Why Don't You Just Work Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong
May 6, 2017 10:48 AM   Subscribe

You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place... Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations, and fates.

Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong: A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?

Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.


See related and more substantial analyses previously.
posted by byanyothername (79 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
The ruling elite need a large base of bodies to throw at our eternal wars around the globe. Service guarantees citizenship, afterall.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:26 AM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]




The ruling elite need a large base of bodies to throw at our eternal wars around the globe.

Do they really, though? It's just one more blue collar job being replaced by automation. Why send a bunch of infantrymen to do go kill foreigners when you can do it with flying hunter-killer robots who never need forward operating bases or pensions?

Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of good jobs to be had manufacturing or operating the death robots, if you've got the education.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


Considering I am as of this writing, completely personally and financially ruined, without a dime to my name and no transportation of my own with a new job on the way next week but a very real possibility of temporary or longer term homelessness still right overhead, I'm going to laugh instead of cry over how badly my attempts to use my own privilege to speak out about problems I saw affecting me and others I loved through life experience backfired on me, often got me singled out for subtle and not so subtle harassment, or in the end just didn't matter at all except to the extent it also created social resentment among my peers that made life worse. I don't know what the hell anyone's supposed to do anymore, tbh.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:49 AM on May 6, 2017 [71 favorites]


I was very interested in the pull quote about escaping poverty taking "20 years with nothing going wrong" - but while it's the title of the Atlantic piece, it doesn't appear to be based on Temin's argument.

What I think he is arguing (from my cursory reading of two small summaries) is that even if the lower class go to university, their educational preparation and social networks mean that they still do not have access to the higher paying jobs (he makes a note about black graduates being predominantly in lower paid fields like education and social work).

Which I totally buy: when one is talking about income potential, it doesn't just matter whether you have a degree, but also where your degree is from, do to social network and recruiting biases.

But there is something else interesting not addressed (not that it should be - it's not his study): the roll of luck and misfortune. In my experience, competitive and highly paid fields of work have little to no tolerance for bad luck or failures. It's not just enough to have gotten an entry into the path into a competitive field, but then you must never get sick, or even just have a less than successful project - you can be derailed entirely.

The ruling class aren't just privileged - though they, of course, are - they are also the lucky ones. but so few will recognize the role luck or privilege has played in their own lives.
posted by jb at 11:52 AM on May 6, 2017 [27 favorites]


What are we supposed to do? keep voting for policies that can kelp: increased minimum wage, universal health care, robust and generous social safety nets, negotiating power for labour.

Basically: what we had in the 50s for white workers, only for everyone this time.

But, yeah, it can make you feel less powerful than Cnut against the tide, when the wave of the world seems to be bent on self-destruction.
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on May 6, 2017 [11 favorites]


as someone's who's been mostly self-employed over the years, I have three times since the late 1980s had a situation where A. a bad client, and B. illness combined to suddenly make me unable to make ends meet. End of story. Either eat food or pay rent, not both. Fortunately, being in Canada, I had the option of applying for welfare ... which saved me every time. I didn't lose my home. I didn't go hungry, get even sicker. Within a manner of months each time, I was back making decent money, leaving welfare ... and paying taxes (which when not being wasted by inane politicians or bureaucratic whatever, actually went toward sustaining the system that had baled me out -- socialism, note the lower case "s", you gotta love it).
posted by philip-random at 12:00 PM on May 6, 2017 [80 favorites]


I'm going to weigh in with a similar tale of struggle (although not quite so dire as Saulgoodman's) -

I have a job, but it pays jack-diddly. I've been underpaid for ten years. I've been trying to get a better one and am interviewing now - if I don't get a ten percent increase in income by September I"ll have to move out of the apartment I've had for ten years.

I met with a recruiter a couple days ago who initially expressed some unease becuase my resume history was "a little temp-y." But the reasons for the temping have been thus:

* From 2001 to 2007, I was a temp by choice, since I was simultaneously trying to moonlight as a theatrical stage manager and get that going. I was repeatedly offered to be hired full-time at my 4-year assignment, but turned it down becuase I wanted the flexibility to pursue theater - you know, I was pursuing my dream, the way I was told I was supposed to.

* From 2009 to 2011 and then in 2014, I was temping because the economy was for shit and no one was hiring full-time.

I'm a healthy, single, childless middle-aged woman, so that's an advantage, but I have barely any savings by now becuase I've had to supplement my income for the past several years since it just plain isn't enough. Most of my cohorts are married and it is assumed that I, like them, have a spouse whose income can supplement mine as well; no such luck.

the only thing i can see that i could have chosen differently woudl have been to not do theater, but....how can that be a choice anyone would ask me to make?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:02 PM on May 6, 2017 [32 favorites]


There is something wronger than what's in TFA: you would naturally think that a bloc of 80% would arrive at political power with the snap of a finger, but it still hasn't happened. Then - here is where it gets creepy: the idea of keeping that 80% bloc split fairly evenly would lead to the idea that someone is doing the splitting and no one is pushing back against that. And here I'm stumped. The article says the 80% are marginalized, but how do you marginalize what ought to be an enormous voting majority in two different ways, so they will vote against one another?
posted by jet_silver at 12:15 PM on May 6, 2017 [10 favorites]


...how do you marginalize what ought to be an enormous voting majority in two different ways, so they will vote against one another?

Very well, it appears.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 12:20 PM on May 6, 2017 [14 favorites]


I mean, come on. Racism. Sexism. Easy peasy, done.

