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)

Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over”: win, or get exiled into insignificance

Here’s an earlier work by George Mason University libertarian-leaning economics professor Tyler Cowen, “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of The Great Stagnation” (2014).

Cowen’s penultimate book is properly concerned with the hollowing out of wages and income-earning ability of the middle class.  His book predicts an unsettling political climate which as in fact developed with the election and administration of Donald Trump. In his last chapter, “A New Social Contract”, Cowen accepts intellectual and personally competitive meritocracy as somewhat morally inevitable (in contrast to many other authors reviewed here), and hints that the “others” (including the aged and the unsophisticated) will, so to speak, “go away butterfly” – exile themselves to low cost places (sometimes out of the country) where they more or less drop out of meaningful participation in global life. No wonder we have Brexit and Trump’s isolationism (including Trump’s pulling out of the Paris accords yesterday) now.  (And, no, I don’t want a condo in Belize or Panama.)

Cowen spends a lot of space comparing life and markets to chess games and theory, and digresses into a discussion of how Freestyle Chess works, as he compares computer chess playing to robotics and automation taking over the job market.   He compares chess (implicitly) to the Godel problem that may explain why consciousness exists:  no mathematician or computer has been able to prove that the initial chess position is a win for White or a draw (you can prove it pretty easily with many king-and-pawn endings based on the idea of the Opposition).  He mentions grandmaster Larry Kaufman, whom I know through the Arlington Chess Club (I lost a skittles game to him once, playing Black n a Nimzo-Indian) – I do have Kaufman’s rather dogmatic (but detailed) opening repertoire books.  He gets into interesting discussions of what a valid mathematical proof is (contraposition?  Counter-example?  Induction?)  O, I remember struggling through the bizarre Liouiville in my Master’s Orals at KU back in 1968. He discusses particularly the P v NP computer algorithm theorem, and some leading-edge stuff in string theory.  He is all over the map.

He also talks about the Turing Test, and gives a moral not to Alan Turing’s life and the great horror of the way his life ended.  Whatever his Asperger personality, he apparently had his own kind of charisma, as shown by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in Morton Tyldum’s  film “The Imitation Game” in 2014.

I’ve seen the hollowing out of my own career as a moral process.  I “retired” at age 58 with my first layoff in 30 years, 90 days after 9/11.  The old-fashioned IT industry had become stratified in certain levels of expertise that gradually dwindled, but people could get jobs only in the same areas they had worked before, often W-2 gigs.  The end result was that the careful matured professional approach of mature workers was no longer in play when, for example, Obamacare was developed.  (Cowen, as I do, objects to forcing people to spend their own money to handle other people’s potential behavior problems.)  Object-oriented computing was new in style, with the resulting languages (like C++ and java) terse and non-procedural in syntax, but something young people can learn more quickly than older worker, just as young people learn to play music or learn foreign languages more easily. Cowen, for all his discussion of new forms of education (including online), doesn’t give enough attention to re-training.  Another issue that I think matters is dealing with regimentation in the work place — other people have to.  Cowen does explain why immigration is probably good for jobs as a whole and downplays job loss (or “outsourcing”) to cheaper labor forces overseas as inevitable.

The changes in the workplace tend to drive a lot of people toward hucksterism, or at least maintaining artificial levels of socialization.

Author: Tyler Cowen
Title, Subtitle: “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation”
publication date 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-218111-9
Publication: Plume
Link:  Brookings

(Posted: Friday, June 2, 2017 at 2:45 PM EDT)

Tyler Cowen: “The Complacent Class” waits for that knock on the door, maybe

Tyler Cowen, somewhat conservative economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a New Jersey state chess champion, has a new and brief book “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”.

Cowen believes in a cyclical behavior of peoples throughout history.  When a major culture, such as the U.S., becomes more stable and “safer”, people innovate less, and wealthier or better-off people become more insular.  It becomes harder for less fortunate people to participate meaningfully in the system and to advance.  I advanced this idea myself in my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014).  That tends to lead ultimately to breakdowns and new cycles of unrest and instability.  Although, actually, the uncertainty is generated by shortsighted behavior by the better-off, as we saw with the 2008 financial crisis, where the “rich” goaded the “poor” into taking on debts they could not pay back (the subprime scandal).

