With the coming U.S. presidential election, 2012 offers voters, business leaders and politicians an opportunity for a joint debate over the fundamentals of capitalism in America.
Occupy Wall Street and its coast-to-coast spinoffs captured the headlines in 2011, but the economic debate it helped trigger should reverberate deep into 2012.
That’s the debate over the future of the American middle class. Rarely has its economic plight been an explicit issue in a presidential election, but candidates on both sides of the partisan divide are poised to make it the centerpiece of their campaigns in the coming year.
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Yet so far the lionization of the middle class has been largely rhetorical. The year just past was one in which the stagnation of income and wealth for the great majority of Americans continued — indeed, bit so deep that it helped fuel the Occupy movement taking as its constituency the “99%,” those left behind by the continued gravitation of economic bounty toward the top 1% of U.S. taxpayers.
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Confidence in the essential fairness of American life, including confidence in the social and economic safety net, underlies the optimism that fuels consumer spending. That has ebbed in recent decades. As Michigan’s Curtin put it, “For the first time since the 1930s, consumers no longer think that jobs and wages will spring back anytime soon, that the value of their homes will rebound, or that their retirement funds will soon be fully restored…. Their worsening finances were mainly attributed to job losses, reduced hours, wage give-backs, and reduced bonuses.”