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The Real Story of Our Economy: Why Our Standard of Living Has Stalled Out

For more than a quarter century after WWII the fruits of America's productivity were shared with average working people, year in and year out. Not anymore.

Do public sector workers earn more than private sector workers? Who cares? This boneheaded question has us fighting over the crumbs. (And the answer is no -- all credible studies show that when you account for educational levels, the total compensation packages are about the same.)  

The real question is: Why have most workers seen their standard of living stall over the last generation?  

The answer is both obvious and appalling. More and more of our nation’s wealth is going to the few, while the many have seen their real wages actually decline. It’s a disgrace.  

It wasn’t always so. For more than a quarter century after WWII the fruits of America's productivity were shared with average working people, year in and year out. But what exactly was being shared?  

What’s productivity and who gets its benefits?

Productivity is a crucial economic measure of the total output of goods and services in our economy per hours worked. It’s not based on pay levels, only on hours worked in the economy as a whole. In effect, it measures how much human labor power it takes to produce everything we have. It makes a real difference to our standard of living if it takes 10,000 hours rather than 1,000 to build a house.   

Output per working hour, although imprecise, is the best way we have to measure our level of technique, organization, skill, effort and intellectual firepower. Sure, this measure has significant flaws because it doesn’t really measure our health or environmental quality. But it does indeed measure the material side of our standard of living. When productivity grows, a society has the means to solve many problems and the means to enhance working and living conditions…but only if the fruits of productivity are shared somewhat fairly.   

Productivity and who gets it is the story of the last two generations of the American middle class – one that saw a tremendous rise in its standard of living, and one that saw its way of life stall and even crumble.  

From 1947 to 1975, our output per worker hour grew by more than 75 percent. At the very same time, the real wages of the average worker rose by nearly the same amount. The rise of productivity and the rise in real wages turned our working people into the largest, most vibrant middle class in the history of the world. This dramatic upward movement in material conditions gave America its supreme bragging rights in the Cold War. No one could deny that democratic capitalism delivered the goods to working people, not just to elites.   

Until it didn’t.  

Neo-liberalism and the stalling of middle-class income

This upwardly mobile economy changed during the 1970s, and it wasn’t an accident. That’s when our nation’s leaders embarked on a series of policies that were supposed to break down stagflation and rebuild our economic miracle. We now call it neo-liberalism. That’s when we decided to unleash innovation through deregulation, especially financial deregulation. That’s when we lowered taxes on the wealthy. That’s when we pushed forward globalization. That’s when we stopped raising the minimum wage. That’s when we undercut the labor movement. All this was supposed to make the economy boom and reignite the post-WWII economic miracle.  

These policies, not the blind actions of markets, broke open the cookie jar of productivity. And there was plenty in there to take: Since 1975, productivity increased by nearly 180 percent – meaning that we almost tripled what we could produce per hour of labor. But unlike the post-WWII period, it wasn’t shared. Here are the brutal facts: 

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