I’m not a free-market fundamentalist. To me, the beauty of liberal capitalism lies in its performance: More people live well, and live longer, than ever before. Millions of working-class people have moved from poverty to become homeowners and have seen their offspring rise into the middle class or higher.
Today this egalitarian capitalist progress is showing signs of fading, not only in the United States but also in Europe, Australia, and increasingly East Asia. This marks a drastic reversal from the conditions that prevailed after World War II, when the incomes of those in the lower quintile surged by roughly 40 percent, while the gains in those in the top quintile grew a modest 8 percent, and the top 5 percent saw their incomes drop slightly. Social mobility since the 1990s has declined dramatically, not only in the United States but also throughout Europe, including Sweden. Despite the European Union’s vaunted welfare state, the middle class has shrunk in more than two-thirds of the countries there.
Less recognized in the media have been the fortunes of China’s working class. Overall, 500 million Chinese, close to 40 percent of the population, remain poor, living on less than $5.50 a day; in 2010 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the Chinese middle class constituted only 12 percent of the population. Rather than replicating the middle-class growth of post–World War II America and Europe, notes researcher Nan Chen, “China appears to have skipped that stage altogether and headed straight for a model of extraordinary productivity but disproportionately distributed wealth like the contemporary United States.”
Read the entire piece in National Review.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.