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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Victor Davis Hanson: Another Writer You Should Read Regularly

Consider, for example, his latest article (at Pajamas Media):

Why Does the Good Life End?

Redistribution of wealth rather than emphasis on its creation is surely a symptom of aging societies. Whether at Byzantium during the Nika Riots or in bread and circuses Rome, when the public expects government to provide security rather than the individual to become autonomous through a growing economy, then there grows a collective lethargy. I think that is the message of Juvenal’s savage satires about both mobs and the idle rich. Fourth-century Athenian literature is characterized by forensic law suits, as citizens sought to sue each other, or to sue the state for sustenance, or to fight over inheritances…

Just because the state will sue you for the appearance of sexual harassment does not mean that leaving your laptop in a college university carrel means it is less likely to be stolen than, say, a wallet in 1955. The frightening worry is that the two are connected: the more the state steps in to to assure that we are cosmically moral, the more we assume we can relax and therefore become concretely immoral. Detroit is a symptom of that transition from family to state definitions of morality. Go to Athens today, and one can read high-sounding praises of the all-encompassing welfare state, and see all around private machinations to get out of taxes and boasts about getting a public job that requires no work and earns lots of pay…

I especially like that Hanson uses his knowledge of the classical period to make his case. Everything that we are experiencing now as a society has happened before. Unfortunately, historical literacy has not been encouraged in our nation’s schools.

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

It’s been a few days, but I think I’ve finally recovered from my annual trip to the third largest gathering of geeks in the United States (i.e., Dragon*Con). Tomorrow, I plan to get right back into the swing of things on this side of the blog with some commentary on the last Republican debate. At the moment, though, I’d like to share a great clip that really puts our lives into perspective:

(Hat tip to John Ringo.)

Book Rec: Primetime Propaganda

And now it’s time to talk about something truly important: teevee.

Primetime Propaganda:
The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV

by Ben Shapiro

This is a book about revealing the obvious: Hollywood is liberal. But this book stands out from the rest because it actually documents its claims with direct quotes from the people involved. Shapiro took advantage of his Harvard ball-cap and his fresh-faced youth to get interviews with some of television’s biggest names, and the candid opinions he managed to gather are at times very shocking. For example, in her interview with Shapiro, Susan Harris (creator of Soap and The Golden Girls) openly declares that conservatives are “idiots” who have “medieval minds” and are therefore “not open to anything reasonable.” Ouch.

Shapiro also spends a great deal of time describing how the television industry actually functions, and these sections of the book are also quite valuable. “Changing the channel is like voting in Cuba,” Shapiro snarks. “Your preference is not going to make much of a difference.” As he explains, this is because a huge number of our cable channels are owned by six – only six – mega-corporations — and these corporations collude with each other to make sure nobody really intrudes on their designated market shares. It’s like two street-side fruit sellers who make an agreement in which one sells only oranges and the other sells only apples. It’s not a “free market” by any stretch of the imagination.

And have you ever wondered why the television industry is so excited to grab that 18-to-49 market? Well, Shapiro tackles that too. He argues that the social science behind this focus on the young is debatable at best. It is not in fact a given that those in the 18-to-49 bracket are more likely to respond favorably to advertising or that this bracket has more buying power. It is true, however, that this bracket is more liberal — and that is quite convenient for television’s liberal creators.

Will conservative readers find this book illuminating? Yes — but if they’re anything like me, they will argue with Shapiro over his discussion of individual television programs. In my view, I think Shapiro often puts too much stock in authorial intent. Let me explain using a canon featured on our sci-fi blog: J. Michael Straczynski is a flaming liberal. Leftwing fans of his opus, Babylon 5, have drawn parallels between Clark, the fascistic president of the Earth Alliance, and George W. Bush, and JMS certainly hasn’t discouraged them. If I were using Shapiro’s method of analysis, I would thus have to conclude that because JMS is liberal, Babylon 5 must be liberal. But when I ignore JMS and look at the show itself, I see a text that is comparatively conservative in character. Babylon 5 is often (legitimately) praised for its treatment of religion and spirituality. It is also a show that skewers the press, endorses the use of military force to fight evil, and repeatedly steals material from Sacred Scripture. JMS’s treatment of sin and redemption in particular is absolutely outstanding — and his central romance is about as chaste as it can possibly be without it morphing into a simple friendship.

Funny things happen when a creator’s vision is translated to the boob tube and consumed by the audience. That vision becomes part of a larger context — and it gets reinterpreted according to each audience member’s worldview. One viewer may look at Dr. Gregory House and conclude that David Shore is stumping for atheism because House rarely loses in religious arguments. Another viewer may look at the same character and conclude that, given House’s manifest unhappiness, Shore’s show is anything but a celebration of atheism. (The second is the interpretation SABR Matt and I favor.) Regardless of what Shore himself might think, I believe you can use the text to support both readings. Yes — I admit that this approach is suspiciously post-modern, but it has certainly served me well. When you’re a conservative who loves TV, you’re almost required to become a King Rationalizer. I mean, you basically have a choice between that or living with persistent annoyance.

