Peter Temin’s “The Vanishing Middle Class”: heavy emphasis on political engineering by race

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy”, by MIT Economics professor Peter Temin, is another recent controversial tome on inequality. But unlike “Dream Hoarders” (July 7), this book talks about inequality in terms of collective political forces involving class, money, and especially race, with little direct attention to how individuals should be expected to behave, which was the point of my own “DADT III” book in 2014.

The parts of the book (from the TOC) give a sense of its message:  (I) is “An American Dual Economy”; (ii) “Politics in a Dual Economy”; (III) “Government in a Dual Economy”; (IV) “Comparisons and Conclusions”.   The book is relatively brief; the core parts comprise 160 pages, along with 17 pages of roman-number introduction. (By the way, I think that introductions should always be numbered in the main sequence of the book and show in the page count.)

Temin starts out by showing how capitalism alone tends to generate self-reinforcing inequality.  He calls the upper crust of society the “FTE Sector” (finance, technology and electronics).  Low-wage people doing manual labor or service jobs (or selling on commissions, for example) tend to aspire to enter the FTE but face serious self-perpetuating barriers.  Richer people can save money and owe less, can give their own children more advantages, and are more likely to have kids with “better” genes (the inconvenient truth of “A Troublesome Inheritance”, June 24, going back to ideas like those of Charles Murray), as well (particularly) of more access to “social capital” – informal interdependence with extended family and friends (the “Lotsa Helping Hands” idea in churches).  The economic system has burdened low-income people with student debt (especially with the rise of for-profit universities), upsidedown housing (the 2008 subprime crisis) and medical bills (even with Obamacare – and the GOP is partly right about this in my estimation).  You need to be able to save money to get any traction and move up.  I’ve worked as a debt collector before.  I’ve heard plenty of stories of how this works.

Temin then moves into race – and I’ll add here that in his conclusions he calls for a “Second Reconstruction”.  I wondered if he has sat through “Gone with the Wind”.  He connects race and the history of slavery (versus other, white immigration from Europe) and later segregation to the evolution of American democracy, an unprecedented political innovation at the time of the American Revolution. He traces particularly efforts to suppress blacks from voting (as with the 1964 murders in Mississippi) but he might have paid more attention to recent gerrymandering.  He also discusses incarceration and “war on drugs” policies as racially motivated, as well as attempts to privatize schools and lack of sufficient attention to urban infrastructure (he mentions the politics of constructing a third tunnel under the Hudson to New York, as well as Washington DC’s problems with Metro, leading to reduced hours and the Safe Track surges.  He does talk about the inability of school systems to properly pay teachers, But he could talk about the challenge for teachers from more privileged backgrounds to communicate with students in disadvantaged homes – something I encountered big time as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s.  On race and police, he mentions Ferguson (Michael Brown – see “Whose Streets”, May 8) and Florida (Trayvon Martin) without objective attention to the deeper facts behind these particular cases.   In the government area, he makes an interesting comparison of democracy, autocracy, and oligarchy (and rails against the Koch empire, which libertarians usually like; he regards Dallas as a cultural sub-capital for US business). He goes links personal debt to national debt and gets into a discussion about Social Security, denying that it is an earned annuity and implying it could be taken way from rich retired people who are otherwise coasting in neutral, like in the next debt ceiling crisis (which will happen Sept. 29, 2017).  He does present social insurance as needing government and federal oversight, and seems to think that sometimes lenders need to be ready for debt forgiveness (after a discussion of bankruptcy).

On race, I think Temin does not pay enough heed to the fact that economic and social problems of Trump’s rural base (white non-college-educated) are really similar to those of inner city blacks;  opioid has a similar dynamic as crack cocaine, and low-wage and resentment of elitism is pretty much the same.  Furthermore there are plenty of blacks in rural Trump country with the same problems as inner-city blacks and rural whites,

Temin refers to philosopher John Rawls and the 1971 opus “A Theory of Justice”, with his theory of distributive justice.  But it seems to me that such a tome would drill down to a discussion of the moral obligations of every person who finds the self in a more privileged system than others.  It goes beyond the idea of “giving back” or “paying it forward” to the idea of accepting personal interdependence with people in other social classes – a kind of resilience necessary to deal with common external threats (like what we have now).  Unearned wealth, if not widely used, can eventually lead to ugly ends, including shame and expropriation.  Coercion and revolutions do happen.  This is even a little more than my old 2004 essay “Pay your bills, pay your dues”.

