Talking About Class

The other day, J.L. Wall asked in his post

Can we really talk honestly and effectively about growing divisions between the top and the bottom without taking the middle half into account, too?  

I left a cynical comment:

To be perfectly honest, no one really cares about the middle class. As long as you are in there, it’s assumed you’re doing just fine. Their money comes from a magical grove of money trees planted by the WPA during the New Deal.

What people worry about is the bottom and the top because it is assumed that it’s a zero sum game between these two groups. If the rich get richer it was because they stole it directly from the poor.

Well it seems that J.L. was closer to the mark than me, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s latest case of foot-in-the-mouth disease:

I’m in this race because I care about America. I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there, if we need to repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the country.

 A big part of the reason that I am so dismissive of this kind of talk is two things 1) I hate political populism 2) I hate class warfare. Seeing those two omissions in print makes me feel a little bit like I’m stating the obvious. Most wonks have equal disregard for those things in principle. The trick is to maintain our resolve when the message is directed at us. I usually pride myself on disregarding the promises of politicians and try not to see myself in competition with the other classes in America. But then I think back to how excited I was about some of the ideas presented by Ross Douthat and Reiham Salam in their 2005 Weekly Standard piece:

A better way to approach the division between work and family life might be what sociologist Neil Gilbert calls a “life-course perspective,” with measures that would allow a mother (or father, for that matter) to provide child care full-time for several years before entering, or reentering, the workforce. For instance, the government could offer subsidies to those who provide child care in the home, and pension credits that reflect the economic value of years spent in household labor. Or again, Republicans might consider offering tuition credits for years spent rearing children, which could be exchanged for post-graduate or vocational education. These would be modeled on veterans’ benefits–and that would be entirely appropriate. Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country’s long-term survival. It’s about time we recognize that fact.

I now realize I like these kinds of ideas because they directly reward my demographic group, which is middle class parents with just enough income to allow one spouse to stay at home with the kids (if they want to). Because I think stay-at-home parents do the Lord’s work in many ways then it’s easy to support policies that reward those choices. So I realize that I am just as vulnerable to red meat and making sure my class gets our piece of the pie.

The obvious take-away here is that we all know populism and class warfare are tools that politicians use to manipulate us. The question is, who among us can really resist it when the offer is made?

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272 thoughts on “Talking About Class

  1. Romney’s comment was both unbelievably callous and unbelievably dumb.  While he might not personally care about the least well-off, the 90-95% of everyone in the middle does care about the least-well off, and he’s trying to win their votes.  If Romney loses, we may all look back at this as the deciding moment.

    There’s a great chapter in John Thomasi’s Free Market Fairness where he points out that basically every modern political philosophy justifies itself, at least in part, based on the claims that it makes about improving the well-being of the least well-off.  Even most forms of libertarianism.

    The only part of Tomasi’s argument to this effect that I don’t quite buy is where he says that Randian Objectivism does it too.  My sense is that Randians view the well-being of the least well-off as a nice fringe benefit of capitalism, but it wouldn’t tip the scale in the other direction if it were to disappear.

    Me, I look at the unbelievably horrible lives of the peasants in almost all of human history, and I am thankful we have modern industrial capitalism.  If it weren’t for the modern industrial/market approach to production, the least well-off would comprise 90-95% of the population, because that’s just how many would be completely miserable, and the differences among them would be piddling.

    (Does this mean we need to take things farther in the same direction?  Maybe yes and maybe no, but that’s a question for another time.)

    • I may be able to expand on this a bit more at a later time, and I’m not a Planonist, but I do have this sensation that what he accomplished yesterday was to realize one of the very closest ever approximations of the ideal of the Perfect Gaffe.  It turns in and in on itself, Möbius-like, the longer you consider the extended remarks and their context.  It’s really quite something.

      I agree it could be a turning point, but I think it won’t.  I think it’ll just pass; it’s too early.  It also fits too neatly into the basic image problem we already knew he had (as opposed to one that is just forming and can be confirmed or dispelled) and doesn’t really add that much to it.  I feel like it was always either going to be too much of a problem for him to overcome that in any case, or else that the headwinds against Obama were always just going to be too great and Romney’s our near-sure next president even right now, we’re just not sure of it ourselves yet.

      In fact generally, I feel like this election outcome is pretty much completely determined right now, just not in a way that is visible to us, like a book whose last chapter is locked in a box that someone will give us the key to in nine months.  Is that a thing, or is that actually the same probabilistic thing as its just being in fact a toss-up?

      • I feel like this election outcome is pretty much completely determined right now, just not in a way that is visible to us, like a book whose last chapter is locked in a box that someone will give us the key to in nine months.

        Schrödinger’s Election? Are you saying that it possible that at this moment, Obama both already won, and already lost, at the same time, and all we need to do is collapse the wave function to determine which it is? That would save a lot of time and money!

      • I confess I copied and pasted mine from the wkp entry for “Möbius strip.”  (And again there.)  I don’t know the keystroke.
      • I wrote a little utility in Java which contains a JTextBox.   Every time you type a letter with associated diacriticals, it populates all the possible letters into a JButton strip along the bottom.   You can then just click the right button and the Java will replace the letter you just typed with the button choice.

        But for Japanese, there’s really no substitute for Ichitaro, which has a beautiful Linux port.

      • On the Comment composer, click the Omega on the second row, you can get at it.

        Trouble is, it won’t render.

      • It seems to be a consistent problem with WordPress’ database persistence layer.  Obviously WordPress can represent the character or we wouldn’t see it in the Omega popup.   The problem seems to be resident in the MySQL backend, which doesn’t like to handle eight-bit characters without some serious cajoling.    Characters lower down the collating sequence do fine, it seems.

        æ

      • Look up “Greek Alphabet” on Wikipedia.

        You can also use HTML entities: Δ = Δ

        Also, ö = ö

      • But we have lost the ¢.
        I attribute this to Microsoft and the continual upgrades for Windows. Too spendy to worry about the ¢’s.
      • Are you saying that it possible that at this moment, Obama both already won, and already lost, at the same time, and all we need to do is collapse the wave function to determine which it is?

        Well this is a simple fact. ;)

      • I am 100% convinced that the party leaders (read: McConnell, Bohner, etc) want to see Obama win. At this point the 2 possible nominees are undesirable. Romney is milquetoast and Gingrich seems intent on imploding the party. The problem we are presented with is that Obama has been so weak they could still win the damn thing. That’s a worst-case scenario.

        Ideally Obama stays in, the GOP gets four more years to beat him up and when voter fatigue reaches its peak in 2016 there’s a much better crop of contendors from Christiie to Ryan to Cantor to several strong governors. The last hing we want is for Romney or Gingrich to win and we’re stuck with them in four years.

      • Probabilities are descriptions of your state of knowledge, so yes it’s the same probabilistic thing as a toss-up.  After all, in a sense everything has been determined already (at least if you’re a Multiple Worlds guy).
      • Well maybe not completely determined but I’d say most of the major factors are in motion already or are poised to drop. I imagine that the GOP strategists look at all the green shoots popping up on the unemployment indicators and shake nervously. For that matter I imagine Obama’s people look at Europe and shake the same way.
    • As for Romney’s statement, I don’t find it literally callous:  he did claim that if measures to protect the very poor weren’t working, he’d fix them.  It might be figuratively callous, in that he doesn’t make it clear how he would fix those measures and the gist of what he says is to direct concern away from the very poor.  But I don’t find it necessarily callous.
      • Well, even if we had a social safety net that worked perfectly, I would still care about all of my countrymen, and particularly those who were worst off.
      • I was thinking about this point today in regards to Romney’s quote.

        Will there ever exist a society that does not require a safety net?  Surely there do exist societies that do not have safety nets.  But those often have scores of people living in abominable circumstances.

        Rather, if we gave everyone jobs and a “living wage” and all that jazz… wouldn’t the resulting inflation just leave the exact same amount of people unable to scrape by?  I don’t know all the ins and outs of economy, but it seems like we are ALWAYS going to have a bottom decile, and while we can shrink the gap between groups, we can’t eliminate the mathematics from the situation.  I guess that is where communism comes in… which you already said should be illegal :-p.

      • There’s the “relative” vs. “absolute” argument that we could exhume again, if you’d like.

        We could point out that more or less everybody has heat, running water, sewage, and 2000 calories a day and discuss where, exactly, society’s moral obligations can be considered to be met.

        No? Oh. Okay.

      • JB-

        I get that.  I’m not talking about “relative”.  In a society where everyone is employed and everyone has a living wage, would inflation kick in and turn that living wage into a non-living wage?  Would people struggle to eat or house themselves?  I’m asking… not stating…

      • When I was growing up (in the 80′s), I was told that 5% unemployment was the lowest that unemployment could reasonably go because if unemployment got lower than that, yes, inflation would kick in and eat everything. Then something wacky happened: The 90′s.

        We saw a handful of new technologies (computers, the internet, cell phones) absolutely explode and everybody needed a computer (if not two) and they needed to hook it up to AOL and they needed a cell phone. And as everybody was buying these things and using these things and getting new jobs and new sources of income, we got less and less and less unemployment. 4%. No inflation. Hell, the dollar was stronger than ever (we went up to Canada and I couldn’t *BELIEVE* the exchange rate).

        Now, of course, several things happened together.

        Well, the exchange rate was so good that it made sense to outsource your absolute least talented/skilled employees to Asia where you could hire their most talented/skilled employees for PENNIES. Seriously, the exchange rate was *SOOOO* good and those countries were *SOOOOO* poor that it would have been foolish to do anything but. Of course, this meant that unemployment in America started creeping up…

        Everybody who wanted a computer was able to get one. In the 90′s, the real breakthrough was Gateway’s $999 computer… and the only people who knew how to put it together were in Iowa. Now you can go to Costco/Sam’s and get an absolute WARHORSE of a computer for $600… assembled elsewhere.

        In The Fugitive, remember how we knew that Harrison Ford was a successful doctor? A car phone. Remember Pulp Fiction in the diner where Tim Roth is robbing the people at the counter and he said “is that a cell phone? In the sack” and even as recently as 1998, Tupac explained how “they get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone”. Now? They sell phones at Safeway for $20.

        All this to say, outsourcing working together with market saturation resulted in the pendulum swinging back. If anything, the inflation is resulting in companies exploring whether it’d be cheaper to have a call center in Iowa than in India (taking all sorts of previously unexamined costs into account).

        Full employment wouldn’t be eaten up by inflation. It’d be eaten up by improvements in productivity and saturation.

      • The problem arises when we label such efforts a Safety Net.   A pragmatic view of poverty and its attendant ills looks at the effects of those ills on society at large.

        Others around here, notably Ryan and Mike, have pointed out how poverty isn’t amenable to one-size-fits-all solutions.   Therefore, the only sensible approach is to consider the concomitant problems, real ones, the kind that put kids in the foster care system and put people in jail, or in the emergency room for lack of other medical facilities.   These problems cost society money any way you look at it.   If  we’re going to address poverty, any money we spend ought to reduce the inevitable costs of not addressing it.

      •  Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign
        funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. ~ Oscar Ameringer  
      • POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

        -Ambrose Bierce

      • Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being
        governed by those who are dumber. ~ Plato
      • Well, even if we had a social safety net that worked perfectly, I would still care about all of my countrymen, and particularly those who were worst off.

        I’m amused that this needed to be explicitly said.  By the soulless, callous libertarian no less.

      • Yea, in the same way you care about whether or not your cows are free-range and grassfed… because it has a dramatic impact on how they taste.

        Admit it… you just want to eat the poor.

      • Yeah, that Jason.   If ever there was a scary monster, heartless and callous, it would have to be him.   He scares me, anyway.

        Nah.   The Libertarians are sorta like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, who knows One Great Thing.   I’ve been a modern liberal for lo these many years and I’ve seen the self-delusion which goes on in their ranks.   The Libertarian’s One Great Thing is his reliance on and faith in the power of the individual, who knows better than anyone else what would actually better his lot in life.   Modern Liberals have lost sight of that power and seem to insist on Helping Folks.

