At the same time, American manufacturing has dropped to less than 12 percent of GDP from about 24 percent over the past two decades. Nearly a quarter of those jobs were lost as a result of trade with China. (Through a series of policies that invest in skills and training while trimming benefits to make them sustainable, Germany has retained a competitive manufacturing base of 24 percent of GDP that is the key pillar of its middle class prosperity. China is one of the biggest markets for its machine tools and well-known engineering prowess.)
As Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in their recent study, “Race Against the Machine,” the spread of digital technology throughout the economy, reorganizing nearly every pattern of work, has increased productivity enormously while not adding new jobs. The “ghost of the ATM machine” haunts the white-collar middle class.
Meanwhile, as Nobel laureate Michael Spence has documented, 90 percent of the 27 million jobs created in the US in the last 20 years have been in the low-wage “non-tradable” sectors of retail sales, health care, and government service.
The great danger to the American creed of opportunity is that this combination of wealth concentration, industrial demise, and technological displacement will lead to a closure of upward mobility. As the plutocrats seek to defend their privileges through the political influence of money and perpetuate their elite status by monopolizing access for their children to the Stanfords, Harvards, and Princetons of higher education, everyone else will be shut out from ever getting to the top.
Without doubt, American entrepreneurial energy will seek to break through this tendency toward closure by the plutocrats at the top. Government policies that provide incentives (like Germany) to retain or expand manufacturing in the US are also critical to stemming the growing income gap.