One other thing: It also shows that the American people have no idea how good their lives are. The strong response to economic grievance-mongering shows that people who are incredibly wealthy by every historical standard are somehow convinced they are barely making ends meet -- barely making ends meet while their families have two cars, three TVs, four cell phones, and untold numbers of other gadgets in homes they themselves own. There is a word for this: spoiled. Huckabee and Obama are smart enough to appeal to the spoiled Americans who have no idea what real hardship is.Now, when I ran into this quote here, I was a bit surprised that it was met with universal derision. You'd think that Hillyer had just called for the surplus population to be reduced. It's true, if you go and read Hillyer's whole piece, he comes off as cranky. But his base point is something that's struck me increasingly for a while.
In every election, it seems, each party redoubles its commitment to "do something" for the middle class. Democrats don't make much noise any more about new programs to help the poorest in the nation, instead there's huge focus on issues that hit the broad span of the 30th to 75th percentile in incomes: people who rally and vote and donate and generally are good to have in your political coalition. Democrats have even joined Republicans in proposing "middle class tax cuts", arguing that the broad-based tax cuts of recent Republican administrations have disproportionately helped the rich.
But here's the catch: taxes have change since Reagan promised to improve things back in 1980. For all the rhetoric about "tax cuts for the rich" the tax cuts served up over the last 30 years by Republican administrations have got things to the point where the lower and even the mid-middle class pay virtually no income taxes. If you have three kids, a mortgage, tithe and make under 60k per year, you will get all your withholding back at the end of the year. At this point, the middle and lower classes pretty much only pay the two true sacred cows: social security and medicare. Goodness knows, I have no desire to see more of my hard-earned income swallowed by the every-hungry maw of Uncle Sam, but I'll admit it seems a little worrisome when the upper and upper-middle class constitute the entire tax base. Generally, if you pay for something, you own it...
I don't blame anyone for looking out for themselves to a reasonable extent. It's our job as informed voters to support fair taxation, policies that protect jobs, etc. So perhaps many would feel that I'm over-reacting.
But as I listen to political rhetoric, primarily on the "we're here to help" left but also on the "compassionate" right, it seems that a lot of what we're hearing is: "Life shouldn't be so hard."
On it's own, there's nothing wrong with that. Making people's lives easier is a worthy goal. But in trying to sell a plan to make people's lives easier, we all to often find pundits and politicians making it sound as if we have things incredibly hard. And yet we don't. Though some people in some places may have it somewhat harder now than 50 years ago, on the whole our modern American society has it so good compared to most of the world now and throughout history it's almost unimaginable.
A while back I was reading Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose, which tells the story of the B-24 crews of World War II mainly through the eyes of the crew George McGovern commanded, earning himself a Distinguished Flying Cross during the course of 35 combat missions. (I'm not a fan of McGovern politically, but the book is very, very good, I recommend it.) As he's talking about the backgrounds of all the members of the crew, Ambrose talks about one of the airmen being amazed at the food available to men in the Army Air Corps. Growing up on a small family farm in the midwest, he'd grown up on a diet of corn meal, dairy, vegetables from the garden, and only the most occasional meat: Cornmeal mush for breakfast; cornbread for lunch, and cornbread as a staple of dinner as well, along with meat and vegetables when available.
That kind of minimal requirement monotony is almost unimaginable in modern America, yet for a Depression-era farm boys who made up McGovern's crew, it seems to have been fairly un-remarkable. (It reminded my of my own grandfather, who joined the Navy in 1945 out of a small New Mexico mining town. When asked what had been the biggest change for him going into the Navy he replied: "The food. You could go back and get seconds as many times as you wanted.")
Today, obesity is a major problem in the lower class. The massive food producing operations which put nearly all family farms out of business over the last fifty year mean that you can get food in the US for unimaginably low prices. You can make a filling meal for a family of five for the cost of 30 minutes work at minimum wage. Our housing prices are up, but out that's in part because our homes are now often 2000-3000 square feet, rather than the 1200-1500 of fifty years ago. The cost of college is spiralling up, but at the same time in two generations we have gone from a situation where only the economically and intellectually elite go to college, to a point where nearly everyone does. I could go on, but you get the idea.
In the end, it's a tone that's annoying me here. No, the middle class in our country is not sitting around eating bon bons. We work hard, we worry, we hope not to hit some piece of adversity that swamps us. But that's not something that sets us apart from the rest of humanity. That's one of the things that unites us with Chinese farmers and medieval peasants and paleolithic hunter-gatherers. We've always lived by the sweat of our brows, and found meaning and pride in our ability to do so. In almost every way, it's easier and more comfortable to do so in the modern US than at any other time or place in history. We should, I think, be conscious of that, and grateful for it. We don't live in a perfectly equitable society, and gratitude does not necessitate believing that, but if we fail to be grateful for what we have and where we are, we make ourselves profoundly disconnected from the rest of history and humanity.