America has always been a place of strange people with strange ideas. From the kooky and irritating Puritans washing up on the shores of Massachusetts, to witch burners, to slavers, to utopians and firebrand preachers marching West across the plains, America is a place you can stretch your legs, surround yourself with wide open spaces and think any damn fool thing that comes into your head. Back in Europe, you had popes, kings and Torquemadas watching every word that came out of your mouth to see if, for only one option, you required a nice burning at the stake. But in America, there was always a frontier, however dangerous and alone, to run to for the purpose of getting your intellectual freak on. Think what you like – we’re all busy trying to survive the winter with enough crops.
One of my favorite books, Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America, goes a step further and actually surmises that the room to be crazy is what makes America great. Our grand tradition of batshit conspiracies is actually a crucible for better, more logical ideas to emerge. While the structured Old World was too preoccupied with its intellectual roots, America could innovate by letting the insane duke it out with the reasonable, to see which camp emerged stronger. Who else, argued Pierce, but the unruly Scots and wayward Americans would actually suggest that small enterprise and democracy could actually outshine mercantilism and monarchy, which resulted in such riches at that time? And yet, it was the freaks who carried the 18th century and years after to the virtues of the Enlightenment. And thus was born America’s romance with the mistrust of conventional wisdom.
The central thesis of Pierce’s book is that all this, in recent years, has been carried too far – that the nutjobs have, through lucrative media businesses, acquired a glossy credibility to which they are not due. He depicted the distracting antics of creationists (with their museums depicting Stone Age Man riding dinosaurs with English dressage saddles), “pro-lifers” losing their minds over the withdrawal of care from brain-dead Terry Schiavo, and many other denizens of the American fever swamp of the mind. And all this in 2005 before Sarah Palin emerged on the scene! How prescient he was!
The economic roots of crazypants
Recently, it seems America is crossing into an area of insane that would require a brand new color if it were a weather map. From Obama’s SECRIT BIRTH IN INDO-KENYA, to the 55,000 years of petroleum lurking under Phoenix that Democrats don’t want you to have, to Obamacare having Death Panels, there is, on our Facebook walls and in semi-legitimate media, a resurgence of all manner of paranoid persecutions. Yet I saw one today that crossed the line for me – Sandy Hook Truthers. Apparently, a kindly old man took in six students and a bus driver after the massacre that occurred near his house. And now, in defiance of everything that is decent and holy and associated with this species, people are actually accusing this man of participating in a grand conspiracy to…what? Help Obama grab our guns? New World Something or Other? 9/11? Gold standard?
Horribly depressing, right?
I never leave any major change at “I guess people are horrible and selfish now.” Read some history. Try the Romans. The Chinese will do. Seljuk Turks as well. We’re not the descendants of saints, my friends. There is usually a reason that behavior changes so sharply. Economics are never a bad place to start.
Check out this chart of trends in compensation of high school versus college graduates going back as far as 1980, measured in constant 2009 dollars.
I have this chart as part of my research on the diminish returns in higher education – but it tells an important story about the widening socio-economic divide in America. Pay attention to the column of high school diplomas. Note the precipitous drop in salary, and bear in mind the dramatically increased cost of living in America, for everything from housing, education, healthcare and gasoline. As we can see in a variety of other studies, the working class in America is being squeezed.
One wonders how the people who comprise this slice of society see their situation. While college does not guarantee an insightful perspective and a high school education does not preclude a worldly view of changing economic structures, from an anecdotal point of view I’ll say that the working man does not spend a lot of time pontificating about macroeconomics. He just knows that he used to support a family with one job; now he needs two. He knows that things suck. He knows that they used to be better. He may not know why they were better, what we did different, or how we might get back there. This isn’t condescension, in that he is joined by much of the executive class.
The conspiracies now infecting America are usually illogical, counter-factual – and in the case of Sandy Hook Truthers, disgusting. But they are, in their own way, a cry for help. American myth tells us that hard work is tantamount to morality, and that it shall be rewarded. Never mind the external factors such as cheap and available petroleum, reduced global competition after World War II, demographic booms creating a homogenous consumer culture. In America, we focus on the individual, for good and for ill. If we are working hard, we don’t want to hear that the fruits of our labor won’t be coming this year due to some crap about Brazilian and Indian demand for light sweet crude, or sagging demand from the housing bubble, or the end of the Boomers as major consumers. I work hard, I prosper – you don’t prosper, you didn’t deserve it – period.
But the brain doesn’t like holes in a narrative. This is actually a biological fact in the human – when dementia sets in because brain cells are lost due to, say, mini-strokes, wide swaths of memory will be erased. And then brain does this amazing thing – it begins to fill in facts just to complete the story. The human mind abhors a vacuum, and believing something fantastical and wrong is preferable to leaving that hole just sitting there, the most uncomfortable silence imaginable. I can’t remember Tuesday? Screw that – I went shopping with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Aquaman!
