Alienated Middle Class Whites

I’ve been reading Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America that came out this past year (and already posted about it). Like so many others, it’s about what brought us to a Trump presidency. But this particular piece of journalism stands out from the crowd, albeit not a difficult achievement. I’m giving the author extra credit points because he is somewhat balanced. For a conservative (paleo-libertarian?) henchman of the American Enterprise Institute living in Washington, D.C., he surprisingly brings up a number of points a left-winger could at least partly agree with.

Looking through the book, I kept expecting to be more critical. The political right bias was there, but Carney also drew upon the views of the political left, if not to the degree and depth I’d have preferred. He discusses the history of racism, gender bias, privilege, etc. Then he puts this in context of the problems of conservative nostalgia and revanchism. He takes some pointed jabs at the right, although he plays to the frame of ‘moderation’ in believing the truth is somewhere to be found in a hypothetical ‘centrism’, such as his critique of both individualism and collectivism or his critique of both big gov and big biz.

In giving the political left credit, he admits the importance of economic factors, such as rising inequality and he also brings up the problems of segregation and mistrust. But he is completely unaware that diversity only leads to loss of trust when combined with segregation (Eric Uslaner, Segregation and Mistrust). Nor does he appreciate how far reaching are the effects of inequality (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder; Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Inner Level). His view is not superficial or lacking in nuance, even as he remains trapped in capitalist realism. But he is coming from a more or less conventional worldview, no matter how far he stretches the boundaries a bit, although admittedly he does bring some good points to the table (The Right’s Lena Dunham Fallacy).

Here is the basic limitation. He constantly associates one positive factor with another in the assumption that the link is causal and goes in the direction that fits his beliefs, but he rarely if ever goes beyond correlation and he doesn’t acknowledge all the immense data and examples that contradict his assumptions and conclusions. Consider Scandinavians who show better results on numerous measures: poverty, unemployment, inequality, small business ownership, patents per capita, education, health, etc. They do this with highly conformist and collectivist societies with centralized welfare states and without the kind of civic participation seen in the US; for example, schools are operated professionally by highly trained and heavily unionized teachers, and parents don’t belong to an equivalent of a PTA or typically volunteer at their children’s schools. Yet it can be argued they somehow have a stronger and healthier form of individualism (Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything). Such examples show that Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” can be as large and centralized as a highly advanced modern nation-state. It is true they are smaller nation-states, but large enough to have ambassadors, international policy, maintain militaries, and be allies with global superpowers.

Carney barely discusses anything outside of the United States. As I recall, he mentions Scandinavia once or twice and even then only in passing. Scandinavia undermines every aspect of his conclusions. That is the problem. He covers a lot of material and, for a mainstream writer, it is reasonably comprehensive as non-academic popular writing. But he never quite brings it together and he offers no meaningful solutions. What could have been a more worthy book stopped short of challenging the paradigm itself and pushing to an entirely different perspective and level of insight. Instead, he offers an obsession with social conservatism, if slightly more interesting than the standard approach. He makes a decent argument for what it is, maybe one of the better mainstream conservative arguments I’ve come across. He actually engages with diverse info. If nothing else, it will serve the purpose of introducing conservatives and right-wingers to a wealth of info and ideas they otherwise would never see.

I’m not sure I can hold the limitations against the author. Even if it fails in the end, it doesn’t fail to a greater degree than is expected. The analysis is adequate and, within the chosen framework, it was inevitable that it couldn’t really go anywhere beyond known territory. Even so, I really did appreciate how much space he gave to a topic like inequality. An example of where it comes short is not even touching on the saddest of inequalities, that of environment and health. It’s not merely that the poor don’t have access to green spaces and nice schools. The poor are literally being poisoned by lead in old pipes and toxic dumps located in poor communities. The oppressed poor aren’t accidental victims for their communities were intentionally destroyed by design, in the kind of capitalism we have that makes profit by devouring ‘social capital’. Still, it’s amazing how much he is willing to speak of, considering who employs him and who is his likely audience, but it ends up feeling like a wad of loose threads. The edges of his argument are as frayed as the social fabric he details. There is no larger context to hold it together, which is to be expected as the author is part of the very same problematic mainstream social order he is attempting to understand… and doing so on the same level the problem was created.

Though going far beyond where most on the political right dare to tread, he never fully takes seriously the ideals of basic human rights and moral righteousness nor the democratic values of fairness and justice as being of penultimate importance. The entire history of corporatocratic and plutocratic capitalism is that of violence, oppression, and theft. The kind of analysis in Alienated America, no matter how fair-minded and reasonable in intention (if we give the author the benefit of the doubt), doesn’t confront the bloody corpse of the elephant in the room, the reality that capitalism only applies to the poor while the rich get socialism (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars). Neither church attendance nor marriage rates could come close to undoing the moral harm. Forget the social fabric. We need to worry about the moral foundation of modern civilization.

As someone harshly put it, “Just a rehash of the same old “Trickle Down Economics” and “Thousand Points of Light” BS. Shrink government down till you can drown it in the bathtub destroying the social safety net while cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations and miraculously private local organizations will jump in to take care of everything. At least try and come up with a more plausible explanation for the disaster to divert us from the truth that the gangster capitalism the Republican Party has been pushing on America since Reagan” (comment to Andy Smarick’s Where civic life crumbled, Donald Trump arose). I might be slightly more forgiving as I came to it with low expectations, but basically this comment is correct.

Carney’s argument is intellectually reasonable as far as mainstream arguments go, but it lacks a gut-level punch. He remains within the range of respectability, not getting too close to anything that might be mistaken as radical. Envisioning a slightly more friendly capitalism is not exactly a new proposition or overly inspiring. Nonetheless, his refusal to scapegoat individuals and his refusal to think of communities in isolation is refreshing. His focus on alienation is key, even as I personally find Joahann Hari (Chasing the Scream & Lost Connections) to be much more probing in getting to the heart of the matter, but that ultimately is just to complain that Carney isn’t a left-winger, not that Hari is extremely radical either.

Where his take offered clarity of light to see by was his dissection of Trump supporters and voters. He does a wonderful takedown of the mainstream narrative that it was the highly religious who were behind Trump’s election. Opposite of this narrative, the facts show that, as church attendance went up in a community, Trump’s voter count went down in that location. His ‘religious’ followers were mostly the unchurched and, interestingly, those lacking in an ethnic identity, as contrasted with traditioanlly religious and community-minded populations such as Dutch-American Calvinists (Terry Mattingly, Journalists don’t understand religious fault lines in ‘alienated’ America). Yet those unchurched Trump supporters claimed that religion was important to them, apparently as a symbolic issue among those who have otherwise lost meaning in their lives, which seems to be Carney’s takeaway. It reminds me of how school shooters are also concentrated in similar communities and, even when non-religious, the assailants often express religious-like concern for meaning (12 Rules for Potential School Shooters).

He busted another myth in pointing out that core support for Trump, although coming from economically struggling populations, did not specifically come from the poor but rather the wealthier in those communities (yet strangely he kept reinvoking the very myth he disproved and dismantled, in returning his focus to poor whites). This economic class of the relatively comfortable apparently have a troubled relationship with their impoverished ‘neighbors’, either in a fear of them or in a fear of becoming like them, which is to say class anxiety in one way or another. It’s understandable as the middle class has been shrinking and surely the middle class is shrinking the most in those economically distressed communities. And that would be hitting white males most of all in how, as many other demographics (women, minorities, and immigrants) have had improving economic outcomes over the past half century, white males are now making less than in the past.

On the other hand, the wealthier in wealthier communities are more protected from these problems and so felt no attraction to Trump’s demagoguery; their local economies are less stressed and divided. It indicates that, though Carney didn’t explain it this way, the real problem is inequality, where it was immediately felt and not. The more well off communities could either ignore inequality altogether as if it didn’t exist or else treat it as a problem of other people elsewhere. To the economically-segregated elites, inequality is an abstraction that isn’t viscerally real in their immediate experience and so, in the mind of the privileged, it is not personally relevant or morally compelling. But such dissociation can only last for so long as society crumbles all around their walled enclaves — as Keith Payne makes clear, even the rich are stressed, suffer, and become sick under conditions of high inequality. Ultimately, there is no escape from a society gone mad, especially when that society is the leading global superpower.

Where Carney really gets things right is about isolation and alienation. And it doesn’t happen in the way most would expect. Why is this particular middle class white demographic so anxiety-ridden and not other populations? In dealing with everyday needs and problems, Carney writes that, “Trump voters—as compared with Ted Cruz voters, or Bernie or Hillary supporters—answered, “I just rely on myself” the most.” That is quite telling. Sanders won the largest proportion of the poor and working class, far more than Trump. So, similar to how the wealthy in wealthy communities feel greater trust and connection toward their neighbors, so do many of the poor.

Stephen Steinberg writes that, “In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”” (Poor Reason; see Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”).

So that is what Carney gets wrong. He goes from Trump’s core supporters from the middle class being isolated and alienated to shifting the frame back to the mainstream narrative of it somehow being about the declining white working class, in stating that, “In general, poorer people “tend to be socially isolated,” Putnam found, “even from their neighbors.” That probably is true to some extent, but the point is that it isn’t nearly true to the degree as found among the anxious middle class. The poorest of the poor, unlike the upwardly aspiring middle class, are those the least likely to move to seek a job and so are the most likely to remain living near lifelong connections of family, friends, and neighbors.

Yes, poverty has a way of isolating people such as being constantly busy with working multiple jobs while unable to afford childcare. Nonetheless, even when they don’t have the time to spend with those important social ties, they know that their social network is always there to fall back on in times of dire need. Sure, the rural poor are increasingly isolated quite literally in a geographic sense, as the rural areas empty out with the young moving to the cities. But in spite of the media loving to obsess over these loneliest of the desperate and aging poor, the reality is the vast majority of the poor, specifically poor whites, have lived in urban areas for over a century now. That isn’t to say it isn’t also shitty to be among the urban poor. But the basic point comes down to something odd going on here. The poorest Americans, contrary to expectation, are not the most anxious and are not those turning most to reactionary politics of nostalgia and strong man leadership. Instead, those on the bottom of society tend to be apolitial and disenfranchised, that is to say they usually don’t vote.

How different that is from Trump’s America. Trump was not speaking to those facing the worst economic hardship but those a few rungs above them. Something happened to the middle class to cause them to feel precarious, as if they had been cheated out of a more comfortable and secure lifestyle that they deserved. Maybe they had sacrificed extended family and community in climbing the economic ladder and pursuing their careers, and it turned out the rewards did not match the costs. So, they were left hanging somewhere in between. “Trump voters were significantly less socially connected,” Carney writes. “There’s plenty more data like this, charting the loneliness and social disconnection in Trump’s early core support.” For certain, something is making middle class whites go crazy and not merely those gripping the lowest edge of it (Fractures of a Society Coming Apart). Look at the breakdown of Trump voters, from my post Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class, and notice it doesn’t fit the narrative spun in the corporate media:

“Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

“Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).”

Of course, Carney is making a more targeted point. He is speaking about Trump’s core support in specifying those who were supporting him from the very beginning of his campaign, prior to the GOP nomination. That core support wasn’t the comfortable upper middle class, but still they were solidly middle class above the common rabble. As he further emphasizes, “recall that Trump’s core supporters weren’t necessarily poorer than other voters. But they lived in places that were worse off, culturally and economically, than other places.” That cuts straight to one of Keith Payne’s main points, the way high inequality can feel like poverty even to those who aren’t poor. Economic stress comes in many forms, not limited to outright economic desperation. Inequality, when pushed to extremes, makes everyone feel shitty. And if the sense of conflict lasts long enough, people begin acting crazy, even crazy enough to vote for demagogues, social dominators, and authoritarians.

If we are to seek the cause of this problem, we should look elsewhere to those concentrations of segregated wealth. “Inequality in the United States is growing,” says Carney in pointing out the obvious. “Economic mobility is low. These facts alone suggest that our elites aren’t sharing the wealth.” That is an interesting conclusion coming from the political right, even to suggest they should share the wealth. Now if the right could only admit that most of that wealth was stolen and so needs to be returned, not merely shared, but such breathtaking honesty is far too much to ask for. We have to take what meager honesty we can get, even if it only gives us a glimpse: “This social inequality, as earlier chapters laid out, was far less in the 1960s (racial and gender inequality were far worse, of course). Between the upper class and the working class, there was a far smaller gap in marriage, in divorce, and in out-of-wedlock births. At the root of it all: In 1960, there was a narrower gap in social connectedness, including church attendance. Today, family life and strong community are increasingly a luxury good. And here we can blame the elites.”

If only social conservatives would take seriously what it means to have made the public good a luxury unaffordable to most of the public. But all we are left with is a diatribe of paternalistic moralizing. We don’t need to get rid of this modern aristocracy, so goes the lament, for the moral failure is that they’ve forgotten their noblesse oblige. They need to return to the founding ideal, as embodied by George Washington, of an enlightened aristocracy. Carney preaches that the economic elite need to once again embrace their role as ruling elite, to return plutocracy back to its aristocratic roots of theocratic patriarchy. The “more pernicious problem” is an “ideoogical commitment to egalitarianism among elites that prevents them from seeing themselves as elites.” Yeah, that is where we went wrong. The elites aren’t elitist enough and so they aren’t taking seriously their moral responsibility to compassionately rule over their local populations of neo-feudal serfs, instead locking themselves away in the modern equivalent of a castle keep. I’m glad we got that cleared up. That should set the world right again.

* * *

Alienated America
by Timothy P. Carney

A quick reminder, though, as we discuss election results and “Trump Country”: By the general election in 2016, a vast majority of Republicans had come around to Donald Trump. Many would choose anyone but Hillary. Others had grown fond of the man. By the end of Trump’s first couple of years in office, after two Supreme Court picks and a tax cut, many other right-leaning Americans embraced him.

This book isn’t about those later adopters, though. This book has mostly studied the results of the early primaries to sort out who was Trump’s early core support . When we have looked at general election results, we have been most interested in the voters or places that shifted from Democrat to Republican—the voters who would have stayed home or voted Democrat had Trump not been the nominee.

So on this question—who was Trump’s early core support ?—different studies found wildly differing results. You may recall those who said “economic anxiety” was the cause, and those who said they could prove that there was no economic anxiety, just racism at the heart of Trump’s earliest support.

What distinguished these two classes of studies? The studies that found no or little connection between economic woe and Trump support were polls of individuals. Those finding that economic woe predicted Trump support were studies of places.

