There is a perception that material wealth of the middle class has fallen over the last half century. This is absurd on its face. As I have pointed out many times before, you can live on one income today in a manner of a 1950s family without much trouble at all. It’s easy.
First, you must live in a drafty, 1,100 square foot house and consider it large. Once you purchase furniture, you will – of course – keep it for decades. Your house should have no air conditioning. You won’t have cable television, a computer or Internet to pay for. You won’t have to pay for a cell phone. You will make long distance calls only rarely and keep them as short as possible. You will own only a single car that will be shared by you and your spouse. You will take vacations close to home at destinations like the Wisconsin Dells or Coney Island. You will take these vacations only every couple of years. No air travel at all. Air travel is for the wealthy. You won’t have to purchase a microwave oven, a DVD player, a flat screen television or an iPod. You will have about six or eight changes of clothes to buy and you will be set. Your medicine cabinet will contain aspirin, Merthiolate and band-aids. You don’t have to worry about college for your kids since you have no expectation of them attending.
Of course virtually no one lives like that in 2016. Even the lower working classes and those on welfare have access to more material wealth and comforts than did a middle class family in the 1950s. The middle class have access to entertainment, communications, education, medicines, comfort and travel that nobody at any income had access to in the 1950s. Compared to the middle class of the 1950s, the middle class of today is fabulously wealthy in terms of material goods.
So what are people so angry about if not a loss of material wealth?
Part of it, of course, is simply a nostalgic, idealized belief that the past was better. Watch old re-runs of Leave it to Beaver from 1959 and you will often hear upper middle class Ward Cleaver speak fondly the good old days of his youth and how crazy the modern world has become. I suspect that this phenomenon of people glorifying the good old days is a backed into the human psyche. Ward’s parents would probably have pined for the good old days of the McKinley administration.
There have been changes to the American economic picture other than the general increase in material wealth.
First, there is far more wealth disparity than in the 1950s and 60s. Even though middle and working class people have more material wealth and comforts, they are very aware that, in their community, there are whole neighborhoods filled with 6,000 square foot houses, four car garages loaded with cars that cost as much as small houses and all manner of ostentatious displays of wealth.
A new meta-analysis published by the British Medical Journal shows a link between income inequality and mortality and health. The researchers concluded that people living in regions with high-income inequality had an increased risk of premature death, independent of their individual socioeconomic status, age or gender. While it is logical to assume the lowest income citizens would be at grater health risk, the study concluded that income inequality is “detrimental to the more affluent members of society, since these citizens experience psychosocial stress from the inequality and loss of social cohesion.”
Basically, people are programmed to dislike social inequality and perceived unfair distribution of outcomes. In fact, research has shown that inequality and a sense of unfairness actually effects the brain in a way that causes anxiety and discomfort. We are warned by Moses to not covet our neighbors’ stuff, but we still do it. We can’t help it.
Even if we are better off ourselves, we feel stress and anger that “those damned yuppies” have so much more. It’s baked into our brains.
Fundamentally, the middle class is angry because they have failed to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses now have a massive, ugly, garish house that display their wealth for all. That wasn’t necessarily the case in 1950.
The loss of status for the middle and working classes isn’t just due to the wealth gap, however. The lower middle and working classes have also given up on the traditional means by which people previously maintained status in their communities. In the past, a working class man would be married with children. He would belong to and be active in a church and in clubs. He owned jackets and ties and wore them when engaging in community activities. His wife took part in the PTA and her own clubs. People used to belong to bowling leagues. Now, if we bowl at all, we bowl alone.
When previous generations gathered, working class people met and socialized with a broad cross section of the community. At the Masonic Lodge, welders rubbed elbows with bankers. In the church fellowship hall, laborers socialized with lawyers. At the Rotary Club, machinists socialized with business owners.
This seems to be, increasingly, a thing of the past, however. Lower middle class and working class people have checked out of these institutions. They have abandoned bourgeois values for the anchor-less culture of the left: a rejection of marriage, abortion, out-of-wedlock children, the abandonment of church, the rejection social organizations and other sources of fellowship and the general abandonment of bourgeois values. Working class people have rejected social conventions and have become isolated without any kind of meaningful, positive role society or the community.
So the working class is angry. They are angry at the lack of status compared to the new rich and they are angry that they no longer have the respect and influence their working class fathers had. Though they have far more material wealth and creature comforts than did their fathers and grandfathers, they have far less socials status. They are mad as hell about that.
What is the solution? I don’t know but it isn’t going to be resolved with trade restrictions, deportations or wealth redistribution. The problem is based on an affluent society based on merit, risk and – yes – luck. This combined with an adoption by the working class of social iconoclasm and cultural vandalism has led to working class people feeling neglected and mistreated.