        When I was a kid, fresh back from Africa, three blind ladies lived across the street from us.   I learned a lot from those women.   They’d have me come over to help them clean the floor.   They’d hold the broom, I’d guide their hands to where the trash was and they’d sweep it up.  In turn, they taught me a lot of tricks on how to operate in the dark.   To this day, in complete darkness, I’ll extend my left arm at a right angle in front of me:  the width from elbow to fingertip is the width of my shoulder,  keeps you from running your head into anything.   I use my right hand to feel about a bit, better if I have a stick to work with, to feel out the terrain in front of me.   I can say “Hello” into an empty room to size up how big it is by hearing.

        Never just wade into a situation and Help Someone without asking permission first.   It’s demeaning and confusing.   The Libertarians do care about the poor, mostly because there is no other meaningful yardstick to use.   They’re not crazy.   The Libertarian has the good sense to realize the poor will gladly help themselves.   If the poor want our help, they’ll ask for it.

      • Really, it’s more about having little faith in the power of government to make things better. That doesn’t mean that we think the alternative is perfect–Utopia is not an option–just better.
      • Holy crap — he didn’t say he doesn’t care — he just said his focus is on the middle class, which simply means he wants to use economic means to create growth and put people back to work so they don’t fall into poverty — This twisting of every word is nauseating, petty and silly. Who really believes Romney doesn’t care about the poor? He was a fucking missionary! This crap will prevent anyone from entering politics — it’s all about using deceit to destroying opponents and using any means to do it.

        The real poor are always with us, and as a society we support both private and government safety nets — we try to plug holes when we find them — but who is focusing on the economy and growth and wealth creation — the poor are fucked if we don’t create new wealth. Get a grip.

      • Who really believes Romney doesn’t care about the poor?

        Anyone who listens to him speak for 5 minutes.

      • Look, I’m not a Romney supporter, but the man is not a monster. Unlike those who talk about caring for the poor but never do anything to help poor people, Romney has actually sacrified his time and donated millions of dollars to help poor people.
      • Look, I’m not a Romney supporter, but the man is not a monster.

        The man’s favorite book is an L. Ron Hubbard novel.  Yes. L. Ron. Hubbard.

        He straps his dog to the roof of his car for long car trips…..and jokes about it!

        He has claimed to be a Red Sox fan.  A Red Sox fan!

        And you want to tell me he’s not a monster?

         

      • Oh my, not the dog on top of the car deal. Yes, he’s a monster. I give up. This is becoming strangely funny, like in a theater of the absurd.

        I’ve liked the Red Sox since the days of Yaz.

      • Romney is perfectly willing to let poor people suffer so he doesn’t have to be taxed on his Cayman Island millions.

        It would be a grave insult to Godzilla to call him a monster.

      • Oh no, the Cayman Island deal — oh no, you nailed him. A monster! Those poor suffering souls — if only he didn’t have the Cayman Island account.

        I hope you all know that this line of attack is not going to work — if you’re going to attack him, come up with something that doesn’t sound so wimpy..

      • I don’t see much way to wiggle out of the words “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”  They were dumb words to say, and very callous too.

        Did Romney mean them?  I don’t think so.  Do people on the left think he means them?  Yes, of course.

        Romney lost my vote with his flip-flopping on GLBT issues, and he ensured it with his “double Guantanamo” comments.  That said, this quote was both (a) dumb and callous and (b) yes, open to some overreading.

      • He didn’t say “care.” He said “concerned with,” meaning actively worrying about. I don’t see how the remainder of the sentence doesn’t make that really obvious.
      • The callous part comes when you find out what kind of fixing he turns out to think the net is in need of in the event…
  2. Populism sometimes annoys me, and sometimes I dig it.  It depends on what it consists of in a given case. I think that’s an okay approach to have, frankly. I definitely don’t hate it: I appreciate it, even if I’m not always on board with it.  One thing’s for sure, whether we love it or hate it, it doesn’t do either back.  I bet you actually like some populisms too, Mike, but perhaps I’m wrong.

    I like what what you call class warfare.

    • Michael Drew,

      I like some populism indeed. Country music, for example. That’s why I was careful to note political populism, which is what I dislike.

      • My g/f is a country music fan.   I’m considerably older, so my taste in country music goes back to people like Emmylou Harris and older Nashville and as far afield as Gram Parsons, who really was country though he’s often lumped in with the California rockers.

        What annoys me about so much of modern country is its raucous insistence on all these self-referential country memes, steeped in ignorance like so many pickled eggs at the bottom of the jar.   It’s what an old rancher of my acquaintance called “All Hat and No Cattle”   I’m deeply angered by songs like Toby Keith’s American Soldier, so much maudlin sentiment with steel guitars weepin’ beery tears all over the stage.   Bullshit.    You can always tell there’s a fresh war a-comin’ round the bend when they start glorifying the veterans of the previous wars.   Country music’s gotten pretty goddamn political these days.

      • There is no song in history more condescending and ignorant than “Have You Forgotten” by Darryl Worley, which managed to be the #1 song in country music for nearly two months barely a year and a half after 9/11, lecturing people opposed to the Iraq War (especially northeasterners who, you know, actually experienced 9/11 firsthand but mostly opposed the Iraq War since Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11) about how they had forgotten.

        The country music that is good is unbelievably good, perhaps the best music America has got.  But when country music goes political, there is nothing worse.

         

      • For me the grossest offender is Toby Keith. This clip actually makes my nauseous.

         http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk8IbcHf0Cs

        As opposed to this one which was the best post 9/11 performance I can think of.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG_uDDEnzC4&context=C3b711beADOEgsToPDskKpXRE1jEEtJho45ienmtjM

        I’ve read interviews where firefighters and police officers who were there said that the moment Pete Townsend finishes his first chorus was a cathartic moment for many of them. It was like the whole nation was holding its breath until then.

         

         

      • Oddly enough, I was pretty ok with “Courtesy.”  Don’t get me wrong – it was and is a bad song, but at least he was talking about the right war, and at least he wasn’t a dude who was 1000 miles away from NYC on 9/11 telling effete northeastern liberals that they had forgotten about the friends, family members, and jobs they lost that day.

        I think you messed up the second Youtube link, though – I think I know what it was for, and I think I remember having a similar reaction to you when it happened.

      • More than a few Republican country music fans single out Have Your Forgotten as one of the worst country songs of the time. I don’t think that’s a fair representation of much, though. I would actually argue that the song was so bad and such a miscalculation that it killed the pro-war country music song (for everyone but Toby Keith).

        I agree with Mark about Courtesy. It was a song that needed to be written. Nobody, up to that point, had gotten a very popular sentiment at the time right.

        That said, I’m not sure if Mike’s problem is with the song or something else that happens in the clip.

         

      • Plum Hollow Band seems to me like the Nashville version of Bluegrass (Nashville is a genre here, rather than a city). I don’t like Nashville country, and Nashville bluegrass sounds even worse.

        Check out the Tennessee Mafia Jugband, though.

      • James, are you thanking me for Barney Barnwell or Chris for the Tennessee Mafia Jugband? I’d recommend both, but it has been a great honor of mine to have seen the Plum Hollow Band in concert four times. Let me say, nothing compares. Just as Charlie Daniels near-perfectly infuses rock with country. Barney Barnwell near-perfectly infuses rock with bluegrass. Barney’s Youtube presence fails to do justice to his staggering legacy. Unfortunately, he passed from this earth last year.
      • Actually, I’m thanking you both.  I like psychobilly s**t, and lots of stuff in that vague category of alt country.  Unfortunately most of the worthy acts tend to be regional and/or have cult followings, so I rely a lot on word of mouth.

        And since few of my family and friends share my elite tastes in music…

      • If there’s one thing to be agreed on here, it’s that the South does music a thousand times better than the North.
      • Mike,

        Thanks for the tip.  I just downloaded the Swamp Shakers from ITunes.

        The south does exactly three things better that actually matter; hospitality, music, and bourbon.

        You don’t do coffee well, you don’t do beer well, your politics sucks, and an Indy Car can blow the doors off a stock car.

        And heat and humidity is for people not smart enough to go somewhere cool and comfortable. ;)

      • Cuter girls?  Girls are cute everywhere (except Eugene,OR and Twenty Nine Palms, CA).

        Best bar I was ever in was in San Francisco, a biker bar where no attitude was allowed, and the bad-ass Harley rider who was kicking your ass in pool was also graciously coaching you on how to improve your game.  And on the wall it had the California bear flag with two bears, one mounting the other.

        I’ll probably have to give you tailgating without bothering to compare–I forgot about y’all’s football obsession (no, you don’t actually do college football better, but you guys are great at semi-pro football, especially Auburn and Miami).

      • (no, you don’t actually do college football better, but you guys are great at semi-pro football, especially Auburn and Miami).

        Does Miami actually count as the South?

        As for tailgating, I can’t speak to college football, but Buffalo’s title as the king of NFL tailgating remains undisputed.

      • I’d cut off a toe to have a true LSU tailgating experience.  The tails I’ve heard make me hate going to school in Boston.

        On music, the south has also done a great deal for mainstream rap music.  Not only by the contributions of southern artists, but also by breaking the silly east coast/west coast stranglehold on the genre.  That was the one area that could possibly have claimed a clear northern superiority but whatever superiority did exist has since evaporated.

        Our pizza is better.  Our basketball is better.

      • I would also venture to guess that the quality and variety of restaurants available in the north is superior to that in the south.  Which is not to say the food is better… Southern cuisine is generally superior to Northern cuisine.  But the types of restaurants and the quality of those restaurants is generally less.
      • It depends on where you are at in the South as to variety. If you are on the periphery you are going to see a very good mix of Southern and ethnic cuisine.

        The trick is really just having large enough immigrant communies to start the restaurants. We have tons of ethnic restaurants in Louisville but it’s really an anomally, like Washington D.C. which has, well, everything.

      • You live in Michigan, right? Land of frigid winters and a road system of the same quality as a mid-70s Soviet Siberian highway system? Yeah, that’s where the smart people move. ;)
      • The curent national rankings are:

        1 Kentucky

        2 Syracuse

        3 Ohio State

        4 Missouri

        5 North Carolina

        6 Baylor

        7 Duke

        8 Kansas

        9 Michigan State

        10 Murray State

        I read that as six Southern schools, one midwestern and three Yankee teams.

      • BSK, the quality and variety thing depends on a number of factors. I am inclined to say on variety that you are, on the whole, right. Though, to be fair, if you go into any major city you will find no shortage of all sorts of restaurants and some great fusion stuff (Barbeque Thai!). So I’m not disagreeing, merely pushing back against the notion (not advanced by you) that the south is culinarily boring or unipolar.

        I will say this, though: When it comes to absolutely atrocious restaurants. The sort that you think “OMG HOW ARE THESE PEOPLE IN BUSINESS?!” Well… the South is the king of that.

        On the other hand, the South has great pricepoints. I can’t tell you how many times I ate out in the northwest and thought “Yeah, this is pretty good, but not $20 a head good.”

      • DC has some good pockets of ethnic food, but the overall quality of restaurants is poor (though getting better).  There are few truly worthwhile top tier restaurants.  Food is just not an integral part of the city as it is in many others.

        When I say basketball, I mean the local flavor.  I have a great preference for the city ball of the north than farm boy ball of the midwest and south.  I suppose that is somewhat of an aesthetic preference, but eh.  I’d also venture to guess that northern cities produce a disproportionate amount of NBA players, though I don’t know how to back that up.

      • WT-

        No doubt.  I think food means different things in the two places.  In the south, there is a much bigger emphasis on local cuisine, which I think limits the emphasis people place on other food.  And I don’t blame them.  I wouldn’t have much use for great Italian restaurants or steakhouses or fusion places if I lived in NOLA and could just eat the local grub everyday.  The inverse holds true as well… what is NY cuisine?  Pizza?  Hot dogs?  Street food?  NY is known for the high quality and high variety of restaurants, which says more about the people who are in the area than the area itself.

