That Villain, the Economy

A former securities trader I know is fond of recalling how he would react when a fellow trader would try to divine some insight for his next trade by asking, “How’s the market feeling?”

He would pick up his phone, hold it to his ear, raise an index finger as if to say “just one second,” and then report: “The market says he’s feeling fine!”

The equities market—the performance of millions of securities bought and sold by millions of actors for innumerable reasons—is obviously not an autonomous being, with feelings or intentions of its own. Neither is “the economy,” that shorthand we use to represent the aggregate result of millions of Americans exchanging goods and services for money every second of every day.

Reading Jim Tankersley’s The Riches of This Land, though, might lend the opposite impression. It seeks answers behind every corner for why “the economy,” as if it has a mind of its own, has “left some people behind,” how it is “unjust,” and most of all: “When will the economy start working again” for Americans seeking a ticket to the middle class? On seemingly every page, the villain, with its own organic intelligence compelling its operation, is the economy. While it is not necessarily actively rigged in anyone’s favor, the economy reflects the priorities of white men, whom Tankersley actually calls “villains,” thereby hurting “devalued” workers: non-white Americans, women, and immigrants.

The Nefarious Economy

One can hardly blame Tankersley, an economics reporter for the New York Times, for simplifying economic matters. That is the very essence of his job—trying to boil complicated topics down to the news you need to know.

A good journalist would also do precisely what Tankersley does in his book: Find compelling human interest stories that illustrate the narratives behind the numbers. His ethnographic work, peering into the lives of struggling (if not suffering) middle-class aspirants, is terrific. There’s no denying the serious human costs of the economic churn that characterizes a capitalist economy. These anecdotes are effective reminders that cushioning the fall for workers who suffer when the factory moves somewhere cheaper is imperative for the decent and prosperous society. They also reinforce the widely-shared position that social insurance programs should act less as safety nets and more like trampolines, springing those who have fallen on hard times into work and earnings rather than trapping them in poverty.

But treating “the economy” as a disembodied unit acting of its own volition has its pitfalls. First among these is that Tankersley does not want to traffic in conspiracy theories but has trouble accepting the indifference of an abstraction standing in for the cumulative decisions of millions of people trying to advance their own interests. He therefore resorts to oddly racialized accusations, using “white men” as a stand-in for “negative forces,” culminating in the assertion that the “middle class . . . has been scorched, for far too long, by the lies of elite white men.” It’s a stark accusation, softened by the more common structural claim that “white men with college degrees” have “long set the rules for the economy.” Yet his claim that these “rules” are racialized and gendered fails to hold up under the least bit of scrutiny.

When he does come around to talking about structural obstacles for minority workers, it becomes clear that he is referring to laws, and not particularly free-market laws at that. Indeed, he ought to concede, it is often white men who share his implicit argument that government entanglement with economic development—such as occupational licensing restrictions, onerous regulations on manufacturing, even minimum wage laws—can impede “the upward flow of talent” especially among “devalued” workers.

If we are really trying to make sense of the boundless complexity of American socioeconomic history, simply blaming “the economy” or the “white men making the rules” won’t do.

Tankersley is not anti-capitalist (though he does take his fair share of potshots) and his argument is richest when he explains the “brief, luminescent period” when the middle class truly boomed. “Barriers that had kept women and minorities out of entire fields fell” in the postwar period. “That upward flow of talent” from previously-constrained groups “swelled the ranks of the middle class and made everyone better off . . . America reduced its discrimination against women and minorities, which generated faster economic growth that lifted all workers.” Put one in the win column for capitalist creative destruction. The profit motive alienated producers and consumers from their bigotry and brought Americans together on the shared recognition that we can be more prosperous together. Segregation simply didn’t pay. It’s a wonder that today’s anti-racists tend to think the solution to lingering prejudices is less capitalism rather than more.

Alas, a free market giveth and a free market taketh away. One major oversight in The Riches of This Land is its failure to grapple with the second-order effects of huge increases in labor force participation during the mid-century luminescence, which may have more to do with today’s middle-class insecurity than Tankersley lets on. He celebrates the entry of women into the workforce as a major driving force behind economic growth benefitting all. As a matter of liberal principle, it is indeed an unalloyed good that women became freer to pursue happiness as they see fit, all the more so because they drove household incomes up and raised the standard of living.