I'm afraid it's going to get much, much worse before anything changes, if it changes at all.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:23 PM on May 6, 2017 [25 favorites]


I mean, did you see what happened in the last election? Make it all about immigrants and abortion.
posted by lunasol at 12:23 PM on May 6, 2017 [6 favorites]


Maybe I should actually read the book before judging, but I'm surprised that the work of an MIT economist is so...simplistic. There's a divide between the poor and rich? It's incredibly hard to move up in social class? Truly groundbreaking insights.

His "solutions" are if anything even more sophomoric, they read like the most generic list of centrist progressive goals possible. And they don't even have anything to do with solving inequality!

Improve education.
I have no idea why this has become the patent "solution" to inequality, as it so plainly won't work.

First, education won't magically make low wage jobs go away. A society that consists purely of bankers and engineers and managers will cease to function. And it won't magically increase the total number of those high-paying jobs, either, so the only result is that those that do get those jobs will be paid less and the rest will have wasted an incredible amount of time and money.

And second, the whole point of education is, frankly, to serve as a vehicle for inequality. It serves as an easy way to distinguish the "qualified" from the "not-qualified". As more people fall on the side of the "qualified", the bar goes up. So: jobs that didn't need a high school diploma end up requiring one, jobs that only needed an hs diploma require a bachelor's, jobs that only needed a bachelor's require a master's...

Improving access to education does reduce inequality of opportunity. It makes it more likely that the child of a farm laborer will eventually reach the same position as the child of a banker. But it doesn't reduce actual inequality: the number of people who are in very dire straits will remain very much the same.

Repairing infrastructure
I legitimately don't know what the logic is here. It will create jobs? Sure, but construction is not exactly high-paying and stable. Having access to the internet and better public transportation might help people access more opportunities? Sure, but that again goes back to the same issue as education: increasing equality of opportunity won't do anything to increase equality of outcome.

Investing less in prisons and the military
Okay, dismantling the carceral state might actually do a lot to reduce inequality. But the military... I could be wrong about this, but isn't it actually a source of opportunity for a lot of low-income people?

As for his other proposals, they read more like goals than actual plans. How do we dismantle systematic racism? How do we alter the effects of globalization?

To be clear, I'm all for all of those above proposals. But it's wishful thinking to assume they'll do anything for inequality, and it's really disturbing that they've become the orthodoxy among those who wield actual political influence.
posted by perplexion at 12:29 PM on May 6, 2017 [33 favorites]


Service guarantees citizenship, afterall.

Actually, we're not even doing that, any more.

It's interesting that the ineteconomics link goes into all sorts of reasons for how the US got into the "two country" state, but doesn't mention globalization once.

Everyone serves to make someone else money today. If you're making someone lots of money in FTE industries, you thrive (until they, or you, automate or offshore your livelyhood away). If you're not one of those people, you're fucked and nobody really cares about you any more other than what you'll buy, rent, or click on.

Globalization matters because of who gets the benefits. There are vast profits to be made when your costs are in the 3rd world and your customers are in the 1st world. Great if you get a cut. Devestating if you don't. Old ideas, but capital and profits really should be as free to move as people. Money and people should both flow across borders, or neither should. Right now only one flows easily - guess which one? Why isn't hard to suss out, either.

Deporting people is, while horrendous for those involved, ultimately a theatrical act. If populists were really serious (and they're not) they'd confiscate profits of corporations that take advantage of this dynamic and redistribute to the citizens they're cutting out. It's all show-boaty, divide and conquer half measures because the real goal is to continue getting rich. Redistribution would be communiism. Protectionism for the capital class, raw capitalism for everyone else. Add some nationalism and thinly veiled or brazenly open racism for garnish and distraction.

It's clearly all just "fuck you, I'm gonna get mine" and that those same vultures can convince others that they're going to protect them really just speaks to how thoroughly they've painted those folks into a corner. The establishment left can't muster a full-throated response because they're also bought and paid for, and are either honest enough to not lie about what they're going to do or too dumb to realize that lying works.

We are all being used. We should be rising up together. Instead, we're divided, mainly by media corporations, who are the (obviously very effective) propaganda arm of this whole thing.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:35 PM on May 6, 2017 [26 favorites]


Maybe I should actually read the book before judging, but I'm surprised that the work of an MIT economist is so...simplistic.

This is kind of a meta-comment but yeah, maybe you should. I remember having this reaction to Steven Pinker's 800-page book about the general global improvement in life conditions and reduction in violence over the last few hundred years; after reading several magazine articles about the book and several short op/eds by Pinker himself, I was like "this is oversimplistic BS" but then I needed to cite the actual book for something and when I actually read it -- OK, I read part of it -- I could see that all my objections were addressed, usually at length. I still don't agree with the thesis in full but I now understand there's a serious case for it.

And I'm guessing that's the case here too. This isn't an airport business book, it's published by MIT Press; I'm guessing it puts Temin's view forward in a fact-grounded, thought-through way, which you could still disagree with, but wouldn't think is simplistic. Doing that is what books are for and what magazine articles are never really going to accomplish.