        Neither way is right… just different.  Personally, I prefer the variety, because there are so many different types of cuisine that I enjoy that I am hardpressed when some are not available.  I almost through an ish-storm when the local Indian place in my neighborhood closed down followed by the Cuban joint two towns over getting sold… leaving me with Chinese, pizza, and Italian-American food.  I had a conniption living in Yonkers because I couldn’t get Pho, though the local Mexican (REAL Mexican) and Salvadorian food made up for it.  Ugh… now I want Pho…

      • Basketball is better in the North? Them’s fightin’ words.

        Yeah, do you southerners really want to pick another fight with us?  You do remember what happened last time, right?

        But let’s provide a little evidence.  Indiana and Kentucky play a high school all-star home and home series every year.  Have damn near forever.  How’s that working out for those folks south of the Ohio River? Not so great.

        Indiana… completed its sixth sweep in seven years. Indiana also has a whopping 85-42 advantage all-time.

        Take that, Mike Dwyer!
      • Chris,

        Winter is good.  Separates the weak from the strong.  Unfortunately Michigan doesn’t do winter nearly as good as Colorado or Utah.

      • And WT… anyone who thinks Southern cuisine is monolithic gets a big ol’ F from me.  I have friends who are still shocked to learn that there are different types of barbecue and if you dare, DARE mix them up, you might get barbecued yourself.  When northern’s call their grill session with hot dogs and hamburgers a “barbecue”, I want to make them into sausage.  And it’s not like I’ve traveled the south extensively… I just think it is worthwhile to learn about all of the wonderful foods out there.
      • BSK, as a fellow Bostonian I hate to say it, but NYC does hip hop the best. The South has made some notable contributions, but a lot of crap comes out of the South as well.
      • Where I’m from, BBQ=pulled pork. If you say BBQ, that’s what people will think you mean. This is true for the Carolinas as well, I believe (I know it’s true in North Carolina, and I think it’s true in South Carolina). Might also be true in Virginia, but nobody goes there for the BBQ.

        Here in Texas, which, being a southerner, I don’t consider the south (people in Texas, at least in East Texas, consider themselves southerners at least some of the time), BBQ = brisket, sausage, ribs (usually pork), and sometimes turkey. In Missouri, it’s ribs.

        Memphis, by the way, has the best fried chicken in the world. Granted, I’ve never had fried chicken in Estonia, but I’m making an inference.

        Also, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina = how many national championships? I suspect that if we exclude UConn and Syracuse, they excede the number of national championships for the entire East Coast above the Mason-Dixon line. Only California competes with the south for basketball, with Chicago coming in a distant third, and the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn fourth (with the exception of Boston and its suburbs, the rest of the Northeast is a sports wasteland).

      • CC-

        I didn’t mean to imply that NYC wasn’t still king… it always was and probably always will be, seeing as how it birthed the damn genre.  But it used to be East Coast vs West Coast, NYC vs LA.  Now we’ve got a lot more music coming from a lot more places, which is a good thing.  Some of it is assuredly crap.  But I don’t know that we’d see someone like Kanye (who I personally think is the best producer alive right now and it’s not even close) doing what he’s doing if earlier groups hadn’t helped break the mold.  ATL, NOLA, Memphis, Chi-town are all major players in the game right now.  That wasn’t true when I was growing up.  And the industry is better for it.

      • Chris-

        That’s what I was getting at.  Carolina vs St. Louis vs Texas.  I had to explain to some friends what I meant when I said, “This place is a Carolina joint and that place is a Texas smokehouse.”  They thought I just meant who the bars’ owners’ rooted for.  Sigh…

      • BSK, what irks me is that even though I can get amazing brisket and sausage here in Texas (a place I can walk to from work was just rated the best BBQ in the country by Bon Appetit), and some pretty good ribs, I can’t find passable pulled pork anywhere in this whole friggin’ state. It’s really, really annoying. I want some pulled pork with sweet corn bread, sweet tea to drink (that’s another thing, in Texas, sweet tea is tea that they put the sugar in for you), and maybe some beans, cole slaw, or potato salad for a side, damnit!
      • Chris,

        Let’s not forget that the Dukies and the Tarheels owe a lot of their success to players from the north.  Guys like Sean May and Tyler Zeller (Indiana) and Kyle Singler (Oregon).

        In fact Duke’s roster this year has 3 guys from Indiana, a guy from Rhode Island, a guy from D.C., and a guy from Illinois.  A guy from Maryland, too, but that state’s a tossup between north and south.  I’ll just note, though, that Duke’s got more players from Indiana on it’s team than from North Carolina.

        Great program, yes.  But let’s not try to fool anyone into thinking it’s made great solely by southerners.  (Curiously, the ’06-’07 roster only “southerner” was a guy from Arkansas.)

      • Lest we forget: Duke’s namesake, at the time of the endowment that gave the school its name, was a New Jersey resident, and his daughter remained such for her entire life.  Also, too: given its demographics, at what point do we just acknowledge that Duke is really just the southernmost point of New Jersey.
      • CC- Wrong. Dead wrong. Duke is entirely populated by nerds. Nerds amd douches. Douchenerds , if you will. Have ou ever met a Dukie whose face wouldn’t look better after being punched? I actually started a support group in college for people to come to grips with the fact they’d never get to punch Paulus in the face.
      • BSK, as a Duke alumnus, I kind of agree about the douchenerd thing. Douchenerds are definitely an over-represented group at Duke, and the campus culture has a way of turning non-douchenerds into douchenerds. But, I have to say, it was a damn fun four years, and I met a lot of cool, smart, interesting people during my time there.
      • I know the Duke area well enough to have a few books behind the bar at the James Joyce.   Plenty of tattooed persons and great conversation.   More postdocs along that bar than anywhere I’ve ever seen.   A real Irish bar, the James Joyce, not one of these twee O’Bagoshyte outfits that serve green beer on St. Patrick’s Day.

        Not a douchenerd to be found there.

      • Strictly business.    Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina.   Truth is, with the exception of a few bits around Duke, I liked nothing about Durham.   The client was beyond horrible, the vinegar barbeque barbarous and the Bible Thumpers numerous and oppressive.

        And then there was Cary.   This is an acronym, standing for Containment Area for Relocating Yankees.   A ticky-tacky burg with dreadful suburban homes sprung up on that red clay like so many mushrooms on horse turds.

      • Mike,

        I too noted that I failed to include the word political as the modifier of populism, my bad.  But that’s what I meant.  I bet you like some political populisms, too.  Like, perhaps, the political-identity element of country music.  Or not.  As I said, perhaps I’m wrong.

  3. Cheap populism is a great vote-getter.   All politicians have mastered that paternoster to varying degrees.   We can all agree it’s so much condescending blether, but what would replace it?

    Can you imagine a politician saying “Yanno, this country needs leadership with the mandate to make tough decisions.   If I’m elected, don’t plan on a whole lotta pork coming back to this district.   Put me in the Oval Office, I’m going to propose some highly unpopular things, some stern medicine to get this economy back on track and you won’t like it at all and furthermore you won’t see any discernible benefits for many years.   We’ve been off track for a long time and it will take a decade and more to get us on a sound fiscal footing.”

    He wouldn’t get halfway through that paragraph before the tomatoes would start flying in his general direction.

    • Why would anyone vote for a politician who explicitly told them he doesn’t care about their interests? People have a really hard time understanding the difference between populism and democracy sometimes.
      • Fact is, such a politician would care about the interests of his constituency.   Their best interests.   We’ve been waging wars without raising taxes to pay for them.   Even old King John was obliged to go to the barons to finance his wars in France but not our politicians.

        Romney might not care about the poor.   He’s got a tin ear.   But how much more does Obama care about the poor?   And what could he do to better their lot?   There’s only so much government can do in any case:  until markets improve the jobs which might actually improve the lot of the poor won’t reappear.   Even if markets improve, how many thus-created jobs would want to employ our poor?   Big questions, ones for which there are no easy answers, ones for which the government can’t provide direct answers.

        I know I’m preaching to the choir.   Christ said “the poor you will always have with you.”   No matter how much is done to help them, the poor don’t want our help.   They want to help themselves.    As you say, there’s a difference between populism and democracy.   The politicians tell us what we want to hear.   They kiss the babies and shake the hands and tour around like so many traveling minstrel shows.   But who can blame them for trying to sell us snake oil?   We don’t want to take our medicine as a nation, start investing in our own futures and those of our children.    We need a long term view and our current political structure doesn’t provide the framework for it.   That was supposed to be the role of the Senate but they’ve completely abandoned any semblance of gravitas.

    • Can you imagine a politician saying “Yanno, this country needs leadership with the mandate to make tough decisions.   If I’m elected, don’t plan on a whole lotta pork coming back to this district.   Put me in the Oval Office, I’m going to propose some highly unpopular things, some stern medicine to get this economy back on track and you won’t like it at all and furthermore you won’t see any discernible benefits for many years.   We’ve been off track for a long time and it will take a decade and more to get us on a sound fiscal footing.”

      He wouldn’t get halfway through that paragraph before the tomatoes would start flying in his general direction.

      Mondale was barely able to complete the sentence, “I will raise taxes,” before tomatoes started flying. ;)

      • Mondale was barely able to complete the sentence, “I will raise taxes,” before tomatoes started flying. 

        And yet Obama said the same thing, he just added the appropriate suffix - on the rich!

        Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that feller behind the tree!

    • I’m going to propose some highly unpopular things, some stern medicine to get this economy back on track and you won’t like it at all and furthermore you won’t see any discernible benefits for many years.   We’ve been off track for a long time and it will take a decade and more to get us on a sound fiscal footing.”

      Except for the longer timescale (ten years instead of five) that sounds a lot like David Camerons 2010 election campaign.

      • Maybe we should ask Bryan Caplan to run for office:

        When someone asks for your support, it’s natural to wonder, “Why do you need my support in the first place?”  Some answers are better than others.  If your friend asks you to pay for his lunch, “I was just mugged” is a better reason than “I already spent my whole paycheck on beer.” …. The key difference: If there are reasonable steps the person could take – or could have taken – to avoid his problem.  Your friend didn’t have to spend all his money on beer.

        I propose to use the same standard to identify the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.  The deserving poor are those who can’t take – and couldn’t have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty. Theundeserving poor are those who can take – or could have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty.  Reasonable steps like: Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn’t fun; spend your money on food and shelter before you get cigarettes or cable t.v.; use contraception if you can’t afford a child.  A simple test of “reasonableness”: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.

        If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped.  Still, on reflection, many people we think of as “poor” turn out to be undeserving.

        Let’s start with healthy adults in the First World.  Even the least-skilled full-time jobs pay more than enough for adults to comfortably support themselves.  In the U.S., the average income for janitors is about $25,000/year; the average for maids is about $21,000.  A household with one janitor and one maid averages $46,000, enough to put them at the 96th percentile of the world income distribution – and well abovethe U.S. poverty line.

        Link below.

        “How Deserving Are the Poor?”: My Opening Statement

      • Looking to get virtually mugged today, aren’t you, Roger? ;)

        I’m sympathetic to Caplan’s point, but ultimately can’t agree for two reasons.

        Reason 1 is that what counts as the distinctions between deserving and undeserving will get determined politically, not through logic, and it will inevitably end up being a moralistic judgement.  I abhor moralistic politics (that’s the real source of my antipathy both to strong leftists and strong rightists).

        Reason 2 is that all people are not created equally rational.  Many of those “undeserving” adults who don’t manage to hold down steady full time jobs fail to do so because they just aren’t mentally/emotionally stable enough to handle it.  They’re not “severely” handicapped.  By most standard measures they’re not even handicapped.  But they’re subpar in intelligence and subpar in impulse control–that tells me there’s something physiologically wrong in their brains that is outside their control.  That’s not going to be true for all healthy adults who can’t stick to a job, but it’s going to be true for a significant number of them, and at present I don’t think we have ways to figure out which are which, at least not without some fairly invasive testing procedures.

        I’d comfortably leave the undeserving poor go without help, if I had confidence we could reliably identify them.

      • James,

        Your objections really strike at the heart of a feature/bug in our current system of centralized, top down programs.

