Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Truth about "Getting Ahead" in the US

From Robert Paul Wolff's blog The Philosopher's Stone, the basic "facts of life" about education and opportunity in America:
If you have a low-wage job and want to move up to something that will allow you to put food on the table, pay the rent, finance a car, buy health insurance, and maybe even have a bit left over for a restaurant meal or a night out at the movies, you very quickly run into what can be an insurmountable problem. To get any one of a large number of pretty good jobs, you need a college degree. And if you are one of that seventy percent who do not have a degree, you are screwed.


And so forth. Everyone in America knows this, although they may not be able to quote chapter and verse. And this means that there are maybe a hundred million Americans 25 and older who are perfectly well aware of the fact that they are on the outside looking in, with no hope of getting in, when it comes to good jobs.

How does it look form where I stand? What follows is subjective and anecdotal, but not therefore irrelevant. I live in a world of college graduates. Everyone of my relatives is a college graduate [grandchildren excepted, of course], and so are all of my friends and acquaintances. All the opinion makers on television are college graduates. Even the professional basketball and football players are, by and large, college graduates [LeBron James to the contrary notwithstanding.] The people without college degrees who appear in the media are, by and large, there for "man in the street" or "local color" interviews.

This skewed perception is deeply engrained in the endless public conversation about the needs of the "middle class." In 2008, the median household income for all households was a bit more than $50,000. Since the median wage of full-time workers was about $35,000, this of course means that most households were sending more than one wage earner into the labor market. But households with annual income of $150,000 or $200,000 are routinely described by politicians as "middle class,' despite the fact that a quick calculation of Government statistics shows that only a bit more than 5% of all households had annual incomes of $175,000 or more. The endless talk about the "interests of the middle class" is profoundly dishonest and out of touch. The reality of American society is that people are, by and large, much poorer and possessed of much less in the way of educational credentials than anyone is willing to acknowledge.

And that, I am convinced, is what lies beneath the rhetorical surface of so-called "Tea Party" anger. People by and large may be ill-informed, or lacking in educational credentials, but they are not stupid. Those on the outside looking in know perfectly well that they are not living, and have little hope of living, the lives portrayed in the media. It is those on the inside who engage in self-delusions, imaging that their $150,000 a year incomes make them "middle class," and that everyone save for the lazy and the people of darker skin have college degrees.
The tragedy is that the electorate in the US lives within a bubble maintained by the media, the false belief that "anybody can get ahead if they just put their shoulder to the wheel". The reality is that there is less social mobility in the US than there is in Europe! Yes, that crusty old aristocratic Europe now is more meritocratic than the "Go west young man!" America.

Until the American voter wakes up to the facts and forces his politicians to stop playing games of brinksmanship over "debt limits" and instead confront the real issue that faces the country (jobs, economic recovery, stimulus), the political muddle will continue. The politicians are all millionaires. They have no clue how the bottom 90% live. The politicians are in the top 10% and have gold-plated retirements guaranteed by the government, so they don't have to worry about jobs or health plans or what to do with grandma. They are too busy getting payola under the table and selling their votes to the highest paying lobbyist to be bothered with noticing that 14 million Americans are un-employed or under-employed and struggling to feed their families to keep shelter over their heads.

You don't fix this problem by doing the chic "anarchist things" of wearing a black hoodie and running around the upscale part of downtown smashing in windows. You fix this problem by voting out the rascals, the politicians who failed to represent the people. You tell the Republican party to quit lying and playing political games. You tell the Democrats to knock some sense into Obama and get him moving on rejuvenating the economy.

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