As a Washington Post headline aptly put it: PLACES THAT BACKED TRUMP SKEWED POOR; VOTERS WHO BACKED TRUMP SKEWED WEALTHIER. 3

This is one reason we couldn’t tell the story of Trump without discussing community. The story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind our opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality.

The core Trump voters weren’t the people dying, obviously. They weren’t even necessarily the unhealthy ones. They weren’t necessarily the people drawing disability payments or dropping out of the workforce. Trump’s core voters were these people’s neighbors.

Trump’s win—specifically his wins in the early primaries and his outperformance of Mitt Romney—is best explained by his support in places where communities are in disarray. Many traits characterized Trump’s early core supporters. This chapter will explore them, and we will see how closely they are all tied to alienation.

How Trump Voters Are Giving the Right Qualms About Capitalism
by Park MacDougald

Yet if Carney offers a convincingly bleak view of social collapse in working-class America, his explanation for this collapse — and his suggestions for what to do about it — are somewhat less satisfying. Carney channels, to a limited degree, some of the new right-wing market skepticism: He offers a soft criticism of big business for stamping out local variation in the name of standardization and efficiency; he laments the rise of “Taylorism” and its dehumanization of work; he attacks the “gig economy” for not providing workers with stability; he disapproves of suburbanization and the isolation that stems from it; he even quotes Deneen to the effect that capitalism breeds an individualistic mind-set that makes relationships contingent and easily broken. But in explaining the troubles of working-class America, Carney tends to fall back on the collapse of church and community, which he largely attributes to traditional Republican bogeymen such as the welfare state, the sexual revolution, the rise of expressive individualism, and secularization. These explanations are not wrong per se, but they are so large and fuzzily cultural that they resist solutions beyond the local and individual. Carney offers a few policy fixes he thinks might help — reforming the mortgage interest deduction, decentralizing control over public schools — but he admits in his closing chapter that the “solution is mostly: You should go to church. Also, You should start a T-ball team.

Generally speaking, it probably is a good idea to start a T-ball team. And Carney’s willingness to critique aspects of American capitalism, mild as they may be, represents a marked shift from where the mainstream right was during the Obama years and where some of its leading lights still are. But at the same time, by delivering an account of a country facing full-blown social collapse and then retreating into calls for local, voluntary solutions, Carney ends up restating the basic premises of an old conservative consensus — it’s not the government’s job to fix your problems — that, as a political philosophy, has contributed to the alienation Carney so convincingly describes. It may be true, for instance, that the state is ill equipped to re-create devastated communities, but it is also true that state policy has enabled or even accelerated their devastation, and not merely in the sense that overregulation has hurt small businesses or that the welfare state has crowded out private charity.

Rising international economic competition, for instance, was always going to hurt the American working class. But as critics on both the left and the right have pointed out, globalization has been systematically tilted in favor of the mobile and highly educated. The critic Michael Lind, for instance, notes that the international harmonization of economic rules has focused on tariffs, financial liberalization, and intellectual property while avoiding areas that would benefit the Western working classes, such as wages, labor standards, and tax laws. Even some of the more diffuse cultural shifts lamented by conservatives have been midwifed by the state. As Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have argued in their study of the evolution of Title IX, civil-rights laws designed to protect women’s equal access to education have created, through bureaucratic drift and activist institutional capture, a vast federal regulatory apparatus that treats socialization into “traditional” gender roles as a public-health risk and attempts, under the guise of fighting sexual assault, to inculcate among college students a progressive view of gender and sexuality.

The point here is not to chastise Carney for not adopting a more dirigiste political philosophy than the one he presumably holds. It is to say that, even on the right, intellectuals are concluding that the problems Carney identifies are so alarming that localist, laissez-faire solutions simply aren’t going to cut it. In a recent essay in American Affairs, Gladden Pappin issued a broadside against fusionist conservatives who, in his view, waste their energies calling for the resurrection of vanished civil-society traditions “that worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries.” Instead, Pappin demands conservatives ask themselves, “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”

It remains to be seen whether anyone will take up Pappin’s call and, if they do, whether such a conservatism of the state would be effective or popular. But if Middle America’s condition really is as dire as people like Carney make it out to be, it’s hard to imagine that “go to church” will turn out to be a political winner. Carney ably describes the sort of malaise that led Republicans to flock to Trump, but if there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that desperate people want a leader who promises to try something different, however flawed his solutions might be.

God’s Bailout: A Review of Timothy P. Carney’s “Alienated America”
by Tyler Austin Harper

It is here that Alienated America is very insightful: Carney has a genuine knack for parsing the data, drawing out counterintuitive but rigorously defended observations, and resisting simple narratives about complex states of affairs. His central claim that the 2016 election was a referendum on whether the American dream is alive or dead is not novel, but it is both convincing and better supported than similar efforts. Additionally, although his defense of the salutary nature of cultural practices like religious observance, child-rearing, and marriage are unapologetically conservative in nature, his message remains comparatively broad in scope: unlike other conservative Catholic critics of Trump (most notably, Patrick Deneen), Carney predicates his argument on the form, rather than the content, of these practices. In the pages of Alienated America, you will find no diatribe on the superiority of heterosexual marriage or the Catholic faith — he notes repeatedly, for example, that observant Muslim Americans are among the groups most likely to report optimism about America and faith in the American dream, even after Donald Trump’s election and attempted Muslim ban. Rather, Carney’s message is practical and universalist in nature: people are better off among other people, when they have something, anything whatsoever, that they belong to and that unites them in a network of mutual responsibility.

It is this aspect of Carney’s argument that I find most appealing, and most useful for progressives like myself. Namely, the author eschews the common tendency — on the right and the left — to posit a linear relationship between wealth and well-being. More specifically, his work persuasively suggests that financial security and emotional security go hand in hand not because some kind of mechanical relationship exists between the two, but because, in contrast to the working class, the wealthy tend to have the resources to live in and contribute to places that provide opportunities for meaningful lives lived in common. As he succinctly puts it: “The erosion of community […] is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map.”

While those of us on the left are generally quick (and correct!) to highlight the importance of addressing widening income inequality and an increasingly precarious labor market, for example, it often seems that we are comparatively less likely to talk about questions of community, as though we assume that fixing the former will necessarily achieve the latter. Furthermore, when we do talk about community, we often use the term to refer to people who share common interests and experiences (for example, “communities of color”) but not necessarily geographical proximity or concrete spaces of interaction. If we are willing to take Carney’s assessment seriously, then, two questions seem obvious: What are the barriers to community, understood in the sense of mutual, meaningful networks of local support? And how might these barriers be removed?

Not surprisingly, it is here that Carney’s analysis breaks down, where his professed desire for strong communities is predictably thwarted by his inability to recognize unfettered capitalism, rather than government centralization and regulation, as the primary threat to the robust civic life he vaunts. Although Carney approvingly cites Orwell’s maxim “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle,” he consistently fails to see that at the heart of every flyover town, closed plant, and shuttered church whose death he laments, there is a place where unregulated capital — not some big government boogeyman — has reared its ugly head.

Unlike his meticulously researched and tightly argued defense of the prosocial virtues of marriage and religious observance, for example, Carney’s tepid but persistent support of free-market capitalism and his assaults on liberal governance are fast and loose, often relying on anecdotal evidence, sparse data, and obscure cases of bureaucratic malfeasance to make his points. Oftentimes, his arguments are absurd — such as his claim that massive companies like Walmart, Amazon, or Starbucks crowd out small businesses because of too much, rather than too little, regulation. Other times, they’re comical — once in the 1980s, Mayor Bernie Sanders apparently professed not to believe in charities. This decades-old remark is spun by Carney into a sweeping indictment of the contemporary left’s widespread desire to have neighborly goodwill replaced by the Nanny State.

In fairness, Carney isn’t entirely oblivious to the problems caused by our neoliberal economic order — he frequently cites cases of Chinese manufacturing undermining manufacturing-centric US communities, for example. However, like many modern conservatives, he assuages his doubts by acknowledging that free-market capitalism has a few minor kinks, before swiftly pivoting to the supposedly graver dangers posed by governmental overreach, centralization, and regulation. As a direct consequence of this reaffirmation of the legitimacy of unfettered capital, Carney is thus forced to retreat into the untenable position that religion is the best and most readily available means to redress our present crisis of community. We can’t all be affluent, his argument goes, and thus we can’t all have access to the kind of secular communal life enjoyed by the wealthy. Yet, even the dirt poor can enjoy the social bonds provided by religious life.

To reiterate, I have no problem with Carney’s high estimation of organized religion. As with marriage, I know plenty of people for whom religion has been nightmarish, a source of trauma, insecurity, and even violence. I also know plenty of people, like Jim the bookish engineer, for whom religious affiliation has been a bulwark against the loneliness endemic to modern life. The problem is not religion itself, as one means among many for achieving the communal ties that foster well-being. The problem is Carney’s reliance on God to bail out capitalism. Unlike Robert Nisbet, the conservative sociologist whose classic work — The Quest for Community (1953) — he returns to frequently, Carney’s own work persistently downplays the connection between social alienation and the flow of unregulated capital that is the principal engine of that same alienation.

Although he signals kinship with an earlier tradition of postwar conservatives who were also preoccupied with the question of community — people like Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Peter Viereck, who highlighted the corrosive and antisocial effects of the cult of free enterprise — Carney cannot ultimately bring himself to shed the laissez-faire, libertarian economics that dominate the Republican Party. The result is a book that puts its finger on the right problem, but whose author is too besotted by economic fatalism to imagine a variety of contentment that would be otherwise than religious, positioning secular forms of community as the unique provenance of the elite. While Carney’s insistence that we must reintegrate the classes, combating the geographical isolation of wealth and its resources, is laudable, his calls to privatize the safety net are as predictable as they are puerile.

Rather than buy into a zero-sum game that forces a choice between government as a tentacular monster and government as a minimalist “reinsurance” program (“a safety net for safety nets,” to use Carney’s term) is it not possible to imagine a government that supports community institutions by — and hear me out on this — actually funding and defending them? If you want a thriving book club scene, for example, why not fix the public schools? Try pumping money into education and paying teachers a salary that will make such work a feasible option for the best and the brightest. After all, lifelong learners, the kind who read for pleasure, do not grow on trees. Likewise, if you want heightened church attendance, mightn’t an increased minimum wage — allowing prospective attendees to forsake that second job, spending Sundays in the pews rather than driving for Uber — be a good start? If college graduates are far more likely to build robust communities, as Carney repeatedly claims, shouldn’t we work toward making a college education more affordable for the alienated, working poor whose cause he champions? These are the kind of questions that Carney dismisses out of hand as “centralizing” and “utopian,” preferring instead his own brand of theocratic utopianism in which a minimalist state would be kept afloat by little platoons of the charitable religious.

Fractures of a Society Coming Apart

My workplace offers a nice vantage point on humanity, to observe the comings and goings of people in the world. My job is that of a parking ramp cashier employed by the local city government. I sit in a booth and my purpose is rather simple, that of customer service. I serve the public and I take seriously this social role, as it is what I’m paid for. It’s true that, in my introversion, I’m not emotionally effusive, extraverted, and gregarious with customers. I can be perfunctorial in being a bureaucratic functionary, but still I go through the motions and play the script to the best of my ability, certainly to a greater degree than some of my coworkers. Here is my standard protocol, rarely with any deviation: I greet people, treat them politely, work quickly, try to count my money accurately, generally do my job well, and then send my customers on their way by telling them to have a good day, a lovely evening, a nice weekend, or whatever is appropriate. Then I nod my head or even slightly doff my hat, in a somewhat formal acknowledgement of the person before me and as a signal that our interaction has come to a conclusion, and sometimes this elicits an amused smile from the customer. Formality is my default, in that I tend to sublimate my personality into my professional role.

I’ve been a cashier off and on since the 1990s and I’ve been in my present position coming on a quarter of a century. I rarely have issues with anyone, as I’m conflict-avoidant in wanting to keep things simple and smooth. I don’t like unnecessary stress and so I try to keep it low key. The job has become a routine at this point and, having had much practice, I usually know how to deal with various situations. I don’t tend to react to much that happens at work, no matter how a customer acts. If someone is particularly friendly to me, I’ll muster a smile and try to respond in kind. Or if they tell a joke, I might pretend to be amused. And if a customer is upset or unhappy, I’ll become extremely formal and even less emotive. But most often, one customer is the same as the next, a stream of humanity that passes by my window. In a single year, I may have had hundreds of thousands of customers go through my line. I try to treat each person as an individual human being, although after a while, particularly late in a shift, it can become repetitively mindless.

That mindlessness is where I was at last night. The shift was longer than normal, since I was filling in for my co-worker and so working alone. It wasn’t stressful, though, as the students are out of town and most university employees are on vacation. So there I was after a long day ready to go home and relax, but not in a bad mood or anything, just winding down my shift. Someone pulls up in my lane and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the individual. In typical fashion, I greeted him as I would greet anyone else with a simple ‘Hello’, but as is common he wasn’t paying attention as he scrounged around in his car. I wasn’t offended as I’m used to people being distracted. Most likely, he was looking for his ticket or wallet, not that it was any of my concern what he was specifically doing. It generally isn’t important, assuming there is no long line of cars. Besides, it’s my job to serve people and, as I have no where to go, I’m not particularly in a hurry. I get paid the same, no matter how long a customer waits in my lane.

So, fully in automatic service mode, I patiently and calmly waited until he turned around. Then he gave me an odd look and said something that I heard as, “Aren’t you going to say something?” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, but I didn’t take it as having any grand significance. So, my response was to ask him for his ticket in order to proceed with the transaction. Apparently, that was not the response he desired. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to greet me?” At that point, I felt flustered and uncertain what to say. I explained to him that I had greeted him, but he would have none of it. He started rudely lecturing me about being polite and told me that I should learn manners. This pissed me off and I suggested that maybe he should learn manners and I added that I bet I wasn’t the first one to tell him this either.* This wasn’t the most optimal response on my part and, in reflection, it makes me sad thinking about it, but in the moment his aggressive attitude caught me off guard and immediately put me on the defense. The situation unsurprisingly didn’t improve after that, in his then threatening that, “I’m going to watch you” — well, if he had watched me the first time, he’d have known that I had given him a greeting and, as with the rest of my customer transactions that shift, it would have remained pleasant. Oh well… he finally went away, the best of all possible outcomes at that point.