But I could be wrong because I haven't read his book either.
posted by escabeche at 12:38 PM on May 6, 2017 [35 favorites]


This has a resonance with me, because I have been on this path to the FTE sector for just about 20 years, and even though I started with some privilege that a lot of people don't have, there is really no security once you are established. One disabling accident or illness, or a mistake at work, or just getting too old to keep up, and it's all over. A lot of people in tech have the attitude that they are the owners, but really most of us are just tenants on a slightly better farm.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 12:44 PM on May 6, 2017 [24 favorites]


So the thing with public education is interesting, though. I don't think it will solve the problem itself, but it's pretty undeniable that the interest on student loans is a presently a massive source of wealth extraction from the poor and middle class.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:55 PM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


My son lost his disability and health insurance which I had to hire a lawyer for, I'm on a week-by-week contract hire and they're saying this Friday should be the last day, and my ex-husband hasn't paid child support in a month. I can't convince anyone to hire me and I've actually thought about offering a recruiter a blow job for an in-person interview. My car is waaaay over due for an oil change, one of the headlights is out, and the transmission is slowly slipping. I can't afford my health insurance and let it lapse, and in the last three days I developed weeping edema in my leg and today I woke with a fever and aches all over. I can't pay my rent this month. I put up a YouCaring, but everyone is in the same boat. I'm fucked.

We're all fucked. This is just life now.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 12:58 PM on May 6, 2017 [15 favorites]


We don't have an education problem. We have a poverty problem. Focusing on education without doing anything about poverty and the non-existent social safety net is, at best, a distraction.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:58 PM on May 6, 2017 [36 favorites]


The Financial Diaries:
How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty


led me down the rabbit hole to these:

The United States of Insecurity


Despite high fees, check cashers seen as part of community, customers say

These 3 Charts Show Why Middle Class Workers Are Struggling to Get Ahead Today


Every pattern documented here - volatility of cash flows, inability to plan ahead due to uncertainty and irregular incomes - are all the elements that make up the "informal economy" that describes the majority market in the so called developing world

That is, all my work in the lower income strata in rural and random "Africa" or "India" is now being reflected here.

I called it in 2008 in a blogpost. It was that mortgage crisis starting in the summer of 2007 that really dipped the majority below the safety margin of even a fluctuating income stream for much to long.
posted by infini at 1:15 PM on May 6, 2017 [17 favorites]


Previous generations had major labor-market shakeups that have somewhat broken up class lines: wars that drafted large percentages of the population, women and minorities entering the workforce in large numbers, existing industries dying and new industries starting up. Each of those disruptions made some rich people poor, and some poor people rich. But our economic system has stayed basically the same for about 30 years now, and rich people have had time to figure out how to exploit it and make sure their kids are the ones who get good enough educations to take all the good jobs while keeping the door shut for everyone else.
posted by miyabo at 1:25 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Repairing infrastructure
I legitimately don't know what the logic is here. It will create jobs? Sure, but construction is not exactly high-paying and stable.


Public sector construction isn't stable, but it is high-paying (look at prevailing wage rates, even before overtime, which is usually a given). You can't run an entire economy off of infrastructure rebuilding, but it would benefit a lot of people along the way.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:27 PM on May 6, 2017 [7 favorites]


I started out with way more privilege than I deserved, and since then there have been years that I've done really well and years that I've done really poorly. At the moment things are looking up for me, but I know as well as anybody how tenuous that can be and I've learned never to assume anything or take anything for granted.

The only two things that have saved my ass, time and time again over the years, have been a) sheer, blind, stupid luck and b) the thoughtful and timely support of friends (which, really, is just a special case of a). In fact the privileges I started with are just more examples of sheer, blind, stupid luck. In the end it's all random chance.

Being smart helps, and working hard helps, but anyone who's doing well for themselves and doesn't recognize and acknowledge the huge role that sheer, blind, stupid luck has played in their own lives is just fooling themselves.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 1:36 PM on May 6, 2017 [20 favorites]


I am re-reading Grapes of Wrath, and it is amazing how relevant it is today. I guess the best we can do is help each other when we can, and resist attempts to divide us with the fierceness of Ma with her jackhandle.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 2:44 PM on May 6, 2017 [8 favorites]


Investing less in prisons and the military
Okay, dismantling the carceral state might actually do a lot to reduce inequality. But the military... I could be wrong about this, but isn't it actually a source of opportunity for a lot of low-income people?


That is an interesting contrast with Canada. The idea of joining the Forces to escape poverty is pretty unknown here. It is actually quite difficult to get into them (Canadian Forces are among the world's highest paid, and rightly so, although the equipment generally needs replacement).

Is having an American Military comprised of people that basically chose it as the lesser of two evils/had no choice really ensuring only the best and the brightest have all that power and responsibility? If the military was no longer an option for the desperate poor would there be more agitation for equity?
posted by saucysault at 2:45 PM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


or just getting too old to keep up

Or just being perceived as too old to keep up.

My tale of woe isn't nearly as distressing as 80cats's or Saulgoodman's, but it occurred to me the other day that if I wasn't married, I'd probably be living out of my car by now (this despite starting out pretty damn privileged).
posted by scratch at 3:00 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


ICYMI, this is relevant to the OP and to saucysault's post: I could not use my GI Bill to go to code school.
posted by scratch at 3:03 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Before it was 1%, now 20%... where do these numbers come from and how can we be sure that this isn't just another attempt at divisiveness?

In the tech sector, country borders don't matter so much. The digital world is a global one, and the USA currently has huge shortfalls in skilled IT workers, that are being filled by people from other countries. So I think there's plenty enough room for more than 20% of Americans working in high-paying jobs. And if the USA wants to maintain its position in the global hierarchy, it had better figure out how to get more Americans into 21st century jobs.

I'll leave it to experts to figure out how to get more opportunities for people in this area, but one thing I'm fairly worried about is the amount of time people are spending on Netflix, social media, etc (cheap and addictive forms of entertainment that don't confer many benefits).
posted by mantecol at 3:56 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Snakes and Ladders and each player gets a custom board with different proportions of each.
posted by srboisvert at 4:47 PM on May 6, 2017


the amount of time people are spending on Netflix, social media, etc (cheap and addictive forms of entertainment that don't confer many benefits).

