Ethics 10 – Social Class: Wealth & Poverty

For this lecture, please watch this interview with Robert Reich.

Medieval NoblesPower dynamics exist in earliest societies between the ruler(s) and the common people.  Hierarchies exist in ape societies and the earliest human societies.  We saw while studying violence the divide of the officers from the soldiers, of those who order killing and those who carry out the orders.  We have seen while studying Egyptian thought and balance that the earliest societies created systems of class as they gathered cultures and technologies and developed them, then skeptically questioned those distinctions in the wisdom literature.

anticapitalist russian propaganda posterClass is a very important issue for Americans today. From propaganda week, we know that we are systematically taught that 1) there is no class in America and 2) class is something that OTHER cultures are brutal with, but we are free of that problem.  This was what America said about the Soviets, as they said the same about us.  We amplified our accusation of them in our media (including both news and fiction), and muffled anything that could help their accusation of us.  The same messages go on today, as Americans view Islam and China as authoritarian others.

In truth, class and power have been a very familiar problem since we were apes.  Power and authority are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, one wants leaders and followers to organize and coordinate human society.  On the other hand, one also wants equality and sympathy which power tends to distort and ignore.

Arthur Manuscript GrailAmerica is caught in this bind still today, as is all of humanity.  According to some statistics, the powerful today own more than ever before in history, both in amount and in percentage, in spite of the equal and opposite truth that the middle class and class mobility are also larger today than ever before.  With modernity and life saturated with devices, humans are more enabled than ever.  The common people are more enabled AND the gap between common people and the powerful is greater than ever, which is paradoxical and counter-intuitive.  Consider that in the year 1000 in Europe, the average nobleman owned one horse, one sword and shield, and often could not write their own name.  The gap today between rich and poor is far greater than the gap between the toiling serf and the noble lord of the middle ages.  This is very similar to Grossman remarking that Alexander only lost 700 soldiers in his entire quest for empire in 300 BCE, an absurdly low body count for a modern conflict.

Rich-Uncle-MoneybagsWhat is Class?  Class is any division of people into recognizable groups.  If any group is recognizable to themselves and other groups, this is enough to claim the group is a self-conscious social class.  When talking about social class, we often concentrate on the differences of power and ability that people have in a society.  There are two types of class status, ascribed (born with it) and achieved (gained in time).  The common indicators of ascribed class status are ethnicity (race and tribe), family (royal lineage), gender (male, female or other), and culture (religion, language).  The common indicators of achieved class status are position (job or role in society), wealth (property which includes money), ability (skills, education and experience), and fame (honor, success, celebrity).

Metaphors We Live ByThere is plenty of evidence that apes know the difference between a privileged position on top and a marginalized position on the bottom.  In Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy In the Flesh, George Lakoff, a professor of Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley, says that the human mind is ‘hardwired’ to think up as strong and down as weak.  Thus we can draw a simple chart of upper and lower class.  While the extremes have always been there, as society has developed we have developed and complexified the arrangement.  The growth of the middle class is an age old process, but with modernity and devices the middle classes have become quite complicated.  On top in society are those who have enough that if they hold on to it they do not need to work.  On the bottom are those who have so little that if they do not work then they have nothing at all.  In the middle are those who are using all sorts of strategies to get employed and gain property.

buddha face closed eyesIn ancient societies, often the leaders were from privileged families that had it made in the shade owning everything, and beneath them would be warriors, merchants, artists, farmers and workers.  What we have seen over time through the common history of cultures is that as the devices increased different groups gained power and could raise their status.  This leads all the way to the complex middle class of today.  We saw in ancient Egypt how the classes of scribes flourished, and specialized classes of scribes leads us to academia today.  Both Mahavira of Jainism and the Buddha both came from the warrior caste, the second class beneath the top class of the priests, in India between 800 and 500 BCE, which scholars have said indicates that the second class was making power grabs from the Brahman class at this time.  Consider that for centuries artists were not rich until modern art made the painter a celebrity, a celebrated genius.  Art was credited not to the artist, who was a mere worker, but to the rich patron who funded the artwork.

