It’s the Working Class, Stupid

This election was mainly interesting for what it forced to the surface. Many people began paying attention. But the election itself wasn’t a fundamental change from trends and developments that have been happening for decades.

Politics after WWII was built on the growing middle class. And it was mostly a white middle class. The New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and such were designed to primarily help whites and to exclude minorities. Still, even many minorities were making economic gains at the time and increasingly joining the middle class. Not all boats were being floated, but more than ever before. And it was built with extremely high taxation on the rich. Creating a middle class doesn’t come cheap.

That subsidized and supported growing middle class made possible a new kind of politics. It took shape in the early Cold War, but only gained full force in the latter part of the 20th century. As much of the population became economically comfortable and complacent, they became ripe for the rhetoric of red-baiting, union-busting, culture wars, civil rights fights, and identity politics. Politicians had long stopped talking about the working class, about those aspiring to do better, and in its place came an emphasis on those who had already made it. The white middle class decided to pull up the ladder behind them and barricade the door.

Wages began to stagnate when I was born, back in 1976. Well, they stagnated for the average worker, which means they were dropping for the working poor. Buying power was decreasing, but people were able to maintain their lifestyles by working longer hours or multiple jobs. The economic problems were mostly felt across generations, as education costs increased and opportunities decreased, as job security disappeared and good benefits became rare. The unions made sure to protect older workers, which meant sacrificing younger workers. And the union leadership defended the political status quo in the hope of maintaining their increasingly precarious position. But the influence of unions was being felt by a decreasing number of Americans, especially among the working class and those falling out of the middle class.

Still, even going into the 21st century, there was still a large middle class. It was beginning to show signs of serious hurting, but the inertia of the economy kept the reversals from being noticed by the political and media elite. It was only at the bottom of society that it was obvious how bad it was getting, specifically among the young. That was true even in the 1980s and 1990s. GenXers were the only generation last century to experience a recession that only their generation experienced, and black GenXers were hurt the worst. That was true going back in the early life of GenXers with worsening child poverty rates. The vibrant middle class was poisoned in the cribs of GenX.

The talk of the middle class continued until this election. What had become clear this past decade or so, though, is that politicians and pundits in talking about the middle class were often actually talking about the working class. More people were falling out of the middle class, instead of entering it. In the past, simply aspiring to be middle class made you middle class, no matter if you were born working class and had a working class job. Middle class was primarily defined as an aspiration and the American Dream was about upward mobility. It was the sense that the whole country was moving up, all or most boats were being floated. But that has been changing for a long time.

This is the first election in my lifetime where the political and media elite finally had to admit that the US was defined by its working class, not its middle class. That is because in recent years this has become unavoidable. The US economic mobility had been falling behind other countries for a while, and fairly recently the US middle class lost its position as the most wealthy in the world. Trump won his nomination through inciting the fears and anxieties of a hurting middle class, as his earliest supporters weren’t the poor and working class, but he won the election because of those on the bottom of society, the working poor. Once Sanders was eliminated, Trump was the last candidate left standing who talked about economic populism and economic reform. As many have been reminding the Democratic establishment, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It turns out that the mid-20th century middle class, along with the post-war economic boom that made it possible, was a historical anomaly. We are once again a working class country. And it isn’t a working class that is feeling all that hopeful at the moment. These Americans aren’t a temporarily down-on-their-luck middle class, much less temporarily embarrassed millionaires, nor are they even aspiring to much beyond not being left behind. Unless the entire economic and political system is reformed, this working class is here to stay. And if we continue on this path, it will become a permanent underclass.

Economic Inequality: A Book List

I was discussing economic inequality with a conservative… which, as always, is a masochistic activity.

I’m amazed how easily a conservatives dismiss such things. It isn’t just about the data, about whether correlation is causation. It’s hard enough to even get conservatives to look at the data, and so most debates never even get beyond blind dismissal of what conservatives don’t know and don’t want to know.

I truly do think the data is secondary, although the mountains of correlations do make a damning case. The reason I say the data is secondary is because the data isn’t necessary. The idea that vast economic inequality is bad should be commonsense. Just a brief perusal of countries with similar economic inequalities should make any American a bit on the uncomfortable side.

I know conservatives mistrust science and academia, even though that mistrust is rather selective in application. But when did common sense become the enemy of conservatives?

Maybe that is why the data is so important, after all. The data makes clear what is already obvious enough. Sometimes stating and restating the obvious is the best one can offer in defense of truth and morality.

In that light, I offer a list of books I’ve been perusing recently and also some that I was considering as possible reads. I hope many more people will begin reading books like these and that it will force the discussion into the mainstream, whether or not conservatives like it.

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
By Michael J. Thompson

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others
By James Gilligan

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!
By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
By Robert Frank

Class Matters
By The New York Times

Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity
By Michael Marmot

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Barbara Ehrenreich

The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009
By Sarah Burd-Sharps, Kristen Lewis, Eduardo Borges Martins, Amartya Sen, and William H. Draper III

The Measure of America, 2010-2011
By Burd-Sharps Lewis and Sarah Kristen

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide In America And Its Poisonous Consequences
By James Lardner (Author, Editor), David Smith (Editor), Bill Moyers (Foreword), and Jim Lardner (Author)

The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality and What We Can Do about It
By Timothy Noah

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future
By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up
By Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi

So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman

The Price of Inequality: Facts, Trends, and International Perspectives
By Kemal Dervis, Uri Dadush, Sarah P. P. Milsom, and Bennett Stancil

Winner-Take-All Politics
By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches
By Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard  Rosenthal

Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics
By Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It
By Chuck Collins

Economic Apartheid In America: A Primer On Economic Inequality & Insecurity
By Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel

The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy
By Key Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady

The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation
By Nancy Burns, Key Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba

Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn
By Lawrence R. Jacobs

Faces of Inequality: Social Diversity in American Politics
By Rodney E. Hero

Latinos and the U.S. Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism
By Rodney E. Hero

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
By Annette Lareau

The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide
By Barbara J. Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose M. Brewer, Rebecca Adamson, and Meizhu Lui

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
By Glenn Greenwald

The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackman

Wealth and Democracy: How Great Fortunes and Government Created America’s Aristocracy
By Kevin Phillips

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
By Larry M. Bartels

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
By Martin Gilens

Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis
By James K. Galbraith

Inequality, Power, and Development: Issues in Political Sociology
By Jerry Kloby

Inequality Reexamined
By Amartya Kumar Sen

Public Health, Ethics, and Equity
By Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen

Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues
ByPaul Farmer

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor
By Paul Farmer

The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health
By Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
By Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier
By Richard G. Wilkinson

Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Federico Caffè Lectures)
By Samuel Bowles
 
Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success
By Samuel Bowles
 
Poverty Traps
By Samuel Bowles

The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality (Oxford Handbooks)
By Wiemer Salverda