        Absent competition and choice in who and how and how much we aid, a bureaucracy determines these things. Of course, your favorite topic Public Choice (I am still reading your recommended list) projects what the government program will try to do to the definition — expand it. We then coercively force those with different values to subsidize that which they disagree with. The system dynamic is for an increasingly broader definition of who is deserving, and an increase in inefficiency and bureaucratic bloat.

        If we introduce choice and competition into public aid*, then we can begin to allow citizens to use their judgment. Let’s also not forget the role of private charity on the margins.

        * Subsidiarity, taxpayer directed taxes, competing agencies with common budget, supermajority voting on transfer payments, etc

      • What is the demand for janitors and maids, is it high enough that every able bodied non worker could get those jobs if they applied?

        If not then we are stuck with some, hopefully transitory, population of people who will be unemployed as a result of factors partly but not wholly beyond their control. They aren’t Caplans’ ‘deserving poor’ because they could have taken reasonable steps like getting more qualifications but neither do they have the option of just walking into a job if they wanted.

        What should be done about those people?

      • Matty,

        Yes, the issue is not black and white. See my response above to James on ideas to introduce individual judgment into the issue. If we design the system right, one judge of who is deserving can be YOU.

        More broadly, I think your objection is based upon how society has been warped by past interference. Unemployment is an issue because of licensing regulations, barriers to entry in various self employment fields, minimum wages/mandatory benefits, union monopoly and so on.

        As I suggested yesterday (way above), the path to a reasonably secure middle class lifestyle for a family in America is:

        1. Go to school and graduate
        2. Learn a useful trade or profession that people will pay you to do
        3. Work hard at it
        4. Don’t have kids until you are married, and then stay married
        5. Prepare for the future

        We all know “stuff” happens. The point is that the chronically poor are striking out on many and in some cases all of these things. We are in many cases incentivizing these behaviors. We need to start reversing this cycle.

        And don’t get me wrong, I am not JUST blaming the undeserving. I believe we helped create this dependency. We need to accept blame ourselves and stop encouraging dysfunctional behavior.

         

      • That’ s not a bad answer,  though I remain skeptical how much we can reduce unemployment. Maybe though by dropping some of those barriers you could reduce the average duration to one where most people could survive on their savings.
  4. The problem with class warfare is that it doesn’t go away just because you don’t talk about it. People tend to vote their interests, which is precisely what they should do. Class is a real thing that divides people (along with lots of other things), so politicians will always be engaged in class warfare as they choose positions on policies that will benefit one class over another. To my mind, not talking about and pretending it doesn’t exist only exacerbates the problem.
    • politicians will always be engaged in class warfare as they choose positions on policies that will benefit one class over another

      I would actually submit that this is a subtle and perhaps in this case unintended escalation of rhetoric that we don’t strictly have to accept as a descriptive matter based on fair understandings of some very reasonable possible definitions of the term.

      • I guess if you don’t like the term “warfare”, you can say that politicians are engaged in a game or competition or some such that very often involves one class receiving more benefits than another. As someone who is pretty unsympathetic to the general militarization of culture, I find this at least somewhat appealing.
      • It’s not that I object to the war language, just that I think that what you give is or could be a relatively quite loose understanding of what I take to be meant by the whole term “class warfare” itself as compared to others that I think are more in keeping with the history of the idea and applications of the term (outside of highly tendentious use of it in the most modern and cynical political context).
    • Ryan, I’m increasingly convinced that class is an illusion. The groups are too broad and the characteristics too diverse. A poor person in rural Nebraska has far different challenges than a poor person in the ghettos of Detroit. The only shared charateristic is income and that’s a gross oversimplification of their problems.
      • Ryan, You are sort of making my point for me. ‘The Blacks’ are not a monolithic group. Lumping them all together and ascribing policies meant to benefit them as a whole is where the illusion comes in. The same for ‘The Poor’. And it’s even moreso for economic classes because the reasons for why people end up there are a lot more complex than the skin color of their parents and basic reproductive biology.
      • Of course they’re not a monolithic group. But saying that because there are differences between the circumstances of individual black people implies that we can’t talk about how policy impacts “The Blacks” (as you say) is… wrong.

        I mean, not to derail this too much, but slavery was quite obviously a policy problem for black people as a group in a way that it was not for non-black people.

        In the end, it remains the case that the economic problems facing the poor person in Detroit are more similar to those facing the poor person in Nebraska than they are to those facing a rich person anywhere. That’s why class matters.

         

      • Sure – there are more similarities between two poor people than a poor person and a rich person, but at the policy level, too broad of a brush doesn’t accomplish anything. That’s why I dislike class warfare because it ignores geographic and social factors that lead to the lower income.

        Essentially, what class-based policy does it so address the symptoms (income below a certain level) rather than look at root cause which is widly divergent.

      • Typically, I’d be a bigger fan of class-based policy at a granular level, myself.

        There’s nothing inherently wrong with using socioeconomic status as a metric for aligning your redistribution policies, but it’s probably better to do this at the local level than federal.

      • I think you’d be surprised at how similar the problems of rural poor and urban poor are, at least economically. I mean, obviously rural poor have different problems with respect to crime, for example, but they are going to have very similar issues with wages, working more than one job (or too many hours in the same job), education for themselves and their children, food insecurity, child care, housing, etc. What’s more, social status issues are pretty similar in urban and rural settings (as Weber noted way back when). In the end, class is a pretty useful conceptual tool, and “class conflict” is as well.

        Also, I’m sure you meant it tongue and cheek, based on your use of quotation marks, but “the backs” is still cutting it pretty close. At this point, it’s pretty much the same as saying “the coloreds.”

      • What’s more, social status issues are pretty similar in urban and rural settings (as Weber noted way back when).

        I’m pretty dubious about that.  The social status issues don’t disappear, but listening to my wife (who grew up lower middle class in suburban L.A.) talk about social status issues in her high school presents a weird unfamiliar world to me (who grew up lower middle class in rural Indiana). Well off people in rural areas often don’t flaunt it so much because it’s not as culturally acceptable.  (One of the things that shocked me when I moved to the West Coast was the extent to which boasting was real self-boosting and not a self-deprecating joke.)

        I mean, obviously rural poor have different problems with respect to crime, for example

        Well, that in itself counts for a shitload of difference.  Being poor and able to walk the streets at night is so not comparable to being poor and afraid of being mugged or a victim of a drive-by shooting.

      • James, I suppose my point is that the common issues they face are the class issues. Since they’re class issues, class is a pretty useful concept.

        As for status, there’s something to what your wife says. I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, middle middle class, with friends in both directions. In general, it was the people whose parents had money who tried to hide their class. However, much as in the city, the people with the real money didn’t send their kids to public school, and there was a very real divide there. What’s more, when my town’s population exploded in the mid-to-late 90s, and more public schools opened, another rift appeared based on neighborhood, and the same social status divides showed up pretty clearly. Now that town is one of the wealthiest, per capital, in the country (the county is ranked 17th), they send the poor people to school a couple towns over, in what is still a small town (and fairly rural). It’s sort of like creating an inner city, except in the country.

      • Wouldn’t that make “Americans” a false group?

        The idea of grouping people is a commonality that exists among them, not necessarily identicalness (is that a word?).  There is something common to the group of people who identify themselves as black that makes their membership in that group meaningful.  The same thing with the poor and the same thing with Americans, etc, etc, etc.

      • BSK – National identities are also of course a construct. We only create shared circumstances by creating laws meant to benefit everyone that meet certain criteria.

        What I mean by this is, if there were no laws that were designed to benefit ALL Americans, there would be nothing to really glue us all together. It’s the same thing that happens when you create laws designes to benefit one race or one economic class. You create artificial groups that aren’t really very homogenous.

      • Constructs are real things! Just because my house didn’t spring forth from Zeus’ head doesn’t make it not a house.

        And you are really dodging here. Americans are not a group just because they have laws binding them together. They have culture, geography, history, any number of things. The law did not create America. In fact, one of the interesting things about America has always been that America created the law.

      • But Ryan – policy is not geared towards shared history and culture. It’s geared towards quantifiable characteristics. ‘The Poor’ are defined as people under a certain income which is, IMO, a lousy construct because it assumes shared root causes for said poverty (which then leads to broad policy that is mostly ineffective). If anything, I’d rather see policy directed towards ‘The Under Educated’ or ‘The Single Mothers’ or ‘The Children of Men Imprisoned for Non Violent Drug Offenses’.  Those are labels that make a lot more sense to me.

         

      • There are ways to proxy shared history and culture with quantifiable (or binary) characteristics. For what it’s worth, I agree with you that there are many reasons why people may be poor, and I would love policy that is more targeted at rooting out those reasons and destroying them. But that doesn’t make the lived experiences of the poor so wildly divergent that we can’t talk meaningfully about broad-based policies like a safety net or guaranteed minimum income or access to health care – because these are things that DO apply to the class of people we call “the poor” and not things that apply to the class of people we call “the rich”.
      • Mike,

        I’d like to see policy directed toward those that bothered to get educated, bothered to get married before having babies, and bothered to work full time. Of course they don’t need any policies, as they seem to do fine on their own.

        If you subsidize something expect more of it. Wonder what the graduation rates, marital rates, out-of-wedlock rates and hours worked per week rates look like for the poor? Hmmm….

      • …yeah, you go right ahead and subsidize recreational pulling out teeth. What, the public likes it! Free market, right?

        The POOR work more than you do, you lousy piece of shit. And they don’t spend their time blogging about it.

        You ever worked trash detail?

        Hell, have you ever served your country — and then, at the end of the day, had to go buy food using food stamps???

        That last one? I’ve done it.

        Poor and stupid go hand in hand, sometimes. But they’re luckier than you, because they aren’t so ignorant. You haven’t worked minimum wage on the eighth month of your pregnancy, just to make ends meet. My friend has.

        BooHooHoo, you got a problem with the wedlock rates. You go up to your priest and tell him to quit screwing around. And not to let those adolescent boys screw around on their sisters either.

        Right wing religion’s always like that. Just ask me how I know.

      • Ouch!

        Last week I was called a “dick” and this week I get demoted to a “lousy piece of shit?”

        Kimmy, you should know by now that I am not a conservative. Not even close. Wrong arguments.

        Poverty is extremely highly correlated to not getting married, to having kids out of wedlock and to voluntarily working fewer hours per week. If we really care about the poor, we would try to grasp what systemic or cultural factors are leading to an explosion in these trends. Perhaps it was even some of our good intentions that got in the way.

        Please stop calling me names and show a little empathy for the poor.

         

      • Roger, never wrestle with a pig. You’ll just get all sweaty and dirty and the pig actually enjoys rolling around in the mud.
      • I’ve been told several times by Kim/Kimmi/whatever that she’s killfiled me.  So could someone else deliver the warning limerick?
      • Well, if we are going to insist on policy that is allergic to nuance, then, yes, our constructs is poor.  But that is only because we constructed (wamp wamp waaaamp) them poorly (OHGODDAMMNIT!).  If our only definition of poor is people making under $X, then most policies based on that definition are going to be substandard.  If we define poverty in another way, that is still inclusive of those experiencing it under different circumstances yet meaningful enough to lead to useful policy, than the construct is a useful one.  If we were to say that a person is “poor” if their monthly income is less than the median rental price for a 2-bedroom apartment* and designed a policy around helping them find proper housing, then the construct is useful.

        * I have NO IDEA if this metric would be too inclusive, too restrictive, or simply too stupid.  I was just giving an example of how you can make the metric relative and grounded in the policy that is being designed.

      • The law did not create America. In fact, one of the interesting things about America has always been that America created the law.

        Oooh, total tangent, but what an intriguing concept!  I instinctively disagree, but I don’t know your argument, so I can’t quite say why.  This sounds like front page material to me.

      • It wasn’t meant to be a super-deep thought. To make it explicit:

        The law said the colonies were Britain. The colonies disagreed about that. It’s somewhat due to more prosaic reasons than we often discuss – taxes, selfishness, etc. – but what came out of that, at least as we retell it now, was a new state founded on a (somewhat) different set of ideas. One way of looking at it, as I’ve chosen to do here, is that America was a thing that existed before the laws that defined how it would function. Take those laws away and America is a still a thing that would bind people together.