There were many things that I found irritating. He was being hypocritical in demanding respect when he offered none, in being rude while complaining about how he perceived me as being rude. To be honest, there was a more basic aspect to my annoyance. He was demanding something of me, demanding a specific response, demanding that I should submissively comply and show deference. I’m just some working class schmuck trying to get through my day and this guy thinks I owe him something, as if he is more worthy than me, as if I’m obligated to accept my supposed inferiority in being scolded and berated for no reason other than his being higher up the class ladder.** And if I wasn’t unionized, I would have had to demean myself and be conciliatory out of fear for my continued employment. The implied threat in such exchanges is very much real, as such implied threats are what enforce and maintain a class-based society.*** In this case, the threat was far from veiled, in that his overtly stated warning that he was going to watch me seemed to suggest there would be some kind of consequence if I did not do as I was told, if I did not shape up and bow down appropriately the next time. It makes me wonder. If in watching me he decides that I have failed to correctly subordinate myself and comply with his demands, is he going to seek to punish me for my transgressions against his moral code of proper cashier behavior in how people like him deserve to be treated? And if so, what punishment do I deserve to teach me to know my place?

That is the worst part, the greater social import behind it, what it means in the context of the society we find ourselves in. There is a reason for the dynamic that happened, as he was part of the most common demographic of customer that causes problems. He was an upper middle class white guy, the stereotypical patriarch in our society (for context, I have never had a poor minority customer lecture me or throw a tantrum; it just does not happen). He had a nice new SUV that was recently washed, his attire was high-quality and clean-cut, and everything about him was well-groomed. He put off the signals of someone who is economically well off in society, someone who knows it and wants others to know it. And going by his behavior, he was clearly used to being in a position of authority such that he could demand others to do what he wanted and expect compliance and deference. He commanded respect, so he thought. What he didn’t know is that I don’t play that game. I treat all my customers the same in egalitarian fashion (no toast for you, whether you’re rich or poor). Whatever privileges he normally receives in his professional role and socioeconomic position do not apply to paying for his parking ticket. He is no one special, as far as I’m concerned.

It was the threat, implied or not so implied, behind his behavior that got my hackles up. Being someone likely with influence and connections, he could try to get me fired. Maybe he is part of the powerful downtown business association with personal friends in positions of political power, such as on the city council. Or maybe he is just generally used to throwing his weight around and getting his way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls to talk to one of my bosses or sends a formal letter of complaint to the city manager. And if I wasn’t unionized, he very well could get me fired. I’m sure that he is oblivious to the privilege he wields in being able to arrogantly act in that way and get away with it, to lecture and demand and threaten others without repercussion. Unawareness of one’s privilege is the greatest of privileges. On the other hand, I know his personal issues had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is regularly rude and arrogant, bossy and snippy with a wide variety of people. Maybe this has become as mindless to him as my own behavior can sometimes be when I’m at work. That was the clash between us, two different people playing out two different scripts and finding themselves pulled into a scenario where typical responses did not apply.

In a high inequality society such as ours, there are yet other scripts that shape behavior and maybe we were being drawn into one of these scripts that we all learn from a lifetime of enculturation and media narratization: managerial class vs working class, capitalist plutocrat vs average Joe, liberal elite vs real American, or some other variation. With Donald Trump as president, class antagonism is at an all time high, and this grows worse as what was once an inequality gap grows into an inequality gulf. Back in 1981, Bernie Sanders in a television interview quaintly complained that, “the fact that in our society, theoretically a Democratic Society, you have a handful of people who control our economy. You have maybe two percent of the population that owns one third of the entire wealth of America, eighty percent of the stocks, 90 percent of the bonds, and these people have incredible power. They sit on huge corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank, the multinational corporations, and they determine the destiny of our entire country as you know. Perhaps 50% of our population has so given up on the democratic process they don’t even vote and those are primarily poor people” (interview with Phil Donahue, segment titled “Socialism in New England,” The Today Show). That is a sad commentary on our present society. How far we have fallen since then!

Now to be considered part of the economic elite you have to be in the .1% which is a great distance from the bottom of the top 2%, much less mere upper middle class. In its own way, to be upper middle class is distressing and requires one to constantly flaunt one’s position and privilege to demonstrate that one matters at all, as the reality is that the descent from middle to lower class is not that far these days, sometimes requiring only one wrong misstep or a minor accident of fate. To be filthy rich would mean not having to deal with the peons at all or else to have no concern for them. The richest of the rich would never bother to even condescend so far as to lecture someone like me, even in the rare circumstance that they would be forced to acknowledge my existence in the slightest.**** The worst insult to the upper middle class white guy I butted heads with is that he didn’t have quite enough privilege that he could avoid or ignore someone like me and, instead, someone like me had the audacity to treat him as an equal. I shamed him and, despite his aggressive way of acting superior, I dismissed his presumption of authority. “No respect, I tell ya. No respect.”

I could simply leave it at that, but there is something about the altercation that fascinates me in looking back on it with psychological distance. I know the world this guy comes from, whether or not he has any sense of my own view of things. I grew up in the upper middle class and so my father too was a white guy of that variety, in fact a businessman who worked in factory management and later as a business management professor, both positions of great respect and authority. He never flaunted his privilege in an oppressive or arrogant way, but the privilege was present and it was obvious to others. And I can see the privileges I too had growing up. There was nothing that stopped me from aspiring to also become an upper middle class white guy, as I had everything going for me. It just wasn’t in my personality to follow that path to worldly success, power, and respect. Apparently, I internalized too much of my mother’s lingering working class mentality from her own childhood.

Still, I understand the attraction and the difficulties in social roles of that sort. Being an upper middle class white person can be difficult with immense expectations and pressure. To embrace that social identity, whether born into it or gaining it, is to take on a heavy load of social and historical baggage. It’s also plain time-consuming. On top of full-time careers, both of my parents worked the equivalent of a second job in maintaining, repairing, and cleaning the house and yard so that it was always perfectly presentable as is the standard of upper middle class. They also spent a lot of time on finances and investments, along with much time on all the social organizations they belonged to that define and preoccupy the upper middle class existence. It’s tiresome and endless. My mother practically has a week-long anxiety attack every time someone plans to come over to the house for a visit. To be upper middle class means to be judged by one’s possessions and appearance, constantly judged in every area of one’s life. It is to live as if on a stage always in the middle of a performance, maybe even performing when at home alone with one’s family. It’s a demanding social role and identity that, in many cases, might never allow for the facade to be lowered.

The guy I was dealing with was clearly a professional of some sort, maybe a business owner or a bank manager or doctor. To achieve and maintain such a socioeconomic position requires immense work, effort, and sacrifice. I didn’t go that direction in life because I don’t have it in me to adhere to such demanding rules and norms, but obviously this guy had some talent for playing the game, for conforming to the status quo, for being a good cog in the machine. He expected deference and submission from his perceived inferiors probably because he had spent his whole life giving deference and submission to his perceived superiors. Now that he had reached middle age it was his turn to be rewarded, as he thought had been promised according to the supposedly meritocratic social order. As far as I know, he might hate his job, hate his wife and kids, and hate everything about his life. Maybe he wanted to be a park ranger or artist (or dinosaur) when he was younger, but he gave up on his dreams to do what his parents and peers expected of him, in going down the path of least resistance. Maybe he never even consciously was aware of these expectations at all in so absolutely conforming to them that he came to identify with them, having lost his own sense of independent self in the process. Or maybe he once loved his job and his life but the world slowly wore him down until he became burned out and resentful.

The pressure of this social Darwinian capitalist system is immense. To climb that ladder, you have to follow your tightly-scripted role perfectly or else be punished and find yourself falling into failure or mediocrity, passed over and disrespected. To be an upper middle class white guy means a very specific identity to be maintained, always with your game face on, always pretending you are confident and know what you’re doing, that you are an authority figure standing above the dirty masses. Few people in our society, even among the economically well off, are happy and satisfied. The conflicts that erupt have little to do with the individuals involved, even as the anxiety and animosity flares up in conflicts between people. Wealthier white people aren’t immune to the psychological strain. Nor is the working class who has to take the brunt of it. It’s difficult for all sides to not get caught up in these forces so far beyond the individual. Everything and everyone is under pressure, and the results are rarely happy.

These are the fractures of a society coming apart. What we usually notice are the dramatic events like school shootings, church bombings, and mass terrorist attacks. Or we worry about the rise of violence, the mental illness among the growing homeless population, and a sense of social breakdown in our communities. And then there are the protests and riots that demonstrate a sense of ill at ease in the populace. This is what the corporate media, national and local, obsesses over. But the everyday reality of a system under stress is how it gets felt in the small interactions, the social chafing that causes emotional rawness and irritation. We have less patience with one another in our being quicker to react, to judge, and to verbally accost one another. This is what slowly and imperceptibly frays the social fabric.

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* There is an amusing thought I had. I was reading about violence and aggression rates, as compared between the American North and South. This has to do with which states are or are not honor cultures. There are a bunch of fascinating studies that demonstrate this contrast, but a particular study showed the difference in certain telling details. The study in question had a staged situation where the test subject was in a room with an actor who played a role given by the researchers. This actor was to do a total of 11 specific irritating behaviors, from calling the test subject a nickname such as ‘Slick’ to throwing pieces of paper at him.

The response by Southern males was quite different than by Northern males. The Southerner tended to not respond at all, at least initially. They remained quiet and just took the irritating behavior, that is until they reached the fifth transgression. Then the Southerner went ballistic and, at this point, the researchers had to stop the experiment for fear that someone was going to get physically hurt. There was no warning other than the silence itself, which no doubt another Southern would take as a warning. If you’re around Southerners, a silent non-response might be a very bad thing and so tread carefully.

Now the Northerner guys went about it in another way. The moment the irritating behavior began they were voicing complaints. They tried to reason with their assailant, maybe with the assumption that he simply didn’t realize he was being irritating. When the actor in the study continued their rude behavior, the test subjects simply stopped responding and ignored any further insults to their person. They didn’t blow up, as did the Southerners. I wonder if that is because the Northerners in a sense had already expressed themselves, rather than suppressing their anger and allowing it to build up. It was a way of managing their own emotional experience in order to manage the social situation.

The latter Northern style applies to the scenario I was in  . This is a very Northern state, Iowa, that is part of the Upper Midwest. There is not much Southern culture to be found here, as emigration from the South to Iowa has been extremely low. Despite our class differences, my customer and I were both Northerners. We dealt with irritation in a direct fashion by both immediately complaining to the other. That may have defused the situation, as we both gave voice to our feelings and on a basic level had our respective experiences acknowledged. We mutually agreed that we were unhappy and there was nothing hidden, nothing repressed. We just let it out — the tension was vented and quickly dissipated. It didn’t escalate beyond a minute or so of expressing ourselves.

As a Northerner, this seems like a healthy way of dealing with things. Waiting for a situation to worsen such that it turns into a physical fight where someone gets injured or killed doesn’t seem like a great outcome. When some guy does a heinous violent crime, so often the neighbors, when interviewed, say that he was a quiet guy. Maybe silence is a bad thing, as a general rule. Complain openly and often. It’s good for you and for society. Verbal conflict is better than physically violent outbursts.

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** As a side note, I should point out that conflicts like this rarely happen. The last event similar to this occurred about a year and a half ago (Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied). That last time did not even include an argument and, as arguing with customers is so extremely rare, I can’t even remember the last time this happened. As a practice, I just don’t argue at work. I sometimes go several years without any major event of any kind. Even most upper class white people are normally well-behaved. Heck, this guy has been through my lane before and somehow has managed to never before respond in this way.

I’m sure there were other factors involved. Maybe his father died or his wife made him sleep on the couch the night before or maybe he just woke up feeling grumpy for no reason. Considering the high stress and health problems of so many Americans, there doesn’t need to be a particular external cause of being in a foul mood. General crappiness has become the social norm of our society, exacerbated by high inequality (see Keith Payne, Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Picket). Maybe I should be shocked this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

None of that explains, though, the behavior and the dynamic in this individual case. Such a situation is rare and, when it does happen, it is almost entirely limited to upper middle class white people and usually middle aged at that, the kind of person who is probably at the peak of their career and socioeconomic position within society. As a demographic, such people come no where close to representing the majority of my customers. So, why are they so consistently among the majority in causing problems?

If stress and ill health was the primary cause, the poor (both minorities and whites) should be going berserk on a daily basis and yet they aren’t. As one goes down the economic ladder, there is no trend toward worsening antisocial and impolite behavior — if anything, the opposite. Why is that?

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*** Such implied threats bother me to an extreme. It may be an unconscious wielding of power and privilege, but it’s nonetheless real and potentially harmful to those who don’t deserve it. It is all the more real, in class being integral to capitalist realism, that someone like this guy has the additional privilege of remaining oblivious and so not having to face the moral consequences of his own behavior. He can swagger around in making the lives of others miserable and most people in service jobs will bow down to him simply out of an instinct for self-preservation. He no doubt has grown accustomed to such treatment and now expects it as default.

It’s one of the most depressing aspects of living in in this kind of rigid class hierarchy. And it has real world consequences we see every day. It’s the reason that rich white people can regularly commit crimes in our society without any penalty or else much less penalty. When they cause problems and on the rare occasions the police do show up, they don’t have to worry about getting arrested, much less beat up or shot. They know they will always be given the benefit of the doubt. And often they’ll be given second, third, etc chances, as they can hire the best lawyers who will find legal loopholes while so often judges treat them with kids gloves. We know this from the data, in how people are treated differently for the exact same crimes by police and in courts depending on their demographics and appearance.

It’s frustrating. To be lower class is to be constantly aware of this anti-democratic injustice. As workers serving the interests of those who hold the power, we can’t afford to be willfully ignorant in the way can the privileged. It doesn’t even require any malice for the wealthier to benefit from privilege, as all they need to do is act according to that privilege by taking it for granted. The privileged individual, in their unconscious belligerence, can always claim innocence as the system of power is something they didn’t create in that they were born into it and inherited it without any stated consent. It just happens as the way the world is. Still, they benefit from it as long as they don’t openly resist it and fight against it, and so they remain complicit and morally culpable.

This came up the other day with my father. As I said, he isn’t someone to flaunt privilege, but neither is he one to be all that aware of it either. We went out to breakfast and the regular worker was serving us in taking our order. It was at the nearby Hy-Vee grocery store, not exactly a high-class place. Our server is a college student, probably tired and overworked and underpaid. My dad had previously complained that, although courteous and a hard worker, this server wasn’t particularly personable in being overly focused on his work, such as intently looking down as he enters our order into the cash register. It’s not that he is unfriendly for he always greets us. It’s just that he isn’t into small talk and doesn’t flash a big smile at customers.

