Tag Archives: politics

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.

bangladesh1

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

Eastern US Bitten by its own Global Warming Tail

by Joel Gunn

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

I have sympathy for the high profile scientists who are struggling with the politics of global warming: Did this or that weather event occur because of global warming? See for example this New York Times post (and the several updates) in which climate scientists address the effects of global warming on the winter Olympics.  However, if you believe in thermodynamics and the interlinking of the atmosphere-ocean circulation and life processes, and that the world is warming, there is only one conclusion you can come to. Everything that is happening is to a greater or lesser degree a product of global warming. There is a legitimate question as to what degree the causes of individual events are apportioned to that trend and what part is attributable to chaotic forces. The tendency is, perhaps wisely, for scientists to hide behind chaotic forces when the politics gets too hot. However, the only real question is how the events and trend fit together, and that is admittedly complicated. But, since we have not lived with this particular change before, observation and model building have to take the lead. You can see the scientists struggling with these questions in the later parts of the blog, and we as citizens of the globe should also participate in thinking this through.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

A good example is our current discussion of the wandering fragments of polar vortex and the effects they have had on our weather. When I first started seeing weather reports about the polar vortex I said, how can this be? Probably the first really interesting article I read on the behavior of the atmosphere was in the ’70s by Angell and Korshover, people with a government agency who were measuring the atmosphere in many very interesting ways. Their article was about the behavior of the polar vortex. In fact, they were discussing the reason for the cold weather in the mid ’70s. Who recalls that in the winter of ’76-’77 it was so cold the Ohio River froze over? I was sure that the Ice Ages were coming back.

Chicago over frozen Lake Michigan.

Chicago seen over frozen Lake Michigan.

Our present day relationship to the polar vortex has crept out less directly but more interestingly. After the initial reports appeared, the pieces of the global weather puzzle began to leak out. Someone came on television and claimed that it was because the weakening of the circumpolar jet that ordinarily pins in the polar vortex. That helped some. Then a friend sent me a newsletter about a warm pool of water in the Gulf of Alaska. This was also something I recall reading about in the 70s. From that I was familiar with how that pool turns the jet stream up into Canada at which point it zooms down on eastern United States bringing chilly air with it. I have no problem seeing that an arm of the tropical jet thundering around the warm pool and into Canada in the winter would throw the Arctic jet into disarray and freeing the polar vortex to wreak havoc.

NASA image of the first polar vortex event.

NASA image of this winter’s first polar vortex event.

The real question is why that pool is so persistent? Usually it goes away in the fall and the jet stream and the airmass that goes with it assume a cozier route across the US. A possibility is the current solar maximum, weak though it be, but what is the mechanism to warm that pool? The Gulf of Alaska is a long way north for it to be warmed much directly by the sun this time of the year.

Then came another startling observation my friend noticed. Scientists were finding that strong westward passage of air along the equator was sinking atmospheric heat into the Pacific along the equator +/-10 degrees latitude. This seems to be a new phenomenon and worries me. Does it mean that the atmosphere is so hot from global warming that processes are active to cool it by sinking the excess heat we caused into the ocean? Can salmon and other Pacific fish survive such a thing?

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Since then I have been thinking that this could be the warming mechanism for the Gulf of Alaska pool. If the Pacific is being warmed by winds that are sinking atmospheric heat into both atmosphere and ocean, then the Japanese Current could be drawing that warm water around the Pacific with the resulting warm pool in the Gulf of Alaska. The next bit of news I will be watching for is for someone who studies Pacific temperatures to confirm that the latter link is in truth the case.

If all of that is true, then there is little mystery about why the winter is cold in eastern US. It also might suggest that the condition will persist until the thermodynamic balances between atmosphere and ocean, equator and pole, are redressed. How long could that take: ten years, a 1000 years? Perhaps a simulation might be able to work the 10/1000 years question out providing a bit of window on the future.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

I have always thought that it is one of the great ironies of the current age that people in eastern US, perhaps the greatest perpetrators of global warming in the world, are being cooled by global warming. This is something else that has been going on for a long time, maybe since the 80s. It interesting that the cooling process has turned mean this winter and bitten us with stinging cold. This is not the type of lesson in global warming we are used to getting from the weather.

Shut Down

by Matt McKinnon

About a month and a half ago, I agreed—as part of my job—to write a contribution for the BLS blog, due by October 6th, and to be published shortly thereafter.  I agreed to this based on my understanding of what my job is, what it entails, the compensation I receive as a BLS instructor, and my belief that a community only works when its members participate in just that: a “communio” or sharing, from the Latin “union with.”  I made this agreement in good faith and free from constraint.  And, though some might argue this point, I made it being in sound mind and body.