      • America was a thing that existed before the laws that defined how it would function. Take those laws away and America is a still a thing that would bind people together.

        Hmm, here’s my off-the-cuff counterproposal:

        1. The colonies were shaped by the common law of England, and when they became the United States they kept that common law (although it’s evolved along some different lines than has England’s version), so in that sense the law shaped us.

        2. The United States didn’t really become the United States as we understand and conceive of it until we created the Constitution–so while “we, the people” created that set of laws, it was that set of laws that created what we understand to be the United States.

        3. Eliminate the Constitution tomorrow, and I’m not sure we’re bound together anymore. Possibly we are, but I’m pessimistic about it.

        Notice I used “United States” instead of “America.”  It’s possible we’re actually working of somewhat different conceptions.  When you say “America,” I don’t think of that as having much meaning prior to the ratification of the Constitution, because I take it as meaning our particular political structure and our sense of our country and our people as being defined by that structure (differently than, for example, the French would define themselves, where Frenchness goes back far beyond their current political system).

        I’m not looking for a real debate, and certainly not an argument.  This, I think, is one of those, “hmm, let me ponder the differences between his argument and mine” thingies.

      • Well, let’s say that you wanted to come up with a policy to help “Americans”. I think it’s safe to say that the “help” given by this policy would affect this group disproportionately and probably not have much of an impact on that one (and even odds that it’d, at least, inconvenience a third group).

        In the same vein, coming up with a policy to help African-Americans would have similar outcomes… and, for that matter, “the poor”. A policy that might help rural poor is likely to be less useful to urban poor, and vice-versa. More importantly, a policy that would help people in Detroit is not likely to be that useful to folks in Nebraska (and vice-versa).

        Unfortunately, on a political level, it won’t work to say that “we’re going to give Detroit this policy and Nebraska that one!”

        You have to help “the poor”. You have to help “African-Americans”. To tie everything up, you have to benefit “Americans”.

        I think it’s safe to say that the policies that would best do that aren’t at the Executive’s fingertips.

      • Ryan, what does your comment have to do with Dwyer’s?

        Unless you’re saying “dogwhistle!  Anytime a white person says ‘poor’ they really mean ‘black’!”

      • Settle. It was just an analogy.

        His claim was that “poor” is not a useful category because different poor people have different experiences. I tried to rephrase that claim using a category we all pretty much agree is real (“black”) to show that his claim doesn’t prove what he wanted it to prove.

      • Your restatment is only a counterargument if you insist that “poor” and “black” are synonyms.
      • Here’s the logic:

        Mike says: If two members of X have different experiences, then X is not a useful category.

        Contrapositive: If X is a useful category, then all members must have similar experiences.

        Ryan says:

        1. Black is a useful category.

        2. Black people do not all have similar experiences.

        –><– (contradiction)

      • Also, to be fair, I think one of the things internalized by Mike’s comment is that a poor person in rural Nebraska is overwhelmingly likely to be white, while a poor person in Detroit is overwhelmingly likely to be black, and that that accounts for some of the differences in their experiences that he is talking about. So I’m really not imagining what you are eager to accuse me of imagining.
  5. To talk about “the middle class” is one of the more populistic tropes a politician can resort to.  I’m not really all that concerned about the middle class as a “class.”

    For one thing, the term is too imprecise, or used too imprecisely, to mean much more than “those people who aren’t the filthy, undeserving rich and who aren’t the lazy, undeserving poor.”  I realize that’s a caricature, but I think there’s at least some truth to that if one reads between the lines.  For another thing, claiming that some policy or another is one that benefits “the middle class” is to claim a universalism for some thing that benefits a special interest:    a tax credit for child-rearing helps parents, a reduction in student loan interests helps people with student loans, forbidding insurance companies from denying benefits based on pre-existing conditions helps people with pre-existing conditions.  Not that there aren’t positive externalities that make catering to the special interest a benefit to the general public–I’m all for making it easier to be a parent even though I’m not a parent, for example–but simply to claim that that interest is “middle class” is to beg the question, assuming that by calling it “middle class” is to prove it is in whatever counts as the public interest.  (For the record, Mike, I’m not accusing you of doing this; if anything, I read you as implicitly questioning some of the assumptions, even though you might not phrase it the way I am.)

    Now as for populism, I confess that if a policy promises to serve my interests, I will probably support it, my principles and my own anti-populism be darned

    • The middle class is the class with the median voter in it.  That makes it the most important class of all – at least if you’re a politician.

      or another thing, claiming that some policy or another is one that benefits “the middle class” is to claim a universalism for some thing that benefits a special interest

      This is exactly why I don’t like class analysis, it assumes you can divide people into 3-4 homogeneous groups.  Public Choice Theory is much superior – it examines groups of interests based on the specific policy you’re looking at, rather than assuming broad, permanent coalitions.

  6. And here I was being put off by the fact that his math and percentages are so obviously fisked.  I didn’t even bother to decide if he was trying to woo me with false populism, since he can’t even be bothered to know the realities of the distribution of wealth in the country he hopes to lead.
  7. MD-

    Regarding the proposal quoted, I wonder if Republicans would REALLY be in favor of it if it was also available to the unemployed innercity black mother with 6 kids.

    It is interesting that you thought of it primarily in terms of middle class families who provide home care as a matter of choice.  Many families have stay-at-home parents because they have no choice… they either can’t afford other options or can’t employ both parents.  There are also many families at the upper end of the spectrum who do not need both parents to work and, consequently, often the mother stays home while dad goes to work.

    • I don’t think the GOP has any idea what they’d actually do with the poor.   Historically, they weren’t really awful to the poor with the exception of Reagan, who really did horrible things to the poor, especially to the mentally ill.   Reagan famously said the Liberals fought Poverty and Poverty won.   Reagan waged war on the poor themselves.   The poor are still with us.

      For all their many sins and shortcomings, both Bushes had a heart for the poor.   Once we strip out all the cheap draconian rhetoric, I don’t think the GOP has the cojones to do anything serious to the system.

      • Thanks for weighing in, BP.  I was speaking about “Republicans” more broadly, including the people on the ground, commentators, etc, etc, etc.
      • Republicans are quite willing to acknowledge the plight of the poor.   They just don’t like paying for any meaningful solution.   Look at No Child Left Behind.   It’s just Ted Kennedy’s bill, with the cover torn off and the funding titles, too.   And there, scrawled in crayon on the now-exposed flyleaf, “George Bush 43″.
      • I’m not sure I see how this indicts Republicans.  They were willing to pay for that crap program, no?
    • BSK – of course not. If it was an unemployed black inner-city mother we would actually try to create policies that specifically forbid them from getting help. I’m not sure what criteria we would use to prevent them from using the program, maybe something based on music preferences or what they named their kids (LaNeyNey is out, Ashley is in).

      In case you missed the sarcasm there, I think the whole point of Douthat’s proposal is to support pro-family policies through the tax code. If the unemployed mother’s stay-at-home status represents net work done, then she should get government recognition. I’m not sure what metrics would be used to do so but I’m sure someone could figure it out.

      • MD-

        Sarcasm meter was going off the charts.

        First, I am generally opposed to promoting social agendas through the tax code.  BUT, as long as we are doing so, promoting pro-family (or, more accurately, pro-child) policies is one I could get on board with.  The value that stay-at-home parents provide is often ignored and shouldn’t be.  How such a plan would look, I don’t know.  But my fear would be, as you alluded to, folks trying to make sure CERTAIN types of parents qualify while others don’t.  Octomom?  Out.  The Duggers or whatever?  In.  Bleh.

        Is volunteer work deductible as a charitable contribution?  If so, that might be one way to tackle it.

      • I think the real goal is to reward staying at home as a lifestyle choice verses a situation that was unplanned. A middle class mom who volunteers to stay at home is saying, “This is my job.” An unemployed woman who is stuck at home is in a situation she would probably prefer to escape. In that case, I’d rather her get job training that a pension credit.
      • But it is not a binary between those two positions.  Many SAHM do so because it is ultimately more cost-effective for them to stay home and provide free care to their children then to work, pay taxes on their income, and pay more in childcare fees than their net income amounts to.  Aren’t those people, in some ways, just as “stuck” in their decision as the unemployed mom?
      • I think the assumption is that the hypothetical middle-class parent could find a job that would be a net financial benefit, after child-care and taxes were taken into account–and, even if one weren’t available right now, one could become available in the future.
      • But you very quickly start to muddy the waters in who does and doesn’t qualify.

        If you have 3 kids and want them in private pre-school, you could be looking at $100K in childcare expenses, which only covers 10 months out of the year.  Would a parent who passed up a job that grossed $110K a year because it was Harvard PreK or bust be eligible for a credit?

      • Hey-

        You’re talking to a pre-school teacher who is squeezed out of the teacher’s unions by the the private monopoly on early childhood ed!

  8. Not sure if anyone metioned it above, but the real shell game is the term “middle class” itself, which isn’t the reality anymore (or a least won’t be in 5 to 10 years more time).

    There are the poor and rich, the working class and upper class.  Sure, you can find a median in there, and then discuss a theoretical middle class, but the reality is that there are poeple moving on up, and the rest who are falling on out.

    A campaign that focuses at length on ANY class, rather than what specific policies will make economic opportunity more wide spread, and socio-economic mobility more fluid, is a waste of time and an anachronism.

    • E.C.,

      I don’t want to turn this into a pissing match, but can you back up this claim with actual data?  My take is that it’s a nonsense claim, easy to repeat but not so easy to prove.  I won’t repeat myself, as I’ve made the argument many times before.  But I recommend checking out this article by a Brookings economist.

    • No problem.  I’m happy for your take on this:

      • Employment growth is polarizing, with job opportunities concentrated in relatively high-skill, high-wage jobs and low-skill, low-wage jobs.
      • This employment polarization is widespread across industrialized economies; it is not a uniquely American phenomenon.
      • The key contributors to job polarization are the automation of routine work and, to a smaller extent, the international integration of labor markets through trade and, more recently, offshoring.
      • The Great Recession has quantitatively but not qualitatively changed the trend toward employment polarization in the U.S. labor market. Employment losses during the recession have been far more severe in middle-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs than in either high-skill, white-collar jobs or in low-skill service occupations.

      Indeed, from 2007 through 2009, total employment in professional, managerial, and highly skilled technical positions was essentially unchanged. Jobs in low-skill service occupations such as food preparation, personal care, and house cleaning were also fairly stable. Overwhelmingly, the recession has destroyed the jobs in between. Almost one of every 12 white-collar jobs in sales, administrative support, and nonmanagerial office work vanished in the first two years of the recession; one of every six blue-collar jobs in production, craft, repair, and machine operation did the same. ”

      To my knowledge (which my be incorrect) the “middle class” was a result of industrial expansion in the 1950s.  The idea of the “middle” to me has always meant that a majority of people fall within a certain deviation of one another, like a really fat and flat bell curve.  Does anyone still think that’s the case?  Income and employment data seems to suggest it’s much more of a pyramid curve, with people falling down one side or the other.

      And obviously this is most apparent when it comes to spending on education, transportation, health care, and housing.  I don’t think having a smartphone makes you middle class, unless we want to dramatically reinterpret the image that phrase evokes (family, community, economic and job security, etc.).

      • “I don’t think having a smartphone makes you middle class”

        80% of the Earth’s population would agree, and add that it makes you part of the upper class, at least as any of them understand the concept.

        The joke used to be that everyone in America considered themself an above-average driver.  These days, the joke is that everyone in America thinks they’re poor.

      • I don’t think having a smartphone makes you middle class, unless we want to dramatically reinterpret the image that phrase evokes (family, community, economic and job security, etc.).

        E.C., for as long as I’ve been alive, which is about 80% of the post WWII era, people have been claiming that the middle class is disappearing and losing its economic security.   This era of job and economic security?  I’m not so sure it ever actually existed, except for a small handful of people.  Let me tell you, my family was middle class, but seriously lacked any actual job or economic security for most of my childhood and adolescence.

