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“The common man is worthy of a better future, or else he is not worthy of his past.” -- Jack London, 1905

great depression

Sometimes it seems that, for all practical purposes, the class war is over and indeed the rich have won. And then there are times when I’m hopeful that we can address the growing inequality in America with some of the aspirational ideals upon which this country was founded. Perhaps the first consideration here should be to look at what we mean by class.

More than two decades ago, in his book Class, cultural historian Paul Fussell declared that just to mention that he was writing a book on the subject of class was enough to cause people to abruptly exit his presence. In describing the way people define class he said, “At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people grant that money has something to do with it, but think education and the kind of work you do is almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensible criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education.”

In my historical reading of the subject, money and education are so closely bound to the notion of class that it’s hard to separate their importance. Money is clearly out front in significance since, for most people who have money, a good education has been easily within reach. In light of today’s observance of class, things have not changed; net worth is still perilously important and education is even more so, in an existential sense, because it is an essential key element to one’s quality of life. Our democratic values demand a liberal education as the starting place for responsible citizenship.

Recently I’ve heard the term class warfare called a dead metaphor, a political weapon, a distraction, and a reality. Perhaps it’s all four and more things to boot. Wars start for all sorts of reasons. Oftentimes war was far from the minds of those whose actions gave rise to battle. Imagine a peacetime warplane on a training mission that accidently releases live bombs on a sleeping community. War was certainly not the intent, and war may not follow if those adversely affected accept an apology and reparations.

The results, however, are the same. The dead are still dead, and what was destroyed remains so. Results are interesting and relevant, but too often considered beside the point in such matters. I do not believe that the rich people in America set out to wage a war on the poor, but who could tell the difference in the results, if the current economic conditions were all we had to go by? The rich, in recent years, have made out like bandits—literally so—while the poor are demonstrably poorer and the divide between the two groups is growing exponentially. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision heralded the decisive shot a while back, rendering all future battles moot. The results of thousands of other political decisions, at the behest and on behalf of the rich by politicians and lobbyists have resulted metaphorically in a fiscal bombing on all of the lower economic echelons in America. Reparations in the form of a more progressive tax rate are in order, but we’ve lost the power to make it happen. Even if it does, there will be no apology.

As in any occupied state, however, there are those among us who will never give up the fight. We will continue to act as if we can regain lost ground. While doing so is not impossible, it seems nearly so. All you have to do to confirm this in your own mind is to imagine what it might take to overturn the Supreme Court decision that effectively gives corporations the right to buy elections—any election. Can the Occupy Wall Street movement change the political climate to a sufficient degree that our politicians will enact a legislative remedy for Citizens United? Only time will tell.

Now in my seventh decade, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the unrelenting impression that America as a land of opportunity is, for an ever-increasing percentage of our population, a losing proposition. I make this observation after having published a book that posits a hopeful future for our country. That future will depend upon the baby-boom generation’s awakening to their impending mortality in time to unselfishly turn the tide toward a more positive outcome and help the younger generations take the reins of authority.

Nothing in memory compares to the political and economic reality of today, as most all of the people who lived through the Great Depression are gone. Of course, there have always been strains of political animosity so scurrilous as to have erupted, years ago, in the caning of a member of Congress. But today’s ideological divide seems unique in its naiveté. Too many people expect something for nothing. Tea Partiers long for the 1950s as a kind of social nirvana, and yet, in their wanting to return to that era, they don’t seem to have a clue about the tax rates in those days. America has always embraced debt, but a half-century ago we were much better about paying our way.

I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the 1940 and ’50s. We were political conservatives, in conservative towns, in conservative states. In point of fact, we didn’t know anyone who did not fit this description, at least who was willing to admit otherwise. My grandfather, born in 1889, served in World War I and lived through the Great Depression. The hard times left a mark on him that stayed with him for life. He added to his savings, even when money was tight. He paid his bills on time and in person. He bought nothing on credit, even his homes and cars. He always paid cash. Since his death in 1981, I remember him as a staunch conservative, although he was nothing like the people we characterize as conservatives today, especially those active in politics.

great depression

I’ve always thought of my grandfather as the most honorable man I have ever known, and yet I consider myself a liberal with a capital L. My mind has not changed about my grandfather, even though it has changed dramatically about my politics. But then, the conservatism in his day was something altogether different than today. Back then, in my view, it was something to be admired. Political ideology be damned, he and those like him believed in doing the right things for the right reasons. A good idea was judged on its merits, not where it came from. He was fair-minded and beholden to no ideology for ideology’s sake. My grandfather was proud of his service in the war, but he never talked about it. He was a man of his word and despised dishonesty. He could add and subtract as fast as he talked. I recall more than one incident where he would read his grocery receipt aloud, adding as he went, only to discover it was incorrect. When he found an error, he would return to the store and either collect or pay the difference.

