It's a sign of Edward McClelland's age that he remembers the middle class. He grew up in an automaking town in the 1970s, where even high school dropouts could get jobs that would support a family and a mortgage payment. Everyone assumed this was capitalism's triumphant endpoint, that it "had produced the worker's paradise to which Communism unsuccessfully aspired," McClelland writes at Salon. Now, that prosperity looks like a "historical fluke," a brief denial of normal economic trends made possible because the US emerged from World War II with its manufacturing base unharmed.
"For the majority of human history … there have been two classes; aristocracy and peasantry," McClelland observes. Left unfettered, capitalism will tend to reinforce that trend, "concentrating wealth in the ownership class." This drift "can only be arrested by an activist government that chooses to step in as a referee." But the US has been on a 40-year deregulation kick, running through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The result: "The greatest disparity between the top earners and the middle earners in nearly a century." Click for McClelland's full column. (Read more income inequality stories.)