What If There’s Nothing We Can Do?


Thanks for all the thoughtful replies you sent about my piece on Democratic politics and the seemingly unscalable cliff face of wage stagnation that has afflicted the country for roughly four decades. I want to follow up on that post by posing a troubling possibility. What if there is simply nothing we can do?

That is a rather stark possibility. And let me start by saying that I not only hope this is not true but I also don’t think it’s true – at least not as an absolute. But let me raise the possible analogue of the great crime wave of the mid-late 20th century, which I’ve discussed at length before. As we’ve discussed (and as you can see in the chart at this point), the US murder rate started climbing in the mid-1960s and climbed until the mid-1970s. It bobbed a bit up and down from there. But stayed there at very high levels through the early 1990s when it began to plummet. It stabilized in the late 90s and then started falling again a little less than a decade ago and it’s still fallen.

As wrote last year, none of the policy measures which are often credited with the decline in the political arena or public press really add up as the cause of the decline – not mass incarceration, not Compstat or broken windows. The truth is we simply don’t know why it happened or why it ended. I don’t deny that any of these policy moves had any effect. It seems clear that changes in policing in New York City got slightly ahead of the wave of falling murder rates. And New York has remained a leader in this respect. But the similar drops, virtually everywhere else in the country, make it clear that something much bigger was afoot than changes in policing strategy in a single city.

One of the weirdest developments in recent years is increasingly persuasive evidence that society wide lead poisoning may have been a critical driver of the entire thing. Whatever the causes, the rise of crime, particularly violent crime and the ultimate violent crime of murder had huge and lasting effects on American society. Not just the impact of the victims but huge corrosive effects on society at large.

When I think back to activists trying to prevent the resumption of the death penalty in the 1980s for instance, in retrospect I think, good luck. The death penalty, mass incarceration and range of punitive and/or conservative public policies all seem like always inevitable reactions to a real trend that goes to the heart of people’s sense of safety and well-being in the world and trust in fellow citizens.

Now, wages and inflation are not the same as violent crime or murder. But they are not totally different either in terms of our ability to understand phenomena that emerge out of the deepest recesses of society or our ability to affect them through public policy.

Now, perhaps you’re saying, Josh, why are you bumming us out like this? Well, good point.

My answer would be that some things, some possibilities are just good to know, if for nothing else to anchor us in a humility about what we know and what control we have. More constructively, in addition to the building a public consensus that wages – in addition to jobs – is the critical test of economic stewardship, we need more openness to public policy experimentation. We also should focus on things we can clearly change which are the forms of economic insecurity that are driven accentuated by wage stagnation but are nonetheless distinct from it. Economic insecurity tied to loss of health care coverage, depleted retirement security to the collapse of the private sector pension system.

As I said, I think this is the great issue of our time, even though it only seldom breaks through as an explicit question in political debates. But when you see constantly falling rates of trust and satisfaction with Congress, elites, business, etc. This is a huge driver of that trend.