        Are things tougher  now?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just a short-term adjustment.  There’s been talk on these pages the last few days about companies that outsourced bringing the jobs back home because–in some cases–they’ve discovered the net benefit of outsourcing isn’t sufficient.  We’re all trying to predict the future here, and you know what the track record on that business is?

        But for my part, smartphones are an indicator of middle class status.  They’re an indicator of having lots of basic needs met so you can get a luxury.  I don’t think it’s true that middle class was once upon a time measured by job and economic security, as much as it was measured by a house in the ‘burbs with a white picket fence, a color TV, a car (maybe even a second car), and the ability to take the family out to Denny’s once a month.  That is, it’s the things you can afford that define your economic status.

        I sincerely think what has happened is that we’ve already reinterpreted what middle class means, and upped the standard to something that wasn’t necessarily met even in the ’50s and ’60s.  And then, post-hoc, we treat current failure to achieve that standard as “things are getting worse.”

      • 1950s middle class, mostly one bread winner.

        2010s middle class, both parents chasing bread.

        1950s less income inequality, cheaper education, and more jobs for uneducated.

        2010s more income inequality, costlier education, few well paying jobs for those without an education.

        The reason the smartphone doesn’t work is beause it is not indicative of all those much more costly middel class things: stable home, affordable rent, affordable medical care, affordable transportation, affordable education.

        Of course, things are better now for everyone.  But for those on the bottom it is only slightly better (but with smartphones!) and for those at the top it is a lot, lot better.  I’m not making a judgement here, that is somehow inherently bad.  I’m advocating for more socio-economic mobility and greater opportunity, not some specific distribution of wealth and status.

        But to whatever degree there was a middle pack in the 50s, the vanguard and rearguard have broken from one another and the middle class no longer exists.

        People have been complaining that its been disappearing for decades, because it has been disappearing for decards. 

        The trends in employment, wage stagnation, and costs of necessitie (medical care/education) have been going on since the 70s on.

      • EC,

        Good points. If things are “better now for everyone” how confident are we that these are not the negative but necessary side-effects of economic and social progress?

        Especially considering things have improved significantly better outside the US?

      • But smartphones are fishing awesome! Back when I first married (and absolutely dirt poor), I squandered over $5000 (bought on payments no less) on my first /real/ computer (one I didn’t build from chips). It had /everything/, 128K RAM, dual drives, a monitor and keyboard, it was the cat’s meow! I drove a car that cost $500 and was a happy camper. My friends all laughed at me for spending so much on a “toy”. But that toy was the means to my ultimate livelihood and I recouped its expense by orders of magnitude. Certainly the box itself wasn’t worth a box of rocks in just a few years, but what I /did/ with it certainly was.

        Smartphones today are vastly more powerful than that computer. I held out until this Christmas to buy my very first one. If I had the energy and ambition of my youth, I’d already have written a dozen applications for it. I’d love to believe that the poor youth of today are using their smartphones to make themselves… smart.

      • Wardsmith,

        I’m with you. I find my money goes so much farther in so many ways (basically in anything not fished up by government interference). When I factor in technological improvement some things that I have today would have cost millions a decade or so ago.  We are fortunate.

         

      • Unless you happen to be a middle class worker who no longer has a pension, whose health care premiums have exploded in the past decade while getting less services, and has seen the the bottom of the housing market fall out. But hey, they can buy an HDTV so life is awesome!
      • Jesse,

        You do realize that not everybody in the middle class had a great health care plan in the marvelous ’50s through ’80s, right?

        And that for those who did, the healthcare was actually of lower quality than today, even if the service was better?

        And that if the service was better then it was because there were more doctors per person than today, because now people are opting out of medicine because of the damned paperwork that’s required, not just by health insurers but by government agencies and malpractice insurers?

        Keep dreaming of that marvelous ’50s where everybody had a wonderful job in the factory, that white picket fence, lovely wife, and 3.4 kids.  You weren’t there and you’ve romanticized it into something that never actually existed.

        You really hit a sore point with me on this crap, because I was a kid in the ’70s, which is allegedly before everything became so bad for the middle class, and I can tell you it was damned hard at times.  When my dad fell off a cliff and broke his skull, back, ribs, pelvis, arms and legs, he was in the hospital for a year and out of work for the next year–god only knows how long my parents were paying off his hospital bills; seemed like forever.  My dad was out of work for a long period of time in the ’60s; we were so poor he stopped paying for the newspaper, so my aunt paid for it so my dad could get the classifieds and look for work.  My mom worked in a factory, good pay when they had work, but it was on/off depending on what kind of orders they had, and then the damned union went on strike for so long that my mom never made back in the small wage increase what she had lost in foregone income during that period.  I remember my mom struggling to feed us.  I remember freezing in my bedroom in winter as we kept the thermostat low to save money on fuel.  I remember my parents saying I couldn’t get my horribly messed up teeth fixed because we couldn’t afford it.

        And then some callow young guy comes along and talks about how much worse things are today than in the glorious middle class past.  You just don’t know, Jesse.  You’re obviously a good guy, and you’re obviously a bright guy, and I love a lot of your posts all to hell and back for their insights.  But on this issue you’re operating on the basis of a romanticized past that just never was what it’s supposed to have been.

      • Is there some kind of prize for the progressive best able to deny progress?

        Isn’t that the Lysenko Award?

        And let me note that the article Roger links to is by the same guy I linked to, Scott Winship.  He’s a scholar at Brookings; not know for being a reactionary right-wing kind of joint.  Certainly no Cato! (Sorry Jason K., couldn’t resist.  I’m working late tonight on a project with a looming deadline, and I’m feeling a bit punchdrunk.)

      • Just for a bit of a fuller picture, here is his list of “Research and Commentary” from his bio page at brookings.edu (I’ve bolded the names of the publications in which they appear):

        RESEARCH AND COMMENTARY

        Save to My PortfolioThe President’s Suspect Statistics January 02, 2012 National Review
        Save to My PortfolioEconomic Mobility: Season of Our Discontent? December 16, 2011Brookings Up Front Blog
        Save to My PortfolioIs U.S. Upward Economic Mobility Impaired? November 09, 2011 National Review
        Save to My PortfolioA Decade of Slack Labor Markets September 09, 2011 Brookings Up Front Blog
      • Michael,

        He also publicly states that he voted for Obama.

        And it could be that he publishes at Nat. Rev. because left-leaning publications won’t accept anything that doesn’t spout the party line on the woes of the middle class.  Normally I think left-leaning mags are more open to dissenting opinion than are right leaning ones, but on this particular issue I truly don’t think so.  If there is any single thing that counts as heresy among liberals it is to suggest that the middle class isn’t disappearing.  They can talk seriously about race, they can talk seriously about health care policy, they can even entertain some dissenting voices on environmental policy, but the desperate plight of the middle class is their Jesus myth.  Deny it and you go to hell.

      • He’s very clear he’s a progressive by his lights.  As I said, I thought a fuller picture was in order.

        I think publishing in the NRO is more likely to do with their wanting to publish his views than with his being unable to be published in other places.  In any case I think evidence is not really an issue for the former claim, while I think it might be reasonable to suggest it would be appropriate the latter.  Of course, yes, it “could” be the case.

      • Allow me? it’s not so much teh demise of the middle class, as it is the destruction of teh middle class’s capability to mobilize and act in the public sphere at large. This is a current plan, not a past plan, and the landed rich are currently working on it.

        The erosion is ongoing…

        They seem to think that if they get 95% of the wealth, that they can keep the rest of us digging in the dirt like chickens.

      • Oh, it’s purely speculative, I realize that.  It’s just my personal experience that the only two things that really drive a liberal into a rage when I’m talking to them is to critique claims of global warming or suggest the middle class isn’t doing so badly.
      • the destruction of teh middle class’s capability to mobilize and act in the public sphere at large.

        She says as we watch Republican presidential candidates pander shamelessly to the middle class in hope of winning their votes!

        Kimmie, you’re a gem.  I’ve never met anyone who manages to be so relentlessly and hilariously wrong.  You’ve got to be a Poe.  I swear, if you didn’t exist, someone at the League would need to invent you, just for laughs.

      • Pandering is pandering, surely. But tell me, who do the policies benefit? When the rubber hits the road, the Republicans have sold out.

        Do you understand the fundamental fragility of Just In Time? It is a great metaphor for our middle class.

        Crash the stock market — the middle class withers as the wealthy get rich.

        Crash the housing market (the last bubble as they say) — the middle class suffers.

        Go a bit more local: one member of your family loses a job. Well, it’s now suddenly much harder to become self-sustaining again — given that most people don’t do what they ought, and live within their means. You will have a hard time moving, as you need to find jobs for two.

      • 1950s middle class, mostly one bread winner.

        Reality or myth?  Choice or sexism?

        1950s less income inequality, cheaper education, and more jobs for uneducated.

        I don’t take income inequality as evidence about the middle class.  Bill Gates’s wealth doesn’t make me any more or less middle class.  Cheaper education, but less available (seriously, far fewer people went to college back then). More jobs for the uneducated?  That’s not what you were saying before–is it fewer jobs now, or just less well-paying jobs?  If it’s both, you have more evidence to provide.

        Of course, things are better now for everyone. 

        But that won’t stop us from arguing that things are getting worse?

        the vanguard and rearguard have broken from one another and the middle class no longer exists.

        Objection, argumentative.  You keep asserting that; you haven’t demonstrated it.  My neighbors are totally middle class, man.  Hell, the majority of my town is middle class. I just don’t see where this “it no longer exists” or “is about to no longer exist” comes from.

        People have been complaining that its been disappearing for decades, because it has been disappearing for decards.

        Well now, you said it only arose in the 1950s…so if it’s been disappearing for decades, then it’s been disappearing for most of the time it’s even existed.  If we take these time claims seriously, the middle class was an astonishingly temporary phenomenon, one that must have existed only because of extremely unusual circumstances.  And the most unusual circumstance of the ’50s that I can think of is that almost every other country in the world was either totally undeveloped or devastated by war and struggling to rebuild.

        Seriously, if the middle class is as temporary a phenomenon as you’re (perhaps unintentionally) suggesting, it may be valuable to re-think its significance and how we think about it.

        But more importantly even than that; I keep seeing claims, but no evidence.

         

      • “Objection, argumentative.  You keep asserting that; you haven’t demonstrated it.  My neighbors are totally middle class, man.  Hell, the majority of my town is middle class. I just don’t see where this “it no longer exists” or “is about to no longer exist” comes from.”

        James, I posted two links, one two a five page cover story on the middle class, the other to a long study analyzing the trends in the economy.  Do you have a problem with the conclusions or methodologies of either one of them?  Becaue if so, you haven’t yet said so…

        “I don’t take income inequality as evidence about the middle class. ”

        That’s precisely what the middle class is about.  It’s about money, and a certain group of households having a certain amount, relative to one another.  Income inequality has been going up over the past 30 years.  Wealth distribution has done the same.  The gini index is up.  How about you give me YOUR evidence for remaining skeptical of my claim.  Bill Gates isn’t a part of the the middle class, never was, never will be.  But everyone around the median income is going up or down, that segment is not rising up together, it’s splintering. 

        “Seriously, if the middle class is as temporary a phenomenon as you’re (perhaps unintentionally) suggesting, it may be valuable to re-think its significance and how we think about it.”

        Exactly!!!

        I’m not advocating FOR the middle class, I’m advocating against politicians pandering to what was a short blip on the timeline, and which is now a fiction. 

        You can choose to read the evidence I linked to, or not, but I honestly have no idea what we’re arguing about cause I think we agree on all of this.

        The smartphone is where we disagree.  And that I’ve already answered: it has absolutely nothing to do with the necessities of life (stable family, dependable transportation, adaquate education, affordable health care).

      • E.C.,

        If you’re not advocating for the middle class, I’ve badly misread you.  But, really?  You’re not expressing concern about the the alleged disappearance of the middle class?  You just see it as a phenomenon of interest, but not of concern?  I’m not reading that, so if I’m reading you wrong, feel free to kick me a little harder.