Anyway, my father decided to chide him for not being more friendly in an extraverted fashion, since that is what my dad prefers as an extravert. And with an implied if unintentional threat that any customer wields to some extent in complaining, he was able to get some small talk out of him. Like the upper middle class white guy I dealt with at work, my father also presents himself with all the outward forms of class position. He was demanding something of this young guy and so similarly there is all that goes with that, with the potential threat being even greater as that is not a unionized workplace. All my father has to do is make a single complaint to the manager to make this server’s life miserable and maybe cause him to lose his job. None of that means my father has ill intent. But what it does mean is that my father has grown used to being able to demand things of others and get what he demands without any thought to why he is able to gain such easy compliance.

An implied threat is still a real threat and it is all the more powerful for never having to be stated. It is irrelevant that my father would not intentionally to do anything to harm another person. He doesn’t have to, as this Hy-Vee worker doesn’t know my father’s intentions any more than I knew the intentions of the guy at my own workplace. Such implied threats operate by being built into how the entire system functions. Unionized labor is the only thing that throws a wrench into the class hierarchy. But unionized labor has lost power as laws were passed to restrict what unions could do and as union-busting has chipped away at membership. Few workers have any respect, any way to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves with a sense of pride and real force… as long as they don’t have a democratic union behind them. That is equally true of democracy in general, which is the greater problem. As inequality rises, democracy declines. And it isn’t as if we had much functioning democracy in the first place.

This is all the more reason that all of us should become more aware. This is particularly true for those who, by choice or chance, find themselves in the position of wielding class or racial privileges. To hold power over someone, even if done with no bad intention, is to affect them and, one might add, is to affect the individual with the power as well. Their perception and behavior is shaped accordingly. We need to be kind, compassionate, and careful in how we treat others. This is true of everyone, of course, but it is a thousand times more true for those in a society where their greater position potentially asserts threat to those below them. If it helps, think of this as noblesse oblige: Don’t merely “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” but more importantly ask what you owe society, what you owe the disadvantaged and underprivileged, the least among us.

There is a moral responsibility we should accept in how we affect others, positively and negatively. We aren’t only individuals but part of social orders that inevitably are moral orders, and the order that exists must be maintained and enforced, whether directly by what we do or done on our behalf. A free society of free people doesn’t just happen. It has to be chosen, again and again and again. And we have to demand it and fight for it. That begins in the smallest of ways as expressed in how we treat others. The very least any of us can do is to not act like petty tyrants, to instead simply be kind. On a basic human level, we really are equals and should look upon others in that light.

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**** Wealthier people, at least in high inequality societies, act more contentedly relaxed and pleased with themselves, disengaged and aloof toward others. It is as if they have no worries in the world, much less concern for and interest in other people, specifically when most other people are of a lower class than they and so have no power over them to affect their lives (see Science Daily’s Rich Man, Poor Man: Body Language Can Indicate Socioeconomic Status, Study Shows & Cody Delistraty’s Rich or poor? Your face might give it away). For most of us in this society, this plutocratic indifference may seem so shockingly obvious as to go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said and then repeated ad infinitum. It’s interesting that people do perceive the rich as being ‘cold’ and it’s hard to argue against this being accurate (Carolyn Gregoire, How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel) — indeed, the rich are more likely to be morally compromised and break rules, less likely to cooperate and be generous, and on and on.

Furthermore, it’s not limited to outward behavior and expression for social relations shape psychology and neurocognitive development. To be in a higher socioeconomic status manifests as lower ability to empathize with others and accurately read the emotional experience of others, whereas the poor tend to be comparative geniuses in this area (see Cathy O’Neil’s Make Rich People Read Chekhov). So, maybe it was somewhat predictable that, even as I was paying attention to this upper middle class white guy while he scrounged in his car, he paid so little attention to me that he didn’t even realize I had greeted him. As he presumably saw me as his inferior, I wasn’t judged worthy of being given his full attention. Those further up the social ladder aren’t in the habit of going to the effort of understanding those below them and so they literally have less ability to do so, but this also means less awareness about how unaware they are. It’s a self-enclosed lack of empathy based on a crippled theory of mind. They are psychologically and emotionally blind.

This doesn’t make rich people evil. It’s simply an artifact of inequality and the greater the inequality the more extreme would be these attitudes of disengagement and disinterest, disconnection and dissociation. As such, one would expect to find little, if any, of this kind of thing among egalitarian tribes like the Piraha where there is no economic inequality and no social hierarchy at all in lacking any social roles or positions of authority with no chiefs, no council of elders, no shamans, and no warrior class. There is nothing natural and normal about a high inequality society, but if it is all we’ve known it is hard for us to be aware of it. Consciously thinking about our position within a rigid hierarchy is not something we are taught in a society such as ours that we like to pretend is an egalitarian democracy, even though in our heart of hearts we all know that is total bullshit, however comforting is the lie.

The upper middle class white guy described in this post is not abnormal for our society, even if he is abnormal by the standard of most of human existence. Prior to modern civilization, inequality and hierarchy was rather limited in distance and scope (e.g., an early feudal lord lived among and attended social events with the nearby peasants). In fact, the high inequality seen now in the United States has never before existed in any society at any historical or prehistorical period. This is an unprecedented situation. Now consider that no high inequality society has ever lasted long before having events, one way or another, forcing the social order back toward greater equality: international war, civil war, revolution, famine, plague, ecological disaster, civilizational collapse, etc (Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler). We are approaching a new period of leveling. And it is likely to be far worse this time around.

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On Conflict and Stupidity
American Class Bigotry
Class Divide and Communication Failure
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

I was looking back at data related to the past presidential election. The demographic of Trump voters is multifaceted. First, I’d point out the demographics of Republicans in general, specifically as compared to Democrats. In recent history, Republicans have done best with the middle class. They get disproportionate votes from those with average income, average education, average IQ, etc. It’s Democrats that typically draw more from the extremes and less from the middle, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure how much this dynamic changed this election. There were some typical Democratic voters who switched parties to vote for Trump. And some other voting patterns shifted at the edges. But I don’t get the sense that any of this was a major issue, at least in determining the election results. The deciding factor in the swing states often had more to do with who didn’t vote than who did. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump lost fewer votes compared to past Republican candidates than Clinton lost compared to past Democratic candidates. So, Trump won by losing less. But it was different in another key state, Florida, where Trump won strong support among certain minority groups that helped push him over the edge; specifically, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans. So, there were many complications. But it’s not clear to me that this election demographically veered that far away from a typical election for Republicans.

Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).

Also, keep in mind that Trump did surprisingly well among minorities, considering the rhetoric of his campaign: 29% of Asians voted for him, 29% of Hispanics, and 8% of blacks. Those aren’t small numbers, enough to have helped him win… or if you prefer, enough to cause Clinton to lose, as the percentages might have to do more with the decreased voting rate this election among particular minority populations. Trump did better among older minorities and rural minorities, at least that was true with Hispanics as I recall, which seems to indicate a similar economic pattern of those who are feeling less hopeful about the future, although I’d point out that most of Trump voters were urban and suburban. Trump specifically beat Clinton in the suburbs and also got more than a third of the votes in cities. But because of how our system is designed votes in low population rural states are worth more than votes in high population urban/suburban states, the reason Wisconsin turned out to be so important.

I would make some additional points. Poor people in general, white and non-white, vote at lower rates. The poorest are rarely ever a deciding factor in any national election. As for the working class more broadly, Trump had some of his strongest support from places like the Rust Belt in the urban Midwest, although it is fair to point out that Clinton lost some progressive strongholds in what once was the New Deal territory of the Upper South that had been loyal Democrats for a long time (in one county in Kentucky, having been won by Trump, the majority voted for a Republican for the first time since the Civil War). Even in the Rust Belt, it wasn’t that Trump gained white working class votes but that Clinton lost them. There was simply fewer people voting in places like that, preferring to vote for neither candidate, some combination of not voting at all and voting third party.

All in all, it’s hard to tell what the demographics indicate, as there is so much left out of the data such as there being more to economic class than mere household income. For example, income inequality isn’t the same as wealth inequality, as the latter has to do with savings and inheritance, most wealth in the US being inherited and not earned. The lower middle class has lower rates of savings and inherited wealth. As for the changes from past elections, it probably has more to do with the drop in the number of voters in key places, but that surely is caused by more than just economics and related factors. Anyway, I’d argue that it really was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning. That is my sense, but I could be wrong. I’m hoping that a detailed book-length analysis of demographics comes out in terms of recent politics and the population in general.

This was my rethinking over what happened. I’ve already written about this many other times, but I thought it might be useful to emphasize the role of the middle class in this election. It’s interesting that the middle class has received a lot less attention this past year, even though for a couple decades the middle class had become an obsession of media and politicians. I’ve often thought that much of what gets called the middle class is actually working class, something pointed out by Joe Bageant. One could make that argument for the lower middle class, in particular. In the past, middle class was more of a social attitude based on economic aspiration, during a time when upward mobility was common and the middle class growing.

My grandfather who was a factory worker probably never identified as middle class, but along with my grandmother working as a secretary they had a fairly high household income which allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle in many ways: owning a house, buying new cars, regular vacations, saving for retirement, sending his children to college, etc. Downward mobility, along with worsening mortality rates for whites, has changed demographic and voting patterns, along with how people identify themselves and how they are perceived by others. The upwardly mobile working class a half century ago was more hopeful and progressive than the present downwardly mobile lower middle class. I might add that my grandfather voted Democrat his whole life, but if he were around today he almost certainly would have voted for Trump and it wouldn’t have been for economic reasons — more that Trump is perceived as a straight talker and that he uses old school progressive rhetoric. His children, my mother and uncles, are all over the place in terms of life experience, economic class, social and political ideology, and voting tendencies.

Demographics shift greatly from one generation to the next, often even within families. That is magnified by the larger shifts in entire populations, as the politics of individuals is strongly shaped by what is going on in the world immediately around them. And obviously more is changing in the world than is remaining the same. The United States is a far different place than it was when my grandparents were born a hundred years ago.

By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.

Don’t blame the poor for everything, whether poor minorities or poor whites. In a country like the United States, the lower classes have very little political power, economic influence, and activist engagement.

* * *

Here is some of what I was looking at while writing this post. The following presents various data, analyses, and conclusions.

Election 2016: Exit Polls
Produced by Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, & K.K. Rebecca Lai
The New York Times

The myth of Donald Trump’s upper-class support
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Week

Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory
by Jeremy Slevin
TalkPoverty.org

The Myth of the Trump Supporter: They Are Not Predominantly White Working Class but Rather Anxiety-Ridden Middle Class
by Theo Anderson
Alternet

Trump and the Revolt of the White Middle Class
by Stephen Rose
Washington Monthly

Angry White, Rich, Educated Men? Trump Voters Are Smarter And Richer Than The Average American
by Tyler Durden
ZeroHedge

Trump supporters are not who the media told you they were
by Ben Cohen
American Thinker

High Homeownership Counties Were Twice as Likely to Vote for Trump
by Derek Miller
SmartAsset

Financial Insecurity and the Election of Donald Trump
by Diana Elliott & Emma Kalish
Urban Institute

The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt
by Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr
Slate

Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?
by Myriam Renaud
The University of Chicago

About the Stereotype Busting High Median Incomes of Trump Voters
by Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

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.

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place

It’s hard to find well-informed and insightful discussions about certain hot-button issues. This is particularly true for issues related to economics for wealth represents power.

Poverty, inequality and mobility all speak to how power is shared or monopolized. They also relate to how education, knowledge and the media are controlled and who controls them. Discussion is difficult because the system silences or disregards most of those impacted by what is being discussed or whitewashed. When the upper class elites (political, media and academic) begin talking about the lower classes, you should immediately look for the potential spin and the too often lack of probing depth of analysis.

As a jumping off point, let me use the example of a recent paper by National Bureau Of Economic Research (Is The United States Still A Land Of Opportunity? Recent Trends Intergenerational Mobility). Both the paper and the reporting on it show the difficulties of seriously dealing with the problem. The New York Post had an article by Linda Chavez (Inequality: It’s the family, stupid) which, like many similar articles, made this statement:

President Obama and the Democrats have decided “income inequality” is the major domestic issue confronting Americans. But a new study by liberal economists challenges many of the president’s and his political allies’ assumptions about the growing gap between rich and poor.

Well, not really. When you look at various data, the so-called assumptions aren’t the problem.

The focus on the study had to do with specific generational cohorts (The social mobility muddle by Robert J. Samuelson):

“We find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s,” write the economists. Comparing their results with earlier studies covering 1950 to 1970, they also find little difference. Social mobility “remained remarkably stable over the second half of the twentieth century in the United States,” the study says.

Something is strange about this data. There is a disconnect. As even the authors of the paper noted:

Based on all of these measures, we find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s. However, because inequality has risen, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past

The middle class had been continuously growing until 1974. Since then, the middle class has been disappearing, the middle class that bridges the gap between the poor and rich.

All this study is saying is that most Americans today are at least as bad off as they were decades ago. Most Americans, generation after generation, are on average stuck in their class position, no more likely to rise or fall than before.

Even so: job security and good benefits are becoming a rarity, wages are stagnating, inflation is growing,  buying power is shrinking, costs of living are getting more expensive (especially medical bills), costs of college put kids in debt before they even graduate, debt in general is overwhelming many people, bankruptcy is becoming common, families are losing their homes and life savings, small businesses are having a harder time competing against big biz, and much more could be added. But because of public assistance programs most Americans are managing to not completely go under.

Basically, the economy is doing worse for most Americans and only the government is artificially keeping the whole system from crashing down.

Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer. Average economic mobility is staying about the same, but the rich are moving up into the stratosphere. Of course, the 1% is the 1% even as that entire 1% moves further away from the 99%.

As J.J. Feinauer explained in Why is upward mobility in America stagnant?:

“The findings also suggest that who your parents are and how much they earn is more consequential for American youths today than ever before,” The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley writes. “That’s because the difference between the bottom and the top of the economic ladder has grown much more stark, but climbing the ladder hasn’t gotten any easier.”

