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Eliminating the Middle Class

September 6, 2021 (1,812 words)

I.
These days contrarians of all stripes are a little obsessed with keeping government out of our lives. When the talk turns to politics, the first words you’ll likely hear are “I don’t want socialism.” This can come out sounding ornery or a little scared, depending on who is doing the speaking. But it’s always intended to be disparaging.

When the speaker is a working stiff, this disdain is just rugged individualism writ large. We humble Americans instinctively recoil from rules and regulations that remind us of big brother government. But when hard-working people cast vague aspersions on ‘socialism,’ they are confusing different things that should be evaluated separately.

Salt-of-the-earth types believe in solving their own problems. They want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And if they can do it, they think everyone else should, too. This is a commendable attitude. Nothing beats the sense of accomplishment such effort results in. But this self-sufficient philosophy presumes we all start out on an even footing, more or less. People may share the same desire for self-determination, but not everyone is blessed with a level of cognitive ability that enables them to sort things out and bring their worldly dreams to life.

II.
When my conservative-leaning friends and co-workers – all of whom are salt-of-the-earth types, by the way – join the Fox News chorus and rail against every policy initiative introduced by a dreaded liberal, they are making a common mistake. Their knee-jerk opposition keeps them from noticing how our nation’s formal fiscal policies have always favored the most-clever among us, to the detriment of the not-so-clever, and favor the advantaged who are already well-off. Never mind the happy talk emanating from Republican legislators touting a belief in equal opportunity, and an alleged concern for the middle class.

The pronounced bias in economic policy gives the impression those at the top would like to eliminate the middle class altogether. A dire prospect that should come as no surprise. After all, what we think of as a middle class is actually an anomaly in our nation’s storied history.

A thriving middle class really only existed for a few decades in the middle of the 20th century. It was brought into being by a series of federal anti-trust measures, and by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which made it legal to form a union. What followed those moves was an ever-so-brief golden age that accomplished what conservatives are always talking about, but never deliver: a booming economy that benefited working people as well as owners and investors.

During the wave of middle-class prosperity that spread across the country after WWII, made possible by that anti-trust legislation and the legal formation of labor unions, there were always naysayers. There was always a conservative backlash brewing against the legacy of FDR and his New Deal, and the strain of so-called ‘socialism’ some felt was ruining this once-great country.

As we all know, that conservative backlash has been in the ascendency for the last forty years now, ever since Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh first made it onto the hit parade.

But what we are experiencing today is only the latest salvo in a long-running feud. Since the time of our Founding, conservatives (originally known as “Whigs”) have always advocated for a no-holds-barred economic environment, considering it the best way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. This sentiment can be found as far back as the Federalist Papers (1787-1788), where James Madison argues for a hands-off approach that will create “an absence of obstacles.”

Implementing this absence of obstacles in the economic realm has yielded undeniable results. Just look at how our economy has flourished over the last two hundred and fifty years. The American version of cowboy capitalism has done wonders for the standard of living enjoyed by lots of our fellow citizens. But many still do not have a place at the table of plenty. And far too many do not experience even a shred of dignity in their working lives.

III.
It’s practically a national pastime to point out the inefficiencies of government, and bemoan how government is always trying to fix social problems but only makes them worse. But government didn’t create the social problems in the first place. The everyman-for-himself, you’re-on-your-own approach to economic life has created our social problems.

What separates the haves from the have-nots? We’re always hearing how ours is the land of equal opportunity, but deep down we know it’s not. That’s okay, though, since a lack of truly equal opportunity is not the fatal flaw in the system. There is opportunity aplenty all around us, even if sometimes it’s a bit on the meager side. To make the most of whatever meager opportunity presents itself one has to be prepared to work hard. But there is another key ingredient to success in our economic free-for-all not mentioned by the cheerleaders for America the Great: a requisite level of cognitive ability. And in this we are not created equal. Some have been blessed with more cognitive ability than others.