But the situation has changed.

broken

(The first image would be here if I were not shut down.)

I am not happy with the present way in which the elected officials of the State for whom I work have conducted business regarding the educational system within which I work.  In short, I disapprove of the massive cuts to higher education that the North Carolina State Legislature has made over the past several years.

Never mind that these folks have been duly elected by a legal process and have conducted this business in a manner consistent with the Constitutions of both the State and the Nation.

Never mind that “legal” does not necessarily mean “fair.”

Never mind that there are regular procedures in place to check the manner in which they do this business—that there is constitutional recourse to persuade, recall, impeach, or merely vote them out of office at the next election.

Never mind that what they have done is now “law”—and has become “law” in a legal and constitutional manner.

Never mind all of this because…well, I just do not agree with them or their “law.”

(The second image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The second image would be here if I were not shut down.)

And while I adhere to the principle that writing a blog entry is part  of my job, and that I have a duty to myself, to my institution, and to my students to faithfully execute the duties of my job, I have another principle that outweighs all of these:

If I do not get what I want, then I shut down.

(The third image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The third image would be here if I were not shut down.)

At this point, I am not even sure what would make me not shut down.  Or stop shutting down.  Or start back up.

At this point, I am not even sure what I hope to get out of shutting down.  Other than the shut down itself.

But none of that matters.

Because I have shut down.

So, until further notice—until an agreement can be reached that satisfies the righteousness of my indignation at the manner in which duly-elected officials representing the State by whom I am employed have conducted business in a lawful and constitutional and regular manner—until then, there will be no blog contribution.

I will not fulfill this part of my job.  I have deemed it “non-essential.”

There will be no witticisms or anecdotes about me, my classes, my life, or my family.

There will be no funny or interesting or bizarre pictures to punctuate my points.

There will be no weblinks to follow for more information—at least none supplied by me.

There will be none of this.

Because I am shut down.

(The fourth image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The fourth image would be here if I were not shut down.)

Of course, by shutting down and writing about how I am shutting down, I am still, technically, fulfilling some of my responsibilities and thus doing my job.  Therefore, I will continue to be paid and will continue to accept and spend my paycheck.

After all, shutting down is hard work.

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

Congressional Redistricting: Where the Real Power Lies

By Claude Tate

We hear the names of those who sway influence in America every day. We are familiar with those who lead our federal government. The President and the Executive Branch obviously have a major impact, as do the members of Congress and the Supreme Court. We are also familiar with the leaders of our state and local governments. And of course the CEOs of our major corporations, banks, etc. are also powerful in terms of shaping our future.  We even hear about people who develop new technologies that impact our lives. But there are others who also impact our lives in major ways that are not in the news every day.  In fact, I would say that few of us even know they exist. They are the people who toil behind the scenes to shape the choices we have when we go to the polls. They are, according to an article by Robert Draper in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine, “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers”.

Tom Hofeller

Tom Hofeller

Draper’s article focuses on one of those mapmakers, Tom Hofeller.  As the article states in its opening paragraph, every ten years following just behind the census takers, “Tom Holfeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.”

As allowed by the Constitution, every 10 years following the census, the 435 congressional districts are redrawn (normally by the state legislatures) so they represent population increases, decreases, and shifts. The framers of the Constitution allowed this so as to “keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced”.  But from the beginning; redistricting has been a “blood sport” that has used to keep some in power and others out of power. As Draper notes, in 1788 Patrick Henry engineered the creation of a district in Virginia that he felt would prevent James Madison from winning a seat in Congress by putting him in the same district as James Monroe, who he felt would defeat Madison. Madison won anyway, penned the Bill of Rights, and became President.  And when Madison’s second vice president, Elbridge Gerry, was governor of Massachusetts, he helped create a district shaped like a salamander so as to benefit his party, thus the origin of the term, gerrymander.

Elbridge Gerry

So redistricting has had a long history in America. And it has been practiced by both parties. But today there is a difference. Thanks to people like Tom Holfeller the process has become far more precise. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, I saw a poll that concluded only about 50 or so seats out of 435 were even in contention. I saw other polls which put the number even smaller. In those other approximately 400 districts, they were going to go Democrat or Republican regardless of who was running.  What that means is that the candidates in those ‘safe’ districts do not have to listen to the other side. They do not even have to appeal to ‘the center’. So we are electing representatives who do not have to compromise once they get into office. In fact, in the recent elections, a number of veteran members of Congress lost because they had the gall to listen to the other side and compromise.  I recently saw a statement by a candidate, and I cannot recall off-hand who it was, who proudly stated he would never compromise. Our government cannot function without compromise.  It’s interesting how polls show an extreme dissatisfaction with Congress for this attitude which produces gridlock, yet we continue to elect the people who only represent the extremes. And that is due in large part to folks like Holfeller (he works for Republicans, but Democrats have their ‘Holfellers’ too).

