Where are we going, and why am I in this handbasket?
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Nothing “sweet and fitting” about it...
From the battlefield, watching others die, and finally dying there himself, Wilfred Owen* issued the correction to Horace**:
“...you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”
Another Memorial Day, and still we are in Iraq with no end in sight. When will we ever learn? _____________________________ * from “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, 1918 ** “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” Horace, Odes III.ii.13
To understand our economy, you must first understand what has happened to the “middle class,” and what forces have caused it to shrink, and how tenuous a state it has become. One of the best explanations of the big picture is by Elizabeth Warren, whose lecture here is much worth viewing (but you could omit the first five minutes or so, before she takes the podium):
The short version: Warren addresses part of what I’ve said for years—that family income has not risen in tandem with the number of hours spent in the work force, that the lifestyle that once demanded just one full-time worker (often with only a high school education) now requires two full-time workers (usually with at least some college).
I would take this one step further, and note that the real windfall has come to business, which has managed to extract almost double the working hours from the (better-educated) populace, while holding wages down. (Men’s earnings, corrected for inflation, are about level with what they were in 1970.) Not only have they held wages down, but most pensions have been gutted, so if that were included, total compensation has actually declined over those 35 years.
Most tellingly, listen as Warren describes the data of where we are spending our money now, as compared to then, and ponder for a moment what it WILL mean to our society to drive so many into ruin. You may also gain some sympathy for those who find themselves in bankruptcy, which is not usually due to frivolous spending, but to vastly increased fixed costs in the face of a lost job, or family illness, or family rupture, or some combination of two or three of these factors. It’s not a pretty picture, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Again: consider what it will mean for a society that’s accustomed to having a massive middle class, if large numbers of those people enter poverty, and ours becomes a two-class society. A brief study of two-class societies should include the realization that most of them are police states, to one degree or another. Is this really where we want to head?
Clarification: If what I've said above appears internally contradictory—that men’s earnings (corrected for inflation) have remained about constant over time, but are insufficient to support a family, even when augmented by women’s earnings—it is because of the way inflation is calculated: it does not include housing costs, healthcare costs, the additional childcare and transportation costs inherent in the second earner leaving the home, and also does not account for the higher tax hit by moving to the next bracket. Warren makes all of this quite clear, but I realized that I could not leave this out of my comments if I wanted them to make sense.
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” - Albert Einstein
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Starve the beast basically amounts to deliberately creating a fiscal crisis, in the belief that the crisis can be used to push through unpopular policies, like dismantling Social Security.” - Paul Krugman
“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” - James Madison
“The power of the Executive to cast a man in prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government, whether Nazi or Communist.” - Winston Churchill
“I think the happiest people in America today are those listed in the polls as having no opinion.” - a wise friend