Follies of the Middle Class
By Jerome Richard
A letter to the New York Times Book Review (June 10, 2012) by Jeremy Cantor asks: "How was the middle class persuaded to vote for policies that would guarantee its own destruction?" He was responding to a review of The Great Divergence, a recent book by Timothy Noah. The divergence of the book's title refers to the increasing share of the nation's wealth that is going to those in the top 1% income bracket largely at the expense of the middle class. There are many sources for this information cited in the book. For one more recent see here . Yet, many Americans, especially those that identity with the Tea Party and who vote Republican, are middle class, even lower middle class, vote for policies and politicians that are damaging to their own interests. The divergence and its causes and consequences are explained in the book, but Mr. Cantor's question remains to be answered.
In 1981 an initiative was introduced in Washington State to abolish inheritance and gift taxes. While waiting for a bus one day I fell into conversation with a fellow bus rider. He did not appear wealthy and we were both, after all, waiting for a bus. I mentioned the initiative and how I thought it was not democratic since it was unearned income for the heir and violated the equal opportunity principle of our society. He agreed, but said he would vote for the initiative anyway. "Why?" I asked. He said, well, he might win the lottery. One reason so many in the middle class vote against middle class interests is that we believe that with one good lucky break, we too will become rich. (The initiative passed.)
In fact, we identify vicariously with the upper class. Gossip about super-wealthy tycoons, entertainers, and sports stars feeds that identity.
Meanwhile, a great many people in the middle and lower income brackets tend to believe what they read or hear if it seems to come from an authoritative or simply assertive source. The internet, which allows anyone to post an opinion, often promulgated as fact, has exacerbated this condition. The idea is even more readily accepted if it accords with a prior belief, prejudice, or hope. How else to explain the continuing conviction by some that Obama was not born in the United States? There are some who cling to that despite the evidence of birth certificate, testimony by official as to its authenticity, and birth announcement in the local newspaper. What is more remarkable is that they cling to it despite the complete absence of evidence that he was born elsewhere.
Climate change is another example of this phenomenon. Despite the evidence of melting glaciers and rising record temperatures (thirty-one east coast and mid-west states experienced temperatures in May, 2012 that beat the previous record by more than five degrees), a great many people believe global warming is a hoax. For example, during the Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum said that rivals Romney and Gingrich "bought into the science of man-made global warming, and they bought into the remedy, both of which are bogus." Some argue, a little more plausibly, that global warming is natural and not caused by human activity, but a large oyster farming operation in Washington State has recently had to move its spawning operation to Hawaii because of the mounting acidification of the waters due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases. ( See )
Sometimes, what appears to be evidence is actually a deception. Fox News recently ran a clip of an Obama news conference where he appears to admit he broke the law by keeping young illegal immigrants from being deported under certain circumstance. In fact, Fox edited out a segment in which Obama explains that what he actually did was entirely legal. If your major source of information is an uncritical attention to Fox, or any other source, you will not have an accurate view of events. You can see the entire clip on a Daily Show episode .
Clearly, belief trumps evidence. So, if people are told that the way to revive the economy is to cut taxes for the wealthy (the "job creators") and reduce regulation of business, a great many people will believe it even though those are the conditions that led to the Great Recession. In fact, reducing banking regulations have resulted in economic turmoil twice in the last forty years. During the Reagan administration the separation between commercial and savings banks was eliminated resulting in the failure of thousands of savings and loans. ( See ) And of course repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 led to the financial crisis that is still with us. ( See )
Most Americans believe that we have the best health care system in the world despite the fact that we rank 50th in longevity according to the CIA ( See ) and that most of the countries with better results have some form of government-sponsored universal care.
People believed that the Earth was flat for hundreds of years after it was first observed that ships came over the horizon with the top of the mast showing first. Philip Wylie said that common sense is what tells people that the Earth is flat.
Even for people who are open to allowing evidence to dent their beliefs, facts often come too late. As Mark Twain observed: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." For those people it is important to launch corrections to wrong or misleading assertions quickly. (Get those shoes on.) In addition, evidence must be tied to emotions: "It's deregulation that has cost you your job." "Global warming is responsible for 95 degree weather in New York in June."
There is another divergence--this one between middle class beliefs and middle class reality.
Jerome Richard is the author of the novel The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, short stories, and social commentary. His website is: www.jeromerichard1.com.