Thursday, November 29, 2007

Watching The Wheels Spin

This ain't rocket science, guys...
CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Every politician in the U.S. presidential race claimed to be fighting for the middle class, and it seemed a sound strategy -- until the Democratic front-runners tried to define who, exactly, was middle class.

While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama couldn't agree during a recent debate whether someone earning $97,500 or more could be considered middle class, voters have little difficulty judging who isn't -- the presidential candidates themselves.

"None of them really represent the middle class," said Rick Fulmer, 52, who works at the YMCA as a fitness trainer. "Both parties are tied to big business. It takes millions to run for president."
This is both ridiculously easy and profoundly difficult.

The middle class is easily defined, economically. Since the average family of four earns $45,000 a year, the safest definition of the "middle class" is the 80% or so who range around that point. Let's say any family (of neaarly any size) that earns from $35,000 to $75,000, just to be on the safe side, because census data says that a third of American households earn in that range.

Simple, right? Here's where it gets tricky: people who earn more (and some who earn less) believe they are middle class, when in fact they are not.

It's the belief that matters, however. A family that earns around $200,000 (two wage earners, with two kids, say) that lives in New York City or its suburbs will assume it's middle class, because that $200,000 doesn't buy much, once you factor taxes, mortgage, heating, and health insurance into the mix. Perhaps their disposable income is more along the lines of someone earning $75,000 but lives in Texas or Florida.

See? Not middle class, yet very middle class. The family in New York can't afford private schools, even if their income says they should. So education initiatives are very important to them (indeed, they probably moved to a district with better schools because of that very fact).

Too, when firefighters and some teachers make $75,000 a year or more, the definition of middle class becomes even fuzzier. While technically these earners are upper-middle class, you'd have to agree that their jobs keep their values firmly planted in middle class terra firma.

When politicians talk about "middle class," they're talking about the values of hard work, saving a buck, trying to live the American ideal of 2.6 kids, a house, two cars in the garage and providing for the family.

The proverbial "chicken in every pot" of a few generations ago has morphed into a Nintendo in every living room (or a PC, if you buy Microsoft's mission statement), but that's the spirit of the middle class.

Which is what makes the election of George Bush all the more unlikely, since he was born on third base thinking he'd hit a triple. He shares NO middle class values. He's never worked a hard day in his life that wasn't for a photo opportunity.

Sure, he can talk a good "middle class" game, but how can someone truly understand the middle class unless he (or she) has either lived it, or gone out of his way to understand it, like the Kennedy clan has?

What makes this discussion even fuzzier when it comes to Democrats, who traditionally have been and rightly should be the party of the middle class, is this interesting tidbit from the Heritage Foundation: 2005 tax data showed Democrats represent nearly 60 percent of the wealthiest one-third of congressional districts -- those with a high number of people earning more than $100,000 per year.

Admittedly, most of those are on the coasts, which means much higher costs of living, which means, yes, these "rich people" are the very essence of the middle class. Unfortunately, the tax code is skewed towards viewing them as rich, which means they get hammered by things like the alternative minimum tax, even if like you and I, they send their kids to public schools and ride the subways.

(OK, full disclosure...I'm not middle class. I make much more money, so extract the "me" and "we" bits out, even if I do ride the subways and sent my daughter to public school.)

This might be part of the disagreement that Obama and Clinton are having over the increased Social Security tax that Obama proposes. It would hit New Yorkers hard, "middle class" New Yorkers.

Personally, I have no problem with Obama's proposal. While there is no current Social Security crisis, I've always believed that Social Security taxes should not have a ceiling and in fact, should be applied to ALL income (with the possible exclusion of bank interest earned in a savings account, but that's a different part of my NotPresident platform), and that this revenue really should be locked away and not used in return for IOUs from the general spending fund.

So what are "middle class values," anyway?

Well, here's what I believe and if I was counseling a candidate, what I would tell him or her:

1) Hard work is its own best reward, but is also a path to the American Dream. I'm aware of the naivete it takes to swallow that, but enough people do that you have to account for it. The American Dream was never about being wealthy. The Horatio Alger stories saw the hero only achieve a decent living, never wealth. He became comfortable. The "chicken in every pot" ideal. To that extent, this is an attainable value. To the extent that this value gets warped by the economic royalists into "the American Dream is a million bucks," and the concommitant tax cuts they espouse and manipulate the average American into supporting...well, that's a con game. People don't get rich through hard work for someone else, and studies show that most people who work hard for themselves can't even promise a comfortable lifestyle.

2) Since Christ championed the poor, we should help them too. This will piss off an awful lot of hard left readers, but the simple fact is, America is a Christian nation, and while that has negative connotations in some circles, it shouldn't be perceived as evil. Hell, I'm Christian, and what goes on in the Religious Right offends me, too. But Christ's teachings about "Do unto others" and the other rules he set forth for living in a state of grace hold deeper meaning to most Christians, the ones you meet everyday in stores and at the PTA. They really Do believe that the poor need our help. This message gets warped by the economic royalists as "the poor are all about handouts," which distracts attention from the real reasons middle class families can't get ahead: the profiteers and pirates of the corporate classes.

3) If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. True dat. I think most families, apart from the gossip aspect, are happy not to know what their neighbors are up to, because it makes them fair game for intrusion themselves. This gets corrupted by the economic royalists into the pro-life logical fallacies and the pro-gun "from my cold dead hands" trope. I'm not sure why. I think it has to do with another distraction, possibly as government and the rich explore how to exploit the new technologies available for intrusion into control and economic devastation. But that's just a guess.

4) Finally, I'll have what he's having. Pretty simple, this is about not just fairness, but comparative greed. We all know this as "Keeping up with the Joneses." Naturally, as any TV watcher will tell you, this gets exploited by the economic royalists to create a need where none exists (really, if a Prius can get you from point A to point B, why would you need a Hummer?), which is the linchpin mechanism that feeds all the other exploitations I've listed above.

So this really is simple. And hard. And confusing. But once you grasp it, you can go with it.