I’m telling you about my grandfather because he personified the best of what I remember about the 1950s and the Jurassic era of conservatism. Elsewhere I have written at length about the blinding conformity and racism of that period, and yet, as is true for most other people who grew up during those years, my childhood memories savor the good things. It’s only in hindsight as adults that we can appreciate the reality of the way things were and recognize the prevailing injustice most of us failed to comprehend, acknowledge, or fight to overturn.

Today, America’s infrastructure is crumbling. Our roads, dams, bridges, sewer systems, and national electric grid require trillions of dollars worth of investment and maintenance to sustain our way of life. This fact makes the current nonstop hypermania about lowering taxes the single most absurd and disingenuous political position ever held by a political party. America in the 1950s was a lot like my grandfather in his fiscal conservatism. The bare fact of history is that the American middle class came into being because of an aggressive federal government, intent upon making a massive investment in a robust future.

We developed an interstate highway system, built great dams and bridges, and brought electricity to rural America. Taxes in the upper brackets were high, very high by today’s standards, pushing 90 percent or more. A progressive income tax ensured investment in the future as a way to shelter one’s wealth. But between the lower and higher brackets was a considerable amount of room for affluence. The earnings from ordinary jobs were enough to allow the purchase of a home and the middle-class lifestyle that we associate with it. Not so today. The American middle class is crumbling along with our infrastructure primarily because we don’t understand the nature of its origin and what’s necessary to sustain it.

Capitalism came very close to failure during the Great Depression, and it seems to come perilously close every time the magical virtue of free markets is taken as gospel. There is no such thing as a free market—never has been and never will be. There are always rules and hidden costs that favor some groups over others, and that’s why the government has to be strong enough and politically unbiased enough to even the playing field. Those who want to get the government completely out of the way ought to consider moving to Somalia. Government is by design imperfect, but if it cannot be depended on to do what it must do for the sake of all of its citizens, then democracy itself is untenable.

What bothers me most about the Tea Party angst is the shallowness of their thinking. Coupling a wish for obscenely low taxes with a smoldering hatred for government is absurdity on steroids. In reality, government is the very thing that makes their lives possible, and extremely low taxes are not possible in a nation that needs high level maintenance and a sentinel level of security. I remember personally what it’s like to engage in such shallow thinking. I remember mistaking first impressions for reality. I remember taking textbook history as fact and political slogans as the truth. I recall being so overwhelmed by appeals to my identity that I didn’t see the bait-and-switch tactics of the politicians who pretended to aspire to my particular values while they simultaneously reworked the tax code in ways that made it impossible to sustain the middle class.

If I have learned anything in my years of intensive self-education, it is that things are not as simple as they appear. Look into any subject in detail and you will find your first impression at odds with what is actually the case. And yet, genealogically, Tea Party politics is based upon a clichéd attack on all things unfamiliar. When you delve deeply into what’s most troubling to the folks who vehemently hate the government, what you discover is plain old existential angst, the kind that comes with an inability to deal with too much diversity and so much change that the whole world seems out of control.

As a gun owner, I can see some truth in the notion that these folks cling to their guns and religion in self-defense. Guns represent part of their identity and so does their religion. They feel threatened by too much otherness, period. This plays itself out with an obsessive contempt for immigrants, hostility toward gays and lesbians, a disregard for people who have been out of work for long periods of time (unless it applies to them personally),and outright expressions of hatred for government programs that promise inclusiveness beyond their particular group identity.

