One Voice

… because one voice, armed with the truth, can help begin to heal the world.

If you work and treat people well, are you a sucker?

There are two kinds of people in this country …

Wow, there’s an original thought. You can divide people in about a billion ways, starting with men and women and finishing with who watches Honey Boo Boo and who doesn’t.

Give me a minute. I’m hoping to be a little more profound than that. The way I would divide the country is into people who think that if you’re honest, work hard and treat other people well, you’ll get ahead, and people who would call folks like that “suckers.”

Maybe they are, although I think that’s a little like blaming the victim for the crime. There have certainly been plenty of American workers whose companies made good products and turned a profit who absolutely couldn’t understand why people would close their factory and send the jobs to China — just to increase profits.

Average folks simply look at money differently than the uber-entitled rich. People living from paycheck to paycheck and deciding which bills will have to wait till next month might say that if they had a million dollars, all their problems would be solved. The main reason that isn’t true is that lifestyles expand to fit incomes. When I got my first full-time newspaper job in 1979, I was getting paid $180 a week. Less than $10,000 a year. I remember thinking if I could make $20,000 or even $30,000, that would solve my problems. Well, I had nicer apartments and a better car, and I paid my bills on time, but I knew I hadn’t exactly reached tall cotton.

But in general, if a working-class person comes into a windfall, they don’t all of a sudden step up and buy a Learjet or a Bentley. The ones who do are the ones who generally lose it all in the end.

The other side of the coin is the really wealthy, the ones who insist they built everything they have on their own without any help from anyone else. It’s funny, the ones who inherited their wealth are the ones who seem to be the most obnoxious about it. The four children of Walmart founder Sam Walton have spend tens of millions in campaign contributions to try and eliminate the estate tax. The sons of Fred Koch, who made billions in energy and then helped found the John Birch Society, have provided much of the funding for right-wing political groups in recent years.

Australia's $19 billion woman.

But the worst person of all isn’t even an American. Australian Gina Rinehart, who is worth about $19 billion, is the world’s richest woman. Her money comes from mining, and she has been whining about how much she has to pay Australians to work in her mines. She also had some good advice about class envy:

“There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire. If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”

Of course, Rinehart didn’t have to worry about any of those things. She inherited her money.

Now if you’re like me, you find yourself wondering why anyone would need $19 billion. I went through a thing with my friend Mick a few years back where we were talking about an insurance CEO who had made about $110 million the year before. Even figuring about half of it would go in taxes, the executive would still have more than $1 million a week.

So try this:

You get $1 million every Friday. The first Friday you buy a nice house. The second Friday you buy a nice car and set up college accounts for your kids. The third Friday …

You get the picture. Very soon, you’ve got more money piling up than you can spend — unless you decide you need four or five houses, 10 or 12 cars and all the other things that go along with being fabulously wealthy.

Some people read stuff like this and accuse me of hating rich people. That’s just not true. I’ve always been a fan of the “build a better mousetrap” types who come up with a product that improves our lives. But in the last 30 years or so we have seen the advent of jobs where people get rich just by moving money around. And when they move the money around, they try to increase the return on their investment.

That’s why there aren’t steel mills in Pennsylvania anymore, and why most of the textile mills have left the South for South Asia. Not because they can’t be profitable here, but because the profit margin is higher when the labor costs are lower. A business can be running a 10 percent profit margin, but if the “experts” think it should be making 12 percent, then something has to be cut somewhere.

What annoys me the most about it is the people who see unfettered capitalism — what former French President Jacques Chirac called “capitalisme sauvage” –  as the purest of all human motives. It’s as if we’re fine with assuming the worst of people. At least that way we can’t be disappointed.

The true irony is that a lot of these people who seem to worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and rugged individualism also claim to be Christians. It seems amazing to me that in this era that has lasted for about 30 years — back to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority — the one part of Jesus’ teachings they seem to ignore is the most important part.

Helping the poor.

We don’t judge nations by the quality of their rich people. Nobody thinks America is a wonderful country because we have Donald Trump. The true measure of a country is the quality of life of, for lack of a better term, its middle class. And the real irony is that after doing pretty well in the post-war era, for the last few decades the American middle class has been on life support.

Average folks used to have pensions. Not anymore.

Average folks used to have healthcare through work. Not so much anymore.

