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U.S. middle class becomes a big business afterthought

The big mystery in the United States today is why the job crisis is not at the centre of the political and economic debate. After all, the numbers – and the human tragedies they reflect – could not be bleaker.

Nearly 14 million Americans – 9.1 per cent of the working population – are unemployed. That's just a couple of a million shy of the combined populations of Greece and Ireland, Europe's two problem children. Another 8.5 million Americans would like to work full time, but can only find part-time jobs. A further 2.2 million have been so discouraged by the grim labour market that they have given up looking for jobs altogether.

It is hard to blame them: Those still actively looking for work have been unemployed for an average of 39.7 weeks. These are cruel numbers, and they depict an unemployment crisis that is deeper and more sustained than at any time since 1948, when U.S. records first started to be kept.

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Yet the debate in Washington is focused on deficit reduction, rather than job creation. The news media are following the same playbook. A recent database analysis by the National Journal found that over the past two years, the leading U.S. newspapers had dramatically shifted their attention from unemployment to the deficit and are now publishing more than three times as many stories about the budget as about jobs.

Politicians and pundits on the left have begun warning that this relative indifference to joblessness is worse than a crime, it is a mistake. In a blog posting, former labour secretary Robert Reich said "the economic burdens of America's vast middle class may be catching up with the Street." Unless more jobs are created soon, he warned, "American consumers will not have enough purchasing power to buy what the private sector can produce."

The reality may be even more chilling: Perhaps U.S. business is learning to get by just fine, thank you, without middle-class consumers. While that may be good news for chief executives and shareholders, it could be the beginning of a new and socially wrenching political logic that leaves the great American middle class behind.

Wall Street, which is paid for smarts, not sentiment, has this figured out. In a newspaper interview earlier this month, Robert Doll, chief equity strategist at BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world, pointed out that the fortunes of U.S. companies and the fortunes of the country as a whole are diverging: "The U.S. stock market and the U.S. economy are increasingly different animals."

Mr. Doll's explanation for the shift was the growing importance of international markets rather than the domestic one – of the rising middle class in emerging markets, rather than the stagnating one back home. He said that over the next five years, 70 per cent of the incremental earnings of S&P 500 companies would come from outside the United States.

Twentieth-century American capitalism was built on what you might call the Henry Ford model – generously compensated workers (to whom Ford paid double the existing rate) created a mass middle class that bought the products of the country's entrepreneurs. That virtuous circle made the United States the world's economic behemoth, and created a society and a political discourse defined by a proudly acquisitive middle class – the much admired and much maligned U.S. consumer culture.

For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, that link between keeping up with the Joneses and the rising value of the Dow Jones industrial average may be breaking. Unemployment remains stuck above 9 per cent, but since March, 2009, when stocks hit their post-crisis bottom, the Dow has risen more than 85 per cent.

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When the chief of General Motors, Charles Wilson, told a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in 1953 that he believed that what was good for the country was good for GM and vice versa, he took some flak for uttering such a self-serving line. But we all remember it, because Mr. Wilson captured something axiomatic about the connection between the fortunes of U.S. business and the welfare of the country as a whole.

The creative destruction of 21st-century capitalism seems to be requiring U.S. companies to learn to prosper with fewer U.S. workers and with fewer U.S. middle-class consumers. We do not know yet how U.S. democracy – where the middle class has the votes, but the business class has the money – will respond to this tough new economic logic.

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