The emotional fallout from the Cold War still renders millions of people fearful of anything that sounds remotely socialistic because they were sensitized to freak out simply upon hearing the word socialism. They are viscerally afraid of socialism, even though many can’t define it. Worse, they can’t seem to grasp the deeply ironic fact that the super-rich have already achieved a genuine form of socialism where their profits are capitalized and their losses are socialized. No matter what happens, they win and we lose.

great depression

Tea Party angst doesn’t stop here; these people are hyperalert for any and all reminders of their own mortality, the subconscious concern that lies at the core of their existential discontent. They are mortal, and the fact that they are is perceived as someone else’s fault, psychologically entangled as it is with all things foreign and other uncertainties. The fact that much of this anxiety occurs at an unconscious level that few people are savvy enough to understand doesn’t make it any easier to forgive. We’ve known this about ourselves for decades, but our education system fails to address this particular human weakness. We have Star-Trek technology, but when it comes to human relations, we are a century behind in making practical use of the knowledge we have gained about our behavior.

Now, it’s easy to make a case that there are merits to some of the Tea Party’s arguments. Yes, the federal government is wasteful and at times very inefficient. But the inefficiency is built in by an inborn contempt for otherness that limits tolerance toward individual initiative when it comes to public policy decisions. It is a universal human trait to abhor free riders, and we create our bureaucracies with rigid rules to avoid the appearance of catering to free riders. As a result, we tend to paralyze the ability of bureaucracies to function with enough autonomy to make reasonable decisions or even meet their simple objectives. In other words, bureaucracies are bureaucratic by design. If Jack Nicholson were describing bureaucracies with the zeal he demonstrated in A Few Good Men, I can imagine him saying, “We want them that way. We need them that way.”

Notorious acts by government bureaucrats frequently make news headlines because secrets are hard to keep in a public agency. Large companies suffer bureaucracy too, but their dreadful actions to come to light less easily because they are privately owned and they can fire employees at will. One of the biggest industrial fiascos in our history surrounds the egregious failure of the work by private companies in rebuilding war-torn Iraq, and yet this continuing farce gets scant media attention. Bureaucracy is virus-like: it can flourish anywhere, public or private, when objectivity is lost and accountability is lacking. It will always be the case that the federal government needs to reduce spending in some areas and increase it in others.

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Government and private organizations both respond to accountability. Both are dysfunctional without it. Both are helpless without human beings. We the people are the government. We the people are also private company employees. We can’t pay attention to one of these entities and totally ignore the other. It was never intended to work that way, and it doesn’t.

All one has to do is look at the other advanced countries in the world to be awed by the radical notion that we are the only developed country on the planet that has generated such an aggressive and ongoing intense hatred for its own government. America has fallen behind so many other nations in quality of life issues and in such a range of other measures that we should find the reality of our standing with other developed nations shocking. We spend more on healthcare than any other country, and yet we are 37th on the list for the quality of our healthcare and 36th for life expectancy. We work longer hours than Europeans and enjoy fewer days off. We fall far below many other developed nations in quality of life standards, but when it comes to rising inequality we are way out front and picking up speed.

Homogeneity is a major criterion that most of the nations ranking above us in quality of life have in common. We pay a price for being a nation of immigrants. Our divisiveness has become so acute that we are no longer a melting pot, so to speak. On the contrary, our ethnocentric lumps are growing, but their size pales in comparison to the escalating strains of run-amok ideology now proliferating on the Internet. The price we pay for extreme diversity is a surplus of contempt for otherness. What’s more, the only way to overcome this condition is through education—a liberal or existential education, as I characterize it in September University.

We human beings are predisposed to act tribally: we have enormous strength for coming together as a group based upon similarity. If not tempered with a strong penchant for reason, however, we can’t do democracy, and thus our strength becomes a weakness. We have to learn enough about the peculiarities of the human condition to understand the precarious, conflicting nature of human relations and not become prisoners to our worst instincts. A liberal education can serve to dissipate existential anxiety because it offers intellectual and emotional thinking alternatives to the simpleminded blame game so often played by people whose feelings trump their capacity for reason. We must not let ourselves be manipulated by politicians who are masters of simple techniques that can cause us to charge emotionally ahead on cue as if they were holding a red cape and we were brainless bulls.

great depression

Instead of striving to be a country that produces informed citizens who live up to our democratic ideals and who know enough to look beyond superficial appearances, we allow ourselves to blindly educate toward the goal of employment. We give the highest priority to the intellectual pliability necessary to conform in authoritative organizations. At the same time we pay an immense price in existential anxiety because modern life is so complicated that it takes an extraordinary level of understanding of the human condition merely to cope without the felt need to find someone to blame for our troubles. We are creatures intelligent enough to realize that we are mortal and that there is virtually nothing we can do about it. Unless we’re prepared with a deep understanding of our nature, we lash out at phantoms and scapegoats to distract us from our anxiety. But because the results are so fleeting, the angst escalates in a vicious and repetitious cycle.

