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Fingered-Is the American Middle Class the New Servant Class?
From 1946 to 1972 the American middle class had it finger lickin’ good. Americans returned from the Second World War to a vibrant economy where there were plenty of jobs with decent wages. Worker productivity matched the regular wage increases which meant rising profits for corporations. The American housewives who were happy with their husbands as bread winners swished around in their crisp aprons in kitchens surrounded by gleaming kitchen appliances. All seemed wonderful with social mobility assured for Americans to climb up the social ladder to middle class respectability if they worked hard enough in the manufacturing industries. Kids could be sent to colleges and new cars could be bought. These were the golden years for the middle class.[i]
The Golden era turned to bronze for the middle class as the noose of stagnant and declining wages tightened around their necks. In the eighties under Reagan the abandoning of the middle class started in real earnest. The wages were squeezed; unions which negotiated better wages for their workers were destroyed. The low or stagnant wages gushed up as profits to line the pockets of the CEO’s of corporations and the top one percent of the income pyramid. The tax structure became corporate friendly with no respite for the middle class and small family businesses. Corporations outsourced jobs and the manufacturing jobs were shipped to China. Soon millions of jobs were lost for Americans from the secure auto manufacturing sector and they faced reduced earnings, chronic job insecurity and diminishing prospects of meaningful retirement with benefits.[ii]
The plight of the middle class families worsened as large section of the middle class was pummeled into the trap of an economy of low wages. Soon single earning middle class families had to pave way for families with two incomes to balance the household budget. When that did not help the middle class had to borrow money for their household spending and for buying homes. In the last thirty years of stagnating incomes, the middle class families piled up huge debts and were in the throes of debt peonage.
The toxic legacy of the Reagan era continued unabated even under the Democrats and the final nail was driven in the middle class coffin by the financial crisis in 2008 when Wall Street nearly crashed and had to be bailed out with trillions of dollars of tax payer’s money. Now it became de rigueur to talk of austerity and balancing the budget which meant reduced social security, slashed spending on education and public services. The middle class was culled amidst the drumbeat of the corporate media resonating with the sound bites of free market and creative destruction of competition.
Writing for the German Newspaper Der Spiegel Thomas Schulz says, “While America’s super-rich congratulate themselves on donating billions to charity, the rest of the country is worse off than ever…. Millions of Americans are struggling to survive. The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever and the middle class is disappearing.” [iii] Paul Mason in the UK newspaper Guardian injects more gloom about the viability of the middle class “wages don’t rise; you can’t get on the property ladder. Fiscal austerity eats into your disposable income. You are locked out of your firm’s pension scheme; you will wait until your late 60s for retirement…. This generation of young, educated people is unique—at least in the post-1945 period: a cohort who can expect to grow up poorer than their parents.” [iv]
The future for the American middle class is rather bleak unless one is imbued with cockeyed optimism. The Bronze Age is already turning to Stone Age as there appears to be no political party which has the political courage to change the downward trajectory of lower wages for the middle class. As Jeff Faux, a distinguished economist, points out in his book ‘The Servant Economy’ that the middle class was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in favor of two powerful centers of power, namely, the Corporate Military Industrial Complex and Wall Street.
As well paying jobs get outsourced to low wage countries, even college graduates would have their escape routes blocked and a college degree ain’t no- ticket- to-paradise. As the author observes “Everything else being equal, employers would rather have a college graduate waiting on tables, grooming and walking dogs, and mowing lawns. As a result, the demand for the majority of workers who are not college graduates will decline even further. Wage depression—and the mental depression that often follows—will deepen among the U.S. professional classes as well. The incomes of engineers, program designers, attorneys, accountants, graphic and video artists, audiovisual specialists, data analysts, and those in similar occupations will suffer in pitiless competition with people all over the world who are just as smart and trained as they are but willing to live and work for much less.”[v]
The only jobs that would be available would be in the low end of the spectrum: the servant jobs. As the economy becomes a two tier system, the extremely wealthy and the rest settling down at the bottom of the income pyramid, jobs would be created for the comfort of the plutocrats. As Jeff Faux wryly points out “ When the rich get richer, they tend to spend more on personal comforts: maids, nannies, governesses, tutors, companions for the elderly, gardeners, handymen, personal assistants, cooks, security guards, trainers, therapists, sports and fitness coaches, chauffeurs, and masseuses. As the higher-paying, more secure jobs connected to the global economy are outsourced, the supply of educated workers with personal skills who are willing to work for less will expand.”[vi]
While it is true that the middle class would be out gunned by both the Corporate Military Industrial Complex and Wall Street, and have policies rigged in their favor, the middle class could still regroup and fight for their survival. They could also exert their political will by applying pressure on their elected representatives by peaceful demonstrations, campaigns and protests.
In the penultimate chapter of his book Jeff Faux narrates an old story of a farmer who had the problem of big pigs hogging all the food in the trough and not allowing the little pigs to eat any food. The farmer asks his son- a conservative- for his advice. The son tells the father that survival of the fittest dictates that the bigger pigs should get all the food and the smaller pigs should die. Not happy with the answer he turns to the other son who is a college educated liberal and asks for his advice. His other son- a liberal- said “increase the feed so that some may trickle to the little pigs.” Not happy with his answer as the cost of the feed would go up, the farmer turned to his uneducated daughter for advice. The daughter shook her head and simply said, “Throw the big pigs out from the feeding trough”.[vii]
Maybe the middle class should just do that and throw out the big pigs from the political economy. After all, as the political elites have shown their rude middle finger, the middle class families have nothing to lose and everything to gain by their act of defiance.
C R Sridhar