A recent meeting with the incoming freshmen of the 110th House of Representatives made clear to me some of the forces that will shape American economic policy in the next few years. Coming from very different parts of the country and very different political perspectives, the new members of Congress have in common that they have all heard from the anxious middle class. They feel under enormous pressure to respond not just to the economic insecurity that middle-class voters feel, but also to voters' resentment at what they see as disproportionately prospering corporate elites. If the new Congress sees itself as having a mandate for anything in the economic area, it is for policies that "stand up" for ordinary Americans against the threat they perceive from corporate and moneyed interests.
These populist impulses have roots much deeper than campaign rhetoric. In the past, real wages and corporate profitability have moved together - increasing during economic expansions and when the US became more competitive, declining in recessions and when it encountered significant competitive threats. The unique feature of the current expansion is the divergence between the fortunes of capital and the fortunes of labour. While workers normally receive about three-quarters of corporate income, with the remainder going to profits and interest, the Economic Policy Institute has calculated that, since 2001, labour has received only about one-quarter of the increase in corporate income, as real wages have failed to keep pace with productivity growth.