On The Bubble
One of my beats is inequality. If you read this old blog or you get my tweets, you know I frequently highlight news or analysis about the disparity in wealth and income in the US and elsewhere.
I've always had a natural empathy for inequality as a social problem. It has a strong moral element, a feeling of justice, plus a wealth of historical precedents, and most of all (to me anyway) enormous practical importance. For a general primer on the topic in light of recent economic events, I can't recommend anything better than this recent essay in Salon by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells:
the role of rising inequality in creating the economic crisis of 2008 is debatable; it probably did play an important role, if nothing else than by encouraging the financial deregulation that set the stage for crisis. What seems very clear to us, however, is that rising inequality played a central role in causing an ineffective response once crisis hit. Inequality bred a polarized political system, in which the right went all out to block any and all efforts by a modestly liberal president to do something about job creation.
The problem becomes more sinister if you extrapolate this going forward. Taking into account how opportunity is increasingly saturated in some areas, sparse in others, one can imagine many future advances (in education, medicine, travel, etc) or suddenly scarce commodities (clean water, for instance) ending up the province of the emerging global elite. A dark future indeed.
My own position is ticklish. I've thought about it from the perspective of my personal history — growing up without a lot of money — as well as in light of my adult experiences gadflying about in various power-elite circles in my 20s and more recently starting a few companies, becoming a "self made man", etc. I've at least a bit of experience on both sides of the fence.
Still, one emotion that's never entered into this for me is fear, fear for my own well being or for that of my immediate or putative future family. I've never been personally worried. But a recent conversation made me think about it — what if you see the squeeze-out of the middle class as an actual threat to you?
To me this is one of the many evils of inequality, this fear, this anxiety. The nature of the emerging pseudo-aristocratic elite dynamic is very much one of exclusion. Some of you are in, but most of you are out. Any time that starts, people naturally become worried about being left behind.
It's not an entirely irrational fear: the way things are going, this exclusive dynamic increasingly seems to drive life chances. Whether you make it into the figurative "1%" (or, really, the 0.1%) determines your future — and whether future generations will continue to prosper. Will you be one of the elite, or one of the rabble, the dusty desperate masses, begging outside the walls?
Like I said, this isn't something I personally feel. I know from experience that not having any money is different from being impoverished; that happiness, quality of life, and cultural capital aren't correlated with wealth beyond a certain fairly modest point. I also have the self-made man's confidence when it comes to negotiating the twists and turns of our brave new future. Rightly or wrongly I assume I'll be able to hack it.
But for those who perceive themselves to be on the bubble, who see the future as one of backsliding, this looks pretty different. They're locked into a game of musical chairs and the number of safe spots is shrinking. They're thinking about having less to give their kids than they had growing up. They don't like that, as is only natural.
It makes me think of the articles that get written about how you just can't live that well on $250k anymore, or how $500k isn't really very much income. On the one hand this absurd — says something about the state of journalism and how connected it is as a practice to the lives of everyday people — but I think it also becomes kind of tragic once you look at it from the inside.
It sounds like a socialist platitude, but I think we all suffer in this situation. Clearly hunger pangs are different from status anxiety, but my point isn't that we all suffer equally, it's that we all suffer period.
Our system hurts everyone, even the ostensible winners.
When only one in a hundred (or less) has a chance to advance in life, that creates an atmosphere of desperation, cloying clutching clinging desperation to be in, in, please for the love of god let us in, not out.
Which is BS, plain and simple. It's no way to run a civilization; horribly destructive and inefficient; simply not sustainable as a practical matter.
We're going to have an interesting few decades coming up: either we'll figure out how to run a more balanced society (and world, natch), or we'll face a continuing series of crises. Could well be a bit of both — "gonna get bad before it gets good" — but I don't think we're likely to see widespread prosperity return until we address inequality.
Longer term we have to transcend base material accumulation as our standard metric for success, and somehow do it in a novel way that preserves individuality, but in the short term we just need to dig out of this hole. Creating some kind of solidarity between all the different people who are negatively affected by this is the important political priority.
This solidarity is easier said than done, by the way. The ingrained respect for success in the American psyche is well known enough that Romney is making it a cornerstone of his election strategy.
Meanwhile, the "have a little/want more" demographic that's traditionally key to most social progress is still largely running on the status quo treadmill, trying not to get left behind, trying to snag one of the open seats the next time the music stops. It's unclear what kind of alternatives would appeal to a wide cross-section of these people who find themselves on the bubble of a shrinking 21st Century middle class.
"The 99%" is a good rallying cry, but it's practically much too large a coalition to ever come into being. I think a broad popular front is the right idea, but the actual organizing will have to be somewhat more specific in its constitution.
This remains an obvious but unsolved problem. My gut longs for a modern economic paradigm that seeks broad opportunity in the context of plenty, rather than the narrow advantages and artificial scarcity which typify the norm. This would theoretically attract the support of many who are currently getting the short end of the stick, but also those who worry about what they have slipping away.
It's unfortunate and ironic that we've already had a presidential campaign won on the slogan of "Hope," because that's really what people need. The short term dig-out effort should be connected to a longer-term vision.
Traditionally what's needed after a major economic slump is an investment of some sort. While there's plenty of unsexy but highly practical work to be done on our existing infrastructure — e.g. required maintenance aging city water systems could provide decades of employment to 10s of thousands nationally — rallying public support requires a grander vision, some definition of national priorities, perhaps even global purpose. We stopped the bleeding of the great depression with Social Security and the WPA, but it was saving the world from Fascism (the idea, the war effort, and everything like the GI bill that followed) that actually rebuilt the economy. Unsurprisingly the post-war era was also a time of very low inequality. Today it's tragically hard to imagine how anything of a similar scale could be attempted.
Paralyzed by a lack of vision, we muddle along. Winners rationalize and retrench, losers struggle and seethe, and those on the bubble worry themselves to death as they feel the future slipping between their fingers. If we don't change the direction we are headed, we're liable to end up where we are going. At the moment, that ain't too good.