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American Winter Arrives at Capitol Hill

The Nation

Yesterday, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) got off to an auspicious start as chair of the Banking Subcommittee on Economic Policy by doing something that is all too novel—inviting people with the most at stake in economic policy decisions to testify in Congress.

Three Oregonians featured in the HBO documentary American Winter joined four public policy experts at the subcommittee’s first hearing, entitled “The State of the American Dream—Economic Policy and the Future of the Middle Class.”

Senator Merkley set the context with some powerful and totally depressing statistics, including that between 1989–2010, hourly productivity grew more than three times as fast as wages did during that time; the bottom 20 percent of wage earners saw their average hourly wages decline by thirty cents; the next lowest 20 percent saw their earnings decline by 4.3 percent. In contrast, over that same period, the top 20 percent of workers enjoyed a nearly 30 percent increase in earnings. [...]

The panel’s public policy experts—Princeton economics professor Dr. Atif Mian, Demos senior policy analyst Amy Traub and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer—suggested many reforms to help rebuild the middle class, including raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, investing in public education and reducing student loan rates to make college affordable, rebuilding the right to organize and collectively bargain and insisting that the wealthy and corporations pay a fair share of taxes as they did in the past.

Senator Merkley wondered if—absent such policy initiatives—we “are in danger of a national cycle of depressed aspirations replacing the motivating vision of the American Dream?”

Mian, Traub and Hanauer did an excellent job laying out the economic trends that are diminishing the middle class, and proposing ways to reverse these trends.