Greens Worry the Middle Class Is Shrinking, but Not Fast Enough

April 28, 2014

"Already, according to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone were to suddenly consume as Americans do, we would need four more planets to provide the resources and absorb the wastes. Technological improvements alone will not change this; we need to consume less."
- John de Graaf,
Bellingham Herald.

“The report found also found that the median U.S. income, which stands at $18,700, has remained about the same since 2000. ... Things have been going downhill for the middle class since 1990."
- Lynn Stuart Parramore,
Salon.com.

Last week, many on the left highlighted two stories they argue require us to make radical changes in the way our economy works.

First, on Earth Day, many on the left argued we are consuming too much, using up the Earth's resources. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency officials even tweeted out a calculator asking the question, "How many planets would it take to support your lifestyle?" Their intent, of course, is to show that you should consume less, echoing John de Graaf's catastrophic projections.

Second, there is a great deal of media attention on a claim that the United States middle class has fallen behind Canada’s in prosperity. This echoes a common theme among some commentators that the American middle class has lost ground since the 1980s and that all the benefits of U.S. economic growth have gone to the rich.

Thus, in the same week, people advocating more government control over the economy argued more intervention is necessary because; 1) middle class consumption is too large and, 2) middle class consumption isn't growing fast enough.

The only common element of these contradictory claims is the requirement that politicians be given more control over our economy to achieve a pre-determined outcome.  Both claims, however, have serious problems.

The claim that things have been going downhill for the middle class is simply incorrect.

The basis of that claim is a selective look at per-capita income of those in the middle percentile of the American population and comparing it to other countries. Other metrics look at household income and compare it over time. The problem with these comparisons is that it ignores non-salary income, changes in household demographics and purchasing power.

For example, using a 1982 Sears catalog, Dr. Don Boudreaux of George Mason University examined the number of hours it takes the average worker to earn enough to pay for a new pair of jeans from Sears. In 1982 it took one hour and 50 minutes. Today it takes only 41 minutes. In 1982 it took the average worker four hours and 53 minutes to earn enough money to buy a rechargeable razor; today it takes the same worker only 44 minutes. By examining purchasing power this way, it is clear working people can buy much more today with the money they earn than they could in 1982.

It is also true if you look at the categories highlighted by environmentalists when they assess our ecological footprint. To calculate the footprint, environmental calculators ask about the size of your house, the amount of food you eat, the electricity you use and how far you drive. Since 1970, the average American has enjoyed improvements in all those areas.

Median house size went from about 1,700 square feet in 1987 to 2,400 sq. feet in 2012. The percentage of homes with air conditioning went from 70 percent in 1987 to 89 percent in 2012. Americans saw their calorie intake rise from 2,172 calories per day to 2,775 per day between 1970 and 2007. The average American saw the number of annual miles driven jump from about 5,000 in 1970 to 9,500 in 2012.

In virtually every category of economic life, the average or median American is significantly better off today, using the left's own metrics, than in the 1970s and 1980s.

Even if the claim that the middle class is losing ground is correct, however, left-wing environmentalists would think this is a good thing. The calculator tweeted by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency indicates that the average American household would require five planets worth of resources. They seem to think the middle class is five times too rich.

They too, however, are wrong. How can two contradictory claims both be wrong? It does take some skill, but here's how.

The underlying assumption of the environmentalist's claim is the belief they can predict the carrying capacity of the planet. Activists on the left have made this claim for years and they have always been wrong -- wildly wrong. As John de Graaf claims in his quote at the top of this blog, left-wing environmentalists believe technology cannot mitigate the environmental impact of increasing prosperity. At about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, Paul Ehrlich claimed:

By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.

These dire predictions of mass starvation never came true.  Saying "this time we are right" simply isn't convincing.

Further, de Graaf is simply incorrect. The one area where middle class consumption is flat is in energy use. Technology has allowed us to become more efficient, producing more wealth with less energy. Food has seen similar gains in production. Despite a growing population, for example, the price of eggs, a key source of protein for humans, has plummeted over the last century.

He may argue that the future will be worse, but that is called "a guess." Based on similar flawed guesses in the past, it is not an educated one, either.

Technology improvements allow us to increase prosperity for middle class families while reducing and managing our environmental impact at the same time. Matt Ridley made this point well in the Wall Street Journal last weekend.

With the news last week, the message of the environmental left is that they want the middle class to shrink rapidly, and the only comfort they offer is they want the upper class to shrink even more rapidly. 

Comments

Hi Todd, Excellent

Hi Todd,

Excellent commentary, as always. I'm interested in Architecture and its relationship to personal well being. Consequentially, I want to see homes get bigger, since people are happier in large homes on large lots ... compared to apartments and townhomes ...

In addition, I want to see longer commutes, since this means that families can afford to drive to homes with private yards in the suburbs ... rather than within congested cities ... Freeways have helped to facilitate happiness in the green suburbs, away from downtown ... such as the I-90 and 520 corridors in Seattle ...

Therefore, your statistics below are excellent information for me to hear. However, for a smart growth / new urbanist proponent reading this, they indicate that decades of preaching about the environmental evils of urban sprawl haven't changed consumer preferences.

Ultimately, the free market will solve these issues. If families can find jobs, they will move out of "smart growth" regions like Seattle, to cities with large homes on large lots, with large nature preserves (i.e. Phoenix-Scottsdale-Peoria, Arizona). Indeed, Scottsdale, Arizona has the largest urban nature preserve in the U.S. Communities around Lake Tahoe, and much of Reno-Carson City, have larger lot sizes than most new housing developments in Seattle.

Finally, larger homes imply larger lots, which are greener since they have more trees, compared to small smart growth lots. Seattle developers are not required by the PSRC to retain native trees when building smart growth housing. Seattle Earth Day proponents should be mourning the loss of tree cover due to smart growth.

Above, I am referring to these statistics from your commentary:
"Median house size went from about 1,700 square feet in 1987 to 2,400 sq. feet in 2012. The percentage of homes with air conditioning went from 70 percent in 1987 to 89 percent in 2012. Americans saw their calorie intake rise from 2,172 calories per day to 2,775 per day between 1970 and 2007. The average American saw the number of annual miles driven jump from about 5,000 in 1970 to 9,500 in 2012."