The economic system overall isn’t doing well, even as the wealthiest are laughing all the way to the bank. The Journalist’s Resource (U.S. poverty and inequality: 2014 overview and research trends), looking at other data, made this absolutely clear:

A paper from Stanford University, “State of the Union: The Poverty and Inequality Report 2014,” synthesizes economic data and academic research to paint a full picture — a “unified analysis” — of key indicators of the nation’s economic health that may not receive the same visibility as GDP, aggregate growth patterns or stock market trends. Produced by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, which receives some federal funding, the report enlisted subject-area academic experts on issues such as the labor market, health, education and income trends. Overall, the data suggest a “broadly deteriorating poverty and inequality landscape.”

To return to the data of the NBER paper, The Equality of Opportunity Project summarized some of the details:

Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries.

All of that is obvious.

People who are well off live in better conditions and are able to maintain those better conditions across generations. They have the money to fund their schools and libraries. They have a ton of social capital and the basic privileges of a middle-to-upper-class lifestyle. Their lives are less stressful, their marriages are less stressed, and they have more free time to spend with their kids. They have the wealth and they have the connections and opportunities to use that wealth to offer their children a very rosy future.

And people who aren’t well off live in worse conditions.

The New York Post article began well by discussing some of these issues:

The researchers delved deeper to see what might explain these variations. They found that areas with large populations of African-Americans had lower mobility. What was surprising was that whites who lived in those communities with large African-American presences also experienced lower rates of upward mobility.

The study also found that areas with less urban sprawl had higher intergenerational mobility, and where there was substantial racial and economic de facto segregation, mobility decreased. The strength of social networks — as measured by participation in civic or religious groups, for example — also correlated with mobility. “High upward-mobility areas tend to have higher fractions of religious individuals and greater participation in local civic organizations,” the study’s authors write.

Exactly. Not everything is about race. It has to do with structural classism and the enduring neighborhood effect. But then the article veers off into typical nonsense. As the author explains in her great wisdom, jumping from correlation to causation:

But the most important finding is one that most conservatives won’t be surprised at and many liberals would rather ignore: “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” The more single-parent households in the area, the lower the mobility.

And, as with race, the correlation holds even for those who don’t fit the category. Children from intact families experience lower mobility rates if they live in areas with large numbers of single-parent households.

This is the danger of a little bit of knowledge. It can lead to narrow analyses and simplistic conclusions. The problem in this case was the author wasn’t even sure what she was concluding. If the family is so important, how does the larger social environment trump the direct family influence?

In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris tackles this assumption that all or most of the blame can be put on families. She even takes on the race angle (p. 240):

I mentioned a study of African -American kids from “high risk” families —no fathers, low incomes. The ones who lived in low-income neighborhoods were more aggressive than their middle-class counterparts; aggressive behavior was the norm where they lived. But the ones who lived in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods were not particularly aggressive. These black kids from fatherless, low-income homes were “comparable in their level of aggression” to the white, middle-class kids they went to school with. They had adopted the behavioral norms of the majority of their peers.

So, it goes both ways. Social environment trumps family conditions in all scenarios. Peer influence, in particular, is very powerful. That supports the liberal position, contrary to Chavez’s claim.

As Harris explains in detail, there are a lot of complex factors involved (pp. 285-287):

When the biological father is living but not living with his kids, you have a family situation that is statistically associated with unfavorable outcomes for the kids. Let me show you how it might be possible to account for the unfavorable outcomes without reference to the children’s experiences in the home or to the quality of parenting they receive there.

Most single mothers are nothing like Murphy Brown: most of them are poor. Half of all homes headed by women are below the poverty level. Divorce usually leads to a drastic decline in a family’s standard of living— that is, in the standard of living of the ex-wife and the children in her custody. 22

The loss of income impacts the kids in several ways. For one thing, it can affect their status in the peer group. Being deprived of luxuries such as expensive clothing and sporting equipment, dermatologists and orthodontists, can lower kids’ standing among their peers. 23 Money is also going to play a role in whether the kids can think about going to college. If it’s out of the question, then they may be less motivated to graduate from high school and to avoid getting pregnant.

But by far the most important thing that money can do for kids is to determine the neighborhood they grow up in and the school they attend. Most single mothers cannot afford to rear their children in the kind of neighborhood where my husband and I reared ours —the kind where almost all the kids graduate from high school and hardly any have babies. Poverty forces many single mothers to rear their children in neighborhoods where there are many other single mothers and where there are high rates of unemployment, school dropout, teen pregnancy, and crime. 24

Why do so many kids in these neighborhoods drop out, get pregnant, and commit crimes ? Is it because they don’t have fathers? That is a popular explanation, but I considered the question in Chapter 9 and came to other conclusions. Neighborhoods have different cultures and the cultures tend to be self-perpetuating; they are passed down from the parents’ peer group to the children’s peer group. The medium through which the cultures are passed down cannot be the family, because if you pluck the family out of the neighborhood and plunk it down somewhere else, the children’s behavior will change to conform with that of their peers in their new neighborhood.

It’s the neighborhood, not the family. If you look at kids within a given neighborhood, the presence or absence of a father doesn’t make much difference. Researchers collected data on 254 African-American teenage boys from an inner city in the northeast United States . Most of the boys lived in households headed by a single mother; others lived with both biological parents, a mother and a stepfather, or in other kinds of family arrangements. Here are the researchers’ conclusions:

“Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress.” 25

Within an economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood, the kids who live with both parents are no better off than those who live with only one. 26 But within a neighborhood like this, the majority of families are headed by single mothers, because mothers with partners generally can afford to live somewhere else. The higher income of a family that includes an adult male means that kids with two parents are more likely to live in a neighborhood with a middle -class culture and, therefore, more likely to conform to middle-class norms.

This all shows how important class is. Also, it shows how upward and downward mobility relate to class influences. But I don’t want to leave this issue without tying it more closely to race. Much of this has nothing to do with race, but much of it has everything to do with race.

Considering Pew data, Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson (in Economic Mobility For African Americans May Be A Myth, Pew Report Shows) points out:

“Specifically, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be stuck at the bottom of the income ladder over a generation, and also at the bottom of the wealth ladder,” she said. They’re also more likely to fall from the middle. [ . . . ]

“It is the case that African-American families manage to get to the middle class and they have some sense of economic security, but their ability to pass that on to their kids is not as high as the white families,” she said.

As the author continues, she points out how racial segregation can trump even class influence:

And while this particular study didn’t delve into specific reasons for this gap, Currier pointed to previous research showing the impact neighborhood poverty has had on maintaining wealth disparities over time. “Two thirds of African-American children born between 1985 and 2000 are being raised in high poverty neighborhoods,” compared to just six percent of white children, Currier noted, proportions that haven’t shifted much over the last 30 years. “It isn’t the case that two thirds of African-American families are poor, but a lot of even middle-class African-American families are living in high poverty neighborhoods and research shows that, that environment in childhood increases a person’s chance of downward mobility by 52 percent,” she added.

Interestingly, the author then brings up yet another NBER paper which seems to be a necessary corollary to the other one:

A study published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research may have hinted at one of the barriers to moving out of those poverty-stricken neighborhoods, revealing that black and Hispanic homebuyers pay as much as 3 percent more for their homes, regardless of their income, wealth or credit profiles.

It turns out that the actual data shows a much more dire picture than some of those writing on the subject would suggest.

Simply stating the fact that economic mobility by some measures hasn’t decreased isn’t to say most Americans are doing well. It isn’t even to imply that economic mobility comes even close to being a realistic hope for many Americans. If you are poor and especially if you are a poor minority in a poor minority neighborhood, you are shit out of luck. For these people, it’s a constant struggle, running just to stay in place.

American Winter and Liberal Failure

American Winter is a new documentary that is out right now. It’s about how easily families can fall from middle class into poverty, even when they do everything right.

I watched a free screening of it, along with my brother and a friend, at a community-supported theater that closed down years ago as a for-profit movie theater. That community theater seemed like an appropriate venue.

The turnout was fairly impressive as it was almost a full house. I wonder what impact documentaries can have. I put great faith in knowledge, but it is easy to be dismissively cynical about any positive change resulting.

If anything, I see the fact of such documentaries even being made, much less watched, as the result rather than the cause of changes that are already happening (whether or not it is positive, it would be a bit early to say). Just by casual observation, it is clear that public opinion is shifting and that the former consensus has been eroded. What profoundly saddens me, though, is the knowledge that such cold-hearted capitalism/corporatism not too long ago was strongly supported by so many average people. An entire generation of Americans turned their back on those in need, and too many continue to do so.

It wasn’t strangers far away who supported such moral corruption. Conservatives obviously supported it and even many liberals supported it, probably quite a few of the people around me at that theater. Those who got their slice of the pie thought everything was fine and it apparently never occurred to them what would happen when no one baked any more pies and the last slice was taken.

None of this was forced on the American people, although it could be said that the American people forced it on many others, both the struggling in this country and all around the globalized world. American voters bought the rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Meritocracy, trickle down, free markets… the rhetoric sounded so nice, just as long as it was only other people suffering the consequences.

What woke up the American public was their too late realization that they were part of the struggling masses. A refrain by the people interviewed in the documentary was that they never thought that it would happen to them. Only worthless losers, lazy deadbeats, welfare queens, moral failures, social reprobates, criminal leeches and other inferior types ever need or ask for assistance from others… or so goes the unstated rhetoric that these people had come to accept.

Predictably, people love to judge others for their problems until the same thing happens to them. It is such condescending judgment that allowed it all to get so bad. But why does it take immense personal suffering, not to mention near economic collapse, to remind people of basic compassion and common decency? This frustrates me to no end. Why do we have to let problems become so festering and overwhelming before we even allow honest public debate? All of this is as preventable as it is predictable… or rather it should be preventable because it is so predictable.

One of the major points of American Winter is that for these families poverty was preventable. None of this is a mystery or even complicated. All it takes is the collective will to implement what we know has been proven to work.

This point was expanded in an interesting direction. It is cheaper to prevent the problem than to pay for taking care of it after it becomes a problem.

That doesn’t even include all the secondary costs incurred if the poverty becomes established and continues, especially if it creates a permanent underclass of the severely impoverished: permanent unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, psychological stress and related issues, alcoholism and drug abuse, drug dealing, gangs, crime and imprisonment, violence, increase of homicides and suicides, prostitution, unstable families, divorce, single parents, low grades and lower school achievement, dropping out from high school, not going to college, lack of health insurance and quality healthcare, etc. Add to that all the other problems that go with a shrinking middle class, low socioeconomic mobility, and growing economic disparity: food deserts, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, STDs, teen pregnancy, and on and on and on, ad infinitum.

All of it is preventable and is less expensive than the alternative. What is most interesting about this is that there isn’t a good criticism that can be offered by conservatives of any variety, especially not fiscal conservatives. Only the most hearltess libertarian or the most belligerent Randian objectivist could dismiss both the moral and fiscal reasons for ending and preventing poverty. It isn’t a matter of not being able to afford poverty prevention. Quite the opposite. We can’t afford to do nothing.

Besides, democracies that get too large of economic inequalities inevitably become banana republics. There is no way to have political democracy without economic democracy. Of course, many on the right would claim they don’t want any democracy at all or else as little of it as is possible, but they should be careful what they wish for. They will get it if they continue to push their luck, assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return.

Meritocracy is presented as a close enough approximation to democracy and/or a replacement for democracy. Hard work is the reward we are to accept for allowing ourselves to be politically disempowered. Voting with our dollars is supposedly all that matters, corporate personhood for corporate ‘democracy’ with the corporation that has the most dollar-votes getting to represent us the consumer-citizens, a la Citizens United.

Indeed, the ideal of a meritocracy is an odd thing, specifically as rhetoric meets reality.

In the documentary, one particular person (a guy with a down syndrome son) demonstrated how this oddness plays out on the personal level. He was one of those who never thought it would happen to him. It was clear that he was deeply ashamed. He said that a grown man in his fifties shouldn’t have to ask his father to pay the electricity bill. How I interpreted this was that he thought a mature adult should be an autonomous individual who is dependent on no one, not even on the closest of family during the most difficult of times.

What seems most odd about this is the simple truth that we all are interdependent on one another. It’s just a fact of reality, not something to be ashamed of. The entire planet is one big interdependent biosphere and humans are the most socially interdependent of any of the species. We humans will deny our interdependency to our own peril.

It has been said, “No man is an island.” Well, I’d say that a self-made man is a mystical beast living on an imaginary island. Even the fairies in fairyland have a hard time believing such a thing could exist.

It’s not just that behind every successful man there is a woman or vice versa. Behind every successful man, there is any number of things: a healthy community, well off social connections, a privileged childhood, etc. The strongest determinant of wealth in America right now, as was mentioned in the documentary, is growing up with wealthy parents. This is to say that most wealthy Americans inherited their wealth and/or the conditions of their wealth, rather than having earned it through hardwork and merit alone.

This isn’t the American Dream. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. Or to put it into Gilded Age terms, we’ve been railroaded. Plutocray has been the dream of rich white men for centuries, most of the founding fathers included, but plutocracy has been the nightmare of average Americans since at least when George Washington violently put down the first populist revolt.

With the plutocratic rhetoric of meritocracy, one of the great boogeymen is the welfare queen. It took corporate propaganda sold by an actor-trained president to convincingly sell this hatred of the poor, presented with a kindly-looking smile, but sold it was. In the standard narrative, the welfare queen is a poor black woman (the antithesis to the rich white man) who out of wedlock pumped out the children (slut) to get free government money (whore) so as not to have to do honest work (lazy) and so as to live the high life driving expensive cars (leech).

The poor black woman was the target of rich white men’s lust during the slave era, but now that she is free who knows what she will do in retribution for the sins of the rich white men’s fathers. Although a demented dark fantasy, it does have its own internal logic of sorts, not unlike the logic of portraying Obama as his father’s son come from dark Africa to seek his anti-colonial vengeance upon white man’s Western society. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Fearmongering aside, who are the real welfare queens?

A welfare queen takes more than gives, especially those who assume benefits as privileges without attendant social responsibilities. This is anyone who personally benefits from publicly-funded services and whose lifestyle is dependent upon publicly-funded support. This is anyone who accepts any kind of community offering or public good, including public resources taken from the commons, without reciprocation and fairness. This is anyone who takes more than they need when others have greater need, anyone who takes advantage of those less powerful and less fortunate, and anyone who disregards precautions about and investments toward the long-term sustainability of society and the impact on future generations. A welfare queen is defined by their selfishness, greed, and sociopathy.