If people weren't spending their time using those things, why would anybody need to hire programmers?

Every working person is both a worker and a consumer. Our economy only thrives when everybody has ample opportunity to be both, and digital media consumption is much less natural resource costly and energy consumptive than the older, physical forms of cultural media they replaced, and those old fashioned media helped fuel economic activity and good, respected jobs for generations before the contemporary period in which content has become almost economically worthless.

You can't love work without also loving leisure. Balance is indispensable. Say what you will about the old school Robber Barrons and industrialists (and I'll probably join the chorus), at least they seemed to get that basic fact every now and then.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:47 PM on May 6, 2017 [13 favorites]


The digital world is a global one, and the USA currently has huge shortfalls in skilled IT workers, that are being filled by people from other countries
Partly that's because those jobs are mostly in places with very high cost of living like Silicon Valley or Seattle. The quality of life that the average software developer has is just not that appealing to many. It's like saying we aren't training enough qualified strawberry pickers, so we have to recruit globally.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 4:48 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I'm all for all of those above proposals. But it's wishful thinking to assume they'll do anything for inequality

Perhaps not, but the problem isn't just growing inequality, it's a lowered standard of living for large segments of the population partially resulting from growing inequality. And increasing the standard of living is something which is achievable through better education, infrastructure, and redirecting military spending toward peacetime investment.
posted by xigxag at 5:12 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


The quality of life that the average software developer has is just not that appealing to many. It's like saying we aren't training enough qualified strawberry pickers, so we have to recruit globally.

That is an unusual perspective. I can't speak to the Bay Area but in the PNW software developers have a more stable and well-paid lifestyle than just about any other job category.
posted by SakuraK at 5:20 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


I've been presenting on this issue to educators since 2009. Usually the topic kills conversation, so I've taken to posing a question: does your academic institution increase or decrease inequality?
Then discussions flow fiercely.
posted by doctornemo at 5:25 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


in the PNW software developers have a more stable and well-paid lifestyle than just about any other job category.

So yes, if you already live in a place with high cost of living due partly to the tech industry, your best shot is to try to get into that racket. What about your average high school student in Idaho or Indiana or wherever? Go to 4 years​ of engineering school, maybe some post-graduate study, move far from family and other support, and get a job where you work 65 hour weeks and can just kinda afford a 2-bedroom apartment and your student loans?
posted by Maxwell's demon at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


I would argue there are three Americas, the two that are named in the piece and the invisible 0.1 percent who own a vastly disproportionate share of the nation's assets and who have seen their incomes soar while the rest of us have seen stagnant or declining earnings.

With Lyin' Donnie Trump's commitment to abolishing the estate tax, this invisible ownership class (let's call it the oligarchy) is set to establish dynastic wealth on a scale this country has never known, even during the Gilded Age.

The oligarchy's invisibility is its greatest defense. Many Americans who follow celebrity culture think that the entertainers they follow are "rich." Ha!

Someone needs to shed light on this class by exposing its extravagant lifestyle through photojournalism and narratives that describe how these people live. We can read Piketty and lament about the statistics laid out in those pages, but when it comes to building the sort of mass class resentment this country needs if it is to become one nation again, there is nothing more persuasive than photos and first-hand accounts about what life is like when you are rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
posted by A. Davey at 5:38 PM on May 6, 2017 [14 favorites]


Lots of tales of woe in here. Count me in with those, but I won't bother with my specifics. At least it's "nice" to know I'm not alone.

I'm telling you folks, we need that Mefi farm!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 5:52 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Many Americans who follow celebrity culture think that the entertainers they follow are "rich." Ha!

That's a good point. Celebrities seem to function as a pseudo-elite in our society: they are the visible face of success and wealth in our society, but in reality, they've never been more than an especially privileged working class used to appeal to people's aspirational hopes and to deflect anger and criticism away from the real elites, who control the contracts that make most of those celebrities line up to dance. I remember reading once about an old time record label that exploited the early fad for black music. They didn't pay their artists at all, is my understanding, but would lend them an expensive, super-chik pink Cadillac to drive around town in as compensation and marketing for the label. The point even at the beginning was only to create the appearance of great wealth and conspicuous consumption, to inspire other dreamers to dream of reaching a prize that was never really there. There's a metaphor in that for how American pop culture has often worked in practice since probably at least the 50s.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:54 PM on May 6, 2017 [16 favorites]


But the military... I could be wrong about this, but isn't it actually a source of opportunity for a lot of low-income people?

Reducing investment in the military could be about the billion dollar fighter plane projects, and not reducing recruitment.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:06 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


But it's wishful thinking to assume they'll do anything for inequality, and it's really disturbing that they've become the orthodoxy among those who wield actual political influence.

Not really any more disturbing than the default orthodoxy among those who actually wield political influence, which is that the poors and the middle class can go fuck off and jump off a bridge and die.
posted by blucevalo at 6:15 PM on May 6, 2017


"The digital world is a global one, and the USA currently has huge shortfalls in skilled IT workers, that are being filled by people from other countries. So I think there's plenty enough room for more than 20% of Americans working in high-paying jobs"

Isn't it only a matter of time until these jobs are moved to where the most skilled people who demand the least pay are? Can you give an example of a first world country who has taken full advantage of the knowledge economy's ability to provide? Also, how is Netflix any worse than the television we were all watching before?
posted by Selena777 at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


the USA currently has huge shortfalls in skilled IT workers, that are being filled by people from other countries.

