On the Woes of the Middle Class

As Rep. Paul Ryan noted in his recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, it is extremely misleading to speak of the “rich” and the “poor” as if they are fixed classes. In reality, most people move up and down the income scale throughout their lifespan. Kids in their teens and twenties are at the bottom because they’re just starting out in entry-level positions. People in their forties and fifties, meanwhile, have generally hit their peak earning years, so they are more likely to occupy the top brackets. Then people retire in their sixties and seventies and their income drops again. People in the fabled “1%” one year may not be there a few years later. And if you’re on the bottom? The chances are still very good that you will not be there forever.

But it is also true that we are not quite as economically mobile as we used to be. The unfocused expression of anger that is the Occupy [Your City] movement is based on something valid. We need to be very careful, though, when it comes to identifying the sources of our distress — and their potential solutions.

Today’s Ragged Dicks (that’s a Horatio Alger reference, not an insult) run up against several roadblocks on the path to success. They include:

  • Family breakdown. Success in school requires parental involvement — but due to the rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy, many well-meaning parents simply don’t have the time to look over little Johnny’s homework. And by the way, said parents also don’t have the time to ensure that Johnny gets healthy things to eat, and bad nutrition can lead to childhood obesity and inhibit cognitive development.
  • A severely dysfunctional lower education system. Our public education establishment has prioritized fads over effective instruction and union demands over our students’ well-being. Consequently, when Johnny graduates from high school (assuming he does graduate, which is not a certainty), he may still be functionally illiterate and innumerate.
  • An increasingly dysfunctional higher education system. Let’s say that Johnny manages to graduate from high school with a B average and a 1500+ on his SAT (out of 2400). At this point, he will probably apply for a student loan and go to college. But will Johnny actually learn anything while he’s there? Is a college education really worth racking up thousands of dollars of debt? That really depends on the major Johnny selects. If he earns a BS in, say, chemical engineering, it’s likely he’ll be able to find a good job when he graduates and start moving up the income ladder. But our colleges also offer an array of fruity “do you want fries with that?” majors like women’s studies and sociology — majors that don’t reflect what the outside economy actually needs. And because all student loans are guaranteed by the federal government, our institutions of higher learning feel no compunction in jacking up their tuitions to astronomical levels so they can support their own top-heavy bureaucracies. Is the Assistant Dean of Student Diversity and his staff of 37 really going to add anything to Johnny’s college experience? No, but Johnny is going to pay for them anyway.
  • The pervasive – and wrong – belief that a college degree entitles you to a comfortable middle class lifestyle. If Johnny decides to major in something useless (like sociology), he’s in for a rude shock when he graduates, as there will be no jobs available for him in his field. Now, if Johnny is suitably humble, he will take his lumps and accept any employment he can find without complaint. Unfortunately, if the Occupy [Your City] protests are any indication, humility is not something we teach in school these days. Instead, we lie to our kids and tell them that all degrees are created equal — that it’s okay to “follow your bliss.” We are breeding a generation of spoiled brats who believe a credential – any credential – erases the need for personal industry. Is it any wonder that employers are reluctant to hire young people?
  • A culture that devalues the trades. We still need plumbers and mechanics and carpenters – indeed, some employers are crying out desperately for people with that kind of experience – but these days, we’re not really encouraging kids to go to trade school. Plumbers and mechanics and carpenters can definitely earn good money and establish themselves as members of the middle class, but right now, kids hear “college, college, college!” and aren’t presented with any alternatives.
  • A regulatory structure that pushes manufacturing jobs offshore. The dose makes the poison — yet we continue to heap costly burdens on our businesses in a ridiculous quest to ensure 100% safety and environmental purity. Yell at the eeeeevil corporations all you want, but they’re building their factories in other countries because their consumer goods would be too expensive for their customers if they were manufactured here.
  • Public policies which favor big, established businesses over small and newer ones. While I understand the economic reason why our bigger corporations have moved some of their operations out of the country, I don’t think those corporations are entirely blameless here. After all, over the years, they’ve collected billions of tax-payer dollars in corporate welfare to fund politically-favored boondoggles like “green” energy. Moreover, because they have the resources to move if they need to, larger corporations tend to like regulation because it handicaps their smaller competitors. If Johnny happens to have an entrepreneurial spirit, he may have a tough time getting his new business going.
  • Burdensome property taxes. If Johnny is successful enough to buy a house and a car or two, he may find himself paying quite a sum to fund local government services. Why? Because during the housing boom, the public sector unions managed to snag some sweet deals for themselves. There are retired public sector workers in California who receive six figure pensions, for example. And are these unions willing to give up some of their benefits now that we’ve hit hard times? Forget about it. They want the private sector to continue forking over the cash, and they’re willing to throw temper tantrums at their state capitals to make that happen. The upshot? Unless Johnny has a public sector job, he’s hosed.

I think you probably get the picture at this point. There is rampant social injustice in our system, but that is not entirely the fault of “the rich.” No — our problems are primarily government-related. It is the government that imposes regulations that prevent entrepreneurs from creating new jobs. It is the government that picks winners and losers in the business world and hands our taxes to big corporations to fund things we don’t want. It is the government that makes promises to the public sector unions that it ultimately cannot keep without going bankrupt or screwing the private sector. It is the government that grants our colleges the liberty to rip people off. It is the government that has enabled 40% of our kids to be born out of wedlock.

The aforementioned Occupiers are demanding the expansion of an already unsustainable public sector, but their proposals are akin to trying to cure someone’s chlamydia by giving them gonorrhea. We don’t need more government; we need less. Moreover, we need to restore the culture that allowed us to be prosperous to begin with. Kids need to be taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that they have to work – and work hard – to get the things they really want.

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