I wrote this on the plane home after a week on the road, so grateful I wasn’t booked on American Airlines that my good cheer was barely dented by a late departure and the fact that the passenger in front of me reclined her seat so far, I couldn’t quite see the screen of my computer.
In the meeting I attended—surrounded by smart, knowledgeable, caring people of goodwill—I heard the word “class” more in the space of 8 hours than in the previous 8 months. Having read a good deal of preparatory material about the problems of one of this country’s most economically depressed sub-regions, my colleagues and I pondered one of American culture’s great mysteries. The data on growing income inequality is in. Everyone who is tracking the distribution of wealth in our society points to the same multi-decade trend (with apologies to Billie Holiday): them that’s got shall get and them that’s not shall lose. Whether the story is framed as “the disappearing middle class,” or the multiplication of millionaires, whether the angle is the virtual impossibility of living decently on minimum wage or the ballooning square footage of the McMansions springing up like mushrooms, we’ve all seen the stories.
Like much of the social scientese on this issue, the photocopied working papers and reports and thoughtful analysis from foundation officers in our pre-meeting packet tended to treat the problem in the same way as the mostly faith-based organizations trying to do something about it: as a discussion of “ending poverty.” Reading my way through several plane trips, I kept hoping to encounter a discussion of the other end of the problem, slowing down the currently unbridled accumulation that has put about 40 percent of our wealth in the hands of 1 percent of our citizens. Indeed, our wealth inequality is almost double what it was before Ronald Reagan’s election, greater than any other industrialized country’s. But this was barely mentioned. This isn’t about the reading selection we were offered, either: with small exceptions for a minority of academics and activists galvanized by the concentration of wealth, almost nobody focuses on it.
There are many reasons for this preferential focus on the deprivation of the poor, for the squeamish refusal to bring the over-consumption of the rich into the conversation. Some are practical: after all, alleviating poverty is an urgent goal whether or not it includes redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom. One type of intervention aims to reduce suffering, the other to expand justice. People who are motivated by a sense of charity are apt to see the two as something like the difference between stanching a wounded person’s bleeding and offering wellness counseling aimed at getting someone to eat better and exercise more often. Both interventions promote good health, but only one tops the triage list.
Some reasons are political: it is possible to want to address the deprivation of capitalism’s losers without believing that among the winners, greed is anything but good. Some are even spiritual: a core idea of the “law of attraction” is that one creates abundance by embracing it, by desiring to have what others possess rather than resenting their good fortune. In this system of thought, the fact that John has luxury houses and cars on three continents in no way impinges on Juan’s ability to do the same; if Juan’s homes and cars fail to materialize, the blame goes to his poor ability to attract them by properly focusing his thoughts.
But as I look around this country, the truth I see is that John’s and Juan’s fortunes are intimately connected. It is possible to do well by doing good, as an increasing number of green and fair trade businesses have demonstrated. But more often than not, John’s remarkable success in piling up McMansions and humvees is conditioned on paying an unlivable wage to a multitude of Juans and Juanas employed by his factory, on exploiting undocumented workers, on a shrewd cost-benefit analysis that staffs retail operations with employees whose part-time status evades requirements for decent medical and retirement benefits, on supporting candidates who vote against raising the minimum wage and for abolishing inheritance taxes, on hiring accountants clever at unearthing tax loopholes, on fraudulently inducing economically marginal families to go for unstable mortgages, on using tax dollars to bail out the bankers who backed the whole Ponzi scheme. On countless other practices whereby fat cats keep their own coats glossy, indifferent to the way they are creating another lean year for mice.
The disparity, the polarization, of wealth and privilege is greater now than at any time in living memory. As recently as 1990, the ratio of CEOs’ salaries to the average worker’s wages stood at 107:1. Today it is 411:1. So why aren’t we all talking about it? Why aren’t we all doing something about it?
I think one answer is the large undigested lump of inherited self-censorship that must be eliminated before we can surface the conversation that needs to happen in this country. Have you noticed how, whenever a candidate or commentator dares to broach the subject, someone in an expensive suit repeats the following formula, generally word-for-word? “Here comes that tired old class warfare again. Americans aren’t going to fall for that!”
Well, for those of you who weren’t around to experience it the first time (or just haven’t made the connection), that statement has a lineage, Joe McCarthy by way of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and their many offspring. The Red Scare—the anticommunist witchhunts of the 1950s—taught us that to question the distribution of wealth and privilege in this society risks ostracism, livelihood and liberty. During that shameful period of U.S. history, progressives (not only communists, but also socialists and even some liberal “fellow travelers” who chose not to abandon their friends) who publicly challenged the official consensus on the rightness of our social order could be blacklisted, called up before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, and if they refused to repudiate their own views and denounce others, imprisoned or effectively exiled.
