If I’ve learned one thing from three seasons of Downton Abbey, it’s this: the only thing worse than a class-structured society is a class-structured society that thinks it’s a classless society. Back in the day, the Earl of Grantham at least felt a responsibility toward the tenants, toward the staff, toward the greater good of the household. Now, certainly part of that responsibility was in the service of arcane values and obsolete ideas about how much shame would come on the house from the kitchen maid getting knocked up or from somebody taking tea with a women whose maid used to be a prostitute or whether the daughter ran away to marry the former chauffeur who’s all Irish and shit…but let’s face it, most of that could be sorted with a healthy dollop of second-wave feminism and a case or two of Tab and Virginia Slims.
But we got away from that! We have a classless society! Except we don’t. Lop off all the people who have crazy money, and then draw the line of demarcation between everyone with a college degree and everyone without. Because somewhere back there, the executive decision was made that college should be for everyone. Not in the sense that everyone needs a college education, but that everyone needs a college degree. Try breaking into the white-collar workforce in 2013 with only your high school diploma.
Just like that, we have a line of demarcation that puts a fairly expensive toll gate in front of the middle-class lifestyle. You will go to the best, most impressive school you can get into, and hang the cost, you will take ALL THE STUDENT LOANS and then pay them back for twenty years afterward. This sounds an awful lot like what we were taught in the early 90s about the Japanese education model: work your ass off through high school, go to the cram schools, take the high-stakes tests, get into one of THE six universities in Japan that you MUST get to in order to secure your future…and then coast. Just ask any faculty at an American university about their students. It’s difficult to shake the impression that we’ve got a bunch of kids mainly interested in finding new and interesting ways to get onto Texts From Last Night while helicoptering boomer parents demand to know why they only got a C in their class.
So there’s that. But what happens once you’re in the middle class? Or not? Well, consider retirement…Social Security isn’t going to be there in its current form. You can’t so much live off it now, and the Sabbath Gasbags will piously tell you it’s meant to be a safety net, not a hammock, and that your 401K empowers you to save for your own retirement! Responsibility! Ownership society!
I don’t know if there’s a 401K option for those folks running the checkout stands at the Piggly Wiggly. I know for a fact I didn’t have any sort of retirement plan to check boxes for during my days as Temporary Deputy Assistant Produce Manager (read: lettuce wrapper) in the summers back in the old days. But let’s assume that yes, you have an employer who has a 401K match, and you’re going to put back the max amount and hope against hope that whatever mutual fund manager runs the service isn’t putting it all on mortgage-backed securities or PointCast or whatever.
Now. You’ve met some sweet young thing and gotten married and want to start a family. But you can’t stay in this one-bedroom apartment forever. So now to your student loan payback and your 401K savings, add a mortgage of your own AND child care expenses, because you’re only getting three months unpaid leave to pop out a kid. Maternity leave? Work from home? How the hell are you going to work the produce cooler from home? Are you going to run that road grader from the comfort of your living room? Nope. Find child care. Probably another thousand bucks a month on top of your student loan payback (let’s ballpark that around $300 per quick Google search) and your mortgage (let’s be kind and peg that at $1100, the national average in 2011, and just ignore those hot weeping tears in California) and look, you’re already shelling out $2700 a month. Or over $32,000 a year. And that’s before you put back for your retirement. Or pay for a car. Or groceries. Or electricity. Or the GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip for that kid we mentioned earlier.
As of 2006, the median annual gross income per household member was $24,672. GROSS income. So one half of that couple is working full time just to float the mortgage, the child care and the loans, and it’s still not enough. The middle-class lifestyle itself – two kids, a house with a picket fence, you know, the American Dream – is a luxury good. So there you have it. You’ve got a middle class that can afford to be middle class – as often as not by foregoing home ownership, or children, or having dodged student loans somehow – and a working class that consists of a bunch of people, blue-collar and white-collar alike, who are only one paycheck or two at most from having the music suddenly stop – and finding themselves without a chair.
And then, you have the upper class. The seriously upper class. The much-derided “one percent,” the people who don’t have to worry about whether they can go to Tahoe this year or whether the kids will be able to stay in their private school or where the new BMW X5 is coming from. The problem doesn’t come when people earn that kind of money. To some extent it’s what the market will bear – if it costs $50 million to put Robert Downey Jr in a movie that grosses $1 billion worldwide? Pay the man – but the market isn’t always perfect. Especially when a CEO can get a crazy amount of money in bonus after a year where the company tanks. Or when a bank has to be bailed out by the Feds – and a big chunk of taxpayer change goes toward paying out the bonuses of the traders and managers who wrecked it.
The problem isn’t people who earn crazy money, or even the ones who have crazy money. But there are too many people who think they deserve crazy money – and once they have it, that they deserve it irrespective of market conditions, future performance or their own judgement. These are the Ayn Rand devotees, the Mitt Romney base, the “job-creators” – the product of the great 80s realignment that changed the fundamentally respected element of American business from the man doing the work to the man he works for.
It’s part of the problem around here. There are far too many people in Silicon Valley who thirty years ago would have been sucking down Perrier on Wall Street and bragging about their new Rolex and BMW. Now they’re all in Northern California looking through their Google Glass as they don’t look where they’re going on their way back to the Google shuttle that will take them back to their place in San Francisco they bought with cash, while the average mortgage in the Valley rises back to a point that someone with a five-figure income simply can’t afford any longer.
We have spawned the 21st-century Masters of the Universe. More on that later.