Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Column

This week's episode of my weekly column in our local newspaper, using a recent letter to the editor as a starting point to discuss our shrinking middle class:

This could get a little wonky. In today’s column I’ll be providing some links, because I’m responding to a letter to the editor from a while back, hoping to dent the disinformation. Maybe you saw it: the one that implied President Obama is fabricating the problems of the middle class, and supported the claim by pointing out that lots of people have two cars. I paraphrase. 
See, it’s not that there aren’t middle class people (whatever that means) in the US. It’s that the number is shrinking as millions fall out of it; and that the portals of entry are becoming sealed off. The point is pretty obvious, and it’s surprising that it can be so easily missed. Let’s take a moment to consider what the term even means. According to Mitt Romney, if you recall, and recently confirmed by Fox “news” commentators, people who earn $250 thousand yearly are, depending on context, practically in poverty if you’re talking raising taxes, or strictly middle class if you’re talking how Republican policies will help them. To me, though, it’s people who put in decent day’s work, earning enough to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families, with a little something left over to sock away. Take a little vacation once in a while. Not have to choose between food and health care. Imagine their kids getting post-secondary education without having to take out a third mortgage. And, sure, own two cars if that’s what they need. We might disagree on details; but it’s a point of reference. 
So, for the edification of the letter writer, let’s look at some data. But before that, let’s acknowledge one more veridical point: if you look out your window and see two cars in your driveway, and note that your neighbors have them, too; and even if you drive several blocks in every direction and see more of the same, you really haven’t gotten the whole picture of what’s happening across America, or for how long, or why. 
Okay, golfers: to the links. Here’s one that slants lefty, but provides good data, and further references: And here’s one from a righty informant: Finally, if you want a source that tea partiers can love, this is from one of their favorite screamers, also with lots more links: So take your pick. By any measure, from many authors, and for any of several proposed reasons, the number of people who are commonly considered middle class is declining dramatically in the US. Can we, now, accept that as fact? Because the truth is even worse: in “average” wealth, we’re near the top, but it’s mostly in the hands of a handful. (Remember “averages” in math class?) In size of our middle class, we rank around twenty-seventh in the world. 
Surely, there are explanations and blame to go around. We didn’t just arrive at this point yesterday; maybe it started with Reagan’s tax cuts that favored the wealthy, maybe it got worse as we hid in the Bushes, and maybe Obama hasn’t fought hard enough against efforts to prevent economic growth during his presidency.  But it’s easy to see why it’s a problem, and why we should all care, even the letter-writer. 
Believing that steadily increasing inequality of wealth is a bad thing is not – repeat: NOT – the same as being a socialist communist Nazi Kenyan capitalism-hating redistributionist. It’s simple and realistic recognition that for America’s capitalism to work, people need enough jingle in their jangle to buy stuff. Lots of people, lots of stuff. Yachts, private jets, and 90-inch flat screens don’t a vibrant economy make. It takes a bunch of villagers. 
We’re hearing a lot about wages lately. Despite what yet another letter-writer claimed, low-paid workers at fast food joints aren’t just kids: their median age nowadays is twenty-eight (higher for women). Meanwhile, McDonald’s profits were well over $5 billion last year. Across the land, corporate profits have been soaring, while their employees are stuck in neutral. Or reverse. 
Some immediate solutions are obvious: raise wages, and invest in infrastructure jobs. Pockets jingle. The economy grows, tax revenues increase, reimbursing the outlay. Corporations have more consumers to buy their stuff, covering the wage hikes. It’d work. Which is exactly why Congressional Republicans have done everything they can to prevent it while Barack Obama is president. Maybe it’s time for their supporters to wake up and think beyond party politics. Their current representatives never will; but voters can, if it’s not already too late.

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