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Middle Class Blues: A Different Narrative

By Shlomo Maital

middle-class

   We are hearing endlessly about the struggling blue collar workers and the oppressed middle class, sinking into debt, losing jobs, struggling to stay afloat. We hear Donald Trump play on their fears and grudges.

     There is another narrative, one given in today’s New York Times by David Brooks. It is about resilient workers and middle class people, who adapt, shift jobs, lose one and gain another, learn new skills – and stay afloat, endure and even prevail. And there are lot of them.

     Here is how Brooks describes one such case:

   A few weeks ago I met a guy in Kentucky who’d lived through every trend of deindustrializing America.   He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.   Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career.

So, how did he piece together a career?

   His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go.   He thought he’d just come in quietly on his final day, clean out his desk and sneak away.   But word got out, and when he emerged from his office, box in hand, there was a double line of guys stretching all the way from his office in back, across the factory floor and out to his car in the lot. He walked down that whole double line with tears flowing, with the guys clapping and cheering as he went.   We hear a lot about angry white men, but there is an honorable dignity to this guy.   Some of that dignity comes from the fact that he knows how to fix things. One of the undermining conditions of the modern factory is that the workers no longer directly build the products, they just service the machines and software that do. The bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread.” But this guy in Kentucky can take care of himself — redo the plumbing at home or replace the brake pads.

And what was his ‘narrative’, his story, told to himself? One of betrayal, exploitation, deprival, social inequality?   None of that.

   It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities. ….

I adjusted. Made the best of what was possible. Lived up to my responsibilities.   This is a narrative that I believe is far far more representative of the working middle class, than the Trump “I’m-a-victim” narrative: “Washington screwed me, so I will vote for a scoundrel, because he expressed my anger, even though he hasn’t a clue about what middle class life is about.”  

People are basically resilient. They bounce back. And the ones with integrity do not cast ballots for those who cynically exploit the worst qualities among us – avoiding personal responsibility for our own fate.

 

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Feeling Empathy for Others: It’s Not Enough!

By Shlomo  Maital

   empathy

   In a recent blog, I recounted NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof’s story about his high school chum, Kevin, who died recently after sinking into poverty and despair:

   In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    Kristof, in a later column, reports that he got immense flack from readers for this column.  They said, it was Kevin’s own fault. He brought it on himself.   Those hard-hearted readers lacked empathy, he notes. 

    So do our leaders. It’s no wonder. Did you know that half of all members of the U.S.  Congress (House and Senate) are millionaires?  How can they feel our pain, our middle-class pain? 

     We need leaders with empathy.    Empathy – feeling the pain of others – is built-in to our physiology.  We have ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to feel what our counterpart is feeling at a given moment, not just pain, but joy, embarrassment, grief, happiness.  But over time, we can easily turn off those empathy neurons, and rationalize them away.

    But even strong feelings of empathy, I feel, is not enough.  I found David Brooks’ NYT column, written over three years ago, in Sept. 2011:

    Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.   There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. 

   In other words:  It’s not enough to feel empathy toward others.  You have to ACT on your feelings and do something about it, even something small and symbolic, at least once in a while, so that your empathy muscles do not wither.

     In our recent book Cracking the Creativity Code, we list 10 brain exercises to develop creativity.  The first of the 10, and most important, is “Act, Don’t Gripe”.    If you see something wrong, injustice,  try to fix it, take action, at least once in a while.  I know a friend, who always, as a matter of principle, gives small change to homeless and those who beg on the streets, even ones who are clearly running a scam. 

    I wish we had political leaders who were middle class working people.   We really don’t.  Until we do, it’s up to us.   Sharpen your feelings toward others.  Develop your empathy.  But don’t leave it at that.  Try to act on it.   If more people did that, maybe we wouldn’t even need to bother with those millionaires in Congress.

 Whatever Happened to the U.S. Middle Class?

By Shlomo  Maital

   middle class

   The middle class is the bulwark, the core, of every nations’ democracy and economy.  It provides the labor, the capital and the stability that nations need.  This is why we should worry, when the middle class is disappearing, as it is in the U.S.  (Middle class is defined as a household with income from $35,000 to $100,000.)      

    A report in today’s Global New York Times by Dionne Searcey and Robert Gebeloff, based on their study,  reveals these facts:   

  1. 53 million middle class households, nearly half of all households, are aging; many are headed by those over 65. Why? Older Americans have the safety net of social security, which is politically safe and linked to the cost of living.   While middle class income has declined (median household income fell 9 per cent since the year 2000),  income of  households headed by elderly adults has risen by 14 per cent.  Problem is, that elderly safety net is going bankrupt.  
  2. In the late 1960s, 60 per cent of middle class households were comprised of two married adults with children.  Today?  It is just 25 per cent. 
  3. In the Great Recession, 2008 – ??,  “we lost a lot of middle-income jobs and we gained a lot of low-paying jobs”, says an expert from the American Enterprise Institute.  That is why the strong job figures lately are misleading.  They are Wal-Mart and McDonalds jobs.
  4. The middle class deludes itself. A NYT survey shows 60 per cent of people who call themselves middle class think that if they work hard they will become rich. But this is an illusion.  Social mobility in the U.S. has greatly declined.  To get rich and richer, you need to be rich already.

   I think the article fails to make a key and obvious point.  America’s political leaders were accomplices in shifting America’s manufacturing to Asia.  This destroyed millions of high-paying jobs (as in auto production).   It was done both by Democratic and Republican Presidents.  Nor is Congress even trying to get those jobs back.   Apparently, you cannot have a strong stable middle class unless your country makes things other than hamburgers.  Is that obvious?  America is now paying the price for its leaders’ blindness. 

     Meanwhile, the U.S. middle class has not disappeared, it has simply migrated; middle class families in China and India are booming, thanks in part to well-paying jobs.  

    In his State of the Union address, President Obama called the middle class the “foundation of the American economy”.  Really?    Then, why have you, Obama, and other leaders allowed the middle class to decline so drastically?  And what are you doing to reverse the trend?    

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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