Author: Peter Temin
Title, Subtitle: The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy” The book cover hides the word “Middle” in black and that fooled me!
publication date 2017
ISBN 9780262036160
Publication: 2017, MIT Press, 234 pages with appendix and index, 4 parts, 14 chapters + Introduction
Link: official

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 at 2:30 PM)

“Two Trains Runnin'” parallels a search for Blues musicians against the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in 1964

Two Trains Running“, (or, “Two Trains Runnin’“) directed by Samuel D. Pollard and written by Benjamin Hedin, is a docudrama, partly animated, showing two parallel stories in 1964 Mississippi.

One is the search for two Blues singers (Son House and Skip James) in the countryside, by young white blues record collectors.  The other is the tragic outcome of the voting registration drive that led to the murder of three civil rights activists from the North (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner; the last two were white).

On one level, the film shows what the popular music world of the early 60s was like.  I collected classical records at a time when high fidelity and record wear abatement was coming into vogue.  Some of the labels, like Folkways, are shown. Much of the literature was locked up in old 78s.

One of the men was Phil Spiro, who practically flunked out of MIT but went poor in order to do his own music.  He had a day job programming the first IBM mainframe.  Tom Martin provides the voice of Jim Farley.

Then there was the class of white college students at northern universities.  Leadership wanted white college kids, offspring of those in power, involved so the country would understand what was going on with the Civil Rights movement. People were trained in Ohio in how to do community organizing and how to deal with the dangers posed not only by the Ku Klux Klan but also with corrupt police in small towns, including Philadelphia, MS at that time.  The unwillingness of the Johnson administration (including J Edgar Hoover) to enforce desegregation laws in the deep south would not start to turn around until the three young men gave up their lives, a sacrifice as real as anything in Vietnam. They did not rise from the dead, but maybe we should have expected them to. Mr. Goodman’s mother is interviewed.

The film mentions the 2013 Supreme Court decision allowing states more leeway in reintroducing voting requirements.

The film could be compared to the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning“ (Orion) by Alan Parker, with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, which I saw at the AMC Uptown in Washington at that time.

I personally visited Philadelphia, MS in 1985, and Selma, AL in 2014.


1.   This speaker also told me that the first effort to integrate the military by race started with demonstrations in 1941, not just with Truman (HBO, Gary Sinese in 1996) in 1948 (connected eventually to the battle of “don’t ask don’t tell” starting in 1993).




Name:  “Two Trains Runnin'”
Director, writer:  Samuel D. Pollard
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St. 2017/4/27
Length:  80
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Avalon
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“13th” traces US racism to use of prison slave labor


Name: 13th
Director, writer:  Ava DuVernay
Released:  2016/9
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 100
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: Fortune

13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix studios, is a powerful documentary that traces racism (particularly what we saw in Trump’s campaign this year) and racial profiling all the way back to the logical sequels of slavery.

The 13tn Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery except for convicted criminals.  (I could wonder immediately about involuntary conscription into the Armed Forces.)  So “Negros” were often convicted of small crimes so they could be “re-slaved” by prison labor.  The film traces the use of prison labor all the way into recent history with the privatization of prisons for profit with many of the laws drafted by a conservative pressure group, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), such as SB1070 (NPR story )


The use of prison labor corresponds with many trends in race and criminal law since Reconstruction, leading to segregation and the whole “Jim Crow Law” legal establishment in the South. Then in the 1970, Richard Nixon developed a code of criminalization associating drug abuse and pot with war protesters and with blacks.  (The Army, however, gradually became a place where African Americans could advance, as it already was in 1968, when I was drafted.  That had been helped by Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948.) I recall a very draconian anti-drug law signed by Rockefeller for New York State in 1973.  The Reagan years continued the anti-drug campaign with Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign, and with particularly the explosion of crack.