For all the ridicule thrown at European “socialism,”  middle-class workers in Germany, Sweden or France generally aren’t filled with anxiety over medical bills, they aren’t wondering if they’ll ever be able to retire and they’re getting more than twice as much vacation time as American workers.

The one thing about the middle class in both Europe and here is that most folks play by the rules. They don’t look at other people as potential victims, or suckers, or steps along the road to getting rich.

There’s really nothing wrong with this country that better rich people couldn’t fix.






posted by Mike in American Dream,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Rich and middle class: no mutual understanding

“The point is there’s a gulf in this country; an ever-widening abyss between the people who have stuff, and the people who don’t have shit. It’s like this big hole in the ground, as big as the fucking Grand Canyon, and what’s come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real.”
– Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” 1991

Most of my conservative friends hate this movie.

It probably wasn’t as good as it could have been — it’s a little too heavy-handed in making the point it wants to make — but it had something important to say about America at the end of 12 years of Reagan and Bush, and the problem it addresses is one that has only gotten worse in the 20 years since it was released.

I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, and I remember reading that L.A. was one of the most prominent places in the world where you could see fabulous wealth and grinding, almost third-world poverty within just a few blocks of each other. There are hundreds of thousands of people in that second category who will never be able to escape it, no matter how hard they work or how closely they follow the rules.

In fact, although I think some of the rage is misplaced, we’re seeing some of the same anger now from the Tea Party crowd. They too played by the rules only to find that they just aren’t making it anymore. Their rage is directly not only at the folks above them, but also at the ones below them that they feel are getting special treatment.

In that respect, we have reached a point where America doesn’t make sense anymore. It was one thing when there was a small number of people at the top and a larger — but still comparatively small — group at the bottom, largely overwhelmed by a large middle class that was living the American Dream.

But now the middle class is dying as fewer and fewer good jobs seem to be available every year, and as families sink deeper and deeper into debt trying just to maintain their lifestyle.

And people who don’t live in places like Los Angeles or New York never really see the lifestyle some of the worst plutocrats live. Heck, it isn’t just that they can’t see it. For the most part, they can’t even comprehend it. If you live in Los Angeles, though, you can pass by a 200-room mansion in Bel Air or Beverly Hills and with 10 minutes see a man holding a sign that says he’ll work for food at a freeway exit.

It’s an ever-widening chasm, and if it isn’t checked in some way, it’ll probably be the end of any last remnant of American exceptionalism. If we don’t have a large, thriving middle class, we’ll end up being just another Third World oligarchy.

One problem we have in this country is there are too many people who have never been anywhere else. They have no idea how people live in other parts of the world, so when they listen to the people telling them how good they have it,  they can’t tell the truth from the lies. I’ve actually heard people say — in trying to downplay the homeless problem — that homeless people in our country live as well as middle-class folks in Europe.

The sad truth is, I’m not sure middle-class families in this country live as well as middle-class families in Europe.

Most of those families have 4-5 weeks a year of paid vacation, they have paid health insurance and they’ve got their retirement reasonably well provided for.

Yes, they drive smaller cars.

Yes, they often live in smaller houses or even apartments.

But for all that, no our bigger houses, our larger cars and our massive flat-screen televisions actually make us happier? During World War II, the gap between the wages of the average worker and a CEO in this country was about 14-1. It really was a question of the well-to-do living a better lifestyle, although still an understandable one. The last time I looked, the gap was about 300-1.

Somebody who makes 300 times as much money as the average worker has no comprehension of how real people live.

And that’s the real problem. We’ve reached a point where the folks at the top and in the middle can’t understand each other anymore. There is no longer a feeling of us all being in it together.

That kind of gap makes the Grand Canyon look small.

posted by Mike in American Dream,California,Happiness and have No Comments

Killing the middle class may destroy America

“A nation’s productive—and moral, and intellectual—top is the middle class. It is a broad reservoir of energy, it is a country’s motor and lifeblood, which feeds the rest. The common denominator of its members, on their various levels of ability, is: independence. The upper classes are merely a nation’s past; the middle class is its future.”
– AYN RAND, “The Dead End”

It isn’t often that I would quote Ayn Rand, the patron saint of the greedhead crowd, about anything. So much of her work is about catering to the producers among us that I’ve never felt she had any relevance to the common man.

But this quote, from one of her later, lesser works, seems to show a different sort of thinking.

America's true Atlas is the middle class.