Of course, all of this is not to say that television isn’t predominantly liberal. It is. But I think we need to be more discerning than Shapiro is here when it comes to identifying which canons are definitely liberal and which canons are open to alternative interpretations. The Cosby Show and The Waltons? Those shows are conservative no matter what their creators intended. M*A*S*H? Yes, that one’s liberal, especially in the later seasons. (But, so help me, I adore M*A*S*H for things that are entirely unrelated to the show’s pacifism. RADAR, I LOVE YOU! I WANT STUFF YOU IN MY BACKPACK AND MAKE YOU MY TEDDY BEAR! Ahem. Sorry about that. My inner fangirl went nuts for a second there.) Star Trek? Mostly liberal, though I think the team behind Deep Space Nine in particular deserves to be recognized for bringing, at the very least, some balance to the franchise.

When all is said and done, though, I think Shapiro and I agree on what television needs to do to make up for its failures. Neither one of us is really looking for shows which align with each and every one of our values. We simply want TV writers to acknowledge the possibility that not all Republicans are ignorant rubes. We want TV writers to acknowledge the possibility that not all people of faith are judgmental hypocrites. And for goodness sake, we want TV writers to be honest and acknowledge the very real foibles of the left. In short, what we want is a modicum of fairness.

Tocqueville and the Tube

Tocqueville And the Tube
by Ben Berger @ NRO

The hunger for stimuli may result in our favoring visual media over print, and spectacle over depth. Print makes us translate words into mental imagery and sounds, which exercises our minds. Television is less taxing; it does all of the work for us. The late media theorist Neil Postman found in TV an inherent bias toward the shallow, and not just for sit-coms and the like. Eventually, programmers feel pressure to make even the news and other serious programming more entertaining, if only to compete with alternatives. When we are constantly bombarded with spectacular images, we find it harder than ever to face the weighty and comparatively dull issues of public life.

My students definitely struggle with this effect. They’ve had more “screen time” than any other generation, and their competencies in reading and writing have suffered as a result.

An Artist’s Primary Responsibility

Don’t be shabby, be inspiring instead!
Brad Torgersen

You might be a fiction writer — perhaps, even a brilliant fiction writer — but there can be nothing positive said about a story that is told strictly for the sake of putting off, putting down, duping, fooling, or insulting the audience. You’re lying to your readers when you do that, and lying to your readers is just about the worst sin there is in the creation of fiction.

I am posting this here (and not on our sci-fi blog) because I believe Torgersen’s comments apply to all the members of our artistic class. I don’t know how many times I’ve turned on the television (or walked into a movie theater) and been insulted rather than entertained. At this point, I don’t consume any cultural product unless it has already been vetted by people I trust.

Dalrymple Classics

I have a headache at the moment, so what I’m going to do tonight is point you to two articles which perfectly illustrate why I love to read “Theodore Dalrymple’s” literary and social commentaries:

The Rage of Virginia Woolf

The Cambridge Guide to English Literature describes Three Guineas as an established classic—but a classic of what genre exactly? Of political philosophy? Contemporary history? Sociological analysis? No: it is a locus classicus of self-pity and victimhood as a genre in itself. In this, it was certainly ahead of its time, and it deserves to be on the syllabus of every department of women’s studies at every third-rate establishment of higher education. Never were the personal and the political worse confounded.

The book is important because it is a naked statement of the worldview that is unstated and implicit in all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, most of which have achieved an iconic status in the republic of letters and in the humanities departments of the English-speaking world, where they have influenced countless young people. The book, therefore, is truly a seminal text. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf lets us know without disguise what she really thinks: and what she thinks is by turns grandiose and trivial, resentful and fatuous. The book might be better titled: How to Be Privileged and Yet Feel Extremely Aggrieved.

How – and How Not – to Love Mankind

It is true that Marx, like Turgenev, is on the side of the underdog, of the man with nothing, but in a wholly disembodied way. Where Turgenev hopes to lead us to behave humanly, Marx aims to incite us to violence. Moreover, Marx brooked no competitors in the philanthropic market. He was notoriously scathing about all would-be practical reformers: if lower class, they lacked the philosophic training necessary to penetrate to the causes of misery; if upper class, they were hypocritically trying to preserve “the system.” Only he knew the secret of turning the nightmare into a dream.

In fact, the hecatombs his followers piled up are—to the last million victims—implicit in the Manifesto. The intolerance and totalitarianism inhere in the beliefs expressed: “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”

In other words, there is no need for other parties, let alone individuals with their own personal quirks: indeed, since the Communists so perfectly express the interests of the proletariat, anyone opposed to the Communists must, by definition, be opposed to the interests of the proletariat.

“Dalrymple’s” unique melding of erudition and sarcasm is such a treasure.

Cross Post: Themes of Liberty in Star Trek

Ilya Somin, an associate professor at the George Mason School of Law and a blogger at the libertarian-leaning Volokh Conspiracy, speaks on the contradiction between the political structure and the economic system of the Federation:

Themes of Liberty in Star Trek

That bit at the end in which he makes the tongue-in-cheek proposition that the humans force the other races to pay tribute to Earth in order to maintain Earth’s socialistic paradise is especially amusing. Oh, and as you might expect, DS9 is praised for being more nuanced.