David Rohde

The year in review for the American middle class

David Rohde
Dec 22, 2011 20:39 UTC

By almost every measure, 2011 was a lost year for the American middle class. Who is to blame depends on your political view. What follows is an attempt to sum up the major developments and missed opportunities of the year gone by. For me, the following areas represent the most serious perils facing middle class Americans.

– Jobs: Economists generally agree that the single most effective way to revive the American middle class is to create more high-paying, stable private sector jobs. The unexpected emergence of 140,000 new private sector jobs in November helped drop the unemployment rate to a two-and-a-half-year low 8.6 percent, but the rosier figure was aided by 315,000 people who gave up and stopped looking for work last month. The most important factor of all — the quality of the new jobs — was unclear. Governments, meanwhile, slashed 20,000 public sector jobs across the country and deadlock in Washington blocked both Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan and Republican job creation proposals.

– Fiscal order: Economists also generally agree that a bipartisan plan to seriously address the $1.7 trillion federal deficit could increase business and consumer confidence, strengthen the economy and potentially create jobs. The year began with hopes that the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan might gain traction in Washington. Yet President Obama and Republican leaders both failed to embrace it. Months of disastrous partisanship followed, from the summer default brinksmanship, to the fall failure of the Congressional super-committee to the prolonged deadlock over how to fund payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extensions.

– Housing: Home values are at an eight-year low and more than 10 million American families are underwater, or owe more than their homes are worth. The state of the housing market is yet another drag on the middle class. In October, The White House announced a change in executive branch rules designed to help families refinance at historically low interest rates, but the effort is too small to have a serious impact. Like so many other issues, legislation that might achieve more is frozen in a deadlocked Congress.

– Higher Education: Technological advances have created a global economy where members of the American middle class must adapt or fall behind. Low-skilled manufacturing jobs have left the United States and will never return. Learning high-end manufacturing skills, getting a practical college degree or looking for business in China, India and other emerging markets are all ways Americans can potentially compete in the global economy. After carrying out impressive K-12 education reforms, the White House outlined some promising reforms to reduce tuition and increase innovation in higher education at a December meeting with college presidents. Yet again, convincing an ideologically divided Congress to act will be difficult.

In Milwaukee, an evaporating middle class

David Rohde
Dec 15, 2011 23:22 UTC

MILWAUKEE — As Washington and Madison fiddle, this city’s middle class is in slow free fall.

First, the numbers. From 1970 to 2007, the percentage of families in the Milwaukee metropolitan area that were middle class declined from 37 to 24 percent, according to a new analysis by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

(Click on the photo above for a slideshow) During the same period, the proportion of affluent families grew from 22 to 27 percent–while the percentage of poor households swelled from 23 to 31 percent. In short, Milwaukee’s middle class families went from a plurality to its smallest minority. 

Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, we’re not in Kansas anymore

David Rohde
Dec 8, 2011 19:15 UTC

On Tuesday, Barack Obama declared the debate over how to restore growth, balance, and fairness to the American economy the “defining issue of our time.”

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” he said in a Kansas speech, “and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”

The following day, Republican front-runner New Gingrich said Mr. Obama “represents a hard left radicalism” and is “opposed to capitalism and everything that made America great.” The answer, he said, was slashing taxes and the size of the federal government.

Occupy something

David Rohde
Dec 2, 2011 02:31 UTC

By David Rohde

The views expressed are his own.

Update: On Dec. 6th, Occupy protesters began a new tactic of rallying around homeowners trying to resist foreclosures in several cities. Read more here and here. The following column was published on Dec. 1st.

The Occupy movement is flirting with irrelevance. While press reports trumpet the movement’s introduction of the phrase “we are the 99 percent” into the political conversation, the group’s largest encampments have been razed. On Wednesday night, Los Angeles and Philadelphia joined New York, Oakland, Detroit and St. Louis in clearing out its protesters. Small demonstrations continue, but the movement now needs to turn catch-phrases into political change.

This week, Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was a symbol of the movement’s potential dissolution. On Tuesday afternoon, a dozen Occupy Wall Street protesters held a quiet discussion in one corner of the park. In another, a lone office worker sat at a small, marble table and ate his lunch. Christmas lights glistened on trees that once sheltered protesters. Scores of police blocked anyone with a tent from entering the area.

Remembering Richard Holbrooke

David Rohde
Nov 30, 2011 23:21 UTC

Remembering Richard Holbrooke with Kati Marton and James Traub on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate show.

Complete Egypt’s revolution

David Rohde
Nov 23, 2011 02:25 UTC

For decades, the Egyptian military has operated an economy within an economy in Egypt. With the tacit support of the United States, the armed forces own and operate a sprawling network of for-profit businesses. The military runs factories that manufacture televisions, bottled water and other consumer goods. Its companies obtain public land at discounted prices. And it pays no taxes and discloses little to civilian officials.

Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February, experts predicted that the Egyptian military would refuse to relinquish its vast economic holdings or privileged position in society.

“Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw,” Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School, told The New York Times. “And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”

China’s newest export: Internet censorship

David Rohde
Nov 17, 2011 23:29 UTC
BEIJING — This great city is the epicenter of a geopolitical battle over cyberspace, who controls it, and who defines its rights and freedoms. China’s 485 million web users are the world’s largest online population. And the Chinese government has developed the world’s most advanced Internet censorship and surveillance system to police their activity. 

Yet the days of Americans piously condemning China’s “Great Firewall” and hoping for a technological silver bullet that would pierce it are over. China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet.

“There is a growing trend toward Internet censorship in a range of countries,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent online democracy advocate and author of the forthcoming book “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” “The same technology that helps secure your network from attack, that actually enables you to censor your network also.”

China’s cutting-edge authoritarianism

David Rohde
Nov 10, 2011 17:25 UTC

BEIJING–Just down the street from a faded Communist billboard declaring “art, harmony, joy, justice, peace,” dissident artist Ai Weiwei is trapped in a state-of-the-art authoritarian labyrinth.

To avoid prison time, the democracy-advocate known for his work on Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium can pay $2.4 million in back taxes and fines that he insists he does not owe. Or he can face a repeat of the 81-day secret detention he endured earlier this year. Either way, China’s all-powerful Communist party succeeds at smearing him.

“The police told me yesterday ‘if you pay, that means you admit the crime,” Ai said in an interview in his Beijing home and art studio. “It will justify that they arrest me.”