“The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes, they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.
The owner men went on leading to their point: ‘You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.’
The squatters nodded—they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land.”
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The plains of American promise have become a wilderness, sucked of their sustaining dollars by those who have moved on to riper riches, and abandoned by those whose dreams are as dead and dry as the grey sand that bites at their eyes. It’s the dust bowl of upward mobility, blowing in rolling black blizzards over the dried, overworked earth of middle class labor that once yielded bumper crops of opportunity. Now, the middle class is an icon, a legend, like Jesus or the Fountain of Youth, easy for many to believe in, but hard to prove ever existed.
Indeed, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) said in a New Hampshire debate, earlier this month, that the term middle class “is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon.”
“We’re a country that doesn’t allow for titles,” he said. “We don’t put people in classes. Maybe middle income people.”
Today, the empty space where the “middle income people” used to be has been taken by bankers and bailouts, the honest hard work moved to China and other emerging economies. “Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores,” President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech, Tuesday. “Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled.”
These days, we are all Okies, but unlike the Great Plains farmers of the 1930s, the former middle class doesn’t have an emerging domestic economy out west in which to seek their fortune. Instead, we fade into the streetscape, the coffee shops and bars, the food banks and food stamp lines, and watch the dancing shadows of the capital gainers and offshore bank account holders, disappearing below a distant sunset horizon.
“Now, the banks aren’t bad people. They’re just overwhelmed right now,” the One Percenters say, echoing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s words to a Florida audience, last Tuesday, as they continue their march away from the dying middle class.
But even depression era, dust bowl land agents knew that wasn’t the case. As John Steinbeck writes, in Grapes of Wrath:
“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
Who owns the American Dream? Is it scrawled in the cracked earth of the middle class’ economic dust bowl, or locked away in the safe of the one percent, earning $50,000 a day in interest and dividends?
The money for the middle class recovery has to come from somewhere, and it’s not coming from the capitalists who are more concerned with creating wealth than creating jobs.
Bitter Tea Party shouters and stimulus doubters destroyed the political will for public funding, and the private capital that funds our freedom to enterprise, that made this the Land of Opportunity, is being hoarded by the few who see themselves as the lynch pin to America’s success, but instead, have become the firing pin in the bombardment on our economy. They’ve bought all they can buy, leaving the rest with nothing.
One day, the wealthy will turn around to ask for a cup of coffee, or to get some dry cleaning done, or get their car repaired, and there will be no one there to service them. Their shouts and demands will echo into the evening, and dissipate over the acres of lost opportunity. If they want us, they will have to put their hats in their hands and come find us, for we will all be far away, across the dry gulch, our backs to them, greeting the new sunrise.
- It Is The Middle Class, Stupids! (catsnjammer64.wordpress.com)
- Swiss Mitt: Romney’s Latest Out-Of-Touch Debate Moments (thinkprogress.org)
- Santorum: Stop using term “middle class” (cbsnews.com)
“My worry is that for American job creators, all the uncertainty is turning to fear that this toxic environment for job creation is a permanent state.
“Job creators in America are essentially on strike.”
- Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., September 15, 2011
Job creators. We owe them our unbridled loyalty, the Frank Luntz inspired talking points assure us, because these companies – whose annual gross is at least in the eight or nine digit range and yet are still mysteriously referred to as small businesses – made the middle class mobility of the last century possible.
This is a story of America’s middle class, in the midst of peace and prosperity, and the greedy adversaries in the one percent who took it all away, because they wanted to challenge our faith in, and fealty to, the nation they have taken unto themselves, as if it were another bauble in their jewelry drawer.
“You have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now, and touch all he has, and he will curse You to Your face.” Satan, goading God into testing Job’s faith, Book of Job, 1:10-11
Like Satan in the Book of Job, they jealously solicited Congresses and presidents for a test of faith in our system, one that had – to their dismay – smiled on, and showed at least some favor to, America’s working class. The prosperity of the 1990s made Bill Clinton one of the most popular presidents of modern times, practically immune to their slings and arrows. Between that and losing the popular vote in the 2000 election, those who stood against the social equality that is the Democrats’ legacy (thanks to FDR and LBJ), became paranoid, fearing they were losing the control to which the thought they were entitled, as “sons of God.”
Perhaps they may be forgiven that misguided illusion, since their cultural ancestors were enabled by our country’s sordid history of exploiting and disenfranchising the working classes, from slavery to migrant workers to the depressed wages of the South’s industrial underclass. Or as they call it, the good old days.
Our brothers and sisters in civil service and the trades are the latest caste of society to be sacrificed and exploited for the financial gain of the wealthy. Yet the entitled still expect us to worship them, as if the money they make falls to us like manna from heaven. They are envious, and derisive, of a society that “succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules,” as President Obama said in Kansas on Tuesday.
Such a broad, social philosophy is an anathema to those who believe their wealth is constantly under siege by the Federal purse, and must be protected. “[G]overnment cannot engineer an economic recovery from Washington,” according to a recent article by the Job Creators Alliance, a group of millionaires and billionaires who claim to represent the interests of small businesses. “What it can do is increase incentives for business leaders to invest in human capital, or encourage entrepreneurs by giving them certainty about what the tax rates will be moving forward, or stop the steady flow of burdensome regulations from weighing down small businesses on Main Street.”
The bankers, industrialists and oil executives of the JCA may know a thing or two about making money – for themselves and their shareholders. But when it comes to creating opportunity for everyone else, it will always be measured against the bottom line. The president, though, says he wants there to be a chance for everyone to succeed, for everyone to be considered above the bottom line – not below it.
“They want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years,” Obama said in his speech, “and their philosophy is simple: ‘We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. ‘”
And then he added, to the delight of the crowd, “I am here to say they are wrong.”
It’s a shame that it took an unfunded war and the collapse of the economy for Americans to wake up about what it means to vote against one’s self interest. It may have been forgivable, had not most of those who voted grown up tasting a decent life, and taken it for granted. We’re not talking about what it takes to become wealthy – merely to be comfortable. Just to reach the middle class these days takes a Herculean effort. Maybe this is where we, as a nation, see the light of equal opportunity, a level playing field, a “fair shot,” as the president said.
Then, those who had forgotten, either through cognitive dissonance or the span of generations, what it means to be middle class in America, can have a new sense of appreciation of what they had and lost, as Job did, when he confessed to God, “I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” (Book of Job, 42:3)