Paul Krugman, Baltimore, and Portents of the Future

In the last week, when considering the riots and protests in Baltimore, a recurring thought came to me.

“This is what we all have to look forward to. This is a sign of the future.”

What prompted this thinking was an interview with libertartian economist Tyler Cowen on an NPR program a few years ago. He was promoting his new book, Average Is Over, and his thesis in the book was that American society was heading toward a divergence. There would be a small, wealthy class which held both economic and political power. For the vast, overwhelming majority, though, their economic opportunities would be extremely limited and they would be unable to achieve any sort of middle-class lifestyle because they wouldn’t have access to the money or resources to allow that. And those who have the power, thanks to their money and influence,would be able to shield themselves from the masses.

That’s what Krugman speaks to in his latest column, the fact that, for many Americans, there simply isn’t access to a middle-class lifestyle. The opportunities aren’t there for structural reasons. And the lack of access has profound influences on behavior, health, and mortality.

I’d take Krugman’s analysis somewhat further. More and more Americans are finding it difficult to maintain their access to a middle-class life. In the first decade of this century, many Americans used credit to achieve it, resulting in the Great Recession seven years ago. More people are working multiple jobs just to keep their heads above water. Something like two-thirds of Americans live on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis and are one financial incident away from ruin. The point is, economic insecurity is a reality for millions upon millions of Americans. The harder they work, the further behind they fall.

Baltimore shows what happens when people who had no opportunities aren’t willing to take it anymore. What happens when millions of Americans who had opportunities discover that those opportunities no longer mean anything for them? That they can’t get ahead in life anymore? That they can’t even tread water?

The Arab Spring, where millions rose up in protest at their lack of economic opportunities, can happen here. That’s what last week in Baltimore makes me think of.

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