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Between 1920 and 1950, America saw an unprecedented expansion of wealth and power underwritten by technological innovation, cultural confidence, and victory in war. American elites won World War II, rebuilt the world order with America at its head, inaugurated the jet age, and put a man on the moon. The boom led to a larger, richer middle class that confirmed America’s best ideals.
By the early 1970s, that ended. American elites have captured a disproportionate share of the social and economic rewards over the last fifty years. Meanwhile, the middle class has shrunk in size and has become economically insecure, owning a smaller share of national wealth than at any time in the nation’s history. This has happened even while most households have two income earners, versus the single-income households that characterized the period of shared prosperity. At the same time, technological innovation that improves people’s standard of living has dramatically slowed.
These trends undermine the basic premise behind the broad acceptance of a meritocratic elite, whose rule is predicated on the belief that if the best rise to the top, their talent and energy will create a rising tide that lifts all boats. We had that once. We can have it again.