I have a friend whose harsh parents beat him with a stick for juvenile crimes such as spilling milk. His younger siblings were kept in line by the fear that he and his age cohort acquired from those beatings. Years later, talking about family discipline with his youngest sibling, he responded to her observation that the children had been very obedient. “Remember when Mom used to say, ‘If you keep doing that, I’ll go get the stick?’” he asked. His younger sibling nodded, puzzled. “Well,” he told her, “there really was a stick.”
There really was a stick that taught us not to think in terms of social class, not to question the extreme imbalance of privilege and wealth that has become business-as-usual in this nation. And now we need to unlearn that lesson.
Corporations have had great success in slicing through the social safety net by appealing to fear. One of my fellow meeting participants recalled the “Harry and Louise” ads that the Health Insurance Association of America used in 1993 to reframe a national health plan as a nasty form of government compulsion with bureaucrats in charge. This time, fear is on our side: fear of losing homes, bank accounts, pensions and any form of financial security. In my experience, though, fear makes people passive and pliable; it’s much better at getting people to say “No” than to become active. More than an appeal to fear, the prospect of a remedy motivates us. I fervently hope we throw the bums out in November, but beyond that, what do we want?
In the space of ten minutes, the group I met with listed perhaps a dozen public policy initiatives that could help address this terrible problem, things like a guaranteed annual wage, a truly progressive tax system, action to secure the inheritance tax, a renewal of public service employment, full college scholarships for low-income young people and much more. But before allowing ourselves take the ten minutes, we had to clear our throats of the paralyzing conviction that economic justice is so unattainable within the present social order that even ten minutes’ worth of dreaming is a waste of time.
One of the participants shared a story about traveling with his young son. He travels a great deal, piling up frequent flyer miles, so on vacations, the family is often able to upgrade to first class—but not always. On one occasion, boarding a plane, the man’s son led the way, turning left toward first class. “No, son,” said his father, pointing rightward, “this way.” “Why aren’t we sitting up there, Dad? I like to sit there.” “Because we aren’t going first class this time, son.” In a piping voice, the boy turned to his father: “You mean we’re going second class?” The father heard himself answering automatically, with some feeling of embarrassment: “We don’t call it that, son. It’s ‘coach.’”
Surely our allergy to calling attention to class differences is a form of “cooling out the mark,” a term that con artists (and some sociologists) use to describe the process of persuading someone to accept a loss without undue complaint. One point made by in the discussion of class at my recent meeting was that few Americans are willing to describe themselves as poor. The stigma—and particularly the contaminating aroma of personal failure—that attaches to poverty in this country is just too much to bear. Indeed, almost all of us (many studies put the figure at more than 80 percent) self-identify as “middle class.” When class categories are based on metrics such as dollar income, 1/3 to 1/2 of us are assigned to that category, depending on the factors considered (see this chart, for instance). But for some of the well-off and some of the impoverished alike, sidling into the middle-class category is a way to evade differences our culture has strongly discouraged us from noticing.
What has been excised from our vocabulary can obviously be reintroduced should it become useful to do so. I don’t see much sense in reanimating a rigid sense of class grounded in grievance. Things have changed in more ways than one. More people now occupy grey zones between the old categories—many artists, knowledge workers and intellectuals have been granted a kind of mobility that allows entree to zones of privilege even though their income or living conditions may not match those of bona fide occupants, but it also marks them as different from occupants of the class that does match their means. The old categories may not fit, so why get lost in them? What I do see as useful is talking about the impact wealth polarization has had on our society and stating expectations for change.
From a moral and ethical perspective, from those to whom much has been given, much should be required. Some of the proposals I listed earlier are indeed achievable in the near future. People of wealth like William Gates, Sr., and Warren Buffett have come out in opposition to the movement to abolish inheritance taxes; the Responsible Wealth Project offers several ways to take action. At a time when many Americans have great compassion for those whose service in the armed forces has been extended to the breaking point through “stop-loss” and other strong-arm policies, a benefits package for returning veterans could be linked to public service jobs to fix our badly damaged infrastructure. Even many of those proposals that seem most far-fetched at the moment have been enacted at some time in our history—our tax system has been much fairer than at present, we have at times made massive investments in public housing and public service employment—and in time, public will could once again be mobilized in that direction.
The opposition is shrewd and determined. Multimillionaire Hillary Clinton, born into prosperity and insulated her entire life from any form of economic hardship, is currently denouncing Barack Obama an elitist for pointing out that hard-pressed working-class people in Pennsylvania are feeling anything but optimistic about their betrayal by the powers-that-be. What was Obama’s great transgression? He made remarks that violated the prohibition I have written about here.
Every journey starts with a single step: first it has to be imagined, then it has to be okay to talk about it. Let’s talk amongst ourselves for a start, okay? Signing off for now, trying to loosen the crick in my back bestowed by my second-class seat in the friendly skies.