Doctor_HibbertThe complex of the middle class today shows us many types of people who have condensed cultures and strategies for maintaining their position and authority.  Consider that a doctor’s opinion is worth something to the patient or the toothpaste company advertising agent, but the doctor has to be backed by the state.  Doctors have great power, and thus the ability to acquire greater status individually through money, ability, fame, marrying into a wealthy family, but the doctor who has to earn money is still not upper class.  A true upper class member does either management or no work at all and simply owns property.  A doctor who sees patients is thus upper middle class, or professional class, doing direct labor for a living.

Karl MarxThe one to bring all of this out into public discussion was Karl Marx, who we already heard from in the objections to Utilitarianism (though Marx could be called a Utilitarian himself).  Marx was disillusioned by the German failed revolutions of 1848 and 1849.  Moving to England, Marx saw the growing classes of factory workers and others in harsh conditions, and began writing books.  The French Revolution had shown everyone that leaders can be removed from society.  Marx was convinced that just as the French had removed the nobility and clergy from the French government, the Communist revolution would remove the capitalists from the government of the people, the new upper class that was settling into modernity.  The old upper class in all societies were the noble families.  Now, just as warriors had risen up against the Brahmins in the time of Buddha, the merchants and traders had come in modernity to raise themselves with wealth to be equal to or even above the nobles.

Wal-Mart_in_Madison_HeightsThis means that modernity has seen wealth rise to trump family as the biggest class indicator.  This is not to say that family or ethnicity no longer matter (consider the Walton family who founded Walmart, three of whom are in the top 10 wealthiest individuals in the world), but now an owner of a wealthy company is as upper class as one can get in America.  This is in part due to American culture which ditched the British nobility system in its breaking off from the Empire.  In spite of this cultural difference, in America today we see the highest gap between the rich and the poor in all of history.

Indian SlumHow in America is such power and privilege maintained?  Don’t we have a democracy in which everyone can be heard?  Didn’t we ditch the British nobility?  How is it that the rich and powerful seem to be able to do whatever they want without much attention, but when the common people need schools or medical coverage there is always too much resistance?

Race Class & GenderIn the first short article I gave you from the Race, Class & Gender reader, Class & Inequality, Sklar puts together interesting statistics on wealth and poverty in America.  All gains in household income since 1975 essentially went to the top 20%.  Since 2000, the US has gained 76 billionaires (putting the number at 374) and 5 million additional people below the poverty line (to make 37 million, the population of the East Coast).  Our infant mortality rates, especially for inner city impoverished people, rival rates in Malaysia and India.  In the second article, Media Magic, Mantsios argues that the media (TV and movies in particular) make class disappear from America.  In propaganda week, we talked about the messages that the Soviets and US sent back and forth.  In American media, not only are black people as tokens doing just great (often as cops and soldiers), but no one is starving or living in their car with their family, picket fenced houses have plenty to eat and a large shopping budget, and class difference rarely makes a difference.

treasure map gooniesIn the 80s there were many evil rich guy villains, but the fantastic plot always thwarts the evil guy with too much money and a mustache (great example is Goonies, where the families were going to loose their houses to a golf course run by evil rich father and son, up to the father’s final line ‘No one will ever loose their house again!’ while throwing pirate treasure up into the air).  Poverty is increasing at twice the population growth rate, yet less than 1 in 500 articles in the NY Times is on poverty (and ask Chomsky, they set the nations news).  Welfare cheats and aggressive pan handlers take up a sizable portion of the space given to the impoverished in print.  Visually, they are never given a face with photographs or clips.  If they are, they are portrayed negatively as a problem for good middle class people.  The video below is an infamous example of news coverage that fits this profile:

breadlineWhenever the poor are covered, it is ALWAYS from a middle class white perspective, never from the perspective of the poor.  This is lined up next to Democrats unabashedly supporting the middle class but never the poor with words and programs.  Obama as other Democrats support “middle class families”, and no one mentions needed programs to help the impoverished get out of poverty.  They have to speak as if there IS no poverty, that America’s way of life does not have harmful and increasing side effects.  It is estimated that 2/3rds of the Senate is composed of millionaires.  This is quite disproportionate to the population.  The media never point this out or indicate it is a problem.