It is clear that I’ve just described the prototypical modern big business. Nothing surprising about that.  American Winter briefly touches upon an aspect of this, although all too briefly.

A weird form of corporate welfare has developed. The modern transnational corporation isn’t sustainable itself without massive financial support from public funds. What capitalism has perfected is the externalization of costs.

Without welfare and food stamps, without unemployment benefits and public health services, without  public education and state colleges, there would be no functional workforce that could survive on such low wages as offered to most employees. Governments subsidize corporations by paying for what citizens can’t afford with minimum wage. There is something majorly wrong when many if not most of the people receiving government funds and services are those who are employed, yet don’t make a living wage. And when corporations move factories, they leave behind massive unemployment and poverty that is taken care of by the government.

This is is just one aspect of externalized costs. Other aspects include social destabilization and undermining of local economies, bailouts and subsidies, pollution and environmental degradation,  and selling below the market value of natural resources from public lands, etc.

The majority of United States citizens would quickly descend into third world conditions if not for the government hiding the consequences slowly destroying American democracy and American communities. As Fran Lebowitz explained it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” Or as the Borg put it, “Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own…”  and “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

This sad state of affairs demonstrates a rot at the core of capitalism. This is where American Winter fails to meet the problem beyond emotional appeal.

The documentary lacked a coherent and compelling narrative. I wasn’t inspired because there was nothing offered to be inspired toward. The problems were explained with data and real world examples. I was emotionally moved by human struggle and suffering. But then what? Where is the deeper analysis? Where is the vision?

In watching the documentary, I had an almost passive sense about the portrayal of poverty. It felt like a problem that happened by accident, an unintended consequence of focusing on other things such a decreasing federal spending.

In the documentary, people kept saying that such poverty isn’t what it means to be an American and that such downward mobility isn’t what the American Dream is about. That is fine as far as it goes. There was sadness and desperation, but I sensed no deep outrage. The people were worried about their families, but no one spoke about or was asked about their fears for the fate of America as a country, much less concerns for the suffering and poverty all around the world.

If they had used the middle class family as a jumping off point to get to a larger frame, so much more could have been communicated. As it is, the documentary is a lost opportunity. It isn’t particularly memorable. It is like a hundred other documentaries I’ve seen before. Nothing about it stands out and demands attention.

More importantly, I doubt it would be watched by many who aren’t already aware of the problem and persuaded that it is serious. I can hear in my head how conservatives would dismiss or ignore the view presented. Middle class families as a vague general category don’t make for a powerful symbol that can come close to competing against the dark vision of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, a single poignant image lingering in the collective mind for decades that simultaneously imagines the problem for honest tax-paying Americans and imagines how the cause of the problem is destroying America and the American Dream.

I have a soft place in my heart for liberal do-gooders. Nonetheless, the liberal lack of vision and insight ultimately just depresses me. American Winter is good for what it is, but not good enough for what is needed.

 

 

 

Then they came for the trade unionists…

Here is something that has been quoted many times before, but it deserves being quoted many times more.

First They came… – Pastor Martin Niemöller

Timbre Allemagne 1992 Martin Niemoller obl.jpgFirst they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

– – –

If only people understood those words, we wouldn’t have all these problems that continue to plague us.

People look around the world and think other people’s problems aren’t their problems. Who cares about the poor who are exploited and oppressed in other countries? Who cares about the working class and the unions? Most people see those who are different as the enemy. To business owners, the workers are the enemy. To non-union workers, union workers are the enemy. To well off whites, poor minorities are the enemy. To poor Americans, immigrants are the enemy. To fundamentalists, social gospel Christians are the enemy. Et Cetera. And history just keeps on repeating.

I was reminded of what Niemhöller wrote because of the recent attacks on unions by Republicans and corporations. Unions have been greatly disempowered since the Taft-Hartley Act and since the Reagan administration, but still even in weakened form they are the only defense the working and middle classes have left in fighting against the ever growing corporatism in America. Of the top 10 campaign contributors, all are corporate PACs besides 3 which are unions. With the unjust elimination of ACORN, the poor and working class need the unions more than ever. Organizations like unions and the former ACORN help inform the public about important issues and help to encourage the poor get to the voting booths.

There is one very important thing to note from the Niemöller quote. The Nazis didn’t go after Jews right from the start. No, they first went after the Communists and unions. The Nazis had to first eliminate the groups that represent average people, the groups that are the pillars of grassroots democracy. Once they are eliminated, any other group can be freely attacked without the possibility of organized resistance. Just look at Wisconsin right now. Besides unions, there is no other group that could organize average Americans to such an extent. Unions are the very last defense. Unions don’t just defend their own workers. Unions, in defending the working class, defend the rights of all.

I was recently reminded of a fact most people don’t know. Check out these maps:

Party Affiliation (2009)From ’08 to ’10

State of States Political Party Affiliation, 2008

State of the States Political Party Advantage Map, 2010

Many states (such as in the South) that people think of as solidly Republican in reality aren’t that solid at all. In conservative states, a divide exists that doesn’t isn’t found in liberal states. Poor people in conservative states tend to vote Democratic whereas the rich tend to vote Republican (however, both the poor and the rich in liberal states tend to vote Democratic). So, how do Republicans maintain control of states that have populations mixed between the two parties? It’s rather simple. The rich Republicans control the politics, control the media, control the corporate contributions. The organizations that represent the poor are few and getting fewer.

Here is an article about 2006 voting data and a map of unionization:

Want to know why Democrats won the election? Because union members and their families voted for them.

Here’s the breakdown – non union members split evenly according to the CNN exit polls 49% to each party. Union members went 64% Democratic, and 34% Republican.

This actually underestimates the case, because unions are more than half of the Democratic ground game. It’s not just that union members vote Democratic – it’s that union members work for Democratic candidates and against Republican ones. They knock on doors, they organize, they phone pool. Any decent union has a hardened corps of organizers from their day to day work, and around election time those guys fan out. They are tough, experienced, don’t fear rejection and are mostly solidly working class.

If you look at a map of the US by union membership, like the one above, what you’ll see is that it looks awfully familiar – where unions are strong, Dems win. Where they aren’t, they lose or struggle.

The South, in particular, has a long history of disenfranchising the poor and the minorities (both of whom vote Democratic, of course). Most Americans don’t vote because most Americans feel disenfranchised from the entire political process. This perception is partly true and partly false, but the corporate media wants people to believe it because the continued dominance of the rich is dependent on this perception. If this perception of disenfranchisement falters even for a moment, protests and revolutions (or, at least, political upsets) can happen.

I’ve often heard conservatives (including democratically elected politicians) criticize democracy calling it mobocracy (two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner). Let me break down this criticism. So, who is this ‘mob’? It’s the masses, the general public, the average American, the majority of adults who feel so disenfranchised that they don’t vote. Conservatives are afraid of the majority because they know the majority doesn’t support their views and policies (see: ). Conservatives are afraid of grassroots democracy like unions because they know grassroots democracy won’t benefit corporations.

One argument conservatives give is that unions have already served their purpose. Conservatives will initially try to deny what unions have accomplished, but when that fails they’ll argue that there is nothing left for unions to accomplish. However, from my liberal perspective, unions are the only thing stopping our society from returning to 19th century capitalism. So, what exactly was 19th century capitalism like? There are some positive examples like the Shakers (which is a socialist model of capitalism that conservatives don’t like) and there are many negative examples like the following (from my post ):

Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp.
The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.
[The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]

I personally don’t want to return to a society where such capitalist systems existed. I’m fairly sure most Americans wouldn’t want to return to this either. And it’s good to keep in mind that this kind of capitalism (or similar variations) still exists in other parts of the world where unions don’t exist or don’t have as much political influence. So, I think it would be unwise to dismiss the role unions play in our society. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and died for the rights we take for granted.

– – –

– – –

Ignoring history (which is never a wise thing to do), what can we say about unions in our present society? For example, does allowing teachers unions to have collective bargaining lead to negative impact on the public education system?

– – –

Anyway, how much power do unions actually have? A picture is worth a thousand words. Totals by Sector from OpenSecrets.org:

lobbying expenditures vs. campaign contributions

If money talks, politicians are listening to louder voices than unions.

Even so, unions are more likely to get heard by Democrats.

Top Democratic and Republican Donors in 2010

Top Overall Donors to Republicans:

Elliott Management (a Hedge fund company)
Koch Industries (note: the billioaire who is the main financier of the Teabaggers)
Every Republican is Crucial PAC
Associated Builders & Contractors
(so-called) “Freedom” Project (a Republican PAC)

NOTES: Top Republican supporters are billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds…and keep in mind this applies to the Teabagger movement as well. They are supported by the same billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds.

Top Overall Donors to Democrats:

ActBlue (composite of many, many small, grassroots donations)
Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Laborers Union
Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union
EMILY’s List (composite of many, many small grassroots donations)
Plumbers/Pipefitters Union
National Assn of Letter Carriers
Ironworkers Union
United Auto Workers
United Transportation Union
American Postal Workers Union
UNITE HERE
AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America

NOTES: Top Democratic supporters are unions and grassroots donors.

Seems to me the contrast is really quite sharp: Billionaires vs. working and middle class.

Where unions are strong, do they make a society better or worse? Here is from a post I wrote comparing the US and Germany:

In this video, there was one particular point about Germany that stood out. Germany is 1/5 the size of the US and yet has the second highest trade surplus in the world (after China). They’ve accomplished this while having higher rate of unionization and higher pay. Interestingly, the US economy was also doing better when unionization and pay was higher in the US.

Unions in the US are considered socialists even though they represent the working class. In Germany, it’s required for worker representation to be half of board members of companies. In Germany, the industrial and financial sectors are highly regulated keeping jobs from being outsourced and ensuring main street benefits rather than just wall street. According to conservative ideology, this kind of socialist practices and union power should destroy the economy and destroy innovation and yet the complete opposite is the result.

This seems to support Noam Chomsky’s arguments. Chomsky thinks the world would be a better place if workers had more power to influence the companies they work for and influence the economy they are a part of. As a socialist liberal, Chomsky genuinely believes it’s good to empower the average person. It would appear Germany has done exactly this and has become immensely successful by doing so.

A major factor I discussed in that US and Germany post was about income inequality. Here is a graph showing both the data of union coverage and inequality:

Union coverage decreases inequality chart

For what it’s worth, here is a study about unions in three comparable countries:

In particular, unions tend to systematically reduce wage inequality among men, but have little impact on wage inequality for women. We conclude that unionization helps explain a sizable share of cross-country differences in male wage inequality among the three countries. We also conclude that de-unionization explains a substantial part of the growth in male wage inequality in the U.K. and the U.S. since the early 1980s.

– – –

I just responded to some comments from one of my previous blog posts () which touch upon a central issue in American politics. Here are my two responses:

I agree with you about the misleading notions of American “conservatives”. It would make life easier if they used a different term to label themselves. Looking at the history of Western conservatism, American conservatives don’t seem all that conservative. In Britain, the conservatives are the Tories. In early America, Tories defended Britain against the radical revolutionaries. I find it odd that American conservatives worship the founders who were radicals. Thomas Paine inspired the entire revolution and his writings were as liberal as they get.

I was reading Henry Fairlie’s view on Toryism. I realized that traditional conservatism more closely describes Democrats than Republicans. Democrats are the ones interested in conserving our present system. On the other hand, Republicans attack our present system. And, as you note, their fantasies about the past are actually radical visions that would entirely remake American society. They don’t want to conserve anything. If American conservatives actually wanted to conserve the past, they’d first have to read something other than revisionist history.

My suspicion is that the idiosyncrasy of American conservatism makes a bit more sense when taking into consideration the psychological research done on ideologies. Brain scans show that conservatives tend to have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. Other research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response toward anything unusual or improper (such as rotting fruit).

America is unusual in that the status quo of our society isn’t the power of a particular church or of a royal lineage or of a specific ethnicity. The only status quo we have in this country is that of change. Ever since the first Europeans came here, it has been endless change. At a fundamental level, conservatives hate change and so American conservatives hate the status quo of the society they were raised in. They would like to create a status quo that never changes which, oddly, would require radically changing the present status quo. Conservatives seem like hypocrites because they are conflicted by their own psychological predispositions. In the US, they can’t win for losing. The country was founded on a radical liberal vision and has continued to radically change ever since. To be an American conservative is to hate the founding status quo of America.

(note: I admit ‘hate’ is a strong word. Let us just say conservatives are strongly conflicted by the founding status quo of America.)

I’ve just started a book titled Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. It’s very fascinating. It’s odd that I don’t recall having learned much about Paine in my public education or even in various documentaries I’ve watched about early America.

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Paine. His writings were what inspired the American Revolution and probably what kept it from failing, but his vision was so radically democratic that he fell out of favor with many of the others in the founding generation who just wanted to create a new ruling elite (which essentially is what they did).

It’s very interesting that this radical vision is at the heart of what defines America. Paine wanted to end slavery, wanted Native Americans to keep their land, wanted women, blacks, and the poor to have as much power as rich white men. He wanted America to become an example of genuine freedom that would inspire revolution all over the world. Paine was a bad ass. His vision is radical even by today’s standards.

America would not exist without Paine’s far left democratic vision. He inspired the revolution, inspired people to keep fighting, inspired people to support the fight for independence in all ways. The American people, especially the lower classes, were fighting for Paine’s vision of America. Paine dedicated his whole life to the cause of liberty. He never made any profit from any of his writings. He risked his life many times and even fought hand-to-hand combat. He was a hardcore revolutionary. He didn’t grow up with privilege. Unlike the most of the Founding Fathers, he was born working class and was an immigrant. Paine believed in the American Dream before there was a country called America.

Paine is the reason conservatives are endlessly outraged in America. Like many in the founding generation, conservatives are scared shitless about the vision that Paine proposed and that vision still exists as a seed waiting to sprout. Paine failed because the rich white males of the time were too afraid to embrace a truly free society. The Populists in the late 19th century attempted again to achieve that vision, but once again the ruling elite coopted the revolutionary energy for the purposes of the corporate elite. Now, we once again face the potential of Paine’s vision. People once again begin to remember what inspired the founding of this country in the first place. Those in power and those on the right will do everything they can to squash democracy. Everyone understands that democracy is the most dangerous vision that any human has ever conceived.

