Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Last Straw

I no longer cotton to the notion of "the last straw," at least not as far as the American middle class is concerned.

Primarily, that's because I don't think there will be a "last" straw, at least not in my lifetime.

When you're already buried under a pile of straw, each "last straw" is really just one more on the pile and America's middle class is already under a pile that gets a new last straw every day.

Whether its the collapse of pensions, the unlikelihood of a secure retirement, low-wage jobs over living-wage jobs, impossible college costs and staggering student debt, underwater mortgages and rising bankruptcies and foreclosures, increasing food costs and less nutritious food, there are not too many bright spots for the middle class these days.

Besides, the idea of the last straw suggests a breaking point, and really, do any of us think the American middle class isn't already broken?

The evidence is not hard to find if you look.

Consider that a record number of American citizens are living in "official" poverty -- that's 15 percent or 46.2 million people.

And its not like the rest are living high on the hog, or even comfortably in the middle. We just don't fit into the "official" definition of poverty.

For many, lowly newspaper reporters for instance, life in America is a paycheck-to-paycheck proposition. So many of us are one medical emergency, one emergency home repair, one missed credit card payment away from insolvency.

And we're the lucky ones.

Consider that four in five Americans faced poverty or the inability to find or get work as recently as last September. Has it really gotten any better since then?

Not much room there for a middle.

Those of you who are old enough to remember when it wasn't endangered will remember the middle as that thing which made America strong; the thing which is supposed to help keep society afloat and give the poor a comparatively safe and achievable place, economically, to which they can aspire.

Follow the quarter-by-quarter jobless numbers all you want, these figures go up and down with a stiff breeze these days. Any measure of the economy that is skewed by a rough winter is not a long-term trend.

The long-term trend is bad, and, even worse, what those figures don't show is that the jobs that are out there, the ones for which our leaders expect applause, do not pay a living age, or, at least a middle-class living wage.

These days, politicians only talk about "how many" jobs they've created (if one even accepts that politicians can create jobs in the first place), not "how many good-paying, middle-class-sustaining, you-get-some-vacation-and-can-send-your-kid-to-college-without-fearing-the-first-of-every-month jobs" they've created.

Many of America's new jobs -- call centers, Wal-Mart greeter, the ubiquitous "sandwich artist" -- pay just enough to ensure you can't apply for public assistance, making you wonder why a financially and spiritually exhausted class of people would choose work over non-work to bring home the same amount of money.

Or, even more shamefully, those jobs pay so little that you still need public assistance to feed your family.

Consider this from an Associated Press article published last September by USA Today:
While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government's poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published (in 2014) by the Oxford University Press.
The gauge defines "economic insecurity" as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.
79 percent.

Let that sink in for a minute.

How can a country have a stable or successful middle class when 79 percent of the country is economically insecure?

(Hint: It can't.)

So equality meant that rather than lift minorities up, we're all more likely to slip into insolvency, not matter our ethnic background?

And retirement?

Forget it.

Already, 34 percent of Americans think they will not be able to retire before they're 80.

This from your ever-lovin' Dec. 5, 2013 Mercury tells the tale:
According to a study conducted by Wells Fargo that surveyed 1,000 people between the ages of 25 and 75, 37 percent of middle class Americans don't believe that they will ever retire – up from 25 percent in 2011 and 30 percent in 2012.

Even among those that think retirement is possible, a great deal believe it won't happen until well past the typical age. The same survey found that 34 percent of respondents reported that they will not be able to call it a career until age 80. 
Pensions are in crisis, Social Security looms on the edge of a fiscal cliff every two years, and even the beloved 401K delivers little security when a money-drunk Wall Street drives the economy into a tree.

(Luckily, they had an air bag -- the American taxpayer -- who saved their life, provided the get-out-of-jail-free card, and was left deflated and attached to a burning wreck while Wall Street went off to start its next bender ... all the while threatening that if we tried to regulate the supply of booze (money), they might just crash again..)

And its not just us oldsters who are no longer being served by the system.

Youth unemployment is at record highs, not good news for American children emerging from college with debt loads that would make a venture capitalist light-headed.

When we starve public education, an adequate education becomes un-affordable for all but the rich;

When college is too expensive without a crushing debt load, it becomes un-affordable for all but the rich;

When jobs with good salaries which allow you to feed your family, have a house and save for your child's college are in increasingly smaller supply, those aspects of what used to be a middle class lifestyle becomes un-affordable for all but the rich.

When your nation willingly spends more to put young people in jail than to give them an education, while those who can afford the best lawyers pay a fine but "admit no wrongdoing," America itself has become un-affordable for all but the rich.

Cleave to whatever political or economic philosophy you please, it's just not mathematically sustainable to go on the way we are.

I'm not going to go off on a rant here about the unfairness of "income inequality," which is our new, politically expedient way of saying the rich get richer and the rest of us get squat.

Using phrases like "income inequality" allows us to duck accusations of engaging in "class warfare."

Heaven forbid.

Not to worry, there is no class war, at least not any more.

A cold war has been quietly fought for the last four decades and guess what? The middle class lost.

We lost because we never knew war had been declared on us in the first place.

We lost because we led corporations buy our politicians and convince us that since there was a small chance we might be rich some day (no one ever told us how small. Look people get rich for no reason on TV every day!), we should protect the interests of the rich over our own.