So we have a serious epidemic of The Crazy, but we also have a major case of Narrative Failure. America’s countless and often-useful myths are being met with an inconvenient new set of facts. Your hard work may not be good enough to get ahead. Your kids may have less than you had. You and your wife may be working two jobs into your 70s. Oh, and your health insurance premiums just went up another 11% to finance a system that isn’t remotely the best in terms of health care outcomes.
This is a moment where being a pissy, cynical member of Generation X has its advantages. We always thought that the system was kind of screwed and that our parents were going to drive the whole thing into a ditch. Call it the philosophy of the latch-key kid. It gives us some psychic armor against disappointment. (It also makes us morose and annoying, a topic for another essay.)
But I think that the Baby Boom generation has another psychological architecture. They were raised in a period of economic boom and moral certainty. Television broadcast messages of triumph, certainty and homogeneity – at least until the late 1960s. Things were supposed to work out. People are supposed to get their fair share because they work hard, darn it. And today, it’s just not happening that way – though nobody is stepping forward with a credible reason as to why.
So now we are treated to conspiracy after conspiracy. The Gubmint wants your guns so they can have the tyranny instead of the 1776. The new provision to compensate doctors in Medicare for having end of life discussions with family members, often saving weeks of suffering and hundreds of thousands of dollars, is called a conspiracy to kill economically weak Americans. Oh, and FEMA will run it. On and on it goes.
It is sad – yet beware of falling into the temptation of seeing these people are somehow suddenly evil. There’s a hole in the narrative. There’s a hole in their bank accounts, quite possibly. One or both needs to be filled. In the absence of money and logic, the brain fills in whatever seems expedient. It’s ugly and it may be here for some time to come. Try for compassion, if you can. It will be a challenge for me, too.
Eric, I haven’t even finished reading this yet, but I will do all I can to post this in every which way I can.
You are a shining example of the power of the written word, and all that it means, above all, to the United States of America. Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, & Will Rogers are very proud of you tonight.
Please continue on for many, many years.
I high five you across the Internets.
As a morose, annoying, GenXer I quite enjoyed this. Very accurate, IMO. Now, back to calculating my carbon footprint…
I’ll see you at the record store in the section with The Replacements and early REM.
What Ezra Klein is to wonk, you are to social commentary. Bravo.
If only I was less of an irritating douchebag, perhaps I could score a sweet Washington Post gig! But alas.
I think that this is very insightful. The chart is particularly disturbing, because of it’s implications across the entirety of the working class, high school or college graduate. Understanding the why of something is helpful in determining what to do, but its only really important if you can use it to determine what to do. If we can’t or won’t then the why is irrelevant. Therefore, I would like to see you develop it further, into a discussion of potential solutions.
Eric, to your point about our kids possibly not having what we had: as the 41 year old dad of a two year old and a four year old, I look at the points you make and the stats you present and think maybe we should shift our expectations immediately. I’d love my girls to go on to become doctors or attorneys, but in the likely event they end up as toiling members of the middle class like me…well, what’s wrong with that? Maybe they won’t be able to move out, and buy their own home. Maybe, we go back to the model of the family farm, multiple generations under the same roof, all pulling together to keep it together. The American Dream might have to take a backseat to old fashioned pragmatism until all this gets sorted out. I’d never tell my girls not to strive, but I’d always want them to know they’re welcome at home as long as they can pull their own weight.
All of the above is just spitballing; I used to pride myself on well reasoned essays/comments but hey, I’m writing from work. 🙂 Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful posts.
I am a professional with a very modest income. I have a fun job, that, at 58, I can still do until I pass away to the great energy ball in the sky. I have never, and do not now, own a house. If I wanted to travel, and work in a high stress job at 65++ hrs/wk I could make more money, but then I would never be home to take care of my family. Being an auto mechanic, a bus driver or a plumber, and enjoying Art Museums, reading Shakespeare, or bird watching are not mutually exclusive. I Never went to college, I started working right out of HS, but my dad, who had a Masters in Linguistics and ended up working for a newspaper, taught me plenty, and my mom, who has a Masters in Special Ed., read A Sand County Almanac (by Aldo Leopold), to me when I was 12 years old. Please read that to your kids, and give them plenty of exposure to literature and the arts. They will turn out great. Just ell them this…”Do All you Can, with What you Have, in the Time you Have, in the Place you Are.”
Kudos to a rising Charles Pierce himself. Insightful, well-worded….miraculously you manage to be deliciously snarky and yet generously sober simultaneously. I have a soon-to-be-in-college kid, and I am sad about how much harder it will be for him, even than for me, although I’m one of the two-jobbers mentioned. The “Guest” poster is spot on, let’s go back to extended families and interdependence over independence. The latter empasis has made us selfish sociopaths. It’s time for a new model. I’ll be following your work, Eric…so don’t screw up 😉
Kimberly – these words are so kind, I insist that you follow me and call bullshit if I don’t live up to them. Fair?
Hi Eric, of course, I loved your article. The one point I would like to make is that women are still making so much less than men and, sometimes, they are single mothers with no child support. How can their children make it? If you make a few dollars above the cutoff for food stamps or any kind of government assistance then one medical emergency will devastate your future while you are trying to pay your debts. Even if you do have health insurance (which a lot of people don’t have because they have to feed their family) the cost can still be daunting. My personal opinion is that so much of the trouble in this day and age is greed. Plain and simple greed.
