Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Helping the Middle Class & A Question of Gratitude

Quin Hillyer wrote in the American Spectator blog in reference to the Iowa victories of Huckabee and Obama:
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.

13 comments:

Literacy-chic said...

our homes are now often 2000-3000 square feet, rather than the 1200-1500 of fifty years ago

My mom is back in New Orleans trying desperately to hang on to and rebuild her 800 sq. ft. house. I don't think Texas allows 2 bedroom apartments that small, much less 3 bedroom houses. Guess that's why New Orleans was being represented as a 3rd world country post-Katrina. By the standards of most of the country, it is. And your point about being spoiled hits home, because that's where I grew up. And her home is in the suburbs, incidently--not in the 9th Ward or inner city. But considering that that's what we've been trying to rise above for the past 10 years, the tax cut rhetoric is appealing, too.

Darwin said...

Yeah, my parents first house (which they managed to buy at almost 40) was a 1200 square foot four bedroom built in the 50s. If you went back into the older parts of LA built pre-war, you could definately find sub 1000 sq/ft houses.

Our house isn't huge, but I wish they'd carved up the bigger rooms and added a forth bedroom instead. (What the heck do we need with a nearly 200sq/ft master bath?)

A few miles away, they're putting up 3000-4000 sq/ft four bedrooms. I don't get it...

Rick Lugari said...

A little off topic. Did you like Wild Blue, Darwin? I haven't read it yet, but really enjoy Ambrose.

Darwin said...

Rick,

I liked it quite a bit. It's not as good as Band of Brothers, but it's definately a very good read, and it doesn't have the "I read this page before" feel that all his books about the campaigns in Western Europe have after a while.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Living in the SF Bay Area cured my husband and me of any desire to commute ever again, so we bought a house toward the center of our city, which by any normal standards is plenty big for a five-person family and a cat.

I'm always astounded at friends and relatives who've bought what I can only describe as mansions out in the suburbs, for families with two to four kids, because they "need the space"--and the commute eats up over an hour of time each way. What a waste of one's life, sitting in traffic, instead of being wth one's family, just so the little time you do get with them can be in a huge family room with cathedral ceilings.

Rick Lugari said...

Heh, I hear ya on the "I read this page before" thing. I read The Victors immediately after Citizen Soldiers and recall it seemed like an entire chapter or two to be either directly duplicated or close enough that I couldn't discern the difference. Still great reading though...

Steve said...

This was an issue in the recent Australian election: the incumbent (economic) Liberal Prime Minister John Howard said that Australians have never been better off. The opposition Labor party's winning strategy was to convince people that times were tough for them, despite all evidence to the contrary. An extended period of prosperity might have made people forget what tough times really are like.

Sarahndipity said...

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.

Actually, housing prices are up because the fed cut interest rates, leading to home prices doubling or tripling around 2002-2005 (give or take.) My parents bought their 3-bedroom split-level house in 1977 for $67,000. That same house is worth over $500,000 today. And it's the same size as it's always been. Our 4-bedroom house was worth $300,000 in 2002 and $600,000 three years later. (Of course, this is in the DC area, which has become a very expensive area.)

As for college, you're right that far more people go to college these days than they did in the past. But it’s because more people go to college that a college degree has become increasingly necessary to support oneself or a family. When college degrees were rarer, they weren’t expected, and it was easier to get by without one.

Anyway - those are the only beefs I had with your post; I'm slightly more "populist" than you, but I actually agree with your overall point. I don't think things are quite as bad for the middle class as politicians make it out to be. Politicians just like to pander, of course.

Darwin said...

Sarahndipity,

Certainly, I wouldn't say that housing values have gone up strictly because of increased house size. I watched similar housing values spikes to what you describe, when I was living in LA (which is the main reason I don't live there anymore!), though there (and maybe in DC too) there have been about three cycles since the 70s, with housing values spiraling upwards and then crashing down more than 50%.

Average new home size has definately gone up over the last fifty years. (I think I saw some number of from 1400 to 2300 square feet from the 70s to 2005.) However, I'd bet that at least part of that is an attempt to drive up home values (or prop them up in slumping markets like here in Central Texas) by building bigger houses. You can build a house twice as big for much less than twice the cost, and I think for a while builders were doing it as a cheap way to drive up selling prices.

If I had to guess, size has probably levelled out and we'll see a trend towards greener houses over the next 10-15 years.

The college point probably deserves its own post.

knit_tgz said...

So middle class families (2 parents + 1 or 2 kids) live in houses that big (that's around 200-280 square meters for us Europeans) in the USA?

I can tell you that over here (Portugal) middle class housing is much much smaller! But it is still too expensive, in fact lately it's been obscenely expensive (we have a very small renting market, and just in my city there are tens f thousands of houses who could be rented that are not put in the market by the owners so as not to lower the prices :( I hope this will change soon...

Darwin said...

knit_tgz,

Yes, often they do. One of the things that allows this is that the country is simply so huge, and up to this point gas has been cheep enough that people feel confident in living thirty miles away from where they work, out in middle class suburbs.

Sometimes, honestly, it gets quite silly. A coworker of mine and her husband who have no children (though they assure me that they think of their three cats as children) just bought a 3,500sq/ft four bedroom house. What they need with twice the room we have for five people, I'm not quite clear. But it seems to make them happy.

cl00bie said...

We live in a country where the most prevalent nutritional problem that our poorest people have is obesity.

My family has been blessed. Through the grace of God, and our hard work, our standard of living has improved over the course of our marriage, and that was regardless of what president was in office.

We've had some bumps, and relatively hard time, but it's relative because compared to a lot of people, we were doing just fine. We had a roof over our head, had pasta to eat, had clothes to wear and my wife and I both had a used car.

What I, as a middle class person would like my government to do for me is to let me keep what I earn and stay out of my way.

Anonymous said...

What I in a middle-class family would like from my government is to leave us our earnings/savings that we am trying to squirrel away to eventually be able to afford some sort of house...and NOT take from them to help out those lucky/stupid enough to have bought houses they find themselves unable to afford now. I'm crossing my fingers and toes, holding my breath for this.

--mandamum