A Disjointed Primer From The Front
Here’s the deal: There are too many humans on this planet. Way too many. Before we get into this little dissection of the failing middle class in this country, it is important to get that major flaw out of the way. There are way too many people for almost everything; resources, economy, peaceful living conditions, etc. Sure, we have far too many ideologies and idiosyncrasies and certainly way too many theologies to coexist, and while this is nothing new and has been bemoaned by every civilization since the Incas, when you get right down to it, there’s just too many high-functioning mammals sucking air to make stuff work.
Now, let’s get down to the American middle class, or whatever is left of it.
Recently, the president of the United States gave his sixth State of the Union address. It was arguably from an aesthetic standpoint his finest speech since his race-relations one back before he was even president. For the most part, Barack Obama has spent the first six years of his presidency either completely bungling general communications or failing to even begin trying; all this despite his talent for speechifying. For my money, it has been his greatest flaw as president, whether you agree with any of his policies or not. He just has no ability to clearly define his position on things.
But during this latest address he pulled no punches. Pointedly, it is coming from a lame-duck echo of his presidency, this “fuck it” stance he has taken since about four months into his second term, which becomes ever more flaccid in the final two years with the legislative branch out of his hands. Nevertheless, the address went full-boar populist and hammered home an interesting little nugget to keep in our kit bags for the 2016 political season: income inequality and the middle class.
In one of the stranger turns in recent years, Republicans like Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, and in a brief mental lapse during his insane flirtation with running for president a third time, Mitt Romney, have been throwing around the notion (not entirely untrue) that Obama’s economy, while turning the corner in many positive ways, has been more beneficial to the top percentile of the nation; the Wall Street crowd mostly, further shedding light on what used to be a Democratic Party trope; the widening gap between top wage earners and the growing poverty line. And while this plays into the “Food Stamp President” narrative, it also belies six years of Republican carping about how Obama is a closet socialist who is going to take your money and give it to lazy-ass crack mothers.
And while there is some truth-telling in this ramp-up to political babble-on (I would like to officially mark that I believe I am the first person to equate the Biblical Mesopotamian stronghold with useless political rhetoric) it misses the point of the middle class entirely. The middle class has never been an organic concept, it wasn’t in Rome and it never was here. It is man-made, or more to the point, federal government made, and since we have no World War or bloody Police Action to help thin the herds and thrust this country into a fabricated economic boom, then we’re going to need to create it out of thin air. And this is not going to be easy.
In order to get perspective on this, let’s revisit the period when perhaps the greatest middle class in modern times (and by modern times I mean like 2,000 years) was created after the human abomination known as World War II.
After a war that finally pulled America out of its Great Depression, following a dozen agonizing years of fits-and-starts, there was a jolt to an economy once hampered by isolationist speculation of doomed proportions that literally created an international juggernaut. This is better known in our history as the G.I. Bill (and to the wonks among us, The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act); and never has there been a more singular marriage of socialism and capitalism ever concocted by a governing body anywhere. It was quite simply in economic terms a perfect storm, manipulated wholly by a fat-and-happy federal government to fashion a middle class—a consumer-based, freewheeling machine worthy of victors.
The United States government used the haunt of patriotism and the always effective “support the troops” play to impose an implausible tax burden on the wealthy of between 70 to 91 percent to provide returning soldiers low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans (in most cases zero interest) to start businesses and purchase homes. The sweeping bi-partisan bill signed by FDR included cash payments of full tuition and living expenses to attend universities, high schools or pay for specific vocational training, as well as a full year of unemployment compensation. This combined with private entrepreneurs like William Levitt, who built his eponymously-named town in Long Island, NY for G.I.s following the war with the help of both the state and federal governments—which assisted in fighting local unions to allow a free-work environment along with eventually building the Long Island Railroad and the expansive Long Island Expressway to allow these new workers access to the most industrialized city on earth.
By the mid-’50s, some dozen years after WWII and two-dozen after Black Tuesday plunged the nation into an economic disaster, nearly eight million veterans had used the G.I. Bill to create the middle class, which by the end of that decade was the predominant class in the nation and would help give the United States the economic muscle it needed to build roads (the interstate highway system—another federal government creation), invest in technological development (a combined interstate and private banking system manipulated by the federal government) and fill public education facilities with an explosive Baby Boomer generation that, of course, would assist in this idea that there are too many people on this planet.
Eventually, this all-for-one shit got old. This is especially true of the aforementioned Baby Boomers who spent their formative years pissing up the rope of the economic groundswell they enjoyed, which tumbled into the predictable slow collapse of the federal-government-run economy in the 1970s. Unions got bloated. The onset of the Cold War helped erect the ridiculously massive and uncontrollable Military Industrial Complex. The rich elected people to bust up high-tax rates in the 1980s and, well, except for the Internet boom in the 1990s, things began its slow dirge.
It is not a question anymore about the failing middle class, but whether this kind of immense manipulation can happen again? I say no. War is different now. Do you realize we ran two of these things for 13 or so years with no positive effect on the economy? In fact, the large majority of us sacrificed nothing. And the battle over the role of the federal government in the private sector, which was all the rage until the Second World War, found new voices as a result of the fallacy that a governing body can perpetually prop up an economy.
Forget the fact that the world is a completely different place than in 1945 in every possible way; most significantly our outlook on collective responsibility for the future. Fuck the future. That is our motto. And it may be a good one, a natural thinning of the herd, as opposed to some systemic one based on war and economic machinations. But without that or a massive bloody uprising—not really our thing with all the Internet porn, Netflix, celebrity worship and slack-jawed consumerism of tons of shit we don’t really need—we find ourselves with a dying middle class.
And worst of all, there are too many of us.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y.”