Karp Indispensable EnemiesWalter Karp’s Indispensable Enemies

Walter Karp (1934-1989) was a writer and journalist largely for Harper’s magazine.  His favorite subjects are the crooked nature of America getting into wars, which he argues are power grabs for the upper class, and the shallow and deceptive two party system of American politics, the subject of Indispensable Enemies, which he argued is a device to keep power in the hands of the upper class and out of the hands of the common people.  Some great Karp quotes include:

“The left and right wings of the party establishment- two claws of an ancient bird of prey.”

“The public school system…a 12 year sentence of mind control…destroying the exerxise of intellectual inquiry, twisting it instead into meek subservience to authority.”

“The most esteemed journalists are the most servile.  For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.”

And, my favorite: America has one party with two wings.

cane attack senate floorIn Indispensable Enemies Karp starts by noting that in American politics there is always a powerful ‘other’ to blame for not getting what one’s group wants, but no group seems to be able to get what it wants for itself.  Karp gives as example country and city folk (farms vs. roads and schools), where both seem to stop the other from getting what they want but neither can get what they want.  Karp will spend much of the book examining the two party system in this light.

chimp fightKarp argues that we are being given the run-around.  We are being told that this is the unfortunate bi-product of living in a diverse land of freedom, but the powerful get what they want and the powerless are being told that they get nothing because they and the other groups of powerless are free and opposed to each other.  We live in the most powerful nation thus far in history, but we can’t get anything done for the common people and are told this is BECAUSE of the common people and how free they are to oppose one another in their opinions.  Karp says: this does nothing to explain how the things that get done do get done, and how they do benefit particular (and powerful) interests.

american-civil-warKarp argues that the basic assumption that parties are trying to win elections needs to be questioned.  We need to rather ask what the two parties have done in the last 150 years (the time in which America has risen to be the wealthiest nation).  When you look at it this way, we see that the two parties have controlled 50% of the country split down the middle since the civil war polarized the country.  A landslide in American elections is 60-40, and neither party seems to push lasting popular legislation.  Most states stay blue or red for decades, if they ever change at all.  This means that, through all of the changes that Zinn, Grossman, Chomsky, Carson and the Corporation have been talking about, the two political parties have remained exactly the same.

one animal two rearsKarp argues that, when we realize that the two parties are trying to maintain control over their 50%, we can see that anyone too left or right of center is sabotaged by the party.  A party would rather see the other side win a district for a while then see someone who is intent on pushing forward real change.  You must prove your loyalty and centrality to be big and get elected.  If you show any independence or disloyalty the party will kill your campaign with the help of the other party and wait for the next election, concentrating on keeping a tight and simple lock on the 50%, not on pushing forward a program.  Thus Karp charges that we have one party, with two wings, not two parties at all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARemember that Karp started writing as a college student during the Vietnam War.  He saw how the Democrats weakly criticized the way the war was run but helped kill the peace movement by “keeping the war out of politics”.  This is what we have seen since Karp’s death in the middle east conflicts.  We can say in light of the Corporation that both parties also keep corporations and their ability to pay both sides to play ‘out of politics’.

