Tag Archives: economy

The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

middle-class-monopoly

Politicians love to talk about the Middle Class. It’s easy to see why: Depending on how one defines it, the “middle class” makes up somewhere around 55% of the electorate. A clear majority that acts as a barometer in national elections: When a majority of the middle class votes one way or another, that side wins.

Politicians also love to talk about how bad the middle class has it, or how bad the other side’s policies have been for the middle class. Few actually stop to define what they mean by the “middle class” or to question what others mean. And even fewer ever discuss the reasonableness of the definition itself.

After all, most everybody wants to be middle class, it seems. And most people consider themselves middle class, regardless of the criteria used or the evidence to support it. So it makes sense for politicians and the media to fawn all over this group, since even those who might not be middle class still consider themselves as such.

describe-yourself2

A cursory glance at the term’s usage these days tends to settle on a definition of earning anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Setting aside the huge differences in this range (do folks who make $100,000 have much in common with those who make $30,000?), the definition itself denotes a shift in meaning when compared to more historical uses of the term.

After all, the term’s origins in the 18th century attempted to describe the class of people somewhere between the nobility and peasantry of Europe: a collection of professionals like doctors and lawyers, business owners, bankers, etc… Folks, in essence, who lived in the city (the bourgeoisie) and had as much (if not more) money than the aristocracy, but with none of the family history, class rank, or titles to go along with it.

By the 20th century, after the Industrial Revolution had shaken up the demographics considerably, the “middle class” came to mean that group of folks between the upper class and the working class. The bourgeoisie gets further split with the rise of small family businesses—the petite bourgeoisie and the term “middle class” grew to include the growing number of “white collar” workers brought about by the modernization of the economy. We see this in the distinction today between the “upper” middle class and the “lower” or “working” middle class, though even here, there is no clear differentiation.

wpa-worker-paycheck

The post-World-War-II boom of the American economy completed the shift of the average worker from agriculture to industry that had begun earlier in the century, and precipitated the growth of the American Middle Class, that bastion of political intrigue and, so it seems, economic doom.

Two controversial points strike me: That the growth of the American Middle Class is basically the result of government programs in the wake of World War II and the economic boom that accompanied them, and that, in the long run, many of our problems are not the result of the decline of the Middle Class, but because of its rise—and the sort of people we have become as a result.

As to the first, it is no doubt that the economic growth of the private sector following World War II drove the material success of the burgeoning middle class, but it cannot be ignored that this included on the one hand the growth of “big government” in building highways and other infrastructure as well as the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Thus, economically speaking, government spending had a considerable influence in the growing economy. Couple that with the specific government programs in the GI Bill that included college loans, mortgages, and low-interest business loans, and you have the makings of the American Middle Class.

The point is simple: The government, and specifically government spending, had much to do with the creation of the middle class. Far from being its enemy, historically at least, it has been its greatest patron.

interstate-highway-system

Now to the second and more controversial point: That perhaps it is the rise of the middle class—and not its decline—that has precipitated many of our nation’s current social woes. Granted, the decline of the middle class is directly related to the growth of income disparity in this country and is itself the result of our economy’s shift from being production oriented to a service-driven one. The American Middle Class, I submit, is not responsible for this decline; nor is it directly responsible for the shipping of production jobs overseas.

And yet, it is not entirely free of blame either.

The growth of the middle class has meant, among other things, certain material benefits and opportunities. With the rise of technology, it has offered us essential benefits—like modern health care, housing, and transportation—as well as some not as essential, like Xboxes, iPhones, and flat-screen televisions.

In short, it has provided us with a lifestyle of reasonable comfort and incredible ease at the expense of outrageous consumption. We eat more (way more than we need) but we also eat worse. We buy things we cannot afford because we think we deserve them (and because credit is ridiculously accessible, albeit with usury-like interest). We demand services for things that our parents and grandparents (who, for the vast majority of us, did not grow up middle class) did for themselves—or did without. We don’t grow our own food, or make our own clothing, or even change the oil in our own cars.

No, instead of making us better, the rise of the Middle Class has made us, for the most part, a bunch of privileged, over-fed, under-exercised, spoiled whiners who blame government and business for shipping our jobs overseas, and yet flock to Wal-Mart and Target to buy cheap goods that are the result of those jobs going overseas.

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Now this is not to excuse government and business for their considerable part in all of this, but, for better or worse, we in the middle class are the ones whose lifestyles can only seem to be sustained with cheap goods from even cheaper labor. It’s not that we won’t work (though I do contend most of us won’t do certain jobs anymore); it’s that it costs so much to employ us. Things like job safety, employment benefits, minimum wages, and health care are all important ideas that we take for granted, but they are also costly. It is simply cheaper to employ someone in China or Taiwan, where these safeguards are not as strongly regulated. And in fact, as many Chinese become more middle class and demand the same sorts of benefits and safeguards that we do, it has become cheaper to employ folks in a country like Vietnam or Honduras.

It seems everybody loves capitalism until it does what it always does—finds the cheapest way to manufacture a good (like it did this when the textile mills moved from New England to the South, and again when they moved from the South to Asia and Central America).

This is not to attack the Middle Class, but rather to remind us that the middle class did not build this country. The working class did. The middle class did not survive the Depression. The working class did. The middle class did not fight and win World War II and subsequently build this nation into a military and economic superpower. That was the working class as well. But, in doing so, the working class also built itself into the middle class, and now finds itself unable or unwilling for the most part to do those things that were built into working class values but that seem to be lacking in middle class ones.

vacant-lowes

And this includes the present company as well.