Maybe you’re right about liberals tending to focus on freedom from. When considering radical freedom, we can only know the past from which we are trying to free ourselves from. We can’t know where radical freedom will lead. It’s an experiment. Paine explicitly thought of America as an experiment. If you want safety and security, then you can’t have freedom. That is the hypocrisy of what America has become. Paine realized that even the ruling elite could only have as much freedom as everyone was allowed. Paine knew that the only way to have democracy was to have an educated public and the ruling elite knew the only way to control the masses was to keep them ignorant. But control can never lead to freedom.

Even the data proves this. In societies with high economic inequality, there are more social problems (see: ). The rich may be relatively better off than the poor in such a society, but the rich in such a society are relatively worse off than the rich in a society that has more equality. The rich people in an unequal society have, for example, more health problems (probably from the stress of living surrounded by poverty, crime, and social conflict).

Paine understood this centuries ago. The ruling elite at the time dismissed his radical vision. And the ruling elite today continue to dismiss his radical vision. Yet his radical vision remains. The potential of America continues to be wasted because of those who have power don’t have vision and those who have vision don’t have power. Paine began the revolution and the revolution is still happening. The reason America has never stopped changing is because a large segment of American society has always refused to give up on the vision Paine first described.

Many might consider Paine to have been naive for actually believing in freedom. But dammit I wish there were more idealists. The only thing that makes ideals unrealistic is the cynical ruling elite that always stands in the way. Why is democracy considered naive? Why is freedom seen as a threat?

To this day, the conservatives still fear the masses of the poor and minorities. If you look at the demographics of the Southern states, they actually aren’t solidly Republican by a long stretch. If all the poor and minorities voted, Democrats would win by a landslide in the South and all across the coutnry. Conservatives know this and that is why they do what they can to destroy organizations like Acorn and unions that represent the poor and disenfranchised. Most Americans don’t vote because the entire history of America has been about the ruling elite disenfranchising the masses. Even when they do vote, their votes might simply not be counted as happened in Florida. It’s fucked up.

If Paine was here, he’d start a new revolution. Paine was a Marxist revolutionary before there was a Marx. He realized that the fundamental issue is always class war. It was so when immigrants first came to America, many of whom were political dissidents, oppressed poor people, and indentured servants. And it’s still true.

– – –

Let me finish by pointing out a couple of things related to those comments.

First, here is a passage from the book I mentioned above (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye, Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.” Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

When people fear mobocracy, what exactly do they fear? Is it fear of the possibility of radical freedom that democracy envisions? Or is it fear that one’s vested interests would be undermined if everyone had equal education and equal opportunity? It’s true that ignorant masses are easier control, but a society can’t simultaneously serve both the realpolitik of control and the ideal of freedom. More importantly, Paine understood that to try to control others meant endangering one’s own freedom. A person can only have what they are willing to offer to others.

Second, the comments above (right before the quote from Kaye’s book) are from a blog post of mine () that touches upon this same issue of fear and mistrust of democracy. My point in that post is that this conservative response is based on an attitude of not having faith in the average American and not having faith in the strength of democracy. As such, conservatives don’t have faith in the fundamental vision of the American experiment. Here is how I ended that post (and with it I’ll also end this post):

The unions did manage to win in certain ways, but the liberal vision of the working class was integrated into the Federal government. Eventually, the Democrats became the party for unions and for the poor. This altered the dynamic causing the class wars to be less clear, especially as class has been mixed up with race and culture. The Democratic party has done some good things for the working class and so that is why the poor working class is loyal to the Democrats to this very day. The vision of Democrats is that the average person can actually be served by his representatives in Washington. The vision of liberalism is that democracy is strong and not easily destroyed.

Conservatives are less confident. They see democracy as constantly threatened and that is why they are much more partisan in their support of big government. It’s also why conservatives support big military despite claiming to be against big government. Conservatives live in fear of democracy being destroyed. Enemies are everywhere. The enemy threatens both from outside (Russia, Islamic terrorists) and from within (Communist witchhunts, social programs, gun rights). Conservatives don’t trust any governments. They only trust our own state government to the extent it might protect us from foreign state governments, but idealy they’d love to live in a world where state governments didn’t exist at all or else had very little power which means they wish they lived in early America.

My above commentary was inspired by this comment:

http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/09/i-was-wrong-about-5000-year-le_comments.html

John-in-Exile wrote:

It is fascinating to me to have “The Naked Communist” resurface, even as a second work of fiction by a newly rediscovered author. When I was in high school (1960 to 1963) I listened to a series of radio lectures by (apparently) W. Cleon Skousen which culminated in a pitch for his book, The Naked Communist, which was going to expose the evil plans of the terrifying international communist conspiracy. I bought the book and read it and found myself nagged by one question that stayed with me for years. The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?

– – –

Conservatives don’t seem to have much faith in the American people or the American experiment. I understand having doubts and I even understand being pessimistic. But, faith or not, do conservatives care more about their ideology or about real people? I know many conservatives do actually care. So, why do they keep voting for Republican politicians who again and again implement policies that hurt average Americans? What is to be gained by attacking unions that protect the working class, social services that help the needy, and public schools that educate the next generation?

– – –


Real Wages & Wealth Disparity

This post is just my gathering some data and analysis about the changes in wages and various factors related to it. But first I want to put it in the context of wealth disparity.

In some ways, average Americans are better off than in the past, but in many ways they are worse off. It’s hard to know if the good is greater than the bad. What is clear is that an increase of wealth disparity correlates to an increase of social problems. So, the increase in wealth disparity is definitely bad and even worse is that it was intentionally created.


– – –

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-winters/americas-income-defense-i_b_772723.html

The debate over ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich sidesteps a serious problem. The issue is not just whether the wealthiest Americans should be taxed, but can they be taxed?

The ultra rich have extraordinary means to engage in tax avoidance and evasion that ordinary citizens do not. In the first decades after World War II, the richest Americans began paying large fees to armies of professionals whose sole task was to help them avoid taxes.

By the 1960s, an entire Income Defense Industry had arisen to satisfy this demand. It has grown more sophisticated and effective with each passing decade.

The industry lobbies key committees in Congress, quietly inserts provisions in a tax code only top attorneys in the industry comprehend, structures complex partnerships and tax shelters few auditors at the IRS can disentangle, and often uses these instruments to move wealth and income offshore.

All of this is done off the political radar screen and there is no countervailing lobby or parallel income defense industry for the average Joe. The few public interest organizations arguing for “tax justice” on behalf of average citizens are vastly out-staffed and out-funded.

The Senate estimates that the industry helps the wealthiest Americans avoid paying nearly $70 billion in taxes a year through “abusive offshore tax avoidance schemes” alone. The number is much higher if corporations are included.

[ . . . ] The ultra rich who avoid and evade taxes in this way face almost zero legal risk and reap huge savings. No matter how massive the tax fraud perpetrated, the wealthy taxpayer is shielded behind a phalanx of Income Defense Industry professionals paid to devise the schemes.

In the notorious KPMG case settled in 2007, it was the firm that was fined for the fraudulent “tax products” it provided to ultra rich clients, many of whom had the chutzpah to turn around and sue KPMG for selling them inferior tax shelters after they had to pay hundreds of millions in back taxes and penalties.

Average taxpayers are far more likely to be held criminally liable for tax evasion than ultra rich citizens who have the resources to litigate for years.

They hire lawyers in the same Income Defense Industry to intimidate IRS auditors and legal teams.

The IRS manual instructs staff to weigh the “necessary expense” as well as the “expected hazards of litigating the case” when considering cutting quiet deals out of court with big tax cheats.

Re-imposing the Bush tax cuts on the top 2 percent of income earners creates the mistaken impression that the richest of the rich will finally have to shoulder a fairer share of the tax burden. But those at the very top will not.

The vast majority of Americans in that top 2 percent are what the wealth management industry calls the “mass affluent,” a segment of the market they do not serve because households earning a few hundred thousand a year up to a couple million cannot afford tax letters, shelters, or the costs of restructuring assets and moving income flows offshore.

These are the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who are not only in the top tax bracket, but actually have to pay the rate of their bracket — something the ultra rich never do.

In 1992, the top 400 income earners paid 85 percent of the published bracket income tax rate. By 2007 their effective tax rate had dropped below 50 percent.

Ironically, many of the mass affluent professionals in the top 2 percent earn their comfortable incomes through fees they get helping the richest 150,000 Americans above them keep tens of billions in unpaid taxes each year.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/your-money/16wealth.html?_r=1

Jeffrey Winters, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, talked of the wealthy in America in terms of oligarchy. And he advanced an argument against what he called the “income defense industry.”

The term referred to the accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs. Mr. Winters argued that this group was hurting the non-elite by minimizing tax collection. He estimated that $70 billion was lost yearly just from offshore accounts.

There is no denying that members of the elite have a lot of money and would like to hang on to as much of it as they can. But that’s true of most people.

Olivier Godechot, a French academic on the sociology panel, presented research that quantified just how skewed the increase in wealth at the very top has become. Mr. Godechot, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, said that two professions — finance and business services — accounted for almost all of the increase in income inequality.

[ . . . ] His concern is what the concentration of wealth means for American society in the future. He said he wondered whether the post-World War II era in America — as defined by prosperity and rising income levels — was a historical anomaly and was coming to an end.

He cited data showing that the United States now had the second-lowest level of intergenerational income mobility in the world, after England.

“If we lose this truly American thing — that you can become anything if you just work at it — then you’re really going to lose what makes America America,” he said. “It already appears that it will take a tremendous amount of time for people to bring their families out of poverty and for the wealthy to fall from the advantages they have.”

http://www.newamerica.net/publications/policy/running_faster_to_stay_in_place

The data we present here reveal that, for the period 1979-2000, married-couple families with children increased their hours worked by 16 percent, or almost 500 annual hours. Yet the data also demonstrate that without the increase in women’s work, middle-quintile families would have experienced an average real income increase of only 5 percent — instead of the actual 24 percent — while families in the bottom two quintiles would have experienced a decrease in real income over that period — by about 14 percent for the bottom quintile and about 5 percent for the second quintile.

These data reveal that the economic engine for middle- and lower-income advancement is in low gear.

Remarkably, this is true even when productivity has grown at a healthy clip. These trends represent a departure from those of the post-War years when median family income doubled — tracking productivity growth. Today, middle- and lower-income families no longer see increasing returns to their hours worked in the same way that the previous generation did. The only way many of these families can keep their total income growing — or not shrinking — is to work harder and harder. For the complete document, please see the attached PDF version.

Attachments

Here’s my capsule view of the great financial meltdown of 2008: For the past couple of decades, the benefits of economic growth have gone almost entirely to the rich. But the middle class still wanted to prosper, so the rich loaned them money to continually improve their lifestyles. That worked for a while. And then it didn’t.

[ . . . ] Growth in a modern mixed economy2 is fundamentally based on consumer spending, and middle class consumers can increase their spending in only three ways: (1) real wage growth, (2) borrowing, or (3) drawing down savings. Only the first is sustainable. So if we want the American economy to grow consistently over long periods, we have to focus our economic machinery on median wage growth. We’ve done it before, we can do it again if we’re smart, and the result would be good for everyone: the rich would get richer, the middle class would get richer, and the poor would get less poor. The alternative is booms, busts, and continued social erosion.
I do want to point out this section about Raghuram Rajan (whose Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists is a book that I enjoyed and is relevant today). It’s pretty interesting:

In a new book he is working on, entitled “Fault Lines,” Rajan argues that the initial causes of the breakdown were stagnant wages and rising inequality. With the purchasing power of many middle-class households lagging behind the cost of living, there was an urgent demand for credit. The financial industry, with encouragement from the government, responded by supplying home-equity loans, subprime mortgages, and auto loans. (Notwithstanding the government’s involvement, this is ultimately a traditional Chicago argument: in response to changing economic circumstances, the free market provided financial products that people wanted.) The side effects of unrestrained credit growth turned out to be devastating-a possibility that most economists had failed to consider.

I didn’t expect to read that line of thought from Rajan. I’ve talked about this before, both housing equity as the new social contract, as well as the way excessive debt smoothed out the high-risk income-trapped structure of current families. Rather than focusing on how nice of a refrigerator the poorest can buy, it might be worthwhile to look at how inequality has played out in the middle-and-working classes here (which ultimately effects mobility among the poorest too). I’m curious as to the drivers he finds between inequality and a middle-and-working-class squeeze. Spending on housing and education are the obvious ones.
That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents in this year’s midterm elections even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years.
The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.
As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Until the last year, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by the rising value of benefits, especially health insurance, which caused overall compensation for most Americans to continue increasing. Since last summer, however, the value of workers’ benefits has also failed to keep pace with inflation, according to government data.

At the very top of the income spectrum, many workers have continued to receive raises that outpace inflation, and the gains have been large enough to keep average income and consumer spending rising.

[ . . . ] Economists offer various reasons for the stagnation of wages. Although the economy continues to add jobs, global trade, immigration, layoffs and technology — as well as the insecurity caused by them — appear to have eroded workers’ bargaining power.

Trade unions are much weaker than they once were, while the buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low. And health care is far more expensive than it was a decade ago, causing companies to spend more on benefits at the expense of wages.

Every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar, new data from the Social Security Administration show. Total wages, median wages, and average wages all declined, but at the very top, salaries grew more than fivefold.
Not a single news organization reported this data when it was released October 15, searches of Google and the Nexis databases show. Nor did any blog, so the citizen journalists and professional economists did no better than the newsroom pros in reporting this basic information about our economy.
The new data hold important lessons for economic growth and tax policy and take on added meaning when examined in light of tax return data back to 1950.
The story the numbers tell is one of a strengthening economic base with income growing fastest at the bottom until, in 1981, we made an abrupt change in tax and economic policy. Since then the base has fared poorly while huge economic gains piled up at the very top, along with much lower tax burdens.
[ . . . ] From 1950 to 1980, the average income of the bottom 90 percent grew tremendously. Not so since then:

1950
1980
Increase
% Increase
$17,719
$30,941
$13,222
74.6%
1980
2008
Increase
% Increase
$30,941
$31,244
$303
1%

Had income growth from 1950 to 1980 continued at the same rate for the next 28 years, the average income of the bottom 90 percent in 2008 would have been 68 percent higher, instead of just 1 percent more.

That would have meant an average income for the vast majority of $52,051, or $21,110 more than actual 2008 incomes. How different America would be today if the typical family had $406 more each week — less debt, more savings, and more consumption.

