Everybody knows about dragons. We recognize them as a part of our popular culture and enjoy the role they play in fantasy tales that we share with our children. I saw a survey recently that reflected that over 50% of children between the ages of 12 and 15 believed that dragons exist in some form. And likewise, just over 50% of Americans describe themselves as being “Middle Class” and that is also pure fantasy- just like our dragon tales. The “middle class” as it is so commonly described is NOT REAL. It is just as imaginary as this giant, flying, fire-breathing dinosaur pictured at the top. And the more we talk about “the middle class” in our politics and in our culture, the less likely we are to actually solve any of the structural problems that hobble our economy and depress our workforce. And those problems are even scarier than this thing can be.
I certainly do understand the utility of the phrase, however. What a person calls himself drives everything from his conduct on a daily basis to his expectations for his entire life. So “middle class” works for some people as both a barrier against despondency and a gateway opening up to better things. But this is also the reason why we need to kill the “middle class” moniker once and for all. Our national wealth distribution and per capita income statistics no longer bear out the existence of a “middle class”- which means we are deluding ourselves by even using it. Legislators wind up codifying errant generalizations and voters wind up misreading their own life circumstances because they are fixated on what it means relative to somebody else. It is one of the reasons why so many people do not truly vote their interests: because they are thoroughly confused about what their interests really are.
The problem with the “middle class” designation is that it is too relative for practical application. If there is a “middle class” that is readily identifiable in our popular political folklore, then by extension we should also readily categorize all other members of our society as being either “high class” or “low class.” And here’s a simple visual aid to identify who falls into what category:
Find which picture describes your circumstance and there is your category. But we don’t use “high class” and “low class” because those terms would be so politically toxic and carry such overwrought disclaimers, that they would eventually undermine every policy discussion. To be accurate, what we are referring to in all discussions about the mythical middle class is the income these people live on rather than any “class” they are a member of. If we must use the term “class” to reflect real economic conditions and political interests, our divisions and positioning should break down like this:
Every single American falls into one of these four groups- Working Class, Investment Class, Inheritance Class or Dependent Class. It ought to be evident to every person where he stands within these groups- in reality, not in his imagination. Stated plainly, if you get the majority of your resources from wages from your work- whatever that work may be- then you are Working Class. This is your class symbol:
If the majority of your resources come from your investments, then you are in the Investment Class (and this includes investments in business proprietorship). For those with both an ample income from work and a productive investment portfolio, they must simply determine which one they would be willing to walk away from if forced to choose between the two and the true class identification will be self-evident. If you were born with enough resources that would eliminate the necessity to either work or invest to maintain your lifestyle, then you are in the Inheritance Class. (Congratulations, folks- somebody had to get the golden ticket and it was you. Just do yourself and the world a favor- don’t pretend like you had jack shit to do with the station you occupy. You just got lucky.) This is your class symbol:
Finally, if you rely upon any government program to sustain your household or maintain your lifestyle, then you are in the Dependent Class- even if you are also working or investing. (And God help you if you are in this place. I can scarcely imagine a more frightening prospect than having my livelihood tied to the competencies of the Jerk-off Class, which is mainly composed of right wing politicians- the Louie Gomerts and Steve Kings of the world.) This is your class symbol:
None of these categories serves as a phony badge of honor like “middle class” does. And the nearly inevitable movement between them during different stages of a persons’ life is a reality that helps to cut down on the political posturing in the legislative process. Against a backdrop like this one politicians would have to stop pandering to mythological constituencies and get real. This is a solid framework for a substantive discussion on economic policy and balancing class interests- not the b.s. vacillation between self-congratulation and self-pity that has passed for legislative debate for years. So let’s get that framework working on capturing another creature that has been spotted alongside our pet dragon.
This is a centaur- another of our favorite mythological creatures that we love to see in our stories. Not as popular as the dragon, but it certainly has its moments in the sun. And as intriguing a figure as the centaur is, it is as make believe as the issue of “income inequality.” In an economic system that is constructed around competition and free market capitalism, there is supposed to be income inequality. How in God’s name do you sustain an argument for correcting “income inequality” without attacking the very core of our national identity? Income inequality is what you get when people compete against each other for wealth and opportunity in a free market based economy. Is that wrong? The term “income” is grossly overbroad because it encompasses investment and inheritance income as well wage and benefits income. The truth is that income equality might sound good but it would be a terrifying reality- just like this pretty centaur below would be if you actually saw her walking across your front yard.
What we really need to be advancing is public policy targeting the issue of wage disparity. Not wage equality, mind you, but wage disparity. It is hard to sell the average person on the idea that a CEO or CFO is actually worth 100 or 200 times more to the company they work for than they are- although in most companies with fully developed management structures that is the disparity in their rate of compensation on average. That is the point where you can advance an argument that is precise and compelling enough to carry the day.
And exchanging the phrase “minimum wage” for “living wage” is a high impact proposition- as effective as re-framing “gay marriage” to “marriage equality” and we see how incredibly well that worked out. At bottom, progressives could be offering a solution to a serious problem that our conservative counterparts deny even exists. We win that argument going away every day of the week. Instead, some of our leading progressive voices rail against banks and recommend breaking them up or shutting them down as if that is a real solution.
American professional sports leagues have wage distribution scales, contract structures and wage caps in place that bind all of the franchises and nobody complains. In fact, those are some of the most recognized and beloved business entities in America. The problem is that most people don’t account for the extreme wage disparity that exists in that context because by appearances everybody involved is rich. But it makes a huge difference down the line when statistics reveal that an astonishing 80% of pro athletes go bankrupt after their playing days end. While a slim minority of marketable mega-stars make life-changing wealth, the great majority are financially adrift by their early 30’s. While this is undoubtedly a result of personal financial mismanagement, it still reflects the consequences of an unbalanced wage distribution system. Guys at the bottom have virtually no margin for error and that is fundamentally unfair.
But since we have a model that we all know could work, why not establish similar ground rules for GM, Delta, Home Depot or Coca-Cola? For those who love the idea of free market competition, this is a dream come true: a wage structure that actually makes every worker a true stakeholder in the success of the company with the added bonus that executive management personnel and rank and file workers would actually be bound by the common economic interests.
When wages are as low as they have been for many working class Americans, they are on a glide path to becoming entrenched members of the Dependent Class. Paying a livable working wage at the bottom of the wage scale is responsible corporate citizenship more than a moral imperative. As convicted as I may be in my belief that every man and woman who works a full time schedule should live above the poverty line, it is far more compelling to point out that the employers who fail to pay a living wage are draining the wealth of our nation because of the Dependent Class status of their employees- who should all be in the Working Class based upon their own participation in the workforce.
As righteous as I may feel in stating that any executive who is paid 200 times more than his average employee should be ashamed of himself, the simple fact is they are not. Much the opposite is the case as decades of hubris and self-absorption have formed a cozy cocoon around the privileged, protecting them from real accountability and the inconvenient truth that their inflated paychecks are the direct cause of deflated paychecks for the rank and file workers.
Progressives are rightly identifying a serious problem eroding the fabric of our nation, but if we keep framing it in language based on fantasy rather than reality we will not make the policy changes we want. So let’s shift in the language and frame the issue, and we could actually get around to solving it. Meanwhile, we can count on the fact that conservatives will continue to stir that chicken sh*t into chicken salad and pretend the problem does not even exist.
∞ Thanks for checking in- Do your thing today and I’ll see you tomorrow π