Another Think Tank Report Displays Elite Dems’ Distance from Suffering

Roger Bybee

When I started reading a new report called The Polarization of Job Opportunities n the US Labor Market,” I expected to encounter a wealth of valuable information documenting the destruction of America’s middle class.

But it turned out to be an infuriating reminder of the upper-class blinders worn by top Democratic Party leaders and their chosen scholars at the Hamilton Project (housed at the Brookings Institution) and the Center for American Progress, which published the report in April. Their message to Americans is all too familiar: Stop whining about the good jobs lost to globalization, and go back to college.

Polarization, written by MIT economist David Autor, tells us that the American labor market — which it somehow separates from economy itself — is increasingly taking on an hour-glass shape as middle-class jobs are sharply declining. Job growth is largely confined to low-wage, low-skill jobs” and high-skill, high wage” professions. But it offers neither the clear, useful data nor the fierce moral urgency of the superb, fact-filled article America Without a Middle Class” by Prof. Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Ovoversight Panel on the banking bailouts.

What’s going on here?


Key sections of this report remind us of the enormous canyon between these two leading Democratic think tanks and the experience of working people over the past four decades.

It’s hard to imagine a greater gulf between the real needs of working families hammered by corporate globalization, and the conventional wisdom in top Democratic circles like the Hamilton Institute (founded in 2006 by Robert Rubin, the key architect of economic deregulation as Treasury Secretary during the Clinton years) and the Center for American Progress, headed up by Democratic operative John Podesta.

Particularly appalling is that these two think tanks are unwilling to critically look at the key forces driving the loss of middle-class jobs and the worst polarization of income since the 1920s. The Polarization paper rotely advocates the same old futile formula of better educational credentials for everyone, as if there were not a sharply shrinking supply of good jobs at the end of the educational process.


Some of crucial downward pressures undermining the supply of middle-class jobs get such a sanitized treatment you’d almost suspect it was re-written by the Texas textbook fanatics. There is simply no mention of the ongoing demise of America’s base in real production while the parasitic financial industry keeps draining resources from our industrial might – a revision of history Robert Rubin would certainly support.

The report transforms the stunning loss of a huge chunk of America’s industrial base – 32% of industrial jobs since 2000 alone– into a failure of workers to adjust to a deteriorating economy rather than a failure of the economic system to provide decent jobs and incomes. The destruction of entire industries and millions of family-supporting jobs is portrayed as the result of bad choices by individual workers who chose not to attend college, rather than the greed-driven decisions of corporate CEOs.

The consistent theme of Polarization is that workers must better prepare themselves for the new crop of high-wage, high-skill jobs that we can count on Corporate America to reliably deliver here in the U.S., once the recession is over – a conclusion which ignores the past decade of zero net job growth in the US. The basic problem with a polarized job market, Polarization tells us, is that workers – especially males – have adapted poorly to the changing labor market.”

Instead of targeting corporate and government policies like support for free-trade” agreements that are premised on the exploitation of low-wage labor in nations like Mexico, the report implicitly argues that the workers of America should simply swallow the injustice of investor rights-based globalization and get on with their educations. 

Unbelievably for the product of Democratic think tanks, corporate globalization is described rather benignly as the international integration of labor markets through trade, and more recently, offshoring.” 


Polarization explicitly contends that America’s plummet in private sector unionization from 21.2% in 1979 to 7.2% in 2009 was largely a matter of unionized manufacturing sectors being relocated abroad – of course, with no mention of the long-term toll on either U.S. economic capacity to innovate or on the lives of industrial workers and their communities.

The vicious, systematic and frequently illegal attack on the right to form unions passes without mention in the report. Totally missing is the incessant class war against labor rights that led to over 31.000 firings in 2005 alone, according to Philip Dine in State of the Unions.

While Polarization” obscurely reminds Congress and other opinion leaders that America is losing its middle class, the report continually reinforces the bogus notion that America is most fundamentally divided by educational achievement rather than economic fault lines.

Again, Robert Rubin would heartily approve of this perspective.


Looking at a slightly earlier period prior to the Great Recession’s onset, NY Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman utterly incinerates the thesis behind Polarization. BACK IN FEBRUARY 2006, Krugman argued that the real fault line is between blue-collar and white-collar workers on the one hand – regardless of education– and Ameica’s oligarchs” on the other:

Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004….

So who are the winners from rising inequality? …

I]income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that’s not a misprint. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite. 

Additionally, Princeton economist Alan Blinder has calculated that up to 42 million highly-technical U.S. jobs — from computer programming to medical transcription to accounting — are highly offshorable” to low-wage sites like China, India, and the nations of Eastern Europe (Wall Street Journal, (3÷28÷07).

The most important divide is not, as commonly argued, between jobs that require a lot of education and those that don’t,” the Wall Street Journal notes in summarizing Blinder’s findings.

However, there is a very important divide between the deeply corporatist worldview of Democratic Party officials and their think tanks and the way that working people have interpreted their lives.

Polarization, indeed.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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