Poking holes in the arguments that appear on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages bears a close resemblance, I admit, to shooting fish in a barrel, but an op-ed in Thursday’s Journal makes points so idiotic I cannot restrain myself. Its thesis, as woozily argued by Donald Boudreaux, a George Mason University economics professor, and Mark Perry, a University of Michigan economics professor, is that the decline and stagnation of the American middle class is a myth.
Careful analyses of American income distribution by economists like U.C. Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez—who has found that 93 percent of U.S. economic growth since the trough of the recession has gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of our compatriots – are not even considered in the Boudreaux-Perry manifesto. Rather, they note that Americans’ life expectancy has increased in recent decades (though they fail to grapple with the recent report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, which found that Americans’ lives are shorter than those of Europeans, Australians and Japanese). “These longer lifespans,” they write, “aren’t just enjoyed by ‘privileged’ Americans.” Clearly, they missed the recent study in Health Affairs which found that the life expectancy of white working class men fell by three years from 1990 to 2008, and that of white working class women by five years.
Undaunted, Boudreaux and Perry also argue that Americans at all rungs of the economic ladder are consuming the same products—iPhones, iPads, the works. They note that the average “Joe routinely travels the same great distances in roughly the same time as do the world’s wealthiest tycoons.” By that logic, every 17th-century French peasant was the equal of Louis XIV, since neither king nor peasant could travel faster than his horse.
Besides, there are some critical goods that increasing numbers of Americans can’t afford—college and decent health care, to name just two. By passing over such trivialities, however, Boudreaux and Perry pronounce the state of the American middle class to be just fine. Such is life on the Journal’s editorial pages, which is never to be confused with life itself.