There is a shortfall of skilled IT workers at the wages being paid in other countries.

If US of A workers were just willing to accept the 6000 rupies a month there'd be no need to send the job outside the nation.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:37 PM on May 6, 2017 [9 favorites]


Increasing the standard of living is something which is achievable through better education, infrastructure, and redirecting military spending toward peacetime investment.

True! But I'd say food, housing, and healthcare are higher priorities when it comes to improving standards of living, and they're noticeably missing from the list of proposals. Again, my complaint is less about the proposals themselves, all of which would undeniably be good things to support, than the lack of proposals like universal healthcare, support for unions, a higher minimum wage, a universal child benefit program- things that would more directly and effectively address the problems described, but which would face a lot more opposition from the wealthy.

Not really any more disturbing than the default orthodoxy among those who actually wield political influence, which is that the poors and the middle class can go fuck off and jump off a bridge and die.

it seems to me- and admittedly I don't have statistics or anything to back it up, this is just observation- that the truly politically powerful can be roughly divided into the GOP supporters who yes want the poor to jump off a cliff and die, and the vaguely liberal Democrats (think Zuckerberg) who are happy to improve education because "an educated workforce!" and public infrastructure because "we're a modern country!" but would never even entertain the idea of universal healthcare or a $15 minimum wage. The former are beyond all hope, of course. But the latter seem to have convinced themselves that their paltry policies will actually solve everything without necessitating any sacrifice on their part.
posted by perplexion at 6:39 PM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


I count myself lucky, I have a job that allows me to pay my rent, and I have healthcare. I live paycheck to paycheck, and it would be so much worse if I hadn't had the dumb luck to stumble ass backwards into this career. Hell, I even have what's laughingly referred to as retirement benefits. I can't imagine being actually able to retire, but no real surprise there. And of my closest friends, I'm the best off. They are all either more intelligent, more highly skilled, or both, but I'm the one with a regular paycheck & benefits. We.Are.So.Fucked...
posted by evilDoug at 6:40 PM on May 6, 2017


Let's just be blunt: it's unfixable. A plurality of Americans are eager to make everything worse, so the best you can hope for is to tread water until the nation drowns.
posted by aramaic at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2017 [6 favorites]


But the military... I could be wrong about this, but isn't it actually a source of opportunity for a lot of low-income people?

Yes, it absolutely is. But only if you do your 20 years so you can get your retirement.
posted by corb at 6:50 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Someone needs to shed light on this class by exposing its extravagant lifestyle through photojournalism and narratives that describe how these people live.

There's a recent FPP about how GQ and the rest of the Conde Nast publications are doing exactly that... and it's upsetting almost nobody.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:12 PM on May 6, 2017


But only if you do your 20 years so you can get your retirement.

I see a smattering of veterans/active duty* students that I at least assume are on the GI Bill every semester, if not as many as I saw in TX or NC, so that still seems to be a thing too?

*Doesn't seem to be a whole fuckton of difference anymore since people fresh out are probably in the guard or reserves and seem to get called back on the regular
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:19 PM on May 6, 2017


perplexion wrote: Improve education.
I have no idea why this has become the patent "solution" to inequality, as it so plainly won't work. [...]


This is a fantastic piece I just ran into on that topic. (Also, here is a piece of the interviewee's work on the topic.)
posted by spbmp at 7:51 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]




So, basically the 1% has been using the middle class like a credit card, to pay for their wars and tax breaks and financial windfalls and protection from failures (like the mortgage crisis). And now the middle class is maxed out and can't keep up with the payments.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:02 PM on May 6, 2017 [12 favorites]


Saulgoodman, your story is heartbreaking to read.

I am one of the people living paycheck to paycheck. I work as a massage therapist, doing more medically oriented work ... and barely make ends meet. I will not make 20k this year. I have given up on paying any debt, and simply let it sit in collections.

I invest in cryptocurrencies because, very simply, it seems to be the only way out of this spiral. The interest rates on poloniex are between 30%APR-150%+. I will not be able to invest enough to make much of a difference now, but maybe, if I live extremely frugally, I will be able to.

My family simply doesn't understand that I will never have the opportunities they had.

As individuals, I think our voice is going to be best used to vote for extremely progressive candidates in local elections this year and going forward. Substitute some of that Netflix time for educating yourself about candidates, maybe even make time to meet the person? If we can do this, NOW, it may not be too late but if we sit around until 2020 waiting for another Barack Obama, we will get the same neoliberal 'fixes' that have broken us.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 10:44 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


It weren't the neoliberals that broke us. Unless Bush is a neoliberal now?

Granted, they didn't do all that much to help; by the time Obama took office it was much to late for that, but Clinton-era policies didn't fuck us so much as just not really do anything to fix structural problems that had long since been in progress. Even the push for increased globalization wasn't nearly the negative for the middle class that current CW says. It had a great benefit in increasing our standard of living by making every single dollar we spend go vastly farther than it used to. Yes, there were downsides, but nothing that wasn't already happening, and it brought with it massive inflows of wealth from the rest of the world giving us those impossibly cheap goods. Further, it had the benefit of creating what has been literally the single largest jump in the standard of living throughout the rest of the world. Global incomes have drastically increased.

That's cold comfort to those of us who are barely scraping by here in the US, but denying that there weren't benefits only blinds us to reality, which we very much need to be fully attuned with if we have any hope of solving the problems.