        Re: the Atlantic article.  It’s hard to know where to start with pieces like that.  It’s a well-written persuasion piece, just as you’d expect to find in the Atlantic.  But ultimately it talks a lot around the edges, noting that this thing has changed, that thing has changed, but…it doesn’t actually show evidence that there are fewer people in the middle class. By contrast, the article I linked to talks directly to this:

        Krueger’s claim of a shrinking middle class relies on the same peculiar definition. Specifically, “middle class” is defined as having a household income at least half of median income but no more than 1.5 times the median. I re-ran the numbers using the same definition and data source as Krueger and found that the entire reason the middle class has “shrunk” is that more households today have incomes that put them above middle class. That’s right, the share of households with income that puts them in the middle class or higher was 76 percent in 1970 and 75 percent in 2010—two figures that are statistically indistinguishable…. A shrinking middle class is only a problem if it reflects fewer people reaching the middle class. That is clearly the impression the administration wants to give, but it is entirely dishonest to do so.

        As to the other article, yes there is some polarization of job opportunities.  We don’t know for sure that this will continue–is it a blip or a long-term trend?  We’re not sure.

        [Income inequality is] precisely what the middle class is about.  It’s about money, and a certain group of households having a certain amount, relative to one another

        No, I disagree.  If we focus specifically on the concept of a “middle,” in terms of wealth or annual income, sure, but I insist that this has never been what “middle class” has meant conceptually in the U.S.  Notice that the author I quoted above calls this definition “peculiar.”  In fact it’s actually bit perverse, because it means if everyone’s income stays steady except for Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and few enough other guys to count on two hands, then people drop out of the middle class without  becoming any worse off.  That makes no sense to me.

        I think you’re falling for the “money illusion” here.  What actually matters is precisely the goods and services you can command, and if that increases then you cannot have become worse off, no matter what your relative position vis a vis others is.  And if the command of goods and services increases, but we nevertheless want to say those people are no longer middle class, then we’re just playing games with the meaning of “middle class.”

        Certainly you can’t say “middle class is disappearing” and not have people think you’re saying people are becoming worse off.  So maybe the solution is to stop using such an ill-defined term since we don’t even seem to be able to figure out if we’re talking about the same thing.  But what are we going to replace it with?

  9. I should add that I agree with the phrase, ” the real shell game is the term “middle class” itself..”  The term has always been a shell game (at least in the U.S.–it seems to have something of an actual defined meaning in England).  When asked to self-report on surveys, the vast majority of Americans call themselves middle class–almost nobody wants to admit to either poverty or wealth.  And it’s been easy for them to do that because the term is so elastic in our usage as to be nearly meaningless except as a political trope.
    • The funny thing is that if we do get class mobility, those going down the scale will occupy the parks and demand government favors.
      • Roger,

        Harumph. You act like they aren’t our parks.

        Is your city really that cruel, that it doesn’t allow the public to camp in its parks?

  10. I guess the question is whether you see the manipulation implied by tax credits and such things as bad

    I mean, is it a bad thing for a politician to support tax credits that make it easier to be a stable family who owns the property they live on and has what society considers a good work/life balance?

    It’s the flip side of Pigouvian taxes.  Shouldn’t we want to incentivize behavior that we consider preferable?

    • Who desides what is preferable?  And what protections are in place to prevent people from manipulating the system and taking advantages of the incentives for GOOD things while actually engaging in BAD things?
      • More to the point, why is home ownership such a priority in our society?   People move around in the course of their careers, now more than ever it seems.   For every silver lining there’s a big black cloud:   as home prices rose, people gouged into their home equity, paying off their maxed-out credit cards — it was madness.

        Tax law is now written by the lobbyists anyway.   There’s no incentive to save or invest in this country.   This country has become world’s marketplace, not an engine of wealth for the common man.   Debtors, not lenders have we become.   Nobody thinks long-term except the immortal corporations.

      • People haven’t figured out how to move their community with their house.

        The next generation won’t have as big of a problem with this as the current one, they already have half their community (or more) on teh webs.

      • “Home ownership” is an expression of the attitude that it isn’t good to have most of your citizens be tenant farmers or slum-apartment renters.

        It’s a wealth-distribution argument, really.  It’s saying that the wealth of a nation–here expressed by the proxy of land–should not be concentrated under the ownership of a few.

      • That’s antique thinking.   All these would-be Middle Classers, in thrall to some financial giant, payin’ their little mortages every month.   Rubes.   Cretins.   Faith-based morons who can’t work out they’re paying for those houses many times over.   They’re never going to see the title to their homes.
      • Faith-based morons who can’t work out they’re paying for those houses many times over.

        For what it’s worth, we recently had our mortgage rate adjusted down (cheaper/easier than a re-fi) to 4.375%. Doing some quick numbers in the mortgage calculator, that tells me that, over the life of our loan, we will actually pay *MORE* in principal than in interest. When I was growing up, my parents had a double-digit mortgage rate.

        I think what we will eventually have to worry about is nobody wanting to sell their house because they don’t want to get a new mortgage at 7 or 8 or 9 percent.

      • And blaise, my mortgage interest is significantly lower than Jay’s (gaming the system pays dividends. know your metrics, and raise your credit score)
      • More principal than interest, huh?    Still doesn’t make the proposition of borrowing money to live in a house any less stupid.    Either you own or you don’t and until the note is paid, you don’t actually own anything.   As an investment, a home is the dumbest proposition I can think of, considering how long people actually live in a home.

         

      • Blaise,

        so long as the bank holds the damn title, you’re still renting. NOW, let’s compare it against renting, shall well?

        1) You get to do your own maintenance (yay! no more heat broken for months)

        2) You get substantially more privacy

        3) Your actual rent goes down, as you’re paying more in principal (which is a bond).

        4) You don’t have to deal with your rent rising as housing prices rise in the neighborhood.

        It’s not a GOOD investment. But it is a positive investment. A bit better than treasuries, no?

      • When I was in high school, one of my Social Studies teachers broke down how a 11% mortgage works out on a $200,000 home. Holy Guacamole. He explained that you pay $200,000 for the house and $400,000 in interest.

        When we moved to Colorado, the rates were around 9%. Now people look sheepish if they talk about having a fixed rate of 5% or more. “You should refinance!”, everyone starts yelling at them.

        I suspect that, if someone wants to own a house (kids might be a good reason to want that), now would be a good time to buy one… but a house is only a good idea if you know you’re going to be in that same house in 20 years.

        In the 1970′s, you could reasonably say that. Part of the problem is that many of the assumptions you could reasonably make (and, in hindsight, would have been the right assumptions to make) are not obviously good assumptions today.

      • Buying a house is (also, at the moment), a better out-of-pocket issue than renting.

        My mortgage payment is considerably less than a rental in the same neighborhood.  Granted, I’m convinced that the house still has a lot of paper value to lose, but I’m reasonably confident that I’m going to be in this home until at least 2015, so I’m fairly certain that will recover.

        Since I can write off a good portion of my current mortgage payment, this effectively means I’m paying (ballparkish) 60% of what I would be paying if I rented, on an out-of-pocket this year evaluation.

        Buying vs. renting is very dependent upon your mobility requirements and the current rental/purchase environment in your local market.  There is no uniform rule here.

      • Yes, and without that mortgage interest deduction, your totals would be very different.

        Look, I’m not saying home ownership is a bad idea.   I’m saying — if you want to own your home, save up enough to buy it.   Young people should be investing what few shekels they have at their disposal so they can get into a home.   Instead, they apply the Bare Minimum to their home purchases, knowing they can deduct that mortgage interest and later go rootling around in their illusory Home Equity, further compounding their stupidity and the only winner there is the banking industry.   It’s not really Equity until it’s paid for and all moved off the Liabilities onto the Equity side of the balance sheet.   And people just don’t get it.

      • The question is whether the increased returns from investment would offset the costs of rent. I think this would be highly dependent on the circumstances.
      • Yes, and without that mortgage interest deduction, your totals would be very different.

        Granted, but not so different that it still wouldn’t make financial sense to buy.

        This was actually a big part of the decision, because I regarded it as politically feasible for the interest deduction to go away in the next decade.  So I ran some numbers and it still came out green.

        I’m saying — if you want to own your home, save up enough to buy it.

        Also granted, if everybody did this the housing market would be a lot less stupid.  However, hardly anybody does this (and indeed, we’ve structurally encouraged people NOT to do this), and the consequence of this is that home prices aren’t indexed to income the way that they would be if the housing market wasn’t so goddamn irrational.

        If rents are significantly higher than mortgage payments (and they still are, in SoCal – at least in my area YMMV), it’s actually very difficult to save up that sum of money.

        Also, also granted: I was stupid in my 20s, but my 20s stupidity was impacted by the fact that I didn’t understand exactly how badly the housing market was fished up.  If I was less stupid in my 20s, I could have lived on the cheap and saved up quite a bit more money before I had dependents.

        I don’t disagree with you in principle, Blaise.  It’s the execution.

      • Only if you go that way with it.

        We just bought a home.  Got it for 75cents on the dollar and, thanks to my wife’s service, on a VA loan at 3.8%.  We put some down, but not a ton, since we felt we can reasonably expect greater returns on the money by investing than savings by putting it down.  We love where we live and have no intentions to move for the foreseeable future.  We bought a home we could grown into (4BR plus a basement apartment) so we weren’t going through this process all over again in 5 years when babies are in the mix.  Our mortgage is only slightly more than our previous rent plus the extra savings we were socking away (in addition to all of the regular saving we were doing) for the house, so our monthly budget is basically the same once my September raise kicked in.  Throw in all the taxes savings for A) home ownership and B) getting married and we are well situated.  THEN throw in all the non-financial pros and cons, which for us have many more in the former category than the latter, and we are happy.  I think that last point is often ignored… we get a lot of utility, practical and otherwise, from owning our home.

        Obviously, things can change.  And on some measures, we are less prepared to deal with things changing than our fellow renters.  But c’est la vie.  We own a home which, if we stay on our payment schedule, will be paid off by the time we are 50.  We have double the “emergency” savings we need and are socking away 18% gross into retirement.  AND we have 2 cats*.  What now?

        *  This is probably the WORST part of the equation for me.  But my wife derives about 10000x the utility from us having the cats than pain I derive from it… which is saying something given just how much I hate the little buggers.

      • BSK,

        18% is still too low. try 25%. ;-)

        I hate arguing with Blaise about finance, because I know he knows whatever I’m telling him — and that his usual point is a lot more targeted than what he says at first.

      • HAHA! You think corporations think longterm? More fool you. Three months tops, that’s how a CEO thinks. Less if he’s just gotten bought out by a hedge fund, those ransackers of value.

        Homeownership is a priority because it is how most americans amass wealth. not that it should be that, mind, but it is. pathetic really.

      • Home ownership is the Idiot’s Savings Plan.   Want to own your own home?   Invest your money somewhere and when you’ve got enough cash, pay for it.
      • WHERE?

        In case you haven’t heard, the wall street is illegally fleecing people these days, and the Feds ain’t doing shit.

        A reverse bond at 4% is looking like a pretty nice inflation hedge these days. You ARE expecting inflation, right?

      • Home ownership ain’t nearly as bad as car ownership, and you damn well know it. if you’re going to give some advice, watch the market first. Rental prices are skyrocketing
      • … you know business law better than I do. and you’re a contractor. most folks don’t do anything about that car…

        A house may be a fixed asset (as is the land) but it does appreciate (1-2% a year, same as reasonable pop-based inflation)

      • This country ought to be a nation of entrepreneurs and it just isn’t.   It’s not so hard to be an independent, if folks were willing to obtain the services of a decent corporate lawyer and a tax guy to help them through it.

        What we’ve got is a nation of passive proles who damn the corporations and sit there with their mouths open and their eyes shut, their brains atrophied in their skulls like rotten walnuts, waiting for someone else to do their thinking for them.   It’s the government’s fault, they cry.   It’s the big bad corporations’ fault.  Occupy Wall Street!   Romney says he doesn’t care about poor people!   It’s everyone’s fault — but them.

