David Leonhardt, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times opinion writer, opened his Tate lecture last Tuesday with a quote from David Brooks:
“This is a time for listening to other people.”
Almost 62 million people out of the 318-some million people who live in the United States voted for President-elect Donald Trump. If you oppose Trump, it is worth thinking about the reasons why he was elected. It is worth thinking about why your neighbors, peers, and fellow citizens voted for his win.
A common theme in the U.S. is progress. Progress gives us optimism. It tells us that we are living better lives than our parents, than our parents’ parents, and that one day, our children will be better off than we are. Progress results in optimism and a deeper connection to culture. It keeps our country driving, maintains our status as a world power, and supports that ever-evolving “American Dream.”
“The American Stagnation” was coined as a phrase to describe the one-third to one-half of Americans who are no better off than their parents were. They don’t tell their children about ‘progress.’ They’re worried about the future. These are the people who never recovered from the 2008 Economic Crisis—heck, some of them never recovered from the Great Depression. While many of us are experiencing the benefits of progress, some Americans are even worse off than in years past.
For the bottom 40% of Americans, the average household income is actually 14% lower than in the recent past. In this demographic, the number of children with one parent or no parents is up and incarceration numbers are up. Leaving college without a four-year degree is normal. In contrast, the 90th percentile of Americans has seen its average household income increase by 40%. The 99th percentile, 50%. The lack of progress is not universal and the people experiencing it know that it is not. In large sections of the country there is, perhaps understandably, great frustration and anger.
Many people truly feel that globalization causes this problem. However, trade agreements are usually good and are not the main reason the U.S. faces competition. Increased competition in the U.S. is caused by the rising globalization of other countries. 42% of the world used to live on less than $1 a day, but now that number has dropped to 14%. As other countries’ economies grow and improve it causes increased competition across the world.
Technology is also replacing workers. Workers with less-advanced skills are easily replaced and lose their old jobs over time—this is a part of history. Progress can thus be thought of as a race between technology and education. If technology gets ahead of education, it’s bad for the nation. Education is one of the most important catalysts to progress. Countries that are more educated are more advanced and have better living conditions. Education results in healthier, happier, positive relationships. Going to college, completing something, and living independently gives confidence and makes people better at navigating society and living fulfilling, productive lives. 65-year-old Americans are the most intelligent of all 65-year-olds worldwide. This comparative statistic is no longer true for younger American generations.
The American Stagnation is not all about an oppressive or intrusive government, because cutting taxes and regulations has historically shown no signs of solving all our problems. In the Bush administration taxes dropped, but the economy declined. In Bill Clinton’s administration taxes rose, but the economy improved. Significant progress has lately occurred in the U.S.—wages even rose for the first time in several years—but we should be deeply concerned that people don’t feel that progress. It’s unusual for America to go decades and decades without progress for a large portion of the country. Trump tapped into this—the voices that people didn’t hear—and even though Trump does not yet have a clear plan to address these issues, the American Stagnation is the problem that Trump was elected to solve, and it is key to understanding why and how he won in the first place.
To get educated on this problem—‘cause it’s big:
- On Netflix: “Inequality for All” and “Requiem for the American Dream.” Both are documentaries with 8/10 IMDb ratings.
- If you want this from someone besides me: Leonhardt’s original Times article, “The Great American Stagnation” (11 October 2016)
- To read: Our Kids by Robert D. Putnam, Getting Better by Charles Kennedy, or Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. There’s a tldr article of each of these in the New York Times.
- If you can read about economics: The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen
This article was written by Arianna Santiago. Click here to see more of Arianna’s work.