Among the major countries of the world, the United States has the highest per capita income, and it is often assumed therefore that the ordinary American is materially better off than his or her counterpart anywhere else in the world. In fact, this proposition is practically taken for granted within U.S. national culture, since it is constantly being drummed into our ears by the media and educational institutions. Yet, as a logical proposition it is simply false. This was recently pointed out by Paul Krugman, a leading mainstream economist and columnist for the New York Times, in an article (“For Richer,” New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002)dedicated to explaining exactly why this national myth is mistaken. “Life expectancy in the U.S.,” Krugman observes, “is well below that in Canada, Japan and every major nation in Western Europe. On the average, we can expect lives a bit shorter than those of Greeks, a bit longer than those of Portuguese. Male life expectancy is lower in the U.S. than it is in Costa Rica.”
How can this be, one might ask, if the United States is the richest nation in the world? “Although America has higher per capita income than other advanced countries,” Krugman answers, “that’s mainly because our rich are much richer. And here’s a radical thought: if the rich get more, that leaves less for everyone else. This statement—which is simply a matter of arithmetic—is guaranteed to bring accusations of ‘class warfare.’”
Krugman goes on to explain that a two-step argument is commonly advanced that seeks to turn this enormous inequality into a non-issue. Although it is undeniable that a few rich individuals at the top get a lot of money, it is nevertheless argued that this constitutes a minuscule portion of the total. It follows that if the income of the rich were redistributed toward the poor it would make very little difference to the material welfare of the lower strata of society. Krugman rightly tells us that this line of argument is simply wrong today. At present, the income of the top 1 percent of the population is about equal to that of the bottom 40 percent. Under these circumstances, redistribution of income from the top down could make a lot of difference to the conditions of those at the bottom. More to the point—because it is related to Bush administration tax policy—the abolition of the estate tax, which would benefit merely the top 1 percent, would only mean that the rest of society would enjoy less.
Krugman’s conclusion in his article is that the increase in income inequality now taking place in the United States is so great that we are in fact witnessing the rapid “disappearance of the middle class.” But where is the middle class disappearing to? He refrains from telling us. Although he makes it clear that the “average worker” is no longer to be considered part of the middle class he does not pinpoint what the class position of that “average worker” now is. Could it be that the “ordinary worker” is to be found in the working class? Krugman does not say so. As an economist and accomplished columnist, he is well-aware that the term “working class” is off limits in establishment discourse in the United States. With the exception of professional sociologists, trade unionists, and radicals, the term doesn’t even exist. To refer to the “working class” in this context would, even more than highlighting the increasing inequality in U.S. society, lead to “accusations of ‘class warfare.’” Between the filthy rich and the welfare poor there is only, by definition, the “middle class”—however close to the bottom it is found to be. This leaves its “disappearance” a complete mystery.
Harold Posner, a former director of Monthly Review Foundation and a longtime volunteer in MR’s office, died October 14, 2002. Harold was no stranger to left-wing publishing. While an undergraduate at Columbia University the early 1930s, he cut his teeth in radical journalism and publishing as managing editor of The Student Review. At the time, Harry Magdoff was the Review’s editor and so began a lifelong friendship. Both went on to work for New Deal agencies, for a time working together for the Natural Resources Project.
Harold later had a long and successful career in business. But in 1978 he “thought it might be a very interesting and worthwhile thing to retire to a job with Monthly Review.” There ensued a decade-and-a-half stint at MR during which Harold put his entrepreneurial acumen to work for us, playing a crucial role in front office sales, fund-raising, and magazine direct promotion as well as serving as production liaison between Monthly Review Press, its suppliers, and warehouse.
In difficult times for MR in the late 80s and early 90s, Harold’s energy, skills, and wisdom were invaluable—and often the envy of younger staff members. As MR returned to even keel in the 90s, Harold retired once again. Reflecting on his long engagement with the bumpy struggle for social justice, he noted that his belief in “socialism as the supreme form of society” remained unshaken. “The trick,” he added, “is getting there.”
The editors and staff of Monthly Reviewwill miss him.
A memorial service for W.H. Locke Anderson, former associate editor of MR, will be held on Saturday, December 14, at 2:00pm, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 Odell Clark Place, in New York City.
From time to time we receive bequests from readers who want to contribute to the continuance of Monthly Review, Monthly Review Press, or the Monthly Review Foundation. Those who wish to do the same may simply state in their wills that the bequest is to “The Monthly Review Foundation, 146 West 29th Street, #6W, New York, NY 10001.” For additional information contact Martin Paddio at (212) 691-2555 or use our contact page.