by weakening its political bargaining power.

That’s why a recent paper by Joao Paulo Pessoa and John Van Reenen, both of the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, makes such fascinating reading. Van Reenen and Pessoa set out to unravel the two big mysteries about Britain’s economic performance over the past five years. The backdrop to both is the devastation that Britain, with its oversize banking sector, suffered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

“The big story in the UK is that the economy has shrunk by 2.5 percent since the pre-crisis period,” Van Reenen told me. “That’s the longest depressed economy in this country for more than a hundred years.”

Britain’s dismal economic performance certainly helps to explain the grimness of British politics at the moment, and the growing appeal of the nationalist fringe. But the story becomes more mysterious when you start investigating what is happening inside the country’s shrunken economy.

Matriarchy, patriarchy and the masters of the universe

Chrystia Freeland
May 31, 2013 19:39 UTC

The past week has underscored one more way in which the lives of the super-rich are diverging from the lives of everyone else: The middle class is becoming a matriarchy, while the plutocracy remains firmly patriarchal.

The sexist mores of the super-rich were exposed by one of that tribe’s most prominent philanthropists, the hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. At an April symposium at the University of Virginia, Jones said that women didn’t trade as successfully as men because becoming a mother is a “killer” to professional focus. “You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men – period, end of story,” he said.

“As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it,” Jones said, describing the grim career impact of motherhood on two women who had worked with him in the late 1970s.

Twilight of the middle class?

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 26, 2013 17:52 UTC

It’s evening in America. That is the worrying news from the latest Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted quarterly and sponsored by the insurer Allstate and National Journal.

The researchers made a striking finding: The U.S. middle class, long the world’s embodiment of optimism and upward mobility, today is telling a very different story. The chief preoccupation of middle-class Americans is not the dream of getting ahead, it is the fear of falling behind.

The poll found that 59 percent of its respondents – a group of 1,000 people selected to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole – were afraid of falling out of their economic class over the next few years. Those who described themselves as lower middle class were even more scared than the overall group – 68 percent feared they could slip even lower down the economic ladder.

Technology, the economy and pool cleaning

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 21, 2013 22:28 UTC

One way to divide people is into foxes and hedgehogs. Another is into those who think this time is different and those who believe there is never anything new under the sun.

The latter split can be a matter of temperament, of politics or even of religion. But today it is relevant for another, more urgent reason: It describes how people think about the most critical economic problem in the industrialized world today — the dearth of well- paying middle-class jobs.

The this-time-is-different school attributes a lot of what is happening to the technology revolution. That makes them an intellectually eclectic bunch. On one hand, they include wide-eyed enthusiasts who believe in human progress and in the transformational power of technology. But they also include grim hand-wringers who fear the unprecedented changes may bring unprecedented woes.

China, technology and the U.S. middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 15, 2013 16:27 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. Jason Reed/REUTERS

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this week confirmed it: The pre-eminent political and economic challenge in the industrialized democracies is how to make capitalism work for the middle class.

There is nothing mysterious about that. The most important fact about the United States in this century is that middle-class incomes are stagnating. The financial crisis has revealed an equally stark structural problem in much of Europe.

Even in a relatively prosperous age — for all of today’s woes, we have left behind the dark, satanic mills and workhouses of the 19th century — this decline of the middle class is more than an economic issue. It is also a political one. The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

America’s middle class goes global

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 15, 2012 20:17 UTC

President Barack Obama did a miserable job of making his own case last week. But speak to his supporters and the pitch is clear: The American middle class is being hollowed out; Obama’s self-appointed mission is to try to save it.

That is what I heard from Jeffrey Liebman, one of the president’s economic advisers, at a debate about the election I moderated at Columbia University on Monday. Liebman said the central difference between his candidate and Mitt Romney was the president’s view that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Instead, he believes policy needs to focus on the middle class. Economic growth, he said, should come from the middle and radiate out.

In a separate interview, Mark Gallogly, co-founder of the private equity and credit investment firm Centerbridge Partners and one of Obama’s earliest supporters on Wall Street, likewise emphasized the middle class. The president’s overriding concern, Gallogly told me, was with the workers who make $24,000 a year. Their lot is a pressing issue, Gallogly argued, because even before the recession there had been persistent downward pressure on middle-class wages. Yesterday’s middle-class job can land you among the working poor today.

Globalization, the tech revolution and the middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 21, 2012 15:04 UTC

YALTA, Ukraine — One of the paradoxes of our age is that we are simultaneously living through a time of positive economic innovation and also a time of the painful erosion of the way of life of many middle-class families.

Listening to Yuri Milner, the Russian Internet investor, at a conference in Ukraine a few days ago brought home this contrast. Milner is a billionaire thanks to his Internet investments: He has done well both in his homeland, supporting some of Russia’s most successful start-ups, and, even more spectacularly by venturing abroad, taking pioneering stakes in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon.

When Milner talks about the technology revolution, he paints a dazzling picture of literally unprecedented innovation, bringing tremendous savings and benefits to consumers.

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