Uneducated people seldom figure this out on their own without a rigorous effort to learn what it means to have had the extraordinary opportunity to live as a human being in a world thrown together by happenstance. It’s comforting to learn from Steven Pinker’s insightful tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that there is a historical trajectory underway that suggests we are becoming a more moral and a less violent species, that we are indeed becoming more and more civilized. Progress, however, is so slow that it’s barely noticeable, except in historical perspective, and resistance is palpable.

In his book, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks made a valiant effort to demonstrate the complex emotions that make us such imperfect specimens of reason. Critics of all political persuasions attacked him with vehemence because his depiction was biased and, indeed, imperfect—as if some books aren’t. Reason and emotion are messy subjects. They are no more separate entities than the notion of mind and body. What goes on in our heads determines who we are and what kind of a society we live in. That we can’t seem to figure this out is baffling.

Democracy is an all-out intellectual enterprise and cannot be sustained without what most learned individuals would characterize as an elite education. America was founded by deep thinkers, and it is a fallacy beyond credulity to believe it can be maintained by an uninformed citizenry. Large groups of people carrying signs with misspelled slogans and inconsistent metaphors would be laughable were it not so pathetic and so inexcusable in light of what we know about education. Existentially we are an ignorant nation, and in spite of our soaring technology, we don’t seem to be doing much to alleviate that ignorance. In too many instances we are technically savvy and socially inept with regard to human relations. We cannot text our way out of ignorance.

When I consider the sheer intellectual enthusiasm and thoughtful rigor in physicist Lisa Randall’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, I have a hard time accepting the reality that millions of our fellow citizens not only do not believe in evolution, in point of fact, they still believe in magical thinking and base many of their opinions about matters of paramount importance upon the hearsay of people who lived when the earth was thought to be flat. Is it any wonder these people can be persuaded to turn against their own government and in the next breath celebrate the notion of “We the People” as the virtuous standard of a self-governed people?

The Tea Party brand of hate-the-government ethos that is so virulent today ratcheted up in earnest with Ronald Reagan, who decried government in public even as he expanded its size. And yet, Reagan was savvy enough to raise taxes when conditions warranted it, something that is now considered an all-out abomination to those who clearly expect something for nothing and who never hesitate to demand lower taxes, no matter what is at stake or how badly the country needs revenue.

We are trillions of dollars behind in paying for things we’ve already consumed and for an infrastructure that is already in deep disrepair from a lack of maintenance and upkeep. My grandfather would have wondered why we didn’t pay our way forward. He would have been incredulous at the prospect of having a tax cut with two unpaid wars underway, not to mention a Medicare drug program that amounts to a windfall for drug companies at taxpayer expense.

crumbled bridge

Early in 2010, Fareed Zakaria (a Jurassic conservative seemingly from my grandfather’s era) suggested a way out of America’s debt crisis, one that would eliminate the income tax for the vast majority of Americans. Zakaria proposed a value added tax between 18 and 25 percent similar to that of many Scandinavian countries—countries that are growing and expanding in an atmosphere pretty much free of pervasive government hatred as it stands in America. Zakaria argues that if we did this, we could balance the budget and pay for healthcare in the same fell swoop. But in today’s political climate, what—short of a revolution—would it take to do something so sensible? How do we get the people who have been quietly shifting the tax burden onto the middle and lower class and sending their factory jobs to underdeveloped nations to once again pay their fair share? Rioting in the streets comes to mind because in some places things are already getting violent and ugly. And if we stay on the current track with growing political animosity, a declining middle class, and rising inequality, the protests may get much worse. As this effort expands and leads to more aggressive incidents, the Occupy Wall Street movement may prove to be only the beginning of something much bigger.

