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The dying middle class

In which I deploy vivid metaphors involving wild dogs, before speculating about whether we should string up Lloyd Blankfein by his toenails.

Wild dogs are kind of cute.

Wild dogs are kind of cute.

The American middle class is dying as we watch.  It has been since the 1970s at least, when the post-WWII manufacturing base started to disappear because of cheap transportation and cheaper overseas labor.   But the chronically-ill middle class is now acutely sick.  The patient is dying.  Time to call the chaplain and say our final prayers.

First, the dying.  I wish it were like a peaceful drifting away into the good night, but it’s looking more like a weakened wildebeest drawing the carnivorous attention of a pack of wild dogs.  Elizabeth Warren, who is in a position to know, says:

Pundits talk about “populist rage” as a way to trivialize the anger and fear coursing through the middle class. But they have it wrong. Families understand with crystalline clarity that the rules they have played by are not the same rules that govern Wall Street. They understand that no American family is “too big to fail.” They recognize that business models have shifted and that big banks are pulling out all the stops to squeeze families and boost revenues. They understand that their economic security is under assault and that leaving consumer debt effectively unregulated does not work.

So — the banking class intends to get their share of meat off the bones.  Check.  What’s Ben Bernanke’s take?  He testified on Capitol Hill just the other day.  David Dayen (via Kevin Drum) summarizes:

So let’s tally that up. No second stimulus, no jobs bill, no public investment to deal with the worst hiring crisis since the Depression, no relief for a jobless recovery, but yes to cutting people’s meager Social Security benefit and their health care in their old age.

So — the Obama administration won’t do much to stop the feasting.  The politicians won’t hook the middle class up to the ventilator and send it to the ICU for three weeks of pressor support and a few hospital-acquired infections.  Check.

So — what should we do about it?  How should we feel about it?  (I assume that *we* are among the 95% of the population that thinks we’re middle class, even though many of us probably aren’t.)

We could get mad.  But that’d risk problems of the violence-in-the-street sort, which never leads to any good.  And if we’re going to get mad, we’ve got to get mad at all the right people.  It might help to put the problem into perspective — as ugly as it is that Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are feasting on our dying financial corpses, they didn’t cause our problems by themselves.  The movement of jobs overseas and the hands-off approach of our government did more than Goldman Sachs did to bankrupt us.  And it isn’t clear that we citizens aren’t ultimately responsible for that.  After all, it was us who authorized the past three decades of Reaganism.  Free trade and deregulation weren’t hidden from us, they were sold to us, and we bought them all with open eyes.

Consider also, if you’re inclined to get all pissed off, that our own consumerism helped as much as any government policy to put us in this hole.  In fact, the hole itself looks a whole lot deeper from the perspective of someone who sees happiness as a function of how much stuff they can buy.  Not to give too much credence to the corporate apologists out there, but we resemble that someone more than a little bit.  We shopped at Wal-Mart even when we read about their low, low wages in the paper every morning.  We ran up the credit card bill for that big new TV.  We signed on the dotted line for the no-money-down ARM because we just couldn’t resist the lure of all that extra square footage.

We’re realizing that our standard of living won’t continue to go up, up, up into the clouds forever, but I’d suggest that getting mad at Goldman Sachs isn’t going to help us.  We’ve got some choices to make, now that the party is over.

Jobs probably matter more than almost anything else, at least as far as happiness is concerned.  We’ve got to have some way to contribute, some reason to get up in the morning.  So what are we prepared to give up in order to make sure that we have jobs?  NAFTA?  Cheap flat-screen TVs?  That’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.  And if you think there’s no need to make any trade-offs, I’d love to hear your argument.

Democracy probably also matters a whole lot.  The realization that our government caters to the financial elite at our expense is painful.  Human dignity demands that our opinions count for something.  Being ignored tends to piss one off.  So what are we prepared to do?  One place to start might be to pay more attention.  We ought to be ashamed of a voter turnout rate of only 60-65% (the high end of estimates).  Practically, this might mean that we quit wasting so much of our time arguing about what’s up with Tiger Woods, and more time finding out what our elected leaders are pawning off on us.

What else really matters to you?  When you take the time to think about it, is that cheap shit at Wal-Mart really necessary?  Maybe it is.  But if it is, it’d make me happy to know that people have thought about the reasons why.

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