        Blame is the argument of the weak, the stick with which the losers beat the winners.   I have no patience for the Blamers.   Weak thinking and much snotty-nosed crying over problems they created for themselves.    If they won’t do their own thinking, well I’ve made a career of doing that thinking for them, doing for others what they’re perfectly capable of doing for themselves.

      • “This country should be a nation of entrepreneurs!”

        “Owning your own home is a sucker’s game!”

        This is like one of those Star Trek episodes where Captain Kirk says two logical-yet-irreconcilable things at once and makes the computer explode.

      • No, I totally see how they might not contradict each other.

        If I lost my job tomorrow and found that I could get a perfect job in Des Moines that would give me more or less the same standard of living that I have today… I wouldn’t take it. Because I’d have to move, which would involve either selling my house or renting it to someone else.

        If I just had an apartment, I could say “screw it” and throw my television in the back of my car and wake up in Iowa, of all godforsakenplaces.

        (Assuming Bachelor Jaybird)

      • Uh, no.   Owning things is great, homes especially.  I own two, rent one and I’m renting a cheap apartment right now.   Borrowing much money to live in a pile of sticks is what’s dumb.

        As for being an entrepreneur and any Star Trek references, the Ferengi said a wife is a luxury, an accountant is a necessity.

      • Uh huh.   Lemme tell you something about being a millionaire.   It just means you can borrow a million.   Against equity.
      • Why should we be entrepreneurs?   Here are a few simple facts:

        An entrepreneur makes more money than his salaried counterpart, often twice or three times as much if he’s any good at what he does.

        An entrepreneur has numerous tax advantages.   An entrepreneur can use his corporation as a shield.   True, he has to engage the services of a good attorney and an accountant but that’s part of the ground rules for making more money than your salaried counterpart:  you have to act like a pro.

        Don’t love your job.   It won’t love you back.  An entrepreneur gets into a job knowing he’s going to leave it.   We expect adolescents to fall in and out of love until they find a real partner.   Your employer will never be your partner.  He will never, ever look at you as an equal:  unless you’re worth more than he’s paying you, you’re not on the payroll by definition and he will fire you the instant you aren’t.   So what, as a contractor, you might not get invited to the Christmas party.   You get paid.   Throw your own.

        Need more reasons?   I’ve got a thousand.

      • Because that is the future. The days in which factory work or other kinds of blue collar work could land you a “middle-class” lifestyle are over. It was a temporary phenomenon that was a product of the post-war era where the US was pretty much the only place in the world that produced things. When the rest of the world caught up afterwards, this ceased to be the case.

        This is the classic case of who moved my cheese. Change happens and in hindsight, this kind of change was inevitable (sans any global catastrophy) Before, you could do a certain kind of job and live a reasonably comfortable life. Now, doing those kinds of jobs won’t cut it.

      • Home ownership shouldn’t be seen as an investment.  It should be seen as consumption.  Then, for certain people (like me) it makes perfect sense.  I can bash holes in the damn walls whenever I feel like it, smoke cigars on the front porch with nobody complaining (‘cept my wife), play around with gardening just as much or as little as I feel like, and not have any damned upstairs neighbors stomping around on my ceiling.

        But that ain’t for everyone, and that’s ok.

      • Those are the non-financial factors I mentioned elsewhere.  People act as if a home purchase is SOLELY an economic endeavor, when there is much else to it.  I love that I can drive my car around in the backyard.  Stupid, yes.  But I can do it.  And no one can stop me.
      • +1. More practically, there are all kinds of things I would love to do with this house, and would if we bought it and were staying. Living in a house like this for decades on end without bring able to modify would not be cool. Nor would the prospect of having to move regularly (We would have to move out of this house anyway because our landlords intend to move in when they retire. We’re just keeping the seat warm.)
      • James, For decades home ownership was exactly that, not an investment at all. Also re what a lot of people on this site have circled around, the “appreciation” in home ownership is more closely correlated to the actual sum paid by the homeowner over the life of that 30 year mortgage. So when folks looked at dinky California bungalows that previously sold to a little old lady from Pasadena 30 yrs ago for $60,000 and are amazed that it sold for $240K, they aren’t realizing that if you take her payments and multiply by 360, and add in the taxes she paid that whole time, she paid /more/ than $240K. What screwed up the equation was the mobile baby boomers /not/ staying put, but skewing the entire market dynamic and driving the average home ownership metric from 18yrs down to less than 7. There was certainly a hyperinflation in housing prices driven (obviously) by the willingness of mortgage companies to finance anyone with a pulse. Clearly pulses do not correlate to grey matter.
      • I’m on board with both BSK and ward.  I think we made a tragic turn when we (you know, people generally, not necessarily you who are reading this) started thinking of homes as investments.  When my mom wanted to add on a room to her house so she’d have room to entertain, she was worried about whether it would be worth it, and my older brother assured her it would pay for itself.  My response was, “Screw that–you’re in your 70s and you’re worried about the resale value of your house?”  The room is consumption, and worth every penny for the pleasure she’s gotten out of being able to have the family over for Thanksgiving, or to just sit there and watch the birds in her backyard.   Besides, it’s the kids who will get the money out of the house in the end, and she doesn’t owe us anything.

        BSK, Can I come drive around in your backyard?  Sounds like hella fun, but my wife won’t let me do it in ours.

      • Mine is tiny, but it is the first backyard I can drive in. I can do a solid circle and maybe a figure 8, but the bumps are gh on the ol’ Carolla. If you had a real vehicle, we could have some fun. And if you had an ATV, we could explore the trails that area apparently in the adjoining woods. Of course, there are also squirrels, dear, and mountain folk out there, so this citymouse doesn’t dear venture past the tree line.

        And the wife has no idea. Yet.

      • I used to have a real vehicle–then the engine blew up and I had to think seriously about the fact that I have three kids I need to transport in relative comfort and safety.  Give me a few years and I can buy an old’ beater pickup again.  I’ll even bring the beer (but good beer!).
      • Our “realest” vehicle is the CRV we just bought. I’m no gear head but even that makes me grumblegrumblegrumble.

        What kinda beer we talking ’bout? For the right case, I can dig up the ’89 Blazer I bought back in ’03… And blew up in ’04.

      • Cosign with Ward and James.

        Not only the above, but property values are often the motivation for all sorts of anti-freedom things. The fear of things “getting out of hand” and the effect this would have on the bottom line.

        I have long said “I want to live in a house and not an investment” since before I got that job in the mortgage industry that gave me a peek at what was coming.

      • if you are going to look it this in a meta fashion, Ward, don’t you actually have to compare the net of paid rent overt time less zero owned housing assets against the total mortgage & interest  paid over time minus he value of the home when sold?

        You’re not really comparing what your house’s worth against other kinds of investments, you’re comparing it against what you paid out in rent and have no assets to show for it.

      • Tod, by no means would I say that /renting/ a house is an investment either. What you’re really doing, economically speaking is comparing two outcomes that are merely divergent in their expected /losses/ not inherent value.

        If I rent an apartment, I don’t have to mow the lawn (I don’t even own a lawnmower), I don’t waste money watering the lawn etc. I never have to fix a thing and likely don’t own a single tool. All those expenses disappear. Furthermore I’m exceptionally mobile, I don’t need to worry about selling an illiquid asset, I just pull up stakes and disappear.

        Society is better off with owners rather than renters for lots of reasons. First off, there’s all those lawnmower companies and /their/ employees taxes etc. More importantly millions of disparate homeowners are taking care of their own yards, some more than others certainly but anyone can drive through a neighborhood and see the difference between an owned home and a rented one. Looking at any of “the projects” our Big Brother government built (for the BEST of intentions mind you) we see “the tragedy of the commons” writ large. Back at the founding of our country, only property owners were allowed to vote, and for good reason in the eyes of our Founding Fathers. We’ve completely forgotten the whys and the wherefores of that and today’s society is pretty neatly split between the 50% who pay taxes (federal before Kim has kittens) and the 50% who don’t.

        This discussion itself is OP worthy don’t you think?

      • “This discussion itself is OP worthy don’t you think?”

        Yeah.  It is, Ward. Very much so.  If only we had a writer to tackler it.

        Hint. Hint.

         

      • As for corporations and long-term thinking, when that pretty little banker in that oh-so-professional Calvin Klein wool suit puts those closing papers on the table and that fresh-faced happy couple signs off a few dozen times on that Thirty Year Mortgage, guess who’s getting Taken for a Ride.

        Not that the pretty little banker is going to see much of the profits from that deal, but that’s what I call a Long Term Deal.

      • Your state works differently than mine.

        MY lawyer put the papers on the table, and MY bank no sooner got my signature than they sold it (I signed that too).

      • OWS is a collection of well-meaning morons, Duck.   They’re about five years too late.  We both know this.   See, what nobody gets about Wall Street or any of the risk markets is this:  risk equals profit but unfettered risk is an invitation to absolute disaster.

        Another Ferengi proverb:   not even dishonesty can tarnish the shine of profit.     To which I’d add, “just be sure you’re not lying to yourself in the process of making that profit”.

    • Duck, I’m with you on this one. I think it’s related to one of the things I mentioned off-hand in my intro post and never really wrote anything about. That is, markets are great once we decide what our goals are and put structures in place to get us to those goals most efficiently.

      Families are a positive externality. There is no reason we shouldn’t subsidize their existence.

      • Families are a positive externality.

        I’m in agreement with this statement, but I don’t know if my reasons are the same as yours.  So, in what way do you think families are a positive externality?

      • The best thing about democracy is we don’t have to agree on reasons. That is also the worst thing.

        That said, I think children in general are a positive externality, in the same sense that (at least in the US) more people are a positive externality at all times. We’re sparsely populated, highly productive, and the population is too old. I support more babies for the same reason I support more immigration. Families make babies, so let’s make more of both.

        Alternatively, I think there are some good socially conservative reasons to support families. They’re stable, they reduce crime, they improve the attractiveness of neighborhoods, they take care of each other (and each other’s kids), and so on.

  11. I was pretty amazed when I moved to this industrial town in Canada and discovered that it’s pretty much assumed the vote will go to the NDP in every election. “You mean the socialists? But them’s working class people here!” Wife: “Yes, duh. They vote for the party that will deliver for them in this city”. “Oh, okay. That actually is logical”.
  12. Pingback: The Retroactive Table of Contents : Jan 26 – Feb 3 — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  13. BSK,

    You may be right on more northern ballers going to the NBA. It’s a more aggressive style and more physical play. Down South it’s a technique game. One isn’t worst than the other. Just different.

    The problem is though that so many of them go South to play college ball.

    • MD-

      Agreed.  As I said, I have a personal preference for the northern style, but I realize this is subjective.  There are many other factors that could contribute to the north/south gap in NBA talent, with football and baseball in the south being a prime one.

      Still, given the choice between watching the Big East and the ACC tournaments, I will go with the former every day of the week.  And with the proposed move of G’Town and ‘Cuse to the ACC, I think the clash of styles will be horrible for all involved.  Of course, there are some southern schools that have joined the Big East and play a much more northern style of basketball, such as Louisville, Marquette, and Memphis.

      • There is no denying – in my mind – that the best conference in basketball comes primarily out of the North (and Great Lakes). I know my southern alma mater, when they recruit from out-of-state, usually do so from the northeast. The main reason why the northeast doesn’t dominate the Final Four is that there is a huge spread of talent across a lot of schools, and a lot of them leave the state.

        Some nitpickery: It’s Pitt, not Georgetown, going to the ACC along with Syracuse. Marquette is in Milwaukee and Memphis is in Conference USA. Houston and SMU will be joining the Big East in 2013, though, as will UCF (so will some other schools, but only for football), so there’ll be increased southern presence.

         

      • D’OH!

        I’ll be honest and say I had NO idea where Marquette was and I brainfarted on Memphis.  Losing Pitt still sucks, but losing G’Town would have been catastrophic.

      • The Memphis mistake in particular is easy to make. They go back a long ways with Big East schools and play them with regularity. That they were left out of the most reshuffling has been absolutely maddening for them. They chose a really bad time to field an atrocious football team.

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