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Last week, Barack Obama went to Osawatomie, Kansas, to kick off a more populist phase in his 2012 re-election bid. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” declared the US president, who chose the same venue that Teddy Roosevelt used in 1910 to call for a new progressive era. “I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot.”

Saying everyone should get a “fair shot” always makes political sense – particularly at a time when US income inequality rivals that of Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age”. But it might have been a stretch for Mr Obama to suggest the American middle class is facing a unique “make-or-break” moment. In reality, the labour force has been polarising for most of the past generation in a trend that has sharply accelerated since 2000.

America used to be exceptional. Postwar, it maintained lower unemployment than the Europeans and a higher rate of jobs turnover, enabling it to get away with more meagre benefits; “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” was within the grasp of most. That gave America a booming middle class that until recently was the most important engine of global demand.

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