My children are growing up middle class, as did I. The difference is that I was raised by folks who grew up working class while they are being raised by two people who grew up middle class and with all the entitlement that comes with that. Sure, I had my needs met and enjoyed many technological benefits that my parents did not. But not to the extent that I and my wife provide to our sons.

My father grew up in High Point, NC (a city) in the 30’s, yet had an outhouse and lived in a two bedroom house with four other siblings and his mother. He swept mill floors. He helped in the garden. He went to war when he was seventeen. My seventeen-year old has yet to hold a paying job (his grades are already a struggle). My mother visited her grandparents for summer vacations and stayed in a house that had no electricity. Her father had to bank the coal stove at night so they would stay warm (in Pennsylvania) but not die from carbon monoxide. My six-year old is more proficient on the iPad than I am and my eight-year old can work my smart phone better than me.

The point is that it is precisely when the politicians start their pandering that we should question, not just with the conservatives that maybe the underclass was better off before all of the government entitlements, but maybe we in the middle class were better off in the working class.

And more to the point: maybe the entire nation was as well.

foreclosures

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

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For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

smiling-pig

Sticker Shock! The Cost of Living in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

220px-The_Scream

Edvard Munch “The Scream” (1895).

When I first moved to Norway and started brainstorming blog topics, I knew I had to write one on the cost of living, a matter that shocked me daily our first month here and still manages to shock me seven months in.  Sure, I’d heard talk of Norway as one of the most expensive countries in the world, but talk does little to prepare you for the reality of a $7 carton of eggs, a $4 half-gallon of milk or chicken at nearly $10 per pound.

I was also quite surprised at my options the first time I needed cash.  The smallest withdrawal you can make at a Norwegian ATM is the equivalent of 70 US dollars.  The next smallest amount: $175.  Norwegians walk around with some serious Benjamins in their pockets (or Munchs, as the case may be).  Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s image graces the 1000 kroner ($175) banknote.  I suspect his famous painting The Scream, thought to represent “the universal anxiety of modern man,” in truth depicts the anxiety of foreigners shopping for necessities in Norway (I just paid WHAT for that?).

1000 Kr Note With Portrait of Edvard Munch

1000 Kr Note With Portrait of Edvard Munch

But over the last few months, I’ve adjusted and mostly started to see things more as the locals do.  As a Scottish friend who’s lived here 11 years recently advised me, “Never complain to Norwegians about how expensive things are here- that’s just BORing!”

American translation: “It is what it is, so it’s stupid to complain about it.”

And she’s right.  After researching on the web, not entirely successfully, why the cost of living in Norway is so high (it’s more than just the high taxes), I came across more interesting perspectives on Norway and its economy.  Like how it is, at a time when the rest of the world is flailing through a seemingly interminable economic crisis, the Norwegian economy is going strong.  Unemployment is around 3%.  Real estate prices are on the rise.   Signs of poverty are extremely hard to find in this country, where everyone gets a good education and there are no low-wage jobs.  (Go on, take a moment to absorb that: There are no low-wage jobs in Norway.  Entry-level jobs pay about the equivalent of $50,000/year).  What gives?  Yes, those massive state oil revenues play a large role, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Norway owes much of its success to its fervent national pride (which could just as easily be a liability, but so far, so good) and a strong sense of responsibility toward the common good.  On the world stage, Norway largely goes its own way.  Having gained its full independence only in 1905, Norway has twice voted against joining the European Union.  After 400 years of Danish-Swedish subjugation, Norwegians have little enthusiasm for any further “unions.”

Even Storm Troopers are Norwegian Patriots

Even Storm Troopers are Norwegian Patriots

While other oil-rich European nations blew through their massive surpluses during the boom years, Norway stood mostly alone, saving up one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds.  Though oil revenues represent about 20 percent of government revenues, only 4% of that money is allowed to be spent on current needs, while the rest is banked for that rainy day when the oil runs out.  Saving for the future, what a novel idea!

Norwegian Currency

Norwegian Currency

Speaking of banking, another way Norway bucks the international trends and exhibits a concern for societal stability: According to the New York Times, “banks represent just 2 percent of the economy and tight public oversight over their lending practices have kept Norwegian banks from taking on the risk that has brought down” other European counterparts (“Thriving Norway Provides an Economic Lesson”).  Compare this to the US, where business media reported last April that America’s five largest banks held assets equal to 56% of the US economy (“Big Banks: Now Even Too Bigger to Fail“).   Yeah, that’s been working out pretty well.

Norwegians appreciate that they got lucky when oil was discovered offshore in the late 1960s, and they take very seriously the need to manage well this relatively newfound wealth.  Norwegians feel, “If you are given a lot, you have a lot of responsibility” (New York Times).  Reading through some of the highlighted comments on the Times article, certain phrases jumped out at me as being highly representative of Norwegian values: caring about “greater social good through delayed gratification” and the belief that “Everyone deserves to live as concern-free as possible.”  By managing their wealth well now and not binding their economy too tightly to anyone else’s problems, Norwegians have created a system whereby living within their means today helps to ensure security for future generations.

And so far, that’s working out pretty well for them.

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

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Enjoy the rest of your day.