This documentary maintains that the 1915 epic “The Birth of the Nation” helped foment the KKK,. The film covers the practice of lynching, with graphic autobiographical accounts and pictures (which the late Gode Davis has covered in his unfinished film “American Lynching”, of which I saw parts of, about 30 minutes, in his home in 2003).  The film mentions autobiographies of black people affected by segregation, and the gradual exposure of the evils of segregation with the media of the day – big magazines (as in “Loving”, yesterday), and television, which televised the Civil Rights movement in the south – Selma, and the death of Emmett Till.

The film does present several of the most corrosive and provocative rants by Donald Trump early in his 2016 campaign. (In fact, his pet saying has been rephrased as “Make America White Again.”) The film mentions Trump’s demand of the the death penalty (no longer possible) for “The Central Park Five” even though those men (from a late 80s case) were later exonerated by DNA evidence (and had been coerced to confess) – the wrongful conviction issue that has become a career for filmmaker Andrew Jenks.

The film looks at relative incarceration rates by race and notes that in many states, felons cannot vote again.  (An earlier film, May 10, covered te way sex offenders are kept away from society forever by the criminal justice system.)

At the end, the film summarizes several of the police shooting cases that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially Ferguson, and Fernando Castille in Minnesota.  Darrien Hunt in Utah would have been a good one to cover (Reid Ewing tweeted a lot about the incident).

(Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2016 at 9:45 PM EST)

“Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party”: Why the “progressives” put Dinesh in jail, but now “I’m free!”


Name: Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party
Director, writer:  Dinesh D’Souza, Bruce Schooley
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2016/9/7
Length 90
Rating NA
Companies: Pure Flix
Link: official

Dinesh D’Souza (along with co-director Bruce Schooley) makes his latest conservative missive “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” entertaining.  “Who are these Democrats?”

He starts off with a concert in Dallas, about to play an adaptation of the Star Spangled Banner. There is a concert pianist, thin and with specs, who looks intentionally made up to look like classical composer-pianist Timo Andres;  you have to look twice to make sure this is mistaken identity.  The performance returns to end the movie, and ends loudly. (Andres likes music pieces to end quietly, a point Dinesh is too sinful to notice.)   And in the epilogue, Dinesh tells his prison English class to vote Republican, and notes he won’t be allowed to vote anymore.

Then Dinesh entertains us by recreating his experience in jail, where he, literally, went “back to the bay”. This must have taken some doing to recreate for a movie;  it’s rather like Reid Ewing’s filming a little libertarian mockumentary “I’m Free” right in the Los Angeles County courthouse (in 2012) – except that Reid is three decades younger and better looking.   Already, Dinesh seems to be having fun with our mental images of much younger, popular and politically edgy male celebrities.


Dinesh got sent to prison for violating a “Campaign Finance Reform” act, by giving too much money to a conservative candidate of his choice, apparently in other people’s names.  There was a time, in 2005, when conservative papers (like The Washington Times) noted that some political bloggers were running afoul of the Campaign Finance Law but it blew over legally (my account of this). Dinesh claims he drew the attention of the fibbies (but not John Grisham’s goons) due to the “success” of his earlier movie “Obama’s America”.

After this autobiographical intro, Dinesh layers his storytelling back to the 1820s, to trace (like for an essay question on an American history final exam) the evil history of the Democratic Party (some will call it “revisionist history”), starting with Andrew Jackson.  That president aggressively expropriated native American lands, leading eventually to the development of the reservation system (and today’s casinos).  I got familiar with this personally while living in Minnesota from 1997-2003.  This part of the film has many well-acted skits, with realistic 19th century settings set up in Tennessee for actual filming. The Republican party emerges to oppose slavery and to treat natives fairly.  In one scene, Davy Crocket (as from Walt Disney’s two films with Fess Parker) argues for natives in one scene (see Aug. 27 – my own recent trip to Cumberland Gap, although settler Daniel Boone is the relevant figure).   The film briefly covers the Civil War and Lincoln Assassination, Ted Turner style (like the 1995 movie “Gettysburg”)  It then goes into how the Democrats sabotaged Reconstruction, and supported the Ku Klux Klan, and the resulting lynchings (which this film re-enacts on camera).  All of this history could go into the late Gode Davis’s still not completed film “American Lynching” (my connection to it ).