We lost because even though a middle class is necessary in a balanced economy to buy the goods and services the companies with ridiculously overpaid CEOs produce, all those companies think its someone else's job to pay their workers and mid-level managers a living wage.

We lost because, apparently, none of us is as dumb as all of us. Not a surprising result really from a gutted public education system.

No, I'm too exhausted running-to-stand-still to go on about fairness.

We stopped valuing fairness too long ago for it to win any arguments any more.

That's probably because we now value profit over patriotism, the right to make money no mater the cost over the idea that we're all in this together for better or worse.

Those with the greatest ability to pay now pay nothing.

Corporations take advantage of what America has to offer, a (relatively) stable society, fire and police protection, infrastructure (albeit crumbling), an (enfeebled) public education system.

Oh yes, most importantly, jails. Lots and lots of jails.

But when it comes time to pay for the taxes that support the society in which their success and profits occur, lawyers, loopholes and phantom holding companies suddenly assert, that their corporation is actually located not here in America, but on some lonely Cayman island.

And why not?

Their CEOs no longer live in the mansions on the hill outside of towns here in America, they're crumbling along with everything else.

They either live in gated communities, an island enclave in the middle of a nation in need, or on one of those actual islands in the Caymans.

As jet-setting internationalists in a global economy, their loyalty to America and Americans is based on what America can still provide them, not any obligation to the country that is home to their primary market.

As promised, I am not going on about this because its unfair. You don't need me to tell you that.

I go on about it because it can't last.

It's not sustainable.

Anyone who has read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," knows that the history of the American economy is one of tension.

Look through a history textbook on World War II and see if you can find mention of the hundreds of strikes that occurred during the war and the reasons for them.

Good luck with that.

Look through a history textbook on World War I and find mention of Woodrow Wilson's secret police force and the jailing of activists on flimsy charges of espionage.

Hell, look through a history of the founding of the country to find evidence of the many, many instances of group action and group self-rule occurring here before Lexington and Concord.

No, we're taught that but for a few great men, we would still be British subjects.

And no doubt, they were great and no doubt, we probably would not have succeeded as we did without them.

But they didn't do it alone. Forgotten are the thousands of Americans who played their own small, but vital part in that great movement.

(Spoiler alert, the same level of buy-in is still required for our country to work.)

But the story of great men is an easier narrative to tell, more dramatic, and it teaches us that without great men to lead us, there's little we can do on our own -- much less together.

The American leaders we think of as being great were, at least in the previous centuries, also considered the champions of the working man, the average American.

In many ways, they were really just those who recognized the need to relieve the growing pressure, the need for a relief valve.

Working conditions unsafe and no help for those injured? We get OSHA and workman's compensation, but not a revolution.

Wages too low to feed your family? We got unions and the Dept. of Labor, and avoid a revolution

Banks cause a worldwide collapse of the economy? We get bank regulation (at least for a while), and avoid a revolution.

It's always just enough to take the edge off, a relief of the pressure that allows those in power to stay in power without giving away too much.

And frankly, most of us are fine with that. Our system is responding to our demands and that's fine, as long as it works.

It's not working any more.

The American Communist Party was alive and well in the 1930s not so much because people hated capitalism, but more because they wanted enough food to eat and capitalism just wasn't getting the job done.

Before you get your flag out, understand I'm not advocating for Communism. That's already been proven not to work. It's a dead issue.

The point is when the system doesn't work for the majority of people, they begin to look elsewhere for a better way.

And history has shown again and again that when too many people get too hopeless, too desperate, too pushed down, they tend to rise up.

And  I don't think that's going to be good for anybody.

Although one of those unending Facebook games designed to gather information about my buying habits told me my answers to five questions indicated I am a revolutionary, I'm not.

Revolutions are about power and who gets it. Generally speaking, once they get it they want to hold on to it and it becomes more important than the reasons for the revolution in the first place.

The American Revolution began in much the same way and became the phenomenon we're about to betray largely because those great leaders underestimated the power of their rhetoric and those forces it would unleash.

(Many were terrified of "the mob," as they considered the electorate to be, and we got a Constitution and its aptly named "balance of powers" largely as an attempt to constrain rampant democracy. In essence, they decided that too much democracy is not such a good thing.)

All that being said, the operative question is what to do now?

Is there a way to re-establish the middle class, and thus re-ignite hope and opportunity in America?

I'm afraid I don't have any answers.

It's pretty obvious that economically and socially, a capitalist society based on consumption can't succeed without a middle class; a place where most of the consumers live, and those consumers need enough economic security to consume.

Socially, the middle class needs to be achievable for those willing to follow the long path of education, hard work for fair pay and playing by the rules -- the opportunity we all say America represents but increasingly leads frustratingly to a dead end.

When it works, a sustainable middle class is its own relief valve.

People will willingly live in a system that offers opportunity. Give them little or no hope for advancement and they have no incentive to participate in the system that offers no fair way up.

Sadly, it's doubtful much of anything truly useful for putting the middle class back on its feet is going to happen without a change in a national attitude that ignores our inter-dependency on each other; until we reject this idea that we don't need each other; and until we reject the fiction that duty to provide maximum profit to the shareholders trumps duty to each other and a sustainable national economy.

But I don't see that happening any time soon either.

In fact the only insight I can find to offer is that doing nothing, leaving things as they are, can't work for much longer.

Sooner or later, we find out just how bad that last straw can be.

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