And TBH, much of the suffering is self inflicted. People choose to live in stupidly high cost of living areas, saying that they have to because that's where the jobs are when there are hundreds of small and midsized cities across the nation where jobs are reasonably plentiful and the cost of living is a quarter of what it is in many major metros, yet jobs pay 50-75% of what they do in more expensive areas. Don't think I'm taking a holier than thou stance here, though. I live in the country's single worst city in terms of housing cost vs. average wage, so I'm acutely aware that there are a plethora of reasons that people make that choice, but again, we must recognize that for many people who are falling out of the middle class it is a choice. But yes, for others it isn't a choice, whether because of familial obligations or the now-ridiculous calculus involved in paying off massive student loan debt.
posted by wierdo at 1:51 AM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


Is having an American Military comprised of people that basically chose it as the lesser of two evils/had no choice really ensuring only the best and the brightest have all that power and responsibility? If the military was no longer an option for the desperate poor would there be more agitation for equity?

The American military is not composed of the "desperate poor" but of people a few levels up from that. You'll struggle to get in these days if you haven't finished high school, have any criminal record, or can't refrain from getting caught with drug metabolites in your bloodstream.

It is however one of the few stable career oriented jobs with genuine advancement prospects and worthwhile benefits open to people in the middle deciles.

it seems to me- and admittedly I don't have statistics or anything to back it up, this is just observation- that the truly politically powerful can be roughly divided into the GOP supporters who yes want the poor to jump off a cliff and die, and the vaguely liberal Democrats (think Zuckerberg) who are happy to improve education because "an educated workforce!" and public infrastructure because "we're a modern country!" but would never even entertain the idea of universal healthcare or a $15 minimum wage.

You could probably get support from that liberal stratum for higher minimum wages since tech people often don't directly employ anyone who makes that little. I'm sure they're in favour of universal healthcare in principle, maybe not so much increasing cap gains to pay for it which is the logical complement.
posted by atrazine at 4:08 AM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


Unless Bush is a neoliberal now?

Neo
liberal means deregulation, free trade, and austerity, so yes.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 4:11 AM on May 7, 2017 [15 favorites]


I keep forgetting that dictionaries are descriptivist these days. Makes it hard for words to have meaning, but whatever.

Painting GWB with the same brush as Tony Blair or Bill Clinton is nuts. The economic policies pursued we're dramatically different. I suppose if neoliberal means "in favor of free trade" now, it's reasonable enough, but I've never understood​ the meaning to be that limited.
posted by wierdo at 4:29 AM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


Let's just be blunt: it's unfixable. A plurality of Americans are eager to make everything worse, so the best you can hope for is to tread water until the nation drowns.

I'd amend this to "a narrow plurality of voting Americans". Both of those could change, but the course you suggest does indeed seem to be the wisest on an individual level.

What makes it tricky is this: that narrow plurality? Are the managerial class. The ones with direct control over the fates of the rest of us, in other words.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:49 AM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


I keep forgetting that dictionaries are descriptivist these days. Makes it hard for words to have meaning, but whatever.

No, this is not a case of language slippage. It's not a neologism, it is an old word that comes out of the theories of laissez-faire economics that go back well more than a century, and it has a particular meaning about the liberalization of economic policies from controls, and that does not overlap greatly with classical liberalism as in "socially liberal." You may want to read up on this distinction. Confusing the terms can contribute to the appearance of ignorance.
posted by Miko at 7:05 AM on May 7, 2017 [14 favorites]


Painting GWB with the same brush as Tony Blair or Bill Clinton is nuts. The economic policies pursued were dramatically different.

No, they weren't. Clinton brought us welfare reform, aka welfare destroyed.
posted by jb at 7:15 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


My reference to the neoliberal policies set out was the deregulation of the financial sector by Bill Clinton when he helped sign the Glass-Steagal act away, Bush for the 10,000 reasons discussed here on MeFi.

The executives are only one tiny piece of this though. The legislative branch is the biggest piece.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 9:29 AM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]


Trickle down fascism, and the solution is a guaranteed basic income or a guaranteed job, perhaps one, perhaps the other, perhaps a combination of both.
posted by Beholder at 9:40 AM on May 7, 2017


Clinton era policies pretty much destroyed welfare and social safety nets and burned down Mexican agricultural economies. It's just been a slow-acting destruction with short-term benefits for privileged classes, so no one really looks at it that way. True, these were existing problems, but I am really weary of centrists pretending that the good cops are our friends against the bad cops when the former's actions do nothing to indicate that even now.
posted by byanyothername at 11:41 AM on May 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


Clinton brought us welfare reform, aka welfare destroyed

I really think more mainstream Democrats still don't viscerally get how much those reforms and the prison sentencing reforms ushered in under Bill Clinton's watch continue to hurt Democratic electoral prospects. From the point of view of a lot of black communities affected by those reforms, there's no reason to trust Democrats to look out for them. White liberals never really felt that and don't understand how big a political liability that has been ever since and will remain so unless the Democratic party makes a serious commitment to major reforms to make up for those errors because many white Dems still don't intuitively understand and empathetically feel how deeply destructive and hurtful those reforms were when they came down. The party wonks also don't seem to want to acknowledge and honestly address what it might mean that Trump also seems to have won the white women vote; in conventional Democratic electoral strategy terms, that group seems like it ought to have been an easy win for Clinton. Why wasn't it, without blaming voters? What could the Dems have done differently to avoid that outcome?

Taking a more intersectionalist approach to campaign politics and rhetoric at the very least--emphasising common economic problems that cross group identity bounds in their impact and have broad appeal as populist messages--whatever you might argue about candidate selection and the substance of policy proposals, the Dems could have done a much better job this last time of creating that inspiring, all of us singing Kumbaya in the same big boat together vibe that Obama deftly managed to strike.