“The Gerry-Mander”

The article caught my attention because it focused on the redrawing of districts in Texas and North Carolina. The new Republican legislature in North Carolina hired Holfeller to redraw our lines while Texas did not. Due to our past, both states must have their districts approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act to show the new districts are not discriminatory.  Texas has run into a number of problems. But in NC, while cases have been brought claiming discrimination, things are far more calm because Holfeller makes it a point to not get too greedy. There are still several ‘safe’ Democratic districts.  Mel Watt’s 12th district is safe, as is G.K. Butterfield’s 1st district.  David Price’s 4th district was also preserved as a safe Democratic district.  (Butterfield, Watt, and Price won re-election). But Price’s district was restructured dramatically so as to remove much of the Democratic base from Brad Miller’s 13th district.  With his prospects for re-election in the new 13th district dim, Brad Miller decided not to run. A Republican, George Holding, now represents the new 13th district.  Moderate (Blue Dog) Democrats such as Mike McIntyre (7th district) and Heath Shuler (11th district) were put in districts less favorable to re-election.  McIntyre chose to run in the new district. (As of this writing, with all precincts reporting, McIntyre was holding a 378 vote lead, but I’m sure there will be a recount.)  Heath Shuler’s district had included the entire southwest mountains.  While the majority of that area votes Republican, Asheville and the Swannanoa valley to Black Mountain normally votes Democratic, and were responsible in large part for Rep. Shuler’s two election victories.  Holfeller and the NC legislature took those Democratic leaning areas out of the mountains and put them into a district with Gastonia, Rutherfordton, Shelby, etc., which is solidly Republican. Asheville may have little in common with the communities in their new district, but that does not matter.  What matters is that a Republican will be guaranteed to represent the new 11th district. (Mark Meadows, a Republican, is the new Representative from the 11th district.)  And with Asheville and the Swannanoa valley now in the 10th district, Asheville’s power to impact congressional elections has been taken away. (Patrick McHenry, a Republican, won re-election in the new 10th.)  Another moderate Democrat, Larry Kissell (8th district), decided to run, but the environment is far less favorable to a Democrat in his new district.  (He was beaten by Republican Richard Hudson.)  Due to the work of Holfeller and the Republican-led legislature, our congressional delegation has shifted dramatically in favor of Republicans.  Before the 2012 election our delegation was composed of 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans. Now there are 4 Democrats (including McIntyre) and 9 Republicans. Holfeller did his job well.

NC Congressional Districts per S.L. 2011-403

And since the legislature also draws up the districts for the NC House of Representative and NC Senate, barring a major shift in population or a major event, the new districts that were drawn based on the 2010 census will ensure Republicans will maintain power in Raleigh, and in our congressional delegation, probably for the next decade.  And since the legislature is involved in the process in some form in the majority of the other states, the party that gained the majority in 2010 will likely shape their state and its congressional delegations for some time to come also.  And nowhere will they be looking at balancing the districts so both Republicans and Democrats will have an equal shot at winning office.

It is obvious that there are problems with how we handle redistricting. But what is the solution? Some have suggested that bipartisan commissions be created to handle the process. Various models of bipartisan commissions are used in some states now. Five states use an ‘advisory commission’ to draw the state maps, which are then presented to the legislature.  Ohio and Rhode Island use an advisory commission for their congressional districts also.  However, in most cases, the legislature is not bound by their maps.  And some states use backup commissions who will draw the maps if the legislature fails to pass a plan. Seven states use ‘politician commissions’ where certain elected officials separate from the legislature are chosen to devise the maps. And six states use what is called ‘independent commissions’ that minimize the input of elected officials by forbidding both legislators and other elected officials from serving.  An explanation of the various models and how each state determines the legislative districts can be found at http://redistricting.lls.edu/who.php. But partisanship makes its way into each of those processes also. Those who make the decisions have their own political views, and the outside consultants they all utilize, even if they do not work for either a Republican or Democratic organization, also have their personal political views. Maybe we just need to hope that Holfeller is correct when he says the system will correct itself.

NC 12th Congressional District

So while the news may give attention to those traditional power brokers, keep in mind that the real power may indeed lie with those anonymous mapmakers like 69 year old Tom Holfeller who are major forces in shaping who gets elected to our state legislatures, and who in turn, shape who gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.