During the “Great Moderation,” the United States became increasingly dependent on imports to maintain its standard of living. When we talk about the standard of living of a nation, we should always be careful to distinguish between the standards of living of the different classes and strata of the population.
The decaying U.S. industrial base and the consequent absolute decline in the level of factory employment during the Great Moderation devastated the standard of living of factory workers. Those industrial workers who did maintain their jobs often had to accept wage cuts and worsening working conditions. This was particularly true for the young generation of factory workers. The unions often accepted two-tier contracts that protected the wages and benefits of older workers at the expense of those of new young workers.
The younger workers who found factory jobs during the Great Moderation were lucky. Many young workers, especially workers of color in the inner cities often couldn’t find any jobs—let alone factory jobs. If they could, it was usually in low-wage, non-unionized “service” establishments such as MacDonald’s or Walmart. It is significant that the biggest U.S. corporation in terms of revenues is not an industrial giant such as U.S. Steel, as it was early in the 20th century, or General Motors, at mid-century, but rather a trading company, Walmart.
The growing mass of more or less permanently unemployed, or at most marginally employed, youth has encouraged the growth of inner-city street gangs engaged in the drug trade. This has swollen the U.S. prison population. At any given time, there are now considerably more than 2 million people, disproportionality young people of color, in U.S. prisons and jails. Many more people pass through jails or prisons in the course of a year, or are in other respects “in the system,” fighting criminal charges, on parole or on probation.
It remains important, however, for the U.S. ruling class to maintain a large percentage of the population in a relatively comfortable “middle-class” lifestyle. This is a key difference between the United States as the world’s leading imperialist country and an oppressed “third world” country.