Regardless of blame now though, I hope we manage to muddle through with enough left intact to rebuild the nation some day in the future, but we're going to need to get much bolder and more creative on domestic policy to get there.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:52 AM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


At the end of the day, you can do everything right but eventually you become to sick or frail to live on your own and care for yourself, and now you need to find thousands of dollars a month for in-house care or a board and care, perhaps a little less if you have family who can house you.

Unless you're lucky enough to be so poor that medi-cal will pay for part of your care at a board and care. If not for the extreme generosity of a few friends, my mother would been kicked out of her board and care already, even though I'm desperate to find a nursing home this month that will be covered in full. And maybe that facility won't be quite as bad as something out of One Flew Out of the Cookoo's Nest.

Luckily, one bad business decision wiped out my parents, because otherwise I have no idea how I'd pay the minimum 2K/month out of my own, poor, pocket.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:13 PM on May 7, 2017




I think the enabling change will be a more progressive income tax rate. Remember in 2010 when everyone was talking about California being a failed state? Well, in 2012, we passed an additional income tax bracket (renewed for being awesome in 2016), and now everything is pretty much OK. We need to get rid of the libertarian idea that taxation is theft, and replace it with the recognition that federal taxes are the thing that gives our money value. The additional revenue would then pay for all the community goods that would enable greater social mobility, like healthcare and education.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 5:17 PM on May 7, 2017 [4 favorites]


We could do a lot just by doubling the top marginal rate— which would still make it lower than it was in the 50s and 60s. Not only would the government (and thus all of us) have more money, but high marginal rates discourage companies from paying outrageous executive salaries in the first place, and encourage them to spend their money on research, investment, or workers instead.

Basically, we had the New Deal, and then the 1% counter-attacked.
posted by zompist at 10:24 PM on May 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


The 80% versus 20% emphasis seems strange. We are all of us standing on a shore as the tide comes in. The 20% may still have dry feet, but not for long. The 0.1% will not stop until everyone else is drowned.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:58 PM on May 7, 2017


The 80% versus 20% emphasis seems strange. We are all of us standing on a shore as the tide comes in. The 20% may still have dry feet, but not for long. The 0.1% will not stop until everyone else is drowned.

I'm in the top 20 percent (though not by much, last time I checked the quintiles). There is a huge gap between my life and the lives of the truly precarious, but it still feels contingent and precarious. Small changes, like one person's job being reduced in hours or some of the proposed changes in healthcare coverage, could overnight transform our lives in an unpleasant direction. I definitely don't have the security and safety net that the wealthy have.

I know some people who are basically in the bottom of the 1 percent, who earn a lot but whose money is all in salary, rather than family wealth or owning a business. They have comfortable lives, and probably have the savings to weather tough times, but they still express a lot of uncertainty and worry, and clearly feel exposed to the same changes. It's only when you cross that line, somewhere in the upper part of the 1 percent, to actual wealth (rather than a pleasantly high income) that you get the real security and get to the levels that will genuinely benefit under Trump's proposals.

So while I agree with the article that the 80/20 split matters hugely and describes a lot about contemporary society, I agree with this comment that it elides the real transfer of wealth which has been from all of us to the extremely wealthy, and seems to only be accelerating.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:07 AM on May 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


I saw a tweet that touched on this over the weekend, but it struck me as well— isn’t it interesting that Wikileaks, who originally positioned themselves (himself) as a sort of Robin Hood “we’ll take down the rich and powerful!!!” force, is instead complicit in consolidating wealth and power in the hands of the most brutal oligarchs worldwide?

Seriously, where are the Robin Hoods? Where are the hackers who are infiltrating Wall Street to feed the ex-felons who can’t get work and the kids whose only reliable meals are at the Pre-K program that is about to be cut? I never put any faith in Wikileaks being anything other than garbage (orgs run by serial rapists=not super trustworthy when it comes to ethics), but seriously. Every anti-establishment figure just gets sucked up into the oligarchy machine and makes it easier to leech the money away from the people who have the least of it.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:58 AM on May 8, 2017 [5 favorites]


There's plenty of research just a keystroke and a click away that posits the existence of a precariat--a new social class. Depending on which model it's a part of, different social classes are included along with it, but both the mainstream and the Marxist models include seven different classes.

That's why, to me, Temin's argument about elites and everyone else reads like clickbait in a time of populist headlines. I don't think most people who don't identify with the elite think of themselves as living in circumstances that are really similar to everyone else who doesn't identify with the elite. Simply looking at the differences among crowds organized at OWS protests is research enough to prove that.
posted by steeringwheel at 10:27 PM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm in the top 20 percent (though not by much, last time I checked the quintiles). There is a huge gap between my life and the lives of the truly precarious, but it still feels contingent and precarious.

It might feel precarious - but high-skilled incomes have been going up, even as low and middle-skilled have been stagnant or going down. My city has shifted from having a classic bell curve in ~1970 (with the bulge in the middle) to having a more bimodal distribution of income. This has had serious and palpable effects on the social fabric of our city, as everything is increasingly oriented around the needs of this 20% but not the 80% (like in housing).

Problem is: people at different income levels really don't connect that much, and often have no idea how living standards differ.