I can relate to this personally.  I did get an “inheritance” at the end of 2010, so I have kept on writing without demanding much compensation for it.  Otherwise, I might have more incentive to take risks and create “real businesses” that can actually employ others.  Or I might have more incentive to have a bigger personal stake in both “other people’s causes” and in actual volunteer efforts (and be willing to demonstrate and sometimes take other people’s bullets).

That fits into the idea of populism and anti-elitism that helped Donald Trump win the election and helped Britain leave the EU.

Cowen does attribute some of today’s complacency to the Internet, and the way it can lead to people of like minds to clump together and ignore larger truths.  This can become expressed in “assortative matching”  even in dating (like using fitbit watch data in real time) and marriage, but it can also lead to aggregations of fake news that can sway politics.

The Internet also tends to make some people less interested in the physical world, as he notes by talking about how some people used to collect records and CD’s of classical music (as I did) but now can depend on the Cloud. Economically, the use of “free” content is a mixed bag, as it gives more people a chance to be heard (as it did for me), but makes it harder for many people to make a real living at it (outside of the idea of “Make the A-List”).

He also notes that the level of violence and rebellion has been greater in the past (like the 1960s and early 1970s) than now, but that, as the Black Lives Matter movement (in response to police profiling) shows, the extreme indignation of some people can make this kind of energy come back, and burst into the lives of the sheltered.

He often mentions gay rights, going back to Stonewall in 1969, which was pretty energetic.  He gives a nod to gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, and notes that gay marriage or abstract equality was not particularly compelling as an idea until after Y2K.

It was easier in the past for someone with “nothing” too work him or herself into wealth that it is today.  He notes that even in authoritarian countries like China, it is easier for some people to do this today than it is in the U.S., where people are no longer as “hungry” for wealth or even for others.

Cowen is not optimistic that the Internet, which gave me a second career as a self-made journalist-pundit, will continue to be the source of truth for those who want to store it there.  He thinks crime could undermine the entire digital revolution, and be the Big Rip of our complacency.  The Great Moderation will indeed end.

Cowen mentions the issue of campus protective environments (example is “Mizzou”) but doesn’t get into the issue of speech codes, micro-aggressions and trigger warnings the way he could. Campus environments are promoting complacency while pretending to favor activism.

 

Author: Tyler Cowen
Title, Subtitle: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
Publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1250108692
Publication: St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages, hardcover, 9 chapters, endnotes, index
Link: marginal revolution

(Posted: Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 3 PM)

“The Divide”: how wealth inequality feeds on itself (based on “The Spirit Level”)

The Divide” (2015), directed by Katharine Round, is a documentary based on the 2011 Bloomsburg book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wikinson and Kate Pickett.

The film traces seven individuals, with scenes in quick succession, tracing their lives as they live out their station in life created by a system of wealth inequality that naturally feeds on itself. (Now the top 0.1% controls as much wealth as the “bottom” 90%.)  The people are in the United States and the UK (both England and Scotland).

One man, reared in the Virginia Blue Ridge, had a promising future but wound up in prison for decades in California after Bill Clinton (the “Repubicrat”) pushed the three strikes laws.  One woman had been in a coma for heart failure.  Another woman described being driven out of her small business by Wal-Mart, then working for them, finding them a good employer at first but then gradually more ruthless with cost cutting.

But a prosperous couple in Sacramento, CA wonders about the values of living in a gate community, where people tend to grow more isolated – and how this gives their small children an overly sheltered view of the world.

Another public relations agent on Madson Avenue talks about the grind of work, and about “dressing for success” ((John T. Molloy’s classic book).

Noam Chomsky often leads the commentary, about runaway extreme capitalism that took hold during the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (with the weakening of unions).  The same value system feeds “The Cheating Culture” (2004, David Callahan), leading to the mirages of derivatives and finally the financial crash of 2008.  Most Americans had been duped into gambling their entire lives on their homes.   As Ross Perot said in 1992, “Trickle down didn’t trickle.”

Name: “The Divide”
Director, writer:  Katharine Round
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant; 2017/1/7
Length:  79
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Dartmouth
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2017 at 12:15 AM EST)

“Why Him?”: Because he can make make “Michigan” great again, even when his own computers aren’t safe; Trump will love this movie

Why Him?”, the title of a comedy by John Hamburg (with a story by Jonah Hill and Ian Helfer), is what the potential “father of the bride” Ned Flemming (Bryan Cranston) asks of his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) when she invited the Grand Rapids, Michigan family to her billionaire boyfriend’s ashram in the Silicon Valley.