Conservatives tend to dismiss the have-nots as being shiftless and lazy. I guess some are, since sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, and is alive and well among us. As are the other six. But mostly what the unemployed, or the under-employed, lack is a decent job that provides training and oversight. They need a routine and a structure at work, a path forward that will provide a reliable framework for their lives. Not to mention a level of compensation that allows them to live.

During that ever-so-brief golden age, this is what those with a higher level of cognitive ability (the managerial class) offered those with less cognitive ability (the working class). It was referred to as the social contract, and it has been ripped apart by mergers and acquisitions that have eliminated so many working-class jobs, and by the gig economy that has converted the remaining working-class jobs to ‘independent contractor’ positions with no oversight and no benefits. In our brave new 21st century world employers have been excused from considering the well-being of their lower tier employees.

This is the biggest threat to a healthy middle class. It is what prevents our society from functioning in a more equitable manner. Notice how rectifying the situation has nothing whatsoever to do with either a liberal or a conservative policy position.

It simply boils down to clever and advantaged people exhibiting a sense of responsibility toward those who are not quite as clever or not quite as advantaged. Since it is ordained in the nature of things that those with a lesser degree of cognitive ability will find themselves employed by smarter people at some point, it is incumbent upon those smarter people to figure out how to provide gainful employment that offers training and oversight, and pays a living wage. This is the secret that will complete the circle and result in a more just society.

Our heralded founding documents – the Declaration of Independence. the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc. – fail to touch on this all-important piece of information in any way, shape, or form.

IV.
What constitutes a ‘living wage’ is yet another subject that riles up conservatives. The idea of a federally-mandated minimum is anathema to them. Supply and demand alone should determine wage rates. I dare say the only folks who believe this are already living on the comfortable side of the street.

It’s not as mysterious and unfathomable a calculation as some would have us believe. It should be a simple evaluation of basic living expenses per geographic area, like housing and transportation. It will naturally vary a bit from one company to the next, depending on a given’s company’s profitability.

To arrive at a legitimate living wage an employer should avoid limiting compensation for the rank and file to what the going rate happens to be. Because the going rate is often nothing but a gentleman’s agreement among plutocrats to keep lower tier workers in their place, so as to maximize return for owners and investors.

Naturally this logic is meant to apply to successful enterprises, and not so much to small, fledgling concerns. But when a company is going gangbusters, it should be sharing the wealth. This includes doling out meaningful profit-sharing to all employees, not just to executives and upper management. It should provide an environment that is safe for line workers and production people, and foster a sense of collaboration that lets them enjoy a measure of dignity.

To my way of thinking politics cannot solve our social problems, but economics can. Which is why I am not all that interested in politics, per se. I favor a more philosophical approach to life’s challenges. And I haven’t found a philosophy that is as comprehensive in dealing with the social questions as Christianity has proven itself to be. The original version, that is. The one with two thousand years of continually grappling with these issues under its belt.

V.
In assessing the various threats to a thriving middle class, I am trying to look at all this from a slightly broader perspective than my friends the liberals and conservatives typically do. While not discounting the desire on the part of certain rulers to control the citizenry, or the presence of nefarious motives on the part of certain plutocrats, I believe the underlying problem is a lack of empathy and ingenuity on the part of our entrepreneurial class. That is to say, I believe most men and women with a head for business wake up in the morning wanting to do the right thing. But they simply don’t know how. There are not enough good examples to follow, which leaves them at a loss.

The clever and the advantaged talk a good game when it comes to “doing good and doing well,” but our most successful citizens need to hold themselves more accountable in fulfilling the latter objective. When the going gets tough – as it always does in business – movers and shakers tend to fall back into survival mode and focus on their own interests. Then when things turn the proverbial corner and everything starts coming up roses, they never get around to recalibrating their formula. They never manage to take all the stakeholders involved into account – not just their full complement of employees, but also their suppliers, the surrounding community, etc.

As a general rule, winners are prone to amnesia, and convince themselves success was achieved solely through the force of their indominable will. The legion of middle-class people they employ are merely interchangeable parts of no real consequence. In the end they appease their consciences by practicing tax-dodge philanthropy, and leave it at that. To the detriment of society as a whole.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 6, 2021

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