Just because you are middle or upper middle class, that doesn't mean you don't have worries. I just had a (very welcome) increase in my income such that I am now paid well above the average for my city - and I still worry. But I have also had the experience of living for long periods on a low income, and close family connections ranging from the top 1% of incomes to the bottom 10% - and I know there is a hell of a difference. I'm worried about saving for the future and making up for lost earnings, and the ever increasing cost of rent and transit. I still think of a vacation in the Caribbean as being impossibly luxurious for someone like me. But I'm not calculating rent against prescriptions or food, as some of my relatives are. I even expect to have running water all day! (This is a change from when I was younger and only had lived with a low income - and thought that having your water turned off every day between 8am and 5pm for weeks at a time was just standard when repairs were done).

If you do have similar perspectives, please forgive my assumptions. But I've found that even among very open-minded, educated and informed people, the experiences of lower income people are just invisible. You begin to think that they live like you, just a bit more modestly - but it can be worlds apart, even in the same neighbourhood.

And problematically: we increasingly don't live in the same neighbourhoods. Geographic segregation by income is increasing, at least in my city, with the poorest areas being pushed to the far flung suburbs (out of sight, out of mind).
posted by jb at 10:22 PM on May 9, 2017 [3 favorites]


also: I think if you asked any of my friends and relatives who are at the 75th percentile or above, they would say that my current income of $65k was "average" or a bit low for our city.

Median personal income in Canada for 2014 was just under $33k. Median family income was $79k - and lower in Toronto ($75k), though we're more expensive than many other cities. I'm the highest earner in my family, so we only have about 90k total, but that's still way above average.

If by "average", we mean "in the middle" (and I think we usually do), then I am almost twice as rich as a middle income person, and living in an above middle-income household. I don't feel rich, I can't afford to buy a house anywhere in my metropolitan area. I worry about how much money I spend on lunch (about $5/day, on average), and I buy most clothes at a second hand store.

But I keep coming back to these tables, because it's so damn humbling: If I feel stressed and worried with my above-average income, how must the millions of people who earn a fraction of that income feel?
posted by jb at 10:52 PM on May 9, 2017


"only $90k", as if that makes any sense! I just wanted to point out that my family income is not double my personal income, but it's still so very high. This is a bit of culture shock for me, to be so clearly in the middle class. I don't take it for granted: it's just all happened in the last year, after living the first 40 years of my life with a low income. I just pray it lasts long enough for us to build up some protection against the future.
posted by jb at 10:59 PM on May 9, 2017


If by "average", we mean "in the middle" (and I think we usually do), then I am almost twice as rich as a middle income person, and living in an above middle-income household. I don't feel rich, I can't afford to buy a house anywhere in my metropolitan area. I worry about how much money I spend on lunch (about $5/day, on average), and I buy most clothes at a second hand store.

That gets at exactly what I was trying to say. It's very possible to be in the top quintile, or close to it, without feeling the security or privilege that being richer than three quarters or more of other households would suggest. So much of the total wealth is held by the very top that the differences below that are really small in comparison, and as people have noted a lot of costs (housing in particular) are anchored by the upper end.

The mortgage interest deduction in the US is likely untouchable because it helps prop up house values for millions of middle class people, whose houses are often their largest asset. But as a give-away, the value goes overwhelmingly to the actual rich -- it's a really smartly done approach, because it gives a huge constituency to what is actually a subsidy for the wealthy, presented as a support for the middle class.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on May 10, 2017 [2 favorites]


(That last paragraph came from thinking about this discussion in light of this other FPP about house values, and I meant to make that connection more clear.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:37 AM on May 10, 2017


Dip Flash: but insecurity, just like poverty, is relative. Having more security doesn't mean we are fully secure - but we still have more security.

Moreover, there is growing inequality between not just the 1% and everyone else, but also between the top 20% and those below. The gap in income between high and low skilled work has been growing. Low skilled workers have suffered most from automation, containerization and off-shoring, but middle-skilled workers (like those in accountancy or administration) are also beginning to see their work increasing automated and/or off-shored - even as wages for high skill (or rather high status work - skill and status are correlated but not directly related) are going up.

I do not know your personal circumstances - and wouldn't comment on them even if I did. But something for all of us to think about is: where am I in the trends? Have I personally been gaining from trends? If so, how do I feel about the fact that my income is going up while others are going down? and yes, while it's not a pure zero-sum game, there is a knock-on effect in the competition for resources, and there are policy consequences.
posted by jb at 10:55 AM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]


Jb, I totally agree. It's easy to focus on the precarity of middle class life, and forget what it was like to be poor. I just think that selling a tech career as a path out of poverty is a mistake. Most of the low-income people around here (and where I grew up) survive by having family networks of support. Those very networks I gave up to pursue a highly paid tech career. I'm not regretting my choices, I just think we shouldn't oversell a technical education as a path to security.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 11:46 PM on May 11, 2017 [2 favorites]



We don't have an education problem. We have a poverty problem. Focusing on education without doing anything about poverty and the non-existent social safety net is, at best, a distraction.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:58 PM on May 6


Jean Anyon: ‘Ghetto Schooling’

In the working-class schools, she found, work entailed the rote following of procedure, with no analytical thought encouraged.

In the middle-class school, she wrote, “work is getting the right answer.”

In a more affluent school, Professor Anyon found, work emphasized creativity. In the wealthiest school, work meant “developing one’s analytical intellectual powers.”

These differences, she concluded, helped recapitulate existing class divisions. The children of blue-collar families, for instance, received “preparation for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine,” while those of wealthy families were taught skills that would help them assume leadership positions.

“Attempting to fix inner-city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded,” she wrote in “Ghetto Schooling,” “is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”
posted by lalochezia at 2:48 AM on May 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


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