Ralph NaderIn addition, both parties collude to keep third parties out.  If either gets significantly over 60% of the vote, one party could break into two.  It serves the simple interests of both to keep just about 50%.  That way, both can bank half the population without fear of a third party taking part, and the two can drive the people against each other with empty ideology and there is no competition either for the liberal or conservative establishment such that they would have to do something.

sheep-democracyIn political science classes, you can learn that most Americans do not vote because they do not believe that they can get anything done.  Karp is arguing that the parties are in fact trying for this, to involve one with a polarized party such that one votes merely for right or left and nothing else concrete.  You also learn that most powerful corporations and figures straddle both sides of American politics, contributing to both Democrat and Republican campaigns.  This is the way that the device works.  The upper class pay and play for both sides and further the interests of American power (which is held in particular American hands).  The common people are set against each other and told that because the other side is as free as they are nothing can get done.

War Afghanistan US TroopsThe parties are not in fact trying to please the public at all, but merely polarize liberals and conservatives while getting next to nothing done any direction for the common people.  The parties want your allegiance but no enthusiasm or interest.  The decisions that are real, that affect power dynamics and class relations, are to be made by the powerful and not put into the awareness of the people at large.  This is how the powerful maintain their ability and the common people are kept from doing anything meaningful or lasting.  For example, if a war is on the table, all of congress votes for it and then the Democrats start hemming and hawing to the public about how this war could be better managed.  What Karp describes of the Vietnam war, we see again post September 11th.  Obama shifts the war back to Afghanistan, yet does not say the war should never have happened, BUT conservatives can’t lobby congress to get complete freedom for gun ownership for the common people.

ak47Karp argues that the real issues that deal with power in America are never put on the ballot.  Consider gun ownership and gay marriage.   These two issues will likely be kicked back and forth between liberals and conservatives without much concession.  No matter which way either goes, opposite pressure can be mounted easily, and the upper class is not affected in the slightest.  However, whether medical coverage should be free rather than owned by powerful people is an issue that changes class relations, and thus it is not a decision that should be given to the common people.  It is clear that both liberals and conservatives would vote for free medical coverage even with conservative spin against government spending.  Karp argues this is the reason you do not see anything like this on the ballot.  In other words, it is all a game of good cop, bad cop, similar also to Barthes’ short piece Operation Margarine.

inequality-for-allIn the film Inequality for All, Robert Reich, a professor at UC Berkeley and secretary of Labor under Clinton, explains that some inequality is inevitable and even desirable.  The incentives of capitalism do produce good things, but capitalism has also produced profound inequality.  In 1978, the typical worker earned $48K, adjusted for inflation, while the top earners, the 1%, earned just under $400K.  By 2010, the typical worker was earning $34K, while the top earners were earning $1.1M.  Today, the richest 400 individuals have more wealth than half the population of the US.  There are parallels between the crash of 1929 and the crash of 2008.  Just before each crash, the income of the top 1% had peaked at one quarter of all total income.  The wealthy turned to the financial sector and speculation.  The middle class incomes stagnated and they went into debt.  The middle class today earn between $25K and $75K.  The top 1% earn between $400K and $10M, sometimes more.

inequality suspension bridgeA strong middle class makes an economy stable.  Consumer spending is 70% of the economy.  The wealthy tend to save far more of their wealth than the middle and lower class.  Money is being drawn out of the economy, as the wealthy are not generating enough economic activity.  It is consumers, not owners, who are the job creators.  We need middle out, not top down, economics.  The economies that are thriving today make investments in the middle and lower classes.

air traffic controller strikeProductivity has been increasing, and is today at an all time high.  However, wages have flattened, and stagnated, beginning in the late 1970s.  Factories began to move abroad, and there was a movement to deregulate financial markets.  Union membership and wages declined together.  In the late 1970s, with Reagan as governor, there was an aggressive assault on unions, centrally including Reagan’s air traffic controllers strike break.  This was justified by competition from non-union companies at home and abroad.  Globalization and the growth of technology have not reduced the number of jobs in the US, but have reduced what those jobs pay.  Jobs that paid $40K in the 1970s, adjusted for inflation, earn about $25K today.  At the same time, the costs of housing, healthcare and education have risen dramatically.  Middle class families, with both parents working, are working harder and harder to keep pace, and are unable to save up to invest in homes and retirement.

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