As a boomer, I can see your point about my generation’s diet of media triumphalism but feel that it didn’t quite do the job. I can remember distinctly at 16 feeling that 1966 was a crucial year, when things began to slide downhill. We’ve had many chances to change that slide but we haven’t stepped up to it. The Oil Shocks were one. Watergate Summer was another, a major chance to regain some soul for the country. We let them pass by.
And then Reagan came along with a distinctly 1940s kind of message and the country went into a sleep that it still hasn’t quite awakened from. Reagan killed us. Reagan killed us in many ways.
We also have Narrative Failure in that we can not imagine new stories that make the present into the first steps toward any kind of future we’d like to live in. We are frozen in a present that resembles too much of the worst of the past and projects forward without relief or release. It’s more than “where’s my jet pack?” It’s also the inability to imagine a way to stop and perhaps even reverse climate change or to conceive of a society that would actually prosecute banksters more aggressively than Aaron Swartz or Julian Assange.
Fortunately, all we have to do is use our imaginations to change all this. One person at a time, just as all change happens.
There were 5 major contributing factors to these socio-economic ills that misguided and socially irresponsible plutocrats continue to deliberately fog from view our outright deny in their corporate propaganda apparatus:
1 – the marginal tax rate on income was much higher, prompting many firms to offer large amounts of stock as compensation to executives (this means executives hurt THEMSELVES when they sank a company) and their owners to reinvest more of the firms’ free cash into the company (this means more jobs).
(today’s media continues to parrot an intellectually dishonest message that personal income and corporate income streams are not legally separate – “job creators”, blah-blah)
2 – The government actually enforced anti-trust laws to stop consolidation, protecting consumers and the market at large from over-consolidation of market power and preventing one firm’s failure from becoming a systemic threat to the economy.
(today’s media continues to parrot the idea that any interference in the continued trend of corporate consolidation to the point of systemic risk by the government is communistic takeover)
3 – Economic policy focused on full employment, not growth or inflation control.
(today’s media conveniently ignores this because big bankers and investors gain more from lower inflation, while debtors and the middle class are arguably hurt when inflation is not in a sweet-spot)
4 – Trade policy was based on geopolitical reality rather than some kombayah ideology: in order to be a sovereign nation, one must foster a certain degree of economic independence from others.
(today’s media either champions the FTA’s which lead to offshoring – calling anyone against it “lazy” or “untalented”, or takes the apologistic line that this outcome is inevitable — not true)
5 – the culture itself lent itself to social responsibility, veteran
status was near-universal among society’s leaders from the 40’s into the
60’s, and the mentality driven into officers to this day is “you only
do well when you work as a team, and nobody gets left behind”. This
mentality was taken into boardrooms and union halls as well.
(unless we start world wars, this level of personal cohesion will probably not come back, but we can still try to install a bit of these values, right?)
This all hurts them in the end, because people with nothing to spend can’t make them richer.
– marginal tax rates on the exceedingly wealthy should be dramatically increased (this should be pegged to inflation to prevent injustice on the middle class as decades insue).
– Our anti-trust laws should be enforced and if necessary bolstered.
– Hamilton’s program which made us economically independent from Britain after the war of independence should be dusted off, updated, and put to work for us.
– our monetary policy should once again target employment numbers
– rather than a draft, each person should be required to spend 1 year after high school in military service.
This would do several things –
Firms will be able to fail without taking down the entire economy.
When they do fail, their corporate execs who caused it will be punished for it financially through their stocks.
People will have enough to surivive because more things will be made in america.
America will be more secure economically – which will lead to more geopolitical security.
People will think twice before rushing to war because their own kids will be on the line.
Employment and wages will be higher because both monetary and trade policies will be aligned to produce this.
I’ve added you to my to my “special” list of people to be followed – which means you’ll hit my brain before the Today Show. This could be very bad. So please be careful. 🙂
One thing that struck me about your Crazy Chart is that my salary has consistently (and significantly) out paced both the HS AND College grads (I am a mere HS grad with “some college”). I wake up every morning *grateful* that the hardest thing I have to do on a daily basis is “think”, write, and maybe check my Fitbit to see how many steps I failed to take today. The mystery to gen-X’er me is why…or how…I stumbled into the series of events that put me on the path to this place.
Because I’m not sure it’s anything I actually *did*. Except be who I am – this intensely curious person who won’t be ready to die until every “mystery” is investigated. Which makes me think that it’s probably less about the act of education and more about the experience of it. The willingness to learn – actively – regardless of where you are.
Something both enabled, and disabled, by the internet. Anyway, I’m not sure *earned* any more valuable than luck….depending on how you look at it. So yes, compassion is in order.
You are a complete fucknut if you think “craziness” is economically determinate or if you believe there’s more of it going on today than in yesteryear.
*anecdote* *ad hominem* *anecdote* ooh, look a chart *anecdote* *ad hominem* *anecdote* *ad hominem* *anecdote*