There are tradeoffs, however, as with any economic question, because the economy is not some powerful people’s puppet show but an infinite chain reaction of people and firms responding to incentives. In this case, one tradeoff came in the prices of goods. Women entering the workforce began earning wages, or money they could spend on houses or their children’s education. This, repeated across the country by millions of women, increased aggregate demand for those goods. More people with the means and capability to buy a house in the suburbs—absent a huge increase in supply of homes, which burdensome zoning laws could hardly allow—meant that the price of suburban homes would go up.

Without any nefarious white men plotting to keep women or factory workers down, single earners began to find themselves at a disadvantage. When married women began working, two-earner homes became the norm. Now all workers must level up by earning significantly more and/or marrying someone who will, lest they find middle-class trappings prohibitively expensive.

What’s more, many women, now with a foot in the labor market and some with prestigious college degrees, no longer wanted to marry men making less money than they did or lacking similar educational credentials. As a result, the past few decades have seen the emergence of “assortative mating,” in which two high-achieving people pool their genes and resources to create the most elite family unit imaginable. Tankersley actually alludes to this phenomenon when he trots out statistics purporting to show the depth of American economic inequality. “The richest 20 percent of Americans”—divided by household—“earn as much between them every year as everyone in the bottom four quintiles combined.” This would be shocking if one did not know that there are roughly 25 million more people in top-quintile households than any other quintile, there are on average more than two earners per such a household, and over three-quarters of these households include married couples.

Women working not only contributed to the rise in price of middle-class staples such as houses, but may also have driven the upper class farther away from the middle than it had ever been before. In short, women’s entry into the workforce may have been an unmitigated economic good for some time and a social good beyond, but in time it yielded some undesirable economic consequences. If we are really trying to make sense of the boundless complexity of American socioeconomic history, simply blaming “the economy” or the “white men making the rules” won’t do.

Everyone Goes to College

This naturally leads to the other major conceit worthy of an objection, which is Tankersley’s insistence on college attendance being part of the middle-class package. Even aside from exacerbating the “assortative mating” incentives just mentioned, cultural and economic insistence on college attendance for all has made the middle-class dream more elusive.

Just as an increase in aggregate demand for housing pushes home prices upwards, so our “national obsession over sending children to college,” as Tankersley puts it, pushes the price of higher education upwards as well. With wider labor force participation and a finite number of jobs open, firms can be selective in who they choose to hire. One proxy for competence is a college degree, which purports to show some kind of mental acuity as well as the perseverance necessary to complete a degree. Employers therefore require a degree, even if it’s not really relevant to the job.

Recognizing this economic reality and eager to tout efforts to increase socioeconomic mobility, the federal government has poured money into sending more Americans to college. With increased aggregate demand for college, endless government loans and subsidies to reduce the burden on families, and a widespread sense of the absolute necessity of a degree, the price of college tuition has skyrocketed.

When American ingenuity is unleashed, when we are free to cooperate unrestrained by prejudice and economic planning, Americans can succeed together.

Worse, as more Americans feel they need to go to college to enter the middle class, the degree itself becomes less meaningful. If everyone has a college degree, the diploma cannot distinguish for employers between competent applicants and the merely credentialed. Stakes rise: Now only degrees from certain institutions, or in high-demand fields, are meaningful. Soon enough, at this rate, employers will require postgraduate degrees because employers, seeking competitive advantages over rivals and blessed with an abundant harvest of credentialed applicants, need a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Equipping more Americans with the decreasingly meaningful signal of a college degree, even from elite schools, would be a step in the wrong direction.

Rather than advocating a break in this vicious, if predictable, cycle, Tankersley submits to the voracious appetite of a familiar foe: “the economy increasingly demand[s] a college degree in order to earn a living wage,” which means we need policies that “help disadvantaged Americans get through college, find jobs, and advance in the workforce,” such as pushing colleges “to expand their enrollments and dramatically increase the number of low-income students they admit every year.” Apprenticeships, technical training, or various non-college “upskilling” programs that would help pull us off this higher-education treadmill do not seem to factor into Tankersly’s solution. Doubling down on college-for-all, though, would be disastrous for the middle class. That such unintended consequences are consistently beyond the purview of this guide for restoring the vital middle does not bode well. 