Dinesh makes a certain jump in a fuzzy account of how the Democratic Party became “progressive” in the 20th Century.  Actually, he could have hit Woodrow Wilson even harder – as Wilson reinitiated sedition laws to jail those who even criticized the military draft.  The modern Democratic Party is thought to have emerged with FDR and the New Deal.   Dinesh points out that by then the idea of “progressivism” was coming to mean state management of everything.  Democrats actually accepted Mussolini-style fascism at first (bachelors were taxed), and some were enticed by communism and the forced expropriation of Bolshevism. Dinesh traces its reluctant but begrudging support of the Civil Rights movement, where LBJ accepted the Civil Rights Act in 1965 to guarantee the loyalty of the “Negro” vote.  LBJ was a racist under the covers, and often spoke contemptuously of “negros”.

But then the Democratic Party moved on to capture the Labor Movement, with the Daly political machine in Chicago becoming the most notorious prize.

Dinesh finally gets to the history of Hilly and Billy, claiming that they want to steal the whole country, with effectively a four-term presidency.  But this seems to be very little a film about Hillary Clinton.  The most effective part of Dinesh’s narrative is the opening (in jail) and his somewhat revisionist American history.

Dinesh does mention a few things Hillary wants to “give” ordinary working Americans without explaining how to pay for them, like mandatory paid family (or maybe just maternal) leave.

There was a fair audience last night at Regal Ballston Common in Arlington, and one older man actually applauded.

(Published: Thursday, September 8, 2016 at 1 PM)



“Free State of Jones”: riveting Civil War and Reconstruction drama trails into present day marriage law; “secession” goes both ways



Name: Free State of Jones
Director, writer:  Gary Ross, Leonard Hartman
Released:  2016/6/24
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, small audience, 2016/6/27 (Monday night)
Length 139
Rating R  (very graphic war violence)
Companies: STX, Bluegrass
Link: official site 

Free State of Jones” (2016), directed by Gary Ross, based on a (partially) “non-fiction” biographical story by Leonard Hartman, tells us the history of a re-secession movement in Mississippi starting in 1862, led by Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). It is layered against a trial in 1947 in “modern” Mississippi where one of Newton’s male descendants is tried for miscegenation, where the state claims he is 1/8 “black” even though he certainly “looks” white.


The movie starts with an 1862 battle scene, where a teenage relative runs to Newton, claiming he was “drafted”.  The kid breaks the first rule of “night infiltration” (for readers who have gone through Army Basic as I did) and stands up and is shot, bleeding out to death in Newton’s arms.  There is talk about how white conscripts can buy their way out of the draft by supplying twenty slaves.  There is a line “this is a rich man’s war fought by poor people.”  There is talk of cowardice, treason, and sedition laws passed by the Confederacy.  (The draft issue came up in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York”).


The movie tracks through the rest of the War Between the States, and into the Reconstruction, with the whole “40 Acres and a Mule” thing, as white landowners and the Ku Klux Klan try to intimidate blacks to keep them from voting.  There is one graphic lynching scene (foreshadowing the still incomplete documentary “American Lynching” by Gode Davis).

The look of much of the film reminds one of NBC’s “Revolution”.  The style of acting and scene set-up is that of a western, although you could call it a “southern”.  Some of the early scenes of war wounds are quite graphic, with nauseating limb amputations on camera (so well described by Margaret Mitchell in “Gone with the Wind” when Scarlet gets trapped in Atlanta), a face literally blown off, and later a scene where an attack dog chews on McConaughey’s balding leg.

As Reconstruction starts, Knight gives an impromptu speech to his vagabond rebels, a kind of libertarian manifesto, of four points, including what you plant you keep (the Confederacy had seized crops and livestock) and skin color won’t matter in your having voting and property rights.

The film was shot on location in Jones County, Mississippi, as well as in Louisiana.


(Published: Monday, June 27, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

(Outdoor photos are mine, from northern MS on a trip in May 2014)