“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”.
|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:||2017, MIT Press, 234 pages with appendix and index, 4 parts, 14 chapters + Introduction|
(Posted: Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 at 2:30 PM)