The answer is, Laird Mayhew (James Franco) is going to Make America Great Again.  It’s not too much of  a spoiler to say that Laird saves Ned’s printing business to changing it to manufacturing something in Michigan that will create manufacturing jobs:  Japanese toilets, that don’t need toilet paper but clean up after you anyway.

There are all kinds of other animals and gadgets on the estate, including a voice and seeing eye Justine that watches them everywhere. Inside his yurt, Laird does his thinking but, like Trump, doesn’t allow computers in this one little sanctum.

Franco, now 38, has his bod covered with tattoos, possible partly because “he’th’mooth”.  At 38, his eyes look furrowed and gaunt, and, well, his legs are embarrassing.  Is he likely hooked up to Peter Thiel’s plan to live forever?

But Laird has that same core of honesty or integrity that Ned has; so Stephanie has found a potential husband that actually extends the character of her own father.  But, then again, Alan Turing had that same kind of integrity.

Griffin Gluck is sensational as the teen Scotty who will take over dad’s new manufacturing company before finishing high school, with Laird’s support.

Name: “Why Him?”
Director, writer:  John Hamburg, Jonah Hill, Ian Helfer
Released:  2016/12/23
Format:  1.85:1 (yet from Fox, without Cinemascope)
When and how viewed:  Alamo Drafthouse, Ashburn, VA (yes, they will kick you out for using a cell phone) 2017/1/4
Length:  111
Rating:  R
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  official

Grand Rapids montage on Wikipedia; the river picture on top appears in the movie in winter in the opening scene.  In my sequel screenplay, “Prescience”, set on another planet, there is a special community called “Grand Rapids”.

The Alamo Drafthouse offered a comedy preshow including a short “Bounce 3”: two gay men with a comedy motorcycle routine in the Arizona desert (one of the actors looked like Seth Rogen);  and “Drop Door” about a bizarre party honoring a military veteran with B.O.

(Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)

“Citizen Lobbyist” documents 2004 transgender activism in Congress

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Citizen Lobbyist” (2005), by Timothy Watts. Is a 58-minute documentary tracing a few days of lobbying by members of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition.  It’s all filmed in Washington, with a session in Senator Lugar’s office, on the Metro (in the days before Safe Track, about when “Five Lines” was filmed), and a closing section at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial.

I often talk about “citizen journalists”, so it’s natural to ponder the role of the “citizen lobbyist”.

The main point of contention is that the regular “gay establishment”, especially HRC (Human Rights Campaign), doesn’t seem to have the backs of transgender people, at least in 2004.  HRC is viewed as willing to throw transgender under the bus to get ENDA and hate crimes bills passed for “normal” gay men and women.  The film maintains that over 50% of transgender people are unemployed.

The first lobbying session happens on April 30, 2004, which is ironically the day that I started substitute teaching.   These are the time just before gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts after the Goodridge decision . The lobbyist point out that anti-gay violence often increases after gay political victories, and anti-trans violence is out of proportion to other crimes.  Anti-gay violence is reported to have increased particularly after the Lawrence v. Texas ruling on the 21.06 Texas sodomy law in June 2003.  There is a narrative a murder of a trans person in Washington in 2002 where police didn’t even leave any tape to close off the crime scene. While the woman relates that story, a passage from what sounds like the Symphony #8 by Shostakovich plays in the background.

In the scene in Lugar’s office, a woman-to-man transgender man explains that he is heterosexual now, and he enumerates the possible mathematical combinations of sexual identity components. But a transgender woman frankly supports the “blurring of genders” and “gender queer” in public consciousness (a bordering on identity politics).

The section at the Vietnam memorial gives a number of transgender people talk about their issues wityh “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, still in place at the time, and also some relate their experiences serving in Vietnam, or even as drill sergeants (even at Fort Jackson).

Let me come back to the difference between journalism (which demands objectivity) and lobbying (which demands loyalty to the constituent group and often must honor partisanship).  I value my own independent voice online as a “journalist”, and I would have to give that up to work publicly to support another group’s agenda or in various conflict-of-interest situations, which would force me kicking and screaming back to identity politics.  I don’t need to pay someone else to speak for me, but if I had to make a “real living” like most people as a huckster, I’d have to.

The film is posted by the Center for LGBT History and Archives.

