We talk a lot here about American exceptionalism, but for the second half of the 20th Century there was one thing about this nation that really did stand out: The size and success of our middle class. The fact that a majority of families had a car or maybe two, a lawn (if they wanted one) and a big color TV, maybe a perk like a motorboat, was something you just didn't see elsewhere in the world, not to that extent, not even in other industrial nations.
The 20th Century is over, and so is America's middle-class dominance:
While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.
After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.
You'll be shocked to learn that income inequality is a factor...
The findings are striking because the most commonly cited economic statistics — such as per capita gross domestic product — continue to show that the United States has maintained its lead as the world's richest large country. But those numbers are averages, which do not capture the distribution of income. With a big share of recent income gains in this country flowing to a relatively small slice of high-earning households, most Americans are not keeping pace with their counterparts around the world.
...but so is the lagging education of our schoolchildren and the decline of unions that would help distribute the GNP more fairly. No wonder our neighbor Canada -- a nation with similar characteristics but not our bass-ackwards thinking on schools, taxes, or health care -- has caught up to us. What interests me about America's present predicament is that people increasingly recognize the problems, but the public lacks a consensus, the willpower, and -- thanks to rulings like Citizens United that gave so much power to the plutocracy -- the means to do anything. For now.