One hears quite a bit from time to time about the eroding middle class. It’s well-documented that the disparity in wealth in this country is growing, and that the top of the stack has a greater percentage of the money than ever before, but I’m looking at it in a different way. It’s impossible not to, with the recent rash of cops killing minorities and stand-your-ground nutballs looking for a chance to shoot a brown person.
PJ O’Rourke spoke of the Whiffle Life, that idea that above a certain point a kid on drugs is going to get routed into a treatment path and sent to a clinic and maybe worst case reform school, rather than jail and a beatdown from the cops and juvie. And that makes plenty of sense when you look around you. But then look at the kind of gentrification happening in San Francisco, where one formerly working-class area after another gets hipsterized and Googlefied and your nightclub has to close because the people in the new million-dollar condos don’t like the racket and never mind who was there first.
And the middle class…well, that’s not really a thing anymore, right? Because everybody wants to claim they’re middle class, but you there working in an office at a computer – you’re on an hourly wage, right? And you get more or less whatever benefits they’re willing to cough up, probably a choice of two HMOs if you’re lucky, right? You fill out a time sheet just the same as if you were punching a clock? And you probably get two weeks vacation a year and can’t work from home, can you? Guess what: from a legal standpoint, you’re indistinguishable from that union pipe fitter who probably has better benefits because of collective bargaining, but you don’t need a union because you work inside at a table, right?
I haven’t read Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century yet. The take-home message, as far as I’m hearing, is that he asserts that capitalism inevitably leads to a flow of resources to the top of the pyramid, that the rich will only get richer and the rest will be left behind, and that the only reason this was interrupted in the 20th century was due to the impact of the world wars and the confiscatory levels of taxation needed to finance them (and the Keynesian spending to get out of recession in between and thereafter).
This comes around every so often. Back in the day when Old Navy first launched, no less than Time magazine was concerned that Gap Inc was splitting into its high end and low end brands (and that was before Banana Republic became what it is today). John Edwards, before he knocked up his videographer, had gone to great lengths to push the theme of “Two Americas” as the basis for his campaign. Naturally, Occupy Wall Street drew a line between the 1% and the 99% and it didn’t get any less bright just because the movement collapsed into its own dysfunction.
But the split comes round in different ways out here. Sure, there’s the private transit system every major company now employs to move its workers back and forth from the Mission to 650 and back (which keeps drivers on duty for fifteen hours while only paying them for eight). But there’s also the revelation that the split in iOS/Android ownership tracks with economic status pretty smoothly. And that in turn leads me to look at things like Google or Facebook services where everything is free at the point of use, as long as you’re willing to be data-mined. You’re paying, just not in cash on the barrelhead – and if you can pay the money up front, you don’t have to have a cellphone contract or an email provider harvesting your data.
Really, the only way to measure class in this country is by the spectrum of diminishing consequences. I said years ago that the definition of a charmed life was freedom from the consequences of your actions, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s about it. Debt? Ignorable, written off, repackaged. Crime? Do a few months in tennis prison or else just catch probation, maybe wear an ankle bracelet. White male? You can do anything. Black? Better not get pulled over. Woman? Better not want to be a gamer or a sports fan.
And the most annoying thing of all, the very worst thing, is that now you don’t even have to grow up. If you want trampolines and treehouses at work, they’ll build that for you. They’ll drive you to and from and bring your meals to you. You can even keep saying girls are icky and passing notes and pulling hair if you like. As long as you chose a sufficiently lucrative field, you can pretend like it’s still third grade and that fifty years of society never happened and get paid $200K a year for the privilege. The American Dream is a luxury good but adulthood is a lifestyle option.
It’s worse than it used to be. There are plenty of reasons why. Social networking made it possible for sociopaths to link up and validate their opinions (e.g. Reddit and 4chan). Obama backlash gave voice to all manner of racists with the thinnest veneer of politics smeared over their demands for birth certificates. A whole generation grew up with endless positive affirmation and helicopter parenting and freedom from setback. And strange and straitened economic circumstances created conditions where unemployment could sit at excessive levels for historic lengths of time while bailed-out investors shot money out of a firehose at any and every stupid idea imaginable.
Twenty-five years ago, in a college education class, the Japanese education model was decried as a system where all through high school, you work like mad, you take extra courses, you attend cram school in the evening, you barely leave your room, because you must get into one of the correct six universities no matter the cost…and once you get there, you switch to glide because you made it into The System and will be all right from now on. A quarter-century later, it’s hard not to think of that as you walk around Stanford. If you want a motto for the current tech boom, the current state of American society, the current level of cultural maturity, make it this: Stay seventeen forever.
Or you could declare that we live in a society, and you have to accept that there are other people, and live accordingly. And if you don’t? Nobody’s too old to be spanked. And we as a society need to call out these adultolescents…and reach for the paddle.