(Posted Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Requiem for the American Dream” is Noam Chomsky’s best interview film

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Name: Requiem for the American Dream
Director, writer:  by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott
Released:  2015
Format:  video or film, standard
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/5/18
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Site: Link

Requiem for the American Dream” (2015), directed by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, is the best Chomsky interview film so far.  The film, stitched together from four recent interviews with Chomsky’s “ten points” (below), has plenty of interesting animation and a lot of interesting archival historical footage that is shown while he talks.  Most of the time, the view has something other than Chomsky to watch.

My own introduction to Chomsky came while I lived in Minneapolis. Late nights, I would pass Shinders book store on Hennepin on the way to the Saloon, in the months after 9/11.  I often saw paperbacks by Chomsky on right wing conspiracies in the stacks.

The title of the film tells us the theme: most average Americans have had most of their opportunity taken away from them by the wealthy and powerful. Chomsky calls our system now a “plutonomy”, extracting from a “precariat”, or “precarious proletariat” (and my first unpublished novel, after all, had been titled “The Proles”).  The plutonomy undermines democracy deliberately because it sees the “precariat” a threat that could rise up and expropriate, pretty much according to Marxist theory.

Let’s run through the ten methods that the ruling class uses.

(1)    “Reduce democracy”, the basic idea.

(2)    “Shape ideology”.  Donald Trump is trying to do that.

(3)    “Redesign economy”, particularly through “fincialization”, as explained in the book “Makers and Takers” by Rana Faroohar May 14 here. Sometimes Chomsky suggests that things are much more unequal know than ever before because of this process, but at other times, he admits that inequality and labor exploitation were pretty awful in past generations (slavery, the sweatshops of the industrial revolution).  Indeed they were. The 50s and 60s are a bit of a “golden age”, but not really, given the need for the Civil Rights movement, and then Vietnam.

(4)    “Shift burden”, particularly to workers, whose jobs become more precarious even if management says the issues are still mostly job performance.

(5)    “Attack solidarity”.  This sounds like something about labor unions, but that comes up later. This is more about social solidarity.  Michael Moore often criticizes the attitude “I got mine”.  There are questions like, why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have kids?  Chomsky talks about the proposals to privatize social security here and sees it as a wealth-sharing, whereas most of us feel we paid for our own benefits with our own FICA taxes, a point he doesn’t mention.

(6)    “Run the regulators”. This would seem to refer to loosening of financial regulations, that allow crashes (we didn’t have any in the 50s or 60s – the crashes really started with the savings and loan in the late 1980s, but the biggest was the 2008 crash, followed by the “too big to fail” idea.

(7)    “Engineer elections”, with more and more money for campaigns.

(8)    “Keep the Rabble in Line”.  Here Chomsky talks about unions, saying people don’t have sufficient right to organize (solidarity again).  He seems to be referring to “right to work” laws.  But there is also a problem in non-union salaried environments, where people with fewer responsibilities (often the childless) can work for less, or work free overtime, and lowball the system.

(9)    “Manufacture consent”, where he talks about public relations companies and consumerism, especially now online.

(10) “Marginalize populations”.  Here he says that free speech is not itself in the Bill of Rights (what about the First Amendment?) and didn’t come into serious consideration until the 1960s.  He says that the plutonomy tries to restrict the number of people who have influence, but totally misses the contributions of the “Fifth Estate”.

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In the end, Chomsky says that the ruling elite doesn’t like to see  ordinary people talking about “class”.  Indeed, “class” has something to do with what people you have some control over, at least indirectly.

Chomsky is indeed talking about how the “overlords” (to use a term of Arthur C. Clarke, as if we approached a “Childhood’s End”) manipulate classes of people, as if this were the main moral concern of the day.  Yet, at the same time, he says, “this is a free country”, as if to say that is pretty unusual in history as a whole.  My own writing inverts all this, and asks how the “man in the middle” (me) is supposed to behave, as if this is the moral question.  Maybe it’s like former Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne’s titling a book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” back in the 90s (1998, Liamworks, which I read after hearing Browne speak at a LPVA convention in 1996).  I indeed grew up with a certain class consciousness, and the idea that if I made good enough grades, I could move into the “good clothes” class and live off the real labor of “The Proles” (link). It sounds like a boorish, snooty, snarky idea. It brings up the idea of personal “rightsizing”, so far an essentially spiritual idea having to do with personal karma.  It would mean learning to walking the shoes of others whom you have depended on without feeling you are brought low yourself.  You have to deal with it.

Some good collateral reading would be Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951).

(Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:30 EDT)