Wage growth, currently running at about 3% YoY and declining quickly, stinks.  In fact, only twice in the last 45 years has there been real wage growth (i.e., in excess of the inflation rate)for more than a year or so: once, in the post-war economic golden era of the 1960s and early 1970s; and again during the tech boom of the 1990s.  Here is a graph showing that entire 45 years history (as long as the series exists), comparing wages (in orange) with CPI inflation (in blue):

As you can easily see, real wage growth essentially stagnated in 1974, and ever since the Reagan revolution, almost all growth from productivity has been vacuumed up by the very top of the income scale.

Americans have somehow survived despite this stagnation by resorting to a small bag of budgeting tricks. But now, with one possible exception, those tricks aren’t going to work any more.  Simply put, from here on in, we’re not going to have any sustained economic growth until real wages finally grow too.  I’ll show you why, below.

[ . . . ] In other words,  since 1980, facing stagnated real wages, the only way American consumers have been able to significantly improve their lifestyles is either:
– to take on more debt, using assets which have appreciated in value as collateral (stock investments, housing), or
– to refinance their existing debt at lower interest rates.

When consumers were unable to do either of those things, they cut back on spending, triggering consumer-led recessions.  Since 1980, this confluence of negative factors had only happened twice: in the deep Reagan recession of 1981-82, and again briefly from July 1990 to March 1991.

As of 2007, household income was still below 1999 levels.  Interest rates had not receded to their 2003 levels, so refinancing activity could not increase.  House prices were already in marked decline.  Consumers were already starting to cut back, albeit not yet that significantly on debt.  Only stock prices, by the barest of margins (.02%), were positive.  I concluded then that “In order to avoid a recession, house price declines must stop, stock market gains must accelerate, or household income must increase significantly.  Failing at least one these three things, if households have continued to cut back on debt, as appears likely, America will probably enter (or may already have entered) only its 3rd consumer recession since 1980.”

That last conclusion was certainly proven correct!  With a declining 401k value, crashing house prices, increasing Oil-fed inflation, and paltry wage gains, the recession started just a few months later in December 2007.

[ . . . ] is this one of those “your wages won’t increase but Wal-mart has very cheap goods so feel rich” arguments? If you are like me and view money as something that buys both consumption goods and autonomy in a liberal capitalist democracy, then the consumption good deflator only covers half the reason of why a worker values getting a dollar after a day of work.

II: Wage Growth

As for the increase in household median income from the late 1970s to 1999, I’m under the impression from many sources that the majority of it is simply households working more hours, particularly by getting a second worker into the workforce. That’s right, right? Here’s Steve Ross who is quoted as an excellent source in the critique for middle-class numbers:

It is true that much (but not all)* of household income gain can be attributed to wives working more, but neopopulists see the increased female workload in an entirely negative context and as a burden on women and families. We suspect many working women want to work….* If the working hours of wives are held constant at 1979 levels, median incomes at the 50th percentile for prime-age couple households would still have risen by 9 percent in real dollars from 1979 to 2004. For households at the 70th percentile, the increase would be 22 percent.

I’m happy many more women are in the workforce. But if the real driver of household wage growth is simply that households are working more hours, then that isn’t exactly wage growth. “I want to make more money so I doubled my shifts” isn’t really the same statement as “they are paying me more money.” Winship points out male wages have increased around 8% over a 35 year period, for an annual growth rate of 0.23%. Something eventually had to give: maxed out at capacity, both in the number of hours in a day and the line of credit approved – if this was a firm, would you want to invest?

I also wish to note that my analysis didn’t include real estate taxes and numerous other expenses that most folks have to pay. So even if you are extremely frugal and careful with your money, it is impossible to “get by” in the US without using credit cards, home equity lines of credit or burning through savings. The cost of living is simply TOO high relative to incomes.

This is why there simply cannot be a sustainable recovery in the US economy. Because we outsourced our jobs, incomes fell. Because incomes fell and savers were punished (thanks to abysmal returns on savings rates) we pulled future demand forward by splurging on credit. Because we splurged on credit, prices in every asset under the sun rose in value. Because prices rose while incomes fell, we had to use more credit to cover our costs, which in turn meant taking on more debt (a net drag on incomes).

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/1/6/85124/90803/713/680687Productivity Wages

Basically, the basic bargain was roughly this–if you worked hard and became more productive, you would see that sweat of the brow in your wages. And from the post-war era until the 1970s, that deal basically held–as you can see from the lines that are basically close together until the 1970s.

Then, the lines diverge–dramatically. You can see it yourself. If the lines had continued to track closely together as they did prior to the 1970s, the MINIMUM WAGE would be more than $19 an hour. THE MINIMUM WAGE!!!

So, in short: people had no money coming in in their paychecks so they were forced to pay for their lives through credit–either plastic or drawing down equity from their homes. There are lots of reasons that this happened–greed, the attack against unions, de-regulation, dumb trade deals.

But, the point is: we will never fix the economic crisis, whether through short-term economic stimulus and certainly not through tax cuts, until paychecks are re-inflated. Dramatically.

I outlined a whole set of solutions to bailout American workers but the main one is simple: raise wages. Dramatically. And end–and I know some people cringe at the term–the class warfare that has been underway for the past three decades.

MSNBC w/ Cenk: Reich – Middle Class & Wages

This video reminded me of why it doesn’t help the economy to give tax cuts to the rich and generally increase the wealth of rich while leaving behind everyone who isn’t part of the ruling elite. From just an economic perspective, there are three problems:

1) Increasing the wealth of the wealthy doesn’t necessarily increase investment. At some point, a person becomes so wealthy that further wealth becomes meaningless. This leads the super rich to gamble with their excess wealth which was one of the contributing factors to our recent economic crash. Financial gambling doesn’t make for a stable economy nor does it have any social value. So, if the government genuinely wants an economy that grows with stability rather than constantly crashing, they should create regulation and taxation that helps decrease wealth disparity so that excess wealth isn’t concentrated at the very top.

2) Most new jobs are created by small businesses, but the tax cuts for the rich mostly only help big businesses. Also, the bailouts help Wall Street while leaving Main Street to suffer. Why help the rich who helped break the economy while sacrificing the working and middle classes which are simply trying to get by? A lot of the working and middle class was in debt for the reason that wages were stagnating even as the rich were getting richer. So, if the government genuinely wants to stimulate job growth, they should ensure that wages grow as the economy grows and they should give bailouts to small businesses while breaking up corporations that are too big to fail.

3) Even ignoring all that, giving more wealth to the wealthy doesn’t stimulate the economy for some simple reasons. Assuming they don’t gamble it, the other choice the rich could do with excess wealth is simply to put it into savings. The middle and working classes, however, will spend any extra money they have which invests back into the economy. For good or ill, the US economy is based on consumerism and consumerism is based on working and middle classes that have money to spend. Let me explain why. A rich person spends several hundred or even several thousand on a pair of shoes. For the same amount of money, hundreds of working and middle class people could buy shoes. The purchase of hundreds of shoes stimulates the economy more than buying one pair of shoes even if it’s the same amount of money. So, if government genuinely wants to stimulate the economy, they should give tax cuts to the working and middle classes.

All of this assumes that those in power actually care about the economy as a whole and actually care about the average American. I suspect that this is a false assumption. It’s hard for me to believe that after all these decades intelligent people (including Democrats like Obama apparently) think that trickle down economics actually works. I think these people know that it just makes the rich richer. That is why they do what they do. Politicians are of the rich and have campaigns funded by the rich. Why would they help the lower classes? So, what if the economy collapses? The rich will always maintain their wealth. If the country gets bad enough, they’ll just move to a pleasant tropical island and take their wealth with them.

Here is another video that relates, but it’s from more of a libertarian perspective:

The author interviewed, Thomas E. Woods Jr, is criticizing the US military-industrial complex. Besides the moral argument, he mentions that military is not a very good investment. When we invest in military that is less that can be invested in other things such as education or infrastructure. Also, funding goes to defense research which uses up public tax money and wastes the most brilliant minds on discovering more efficient ways to kill people. Those same dollars and those same brilliant minds could be used for research to cure cancer or research into alternative energy.

Once again, the only people who benefit from the military-industrial complex are the defense contractors and the wealthy investors in these companies. Certainly, the average American who pays for these wars and dies in these wars aren’t benefiting. The only reason we have any interest in the Middle East in the first place is because of the oil that is there and those most interested in that oil is of course the big oil companies seeking profit from a dwindling resurce.

There were some comments below that last video which gave me some hope. Here is one from a user going by the name capitalist4life:

“I am a recovering neocon. I was converted through Dr. Paul’s gentle suggestion that our foreign entanglements may cause some foreigners to want to kill us. I found that reasonable and I became more anti-war as I saw Hannity and Limbaugh vicously attack that reasonable idea. The one thing that didn’t convince me was strong anti-war rhetoric. I had to be eased into it. Just keep that in mind. Don’t be aggressive and extreme. Gently ease our “conservative” friends into the anti-war way of thinking.”

But let me end with a different quote. One of the last truly moral Republican leaders was Dwight D. Eisenhower who, of course, is famous for warning about the military-industrial complex. He was far from being a pacifist liberal and for that reason his words are all that more important. He seemed to genuinely believe that politicians should serve all Americans and not just the wealthy. Here is what he said in a 1953 speech:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Middle Class vs Working Class

I’ve noticed something strange about how politicians and pundits use ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. I don’t hear the working class referred to much in the media, especially not by conservatives. Being working class has become considered a bad thing. Everyone wants to be middle class.

What bothers me about this is that the middle class is shrinking even as the poor increasingly become the target of those on the right. For instance, the Tea Party protesters are mostly older whites of the upper middle class and above (i.e., not the average American). These old white conservatives grew up during a time when there was much more opportunity of upward mobility. But since the beginning of Reaganomics, the wealth disparity has been increasing and so the numbers of the poor have been increasing.

One recent survey showed that most white Tea Party supporters don’t believe minorities are intelligent, hardworking or trustworthy. This is a new class war. As the middle class shrinks, the upper middle class sides with the rich and sees the poor as the enemy.

I don’t know if this will start to reverse again, but I don’t think these affluent conservatives want it to reverse because it was conservative policies that were a major contributing factor towards this concentration of power and wealth. Of course, they’d love to blame it on the liberals (such as how Hannity tried to interpret the documentary Generation Zero). The problem isn’t the evil government and even the Tea Party supporters don’t actually blame the government. Most of them are on Medicare and of course they support Medicare even though it’s one of the biggest government expenditures. Studies show that conservatives love big government when Republicans are in power. Even Tea Party protesters fondly remember George W. Bush and yet offer little support to Ron Paul who is a real small government fiscal conservative.

What the Tea Party protesters don’t want is a government headed by a Democrat president. The reason they give is ‘socialism’ which is simply a codeword for helping the poor and needy. It’s class war, pure and simple. It was funny when Glenn Beck came to realize the working class was the socialist enemy while listening carefully for the first time Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Interestingly, the only voice the working class has in the mainstream right now is Michael Moore who is a radical leftwing social justice Christian (or ‘commie’ for short).

It’s very odd because the Republican party used to side with the working class (the Reagan campaign even tried to usurp Bruce Springsteen’s message despite Springsteen himself being an ardent liberal). However, now that the working class has become a part of the growing poor, the affluent conservatives are trying to distance themselves from the working class even as they try to portray the Tea Party as working class populism. This means the real working class doesn’t have any direct political voice… which might be why, despite the conservative propaganda, the poorest of the working class tends to vote Democrat. So, the Tea Party is pretending to be working class which it isn’t while simultaneously pretending not to be Republican which it is.

I wish there was a real working class populist movement that would shake up politics. Even real libertarians can’t get a movement started without it being taken over by Republican operatives.

The worst part is that the mainstream media (especially Fox News) creates such a distorted picture of reality that the average person has a hard time telling which way is up. The poorest of the poor who lean towards Democrat are also the demographic that feels the most disenfranchised from the whole process and so rarely votes. For this reason, it’s in the interest of affluent conservatives to keep the poor disenfranchised. I saw a news report recently which was about a corporate memo stating in blatant terms that democracy of civic participation wasn’t beneficial to their profits. When Wall Street gives billions of dollars to all politicians on both sides, how can there be even the slightest hope for a real democracy that represents the average person much less those below the average.

The Tea Party protests the loudest, but it’s not the Tea Party supporters who have been hit the worse by the economic downturn. The hardest hit are the minorities, the poor, and the blue collar workers. Once upon a time, the working class fought hard to have a collective say in our society. It was from the battles with the wealthy elite that workers unions formed, but the conservative movement fought back and destroyed the power unions used to hold. Conservatives have the audacity to blame unions for helping to destroy the economy when it’s blue collar workers who are the ones who have lost their jobs more than anyone. Their jobs got sent overseas. but somehow the poor working class trying to feed their families is seen as the enemy of the affluent rightwingers.

I just don’t get it. The world would be a better place if the upper middle class whites combined their forces with the poor instead of sucking up to the wealthy elite hoping to get some scraps from the table. Since the middle class is shrinking and the economy is so uncertain, wouldn’t it make sense to make nice with the poor. Many poor working class people once thought of themselves as middle class as well, but times have changed. I remember hearing an interview of a woman who recently became unemployed. She said that she always thought the unemployed were just lazy, but she admitted that she had failed to understand how hard it can be when your job is taken away.

It’s a sad state of affairs. The poor are blamed for being poor. The unemployed are blamed for being unemployed. But oddly the conservatives blame all of the problems of Wall Street on the government which means blaming it on Obama and the Democrats. Why is it in the conservative mind everyone is to blame for their own misfortune accept wealthy capitalists? Why does the Tea Party criticize everyone from ‘socialists’ to immigrants and yet they’ve never protested Wall Street? Why?

 – – –

Note (5/27/10) – I just wanted to add one further observation that fits in with the concluding paragraph.

Why does a so-called “Libertarian” such as Rand Paul immediately defend BP even thought the irresponsible actions of BP will destroy many small businesses? I understand that Rand Paul is a rich white doctor and so doesn’t necessarily have much in common with the working class that comprise many family-owned fishing businesses, but I don’t understand why he would jump so quickly to defend BP when the average American has a very negative view of such mega-corporations.

Even though Libertarians like to portray themselves as representing the average American, it is obvious that many (most?) Libertarians and Libertarian think tanks don’t represent the average American. Certainly, Rupert Murdoch who is a self-identified Libertarian doesn’t represent the average American or average anything else for that matter. When push comes to shove, the Libertarians will side with big business… because often they own or work for big business.