Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 24, 2014

Stumbtalk: What happened to the middle class?

By Phillip J. Chesser
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — By listing numerous stereotypes of people whose politics she dislikes, a recent contributor to these pages proved a point I made in my column titled, “They Just Don’t Know.” Refutation of her many incorrect assertions would take years of Stumptalk columns, but her statement about President Reagan and the declining middle class gives me an opportunity to discuss my title’s subject: the destruction of the middle class.

First, her statement that Ronald Reagan was responsible for shrinking the middle class: if President Reagan was responsible for shrinking the middle class, he had plenty of help from Democrats. Remember, Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for all eight years of his presidency; and during the last two years of his second term they controlled both houses. President Reagan could not have shrunk anything without Democratic complicity. And by the way, during his one term the first President Bush never had a Republican majority in either house; therefore, if the middle class declined for 12 years, it was a collaborative effort between Democratic legislators and Republican presidents.

Further middle class decline can be blamed on President Bill Clinton. His first years began with the ratification on January 1, 1994, of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), (while Clinton still had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress) that because of its perceived effect on American jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, was opposed by traditionally Democratic Party supporting labor unions and others of the Democratic left, as well as some on the right like paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, not to mention 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot who said of NAFTA, “After its ratification you will hear the loud sucking sound of jobs leaving the country.”

Also during that same first Clinton term, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was updated then ratified by the U.S. Senate while the World Trade Organization (WTO) was formed in 1995. Many who have studied free trade agreements over the years contend that these agreements accelerated the loss of US manufacturing jobs, for many years the mainstay of the American middle class, and those moves had majority support from both political parties.

To see what has happened to American manufacturing, readers can check origin labels on retail items they buy everyday. My Levi jeans are sewn in Mexico, Bangladesh, and Honduras. Many of the parts on my American assembled Fords come from Japan. Electronic devices of all kinds come from overseas; even those from American companies like Apple are assembled elsewhere. American workers could manufacture all clothing, shoes, tools, electronic appliances, and other items here, as they once were when we had a vibrant middle class, but now through the efforts of both political parties manufacture of those and other items has been shipped overseas. And no political price has been paid by either political party. Nor have I heard the current president say anything significant about jobs, only vague generalities about inequality, which can be best cured with well paying jobs.

Another element reducing the middle class here is uncontrolled immigration. Cheap immigrant labor not only steals jobs from American workers but also suppresses wages. I remember having a roof installed on my house here about eight years ago. All the roofers were Latino. Then Latino tree trimmers hired for a large tree trimming operation came to my neighborhood to cut tree limbs away from power lines.

Someone please tell me this: why couldn’t those roofing and tree trimming jobs be done by local American workers? And don’t tell me that our local workers wouldn’t do that kind of work. I know from first hand experience hiring carpenter and tree services that they would. But to save paying a decent wage, the roofing and electric companies chose to hire immigrant workers.

Let me pause here to say that the men who worked on my roof and who trimmed the trees were conscientious and did a good job, and I applaud their initiative and competence. I have nothing but respect for them. But the companies that hire them are stealing jobs from Americans. It’s a disgrace. Furthermore, neither political party wants to do anything effective about immigration: Democrats see potential Democratic voters; Republicans cheap labor. 

Like most Presidents the late Ronald Reagan had much to answer for but he was not alone. The American political class, that is, Republicans and Democrats, have together done a lot more.

The decline of the middle class is more complicated than the topics discussed here and would take many more words to examine, but these issues are significant.