Because it happened so slowly, few people seem to comprehend how we got here. Over four decades, rich and powerful people, through political donations, lobbyists, and a K-Street kind of influence, have rendered our political system incapable of collecting enough in taxes to pay our bills, not to mention spending billions on their pet projects. But the seemingly sheer genius of their efforts resides in the fact that so many people among the middle class, and even many of those who qualify as working poor, whose livelihoods suffer the most in this kind of economy, take up the mantle of taxes as evil on behalf of the rich. It would be an act of genius, were it not so easy to do among citizens without adequate knowledge about the fundamentals of human behavior, namely that even though we think of ourselves as being above and beyond tribal behavior, we are still bound by it psychologically. Far too many people who are without an existential education gravitate toward ethnocentrism with or without provocation. They are as easy to incite to act against their own interests as it is to excite children about going to Disneyland.

What worries me most is that, given all of the time and lobbying effort devoted to rigging the system in favor of great wealth, and given that the blow dealt us by the Citizens United decision leaves us so few options, without some traumatic event, average citizens may never again regain power over lobbied interests and corporate treasuries to further their own special interests. America is now a plutocracy, and the loopholes that have allowed some marginal semblance of democracy to exist have been quietly closing for decades through back-room deals sealed by law as politicians and lobbyists sell the rest of us out. Currently, the ideological bent of the United States Supreme Court makes this easy to accomplish.

Whenever I get very discouraged, I try to imagine what it must have been like to be an abolitionist in the mid-1800s, or a Suffragette a couple of decades before women were able to vote. Such thoughts renew my determination to act. I am encouraged by the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for military service, as it shows a clear decline in one malignant strain of bigotry. I’m also very much aware that there is still plenty of time for the emergence of the positive influences I wrote about in September University, as the baby-boom generation faces up to its impeding mortality. The growth of this aging demographic is barely underway and will continue to play itself out between now and 2029. Instead of a war of among generations, as some pundits project, the baby-boom generation has it within their power to inspire their children and grandchildren to pave the way for common ground.

Lest any of us fail to realize the importance of speaking up or be reluctant to take a risk, I would offer this bit of advice from Steve Jobs. At a Stanford University commencement speech in 2005 he said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” This would seem to apply doubly as one generation contemplates their legacy and the chance that theirs will be one of outright cowardice if they fail to act.

I urge every reader to take steps to help reinvigorate democracy in America. Do whatever you can in any way you can. Make your voice heard. But first do your homework. Learn to reflect from your opposition’s perspective, and find what’s valid in their point of view, because it’s seldom the case that any position is completely without merit. Don’t engage in arguments based upon hearsay, popular culture, and the likes of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. The Tea Party blames big government for the current economic malaise. The Occupy Wall Street movement blames big business. The truth is somewhere in between. Both political parties share the culpability, both are responsible. Putting a stop to the collusion of government and corporate America through special-interest lobbying should be something that the political left and right can find enough common ground to agree on. The public financing of political campaigns and free media provided by broadcast networks should interest all parties concerned about the well-being of the average citizen.

Moreover, we should begin to lobby media, as I argue in Existential Aspirations, to let them know that we don’t want to be referred to as consumers. We are citizens, and the only way we will achieve a just society is to accept the role and responsibility that comes with citizenship. Calling ourselves citizens will remind us of those responsibilities, and I believe the end result could be a dramatic increase in awareness on the part of Americans and a willingness to rise to the occasion.

We should try to match and surpass the kind of rigorous thinking that gave America the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, because it’s clear that many of the people whining the loudest about getting back to the latter haven’t read it, or, if they have, they didn’t understand it. Simply put: We can’t be proud and boastful of “We the People,” hate our government at the same time, and long prosper. Hating our government is tantamount to hating ourselves, and self-hatred is not only self-destructive, it’s a poor premise upon which to found and run a country.

American is the class we should all aspire to. By nature of our founding ideals, there is room for all categories of people, creeds, and beliefs. Our founders said as much in the documents they left behind. One can imagine their chagrin at having those documents touted for reasons they did not intend, by people who do not read them and feel no need to do so, but who presuppose they must contain support for their own kind’s well-being. Disabusing citizens of this notion should, in my view, be the first priority of education. We are Americans by class distinction when we buy into our ideals intellectually and emotionally. Remember, it’s not me the people or us the people, as in our group. It’s “We the People.”

Charles Hayes

Charles Hayes

Photos: Library of Congress