Sunday, September 11, 2005

Required reading

And yes, this will be on the final exam. If you managed to resist Dr. B's exhortations on behalf of this post, it is now officially required reading. I don't know to what extent we can blame Bush's "personality" for his pretty obvious unconcern as the post-Katrina disaster developed with agonizing inexorability, but it's hard to believe that a genuinely decent and deeply caring human being, of whatever ideology, could fail to betray that compassion as completely as GW has done throughout his presidency. There's a plasticity to the Bush family: Laura Bush looks more like a Tussaud figure than a breathing human being, and the daughters, too, give off the "replicant" vibe (think, Blade Runner's Sean Young) rather than the natural inconsistencies of young women.

I was briefly pleased to note that Bush has become grayer, his simian features more furrowed, during his presidency. I had hopes it might mean that the moral and ethical weight of his decisions had in fact sunk in. I'm afraid not. Miss Alli suggests in your required reading that Bush is perhaps motivated by a cynical political disdain for black, traditionally democratic New Orleans. I'm afraid it's not even that calculated. I believe that for this president, as for several of my own extended family members, those folks who are suffering are simply outside of his definition of humanity. For him, as for too many Americans, the "human race" has shrunk to encompass only those who can afford the trappings of middle-class life. It's a direct outgrowth of the insane faith Americans place in our supposedly merit-based society. By redefining the poor, too many of whom are, in fact, people of color and the descendants of prior generations of the poor, as moral failures, the prevalent public discourse has removed them from contemporary definitions of "Americans." By refusing to see the institutional and systemic causes of generational underprivilege, and waiting instead for some kind of epiphany of the middle-class work ethic among those for whom "the system" has never worked, today's neo-conservatives have managed pretty effectively to erase compassion (except when directed at embryos or those poor, over-taxed super-rich) from the public discourse. In further refining the historical American belief that success is genuinely available to all, the pro-Bush factions have managed to persuade (and not had to work very hard to do so) many middle-class Americans that most of those who suffer--in the floodwaters, in the ghettoes, without healthcare, living in cars, skipping meals and medication--do so through their own economic failings. They have further reasserted the moral implacability of one's economic condition: to be poor is to be immoral, and the "greater good" has become the "good of the greater."


At 6:46 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

I'm going to request that the term "middle class" also be on the exam.

The bottom 60% of Americans own approximately 4% of the wealth of America.

If we break the total population of 300 million into fifths, the middle fifth, where 60 million Americans "live," has 3.9% of America -- not even close to the 20% you might expect. (The bottom fifth has negative wealth that is just balanced by the second fifth.)

It takes the bottom 90% of the entire population to cover 28.5% of America's wealth. You can probably sense the shape of the function now.

The average per capita income in the U.S. is $36,000. But when you remember that the top 10% receive 45% of all income (and the top 1% take 20% of all income), you realize how meaningless "average" income actually is. When a corporate maven walks into a bar, the average income of the people in the room goes up considerably (not anyone's actual income). More than 25% of working Americans actually make less than $8.70 an hour.

The truth is that America no longer has a middle class. Most Americans are no more than a lost job or a medical disaster away from insolvency. But they think they're "self-reliant." And a surprising number of them think they're "middle class."

They aren't. Even though their labor increases the wealth of the nation approximately 1% every year, they receive no share in this success -- almost all of it goes to the top 2%.

We are a rich country where half the wealth is concentrated in the hands of 2%; and the top 1% actually owns 34% of all wealth.

The top 1% of Americans own 1/3rd of the country (including 44.9% of all stocks by value). And there is no wealth tax. There is only an income tax. So only the incremental income increases to wealth is exposed to taxation.

That makes no sense.

Welcome to America; where the rich stay rich and buy politicans who support a "no tax" pledge (almost all Republicans have signed).

Tell me again about the middle class ... I missed something.