Identity Politics as Usual

Purporting to show the ill effects of bigotry on middle-class prosperity, Tankersley treats disparities between whites and nonwhites or between men and women as prima facie evidence of discrimination. Univariate analysis is always disappointing, but in the context of an economics reporter aiming to reveal something unseen to readers, it is especially so. Every disparity is evidence of a “barrier,” placed in the narrative with a passive voice. Black workers earning $10,000 less per year on average than white workers “underscore[s] the persistence of discrimination.” He doesn’t entertain the idea that a huge difference in average age between the two groups may play a role along with some prejudice. Despite frequent gestures addressing conservative critiques of his social theory, Tankersley never really takes them on, retreating instead to invocations of “the system.” Though our system worked well enough in the mid-20th century, today we “perpetuate discrimination simply by maintaining systems of schooling and hiring and opportunity that were built to work for white men.” One is never quite sure whether Tankersley wants American democratic capitalism returned to its liberated luminescence or entirely overthrown.

For women, the proposed reforms are twofold: eliminate sexism and increase paid maternity leave opportunities. The first point is well-taken; sexism is not just offensive but counterproductive, because companies miss out on productivity and profit when they push away capable women with their chauvinism. In this case, too, the profit motive should be among the most potent weapons for valuable social change.

Maternity leave is more complex, not least because Tankersley does not identify who he wants driving the change. That matters: If the state mandates a certain amount of maternity leave, it blunts firms’ own motive (and opportunity) to gain a competitive advantage by offering better benefits than rival firms, impeding the “upward flow of talent” Tankersley sees as the driver of progress.

Moreover, we should think carefully about second-order effects of additional demands made of employers. Surely not all companies have profit margins wide enough to survive yet another expensive mandate, which might mean that a well-intentioned push to make women’s economic participation more widespread will translate to more factories closing in industrial towns. After that, we can only expect more teeth-gnashing to the tune of, “Where have all the jobs gone?”

Jobs don’t grow on trees, nor do they float in the ether waiting to be plucked by benevolent entrepreneurs and handed to willing workers. For all his celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit of minorities and immigrants, Tankersley remains remarkably cavalier about the way government regulation—which large, multinational, highly-technologized companies can easily afford, lobby for, and use to crush competition—can stifle innovation and leave workers stranded in ghost towns across the country.

Succeeding Together

There is some wisdom running through The Riches of this Land. Tankersley shows in his analysis of past prosperity that a capitalist economy, not being a finite, autonomous thing, is not a zero-sum game. Prosperity for some does not entail misery for others. But he does not apply this insight consistently: at the very end of the book, after praising investment in women- and minority-led ventures, he rails against low capital gains taxes as rewards for “legacy beneficiaries of elite white privilege, some of whom can now coast on the wealth they’ve amassed at others’ expense.” Is wealth earned by cooperation or exploitation? Do we want investment in untapped talent or not?

Nonetheless, Tankersley has inadvertently landed a sustained critique of left-wing contentions that the American economic story is merely one of exploitation. Not so. When American ingenuity is unleashed, when we are free to cooperate unrestrained by prejudice and economic planning, Americans can succeed together.

If even struggling immigrants in this ethnography can recognize how exceptional American dynamism is, we should not despair too much over the machinations of the “powerful men” who “tore apart” the middle class. Much of the middle class, one might even note, has been torn all the way to the upper-middle class. (The middle and lower classes have both shrunk consistently since the 1960s; the share of Americans making more than $100,000 per year in current dollars has increased dramatically.) Not to mention that all this focus on the middle class overlooks the neediest Americans, so it bears adding that pre-pandemic poverty rates measuring material deprivation reached an all-time low—for everyone.

If you picked up the phone and called the economy, she’d probably say she believes in American dynamism and decency—and she’s going to be fine.