This was the wormseye I wrote off the back of various comments on an earlier post. Thanks to Quinn and Billmon for facts and ideas.
If there was one thing which everyone knows, it is that Americans have grown richer since 1970. When I was told that average wages have actually declined since then, when adjusted for inflation, I did not at first believe it. But the figures, from US department of Labor, are quite unambiguous. Measured in real dollars, most workers in the US are now paid worse than they were in 1970. Measured in constant (1982) dollars, the average weekly wage in June 1970 was about $312 ; last month it was about $275.
This is much less, in both absolute and relative terms, than one would suppose from the American media, or from travelling in reasonable comfort around the country. It may even explain the quality of rancid resentful hatred which is so notable a feature of modern American politics. It means that the overwhelming majority of American voters have spent most of their lives in a country where they have had to work harder and hard to earn the same money, while everything all around says they have never been so prosperous.
Of course these figure conceal a huge expansion in employment, and a huge shift in the ways that people are employed. Any shift from industrial jobs to service industry ones is in large part a change from well-paid jobs done by men to poorly paid jobs done by women. So two-earner households are almost certainly much better off in terms of constant dollars than they were thirty years ago. But the single-earner household is much worse off.
A friend of mine in Silicon Valley pointed out that her mother, a Bohemian type in the early 1970s, had “an apartment, a little baby, an unemployed spouse, and a drug habit”, which she was able to support more or less on a minimum wage job. This would simply be impossible now, she says. Mothers must work.
For mothers with interesting paid jobs, this is fine. For those without decent jobs, it seems a huge waste of effort or worse. I really can’t see that women are better employed in fast food joints or call centres than at home. I can’t even see that many of them are better employed in the army. Of course, this isn’t my choice to make. But it isn’t their choice either. What these statistics say is that it is just about impossible for households to survive on a single normal wage. You can justify this in all sorts of ways, and it may indeed be inevitable. But it it’s not something, I believe, that people would vote for, given the choice. The fact that they can’t vote against it must add to the general disillusion with the political system.
It must also add a great deal to the rage and embitterment of the Christian or traditionalist Right. Not all the gays in the world getting married live on television could do so much to destroy the patterns of marriage and family life in which they believe as these wage statistics have done. And they have nothing to do with feminism, militant or otherwise. It is simply the development of the modern American economy — but of course this can’t be said or thought. So they blame the feminists, the liberals, the democrats, the elites.
It is the quality of rancid dispossession, the feeling of being cheated, which is the most notable quality of modern right wingery; and it is unusual. The temptation, for liberals, is to dismiss it as nostalgia for the Fifties, and for a mindlessly conventional society in which many people were oppressed. But I think this is silly. There are some things from the Fifties that no one could miss, though most of them are technological inadequacies. There are many things that no one should miss, most to do with racism and the persecution of minorities. But there are important and worthwhile things that anyone would miss if they remembered them: chief among them is the reasonable expectation that things would go on getting better for ordinary people and their families.
The age statistics suggest that they got steadily worse throughout the Reagan years and they are — of course — getting worse now; in fact only the latter half of the Clinton presidency was a time of sustained real wage growth. All this would be gloomy enough on its own. But towering over the whole thing is the spectre of the truly unfathomable indebtedness of the USA.
Leave aside the reckless government deficit. Leave aside the absurd figures for housing debt. Just concentrate on credit cards. Using the figure for March this year, the average worker would have to work for two months without spending any money at all on anything, or paying any taxes either, before they had paid off the average credit card debt. How can people live like that, in a society with no security of employment? No wonder they turn to God in such numbers. Mammon has not been their friend.