At 8:13 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

oh you are pushing my buttons right now--while I tend to use the term "middle class" because it is generally accepted as a descriptor for white, college-degree-holding, home-owning types, I am with you 1000% (not a typo) [and thank you for providing the actual numbers] the term is utterly meaningless as anything other than a euphemism for "white and expecting to be/remain upwardly mobile."
We make a "middle-class income"--but only one income--in an area that all but demands two incomes for home ownership. We spend nearly 1/3 of my pre-tax income on medical premiums--despite having a relatively "good" (i.e., complete) health insurance plan. Since my husband's illness has cost well over 200K at this point, we thank god that our out of pocket is capped at something like 15K per year, and that we can scrape out the deductibles and co-pays for visits and prescriptions. Childcare is more than 10% of my yearly salary, but without it, I couldn't be employed.

We appear "middle class"--we own a home in a nice area, drive cars that are 10-15 years old, have oodles of education, and are better off than most of the other members of this country's mistakenly self-described middle class.
And I would be horribly remiss if I didn't note that we have incredibly generous family who have made it possible to keep our "lifestyle." If we were fully self-reliant, we would be one home, one small retirement fund, and one hospitalization from homelessness.

The idiocy of Americans clinging to the idea that we are "middle class" is outrageous and disheartening, as is the desperation of many of our working poor to remain in denial about the interests our current administration serves...

At 8:45 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

Ooooh, just finished reading this article in Dissent:

Sorry for the messy insert, I don't know how to embed links ... it's on the parents-with-children crunch.

But you've got me interested in the common Venn space of sociology, economics, poverty ... and the "junk" in our "culture" that sustains and perpetuates poverty.

The average citizen/voter doesn't have time to do other than specialize (and run a house), and doesn't (on average) know how disenfranchised we are in our own country.

It's easy to confuse most Americans about their status because, compared to the poor people in a third-world country, you and I are in fact well off. I have limited interests and can afford to buy most of the books I want.

But I refuse to call myself "middle class." I know I've been ripped off.

I don't mind that I don't have the wealth, but the American people don't have access to it either; it's locked up. So there's no way for me to say, "Let's have nicer cities with real playgrounds and care for children," or "Let's build monorails and get rid of cars in cities" or "Let's actually work to build industry in Africa instead of hammering every commercial enterprise into dust."

I have no say in how the country's incredible wealth is used. And it is used in increasingly ugly ways.

It's incredibly disingenuous for the political system (both Parties) to ask Americans to pay equally (via taxes or personal charity) for NOLA. Compared to the top 2%, we have pennies in our pockets.

Worse, when NOLA is rebuilt with our money (and it will be), only the already wealthy will be advantaged by this. The game is incredibly rigged. But it's called "free market."

The Republican Bill being forwarded now to address the reconstruction (without Democratic involvement; Democrats are almost completely excluded from government) will require the U.S. to borrow the bulk of this sum from our Asian bankers. Our children will be paying the interest on this loan even as the wealthy are garnering substantial income from these rebuilt properties.

But we say we put our children first. Not even close.


At 9:12 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

sorry to bother you again; forgot to make the following observation:

as good as the article is -- the following factoid is in it and not addressed properly --

“American GDP per capita is about 30 percent higher than Europe’s and the gap, if anything, is getting wider.”

Firstly, the statement is wrong: 7 OECD countries have higher GDP's -- Norway's, for instance, is 131 (the U.S.'s is set at 100).

Secondly, gross domestic product says nothing about how profit resulting from the sale of gross product is distributed -- and the average American doesn't receive it (think "sweatshop").

Thirdly, if we were looking at per-capita income (which would be meaningful) and if we remove the wealthiest three percent from consideration, Americans are poorer than the average German or Frenchman -- even with the longer hours worked.

Total poverty (17%), and total child poverty (22%), is much higher in the U.S. than in any OECD nation. Our people simply aren't rich. Most of us don't have a stake and we aren't going to get one.


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