And as much as anything, it illustrates why our country made it through the Great Depression and doesn’t seem to be doing as well with the Great Recession.

In the 1930s, when country after country in Europe was falling to fascist, totalitarian governments, the United States didn’t. That’s largely due to the fact that the American working class didn’t consider itself working class, but middle class instead. Karl Marx wrote of the proletariat, but millions of Americans who fit Marx’s teaching to a tee actually considered themselves middle class, or bourgeois.

If you were to ask 100 people of the street where they thought they fit in, 90 of them would say they considered themselves middle class. By contrast, when folks in England were polled on the same question, fully two-thirds said they considered themselves “working class.”

So what is “middle class?” The definition seems to have a lot to do with lifestyle, and in this country particularly with home ownership. People who are middle class are those who have more of an emotional investment in their community and more of an interest in that community doing well and prospering.

One of the biggest problems we seem to be facing these days is that too much wealth has shifted away from the middle class. Since the mid 1970s, middle-class wages have been completely stagnant. Meanwhile, the flattening of income tax rates and other policies designed to favor the rich have resulted in an incredible amount of wealth being shifted to the top.

Maybe every bit as big a problem has been a change in the way people view debt. One thing that used to be widespread was a great pride people could feel in not owing anyone anything. Now we have incredible consumer debt, and it isn’t just mortgages or car loans. As of March 2010, the total amount of revolving debt in this country (98 percent of which is credit card debt) was $852.6 billion.

In households that have credit card debt, the average debt is $15,788.

The middle class is going down for the third time, and when that happens, much of the glue that holds America together will be gone. For all the eagerness to dismiss folks like Saturday’s Arizona shooter as anomalies, but more and more, we’re seeing that Henry David Thoreau was right. The mass of men do lead lives of quiet desperation, and when they become desperate enough, they become much less quiet.

If one thing is true, it’s that being rich doesn’t necessarily make you smart, and America’s rich have always overreached. That’s why it’s so ridiculous to see people who have more money than they could spend in 96 lifetimes object to paying a reasonable amount in taxes or paying any estate taxes at all.

They may not realize it, but they’re killing the goose.

And when it’s gone, we’ll feed on each other.

posted by Mike in American Dream,history,Ranting,Uncategorized and have No Comments

Only 2 classes — bosses and workers

Maybe we should stop talking about the middle class.

The wonderful Joe Bageant, author of “Deer Hunting With Jesus,” says there really isn’t any such thing. If you remove people who aren’t participating in the workforce — the unemployed and the retired — there are really only two classes.

There are the people who write the paychecks and the people who receive them.

There are certainly some people who receive paychecks — pro athletes, etc. — who have a lot more money than some of the small businessmen who write them, but for the most part, you’re either your own boss or you aren’t. You either have to do what someone else says or you don’t.

Let’s call them the ruling class and the working class.

As a journalist, I worked for other people for nearly 30 years. I had some of the most wonderful bosses I could have imagined and some of the most terrible. My last boss — the only one in my career who ever fired me — was the only one I actually think might have been a borderline psychopath. It shouldn’t be any big surprise that he is doing very well in our economy, an economy former French President Jacques Chirac actually referred to as “capitalisme sauvage.”

I don’t think I need to translate that one for you.

I haven’t made 5 cents in the last two years — I’m writing a book that I hope will sell — but I’m my own boss and my stress levels are so much lower than they were that it’s difficult to imagine. Just not having to look at my former boss’s face every day was probably worth 20 blood pressure points to me.

Did you know that in 1789, when our country adopted its Constitution, 95 percent of American men were their own bosses? Most of them were farmers or artisans, and everything was on a much smaller scale, but it sounds absolutely wonderful. That’s pretty much the way things were until the Industrial Revolution, which was when we also stopped educating people to think and started teaching them to follow orders.

Imagine a country in which people worked for themselves and the only stresses they had were of their own creation. Of course it’s impossible in a country of 308 million people, just as it’s impossible for everyone in the country to decide at the same time to eat healthy and shop only at organic food stores.

We can only accept a small percentage of people choosing to be independent at any one time, and it’s a lot easier for folks like me to stay at home when we weren’t the primary breadwinner in our family in the first place.

But yes, it is truly wonderful to know I never have to work for a paycheck ever again — unless I choose to.

posted by Mike in American Dream,Health,Ranting and have No Comments
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