Friday, October 12, 2012

Ryan v. Biden

Yeah, I watched it.  I'm not sure why.  I've already decided to hold my nose and vote for Obama, and watching Paul Ryan talk about the $5 trillion dollar tax cut--again--isn't going to change my mind.  I'm not going to see much of it and, if previous tax cuts provide any example, what I get with one hand will be taken away by the other.  I remember doing the computations when Reagan "cut" taxes in the early 1980s.  But then, in 1983, they raised the Social Security tax, and whatever "cut" we got disappeared into Social Security.

And I really want them to define what they mean by "middle class".  I've always thought of myself as "working class" and, unless I win the Lotto, I'm not ever likely to be middle class. But I want them to define it, if only so I can reassure myself that I'm not one of them.  The various definitions I've seen are a bit too inclusive.  Someone actually defined it as people making between $20K and $200K a year.  That's just about everyone in the country, and I can assure you that there is a big difference between $20K and $200K a year.  Another definition is 80-120% of the median income.  Wellll, in most of the high-cost communities in the country (where most people live), the median income provides a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

Then there are the people--Democrats in the United States and the Labour Party in Britain--who attempt a cultural definition.  It's not how much money you make, but your cultural outlook.  The problem with that is that all good things are ascribed to the middle class, while those of us who aren't are simply not all those good things.  For instance, Jared Bernstein (whose blog I read almost every day) claims that the middle class is defined as:

…a combination of values, expectations, and aspirations, as well as income levels. Middle class families and those aspiring to be part of the middle class want economic stability, a home and a secure retirement. They want to protect their children’s health and send them to college. They also want to own cars and take family vacations. However, aspirations alone are not enough; middle class families know that to achieve these goals they must work hard and save.

Right.  Sure.  The rest of us want to live on the edge, with no home, and no hope of retirement.  We don't care about of children's health, don't want to send them to college, don't want to take a vacation or own a car.  We don't work hard, even though we have the most physically demanding jobs in our economy, and we often wreck our bodies doing them long before we're old enough to retire.  (One need only look at the incidence of frozen shoulder among hotel cleaners to see a good example of that.)  And we'd love to have savings, but we don't make enough to pay rent and save at the same time.  (In California half of all tenants pay more than 30% of their income for rent, and nearly a quarter pay more than 50% of their income for rent.)

But not so fast.  The rest of us may not have any of those things, but we can be middle class if we "aspire" to them.  For most of the working class, aspiring to rent a decent house (leaving owning aside altogether), take good care of our children, drive a decent car and so on, would be an exercise in futility.  Not only that, we'll never be middle class, and trying to mimic the middle class on our much smaller incomes is both humiliating and limiting, in that we become an object of fun among the middle class, and limit our options for a more decent life.  Rather like the Mozambican assimilado, who had to abandon any and all traditional cultural practices, becoming more Portuguese than the Portuguese, the aspirant to the middle class must mimic all of the middle class forms without the fundamental requirement--being middle class.  (Eduardo Mondlane, one of the founders of FRELIMO, wrote eloquently of the experience of the assimilado in The Struggle for Mozambique, a book that is now much more valuable than I could ever have imagined.)

To explain what I mean by limiting, let's look at the "high/low" features of many house magazines.  (Yes, those are one of my addictions.)  First you see the designer version of the room--the high.  Then you see the version you can create with stuff from IKEA or Home Depot--the low.  However, when I look at the cost of the low version, my perverse intelligence informs me that, for the same amount of money, I could create something far better than the low version of the designer room.  Why would I do a pale copy of the "middle class" room when I could create something better, and for less money?  That's what is lost for working class people, that we could do something better if we didn't aspire to be middle class.

To be continued. 

No comments: