The Atlantic

By James Fallows

(This article is part of a wider discussion on The Atlantic. Click here to view related articles.)

I'd like to shift the discussion slightly. Now that we've approached various aspects of the challenge, the dangerous consequences of a global and national economy that may be headed down again rather than up, technological changes, forces of globalization, the pluses and minuses of immigration (which we all agree is more plus than minus), the necessity but difficulty of education as a "solution" to the problem, the cultural ripple effects of an America that is polarizing in all ways -- I'd like to consider whether it is even possible for the U.S. to think about "solving" the problem at all.

Here's what I mean. As I keep pointing out, I've spent a lot of my recent life outside the United States. In many ways foreign exposure always serves as a reminder of American achievements that are taken for granted from inside the country. (For instance, despite its obvious racial and cultural tensions, the United States really has gone further along the challenging path of integrating people from diverse backgrounds than many other nations have). But it also is a reminder of achievements -- rather, adjustments -- that may come to seem impossible even to consider in the United States.

For instance: I often go to Australia, where I have a post at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Some of Australia's blessings (incredible beauty, less-beautiful but highly valuable exportable natural resources) and curses ("tyranny of distance") are simple results of Australia's placement in the world. But there is a powerful middle-classness to Australia's social bargain that is the result of customs and deliberate policies. The minor symbol of this is the expectation, at least for men, that if you're getting into a taxi, you'll sit in the front seat, like a mate, and not in the rear, like someone being chauffeured around. And the general disdain for the creepy and demeaning-all-around custom of tipping. Instead: prices are high, wages are high, taxes are relatively high, and there is a sense of "middle-ness" to many aspects of life, from income distribution to expectations of public services. Australians sometimes complain that their country is too middle-minded, with a result of enforcing conformity or putting a ceiling on ambition or innovation (and yes they have their plutocrats). But to Americans this shared sense of being in things together often serves as a reminder of something we think has changed -- something we've lost -- from the post-World War II generation.

Similarly: I was interviewing officials of two big and obviously successful German-based multinationals recently, Siemens and Mercedes Benz. Nobody would consider these firms backwards or not with-it in any way. Around the world they obviously compete very successfully with the highest-end American, Japanese, Chinese, or other firms. And they are globalizing and "outsourcing" their production systems with the best of them. Yet the officials I spoke with took it absolutely for granted that one of their corporate goals would be to do what they could to maintain high-wage manufacturing jobs inside Germany. Not their only goal, of course, nor one that in itself offsets the worldwide range of wage differentials, nor one that, as I say, has kept these companies from moving many jobs to lower wage countries.. But in contrast to their counterparts at, say, GE or Ford, who would describe an increase in U.S.-based jobs as a hoped-for byproduct of a better "competitive environment," the Siemens and Mercedes people spoke as if this were one of the corporate goals that at least deserved deliberately consideration within their plans, and not a mere PR challenge.

Now, the problem with examples from someplace else is precisely that they are from elsewhere. My colleagues at The Atlantic know one of my maxims as a reader: I stop reading any book or article the instant I come across a sentence that begins, "In Sweden, they...." We are not Sweden, or even Germany or Australia, not to mention Japan or Korea or far more fundamentally different societies like China. It is possible to see, when we look at Germany or Australia, and arrangement that is similar to America's in many ways -- but at a different equilibrium point when it comes to the very middle-class issues we are discussing here.

This is a long prelude to a question I turn back to you, next, Don. You've now spent a year writing about the crisis of the middle class -- in the world as a whole, but especially in America. Given the traits that make America distinctive, in good ways and bad, did you end up believing there are ways we can make any difference in the speed or direction of this trend? And by "we" I mean America as an entity, as opposed to whatever sauve-qui-peut efforts we make as individuals. If it's mainly a matter of atomistic individual adaptation, that's useful to know, if not encouraging.