Saturday, December 30, 2006

Little Children

The happy ending version of this movie is Little Miss Sunshine (see the entry just below this). That's not the ending we get here.

Little Children the movie does a wonderful job of representing the undertow of confusion and stuckness that threatens to pull people under. It cuts among interlocking stories that each center on someone who is about to dive down beneath their established life, and for entirely normal, believable reasons. 45 minutes into the film, all the main characters have thrown themselves into the vortex, creating the uneasy fear one feels for people who are about to risk everything they've deliberately built up in order to end a sense of suffocation that is much less concrete than the secure surface of their lives, but somehow more real. This is strong suspense film about that crucial question of whether or not our own happy lives actually make us feel alive.

The movie covers an updated version of Cheever territory - the despair beneath the comforts of American suburbia. "Little Children" is better than "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm," and is intelligent about the effects of thwarted desire in the way of Todd Haynes's "Safe." It has the eerie disorientation of "The Swimmerj" It's particularly shrewd about the original source of romantic yearning itself. The film's real "LIttle Children" are the parents from two different families who fall in love with each other. They are the stay-at-home Mom and the Mr. Mom who re-marry each other informally at the neighborhood pool where they spend every summer day taking care of their adorable kids. Together they are as bland as they are in their actual marriage. Their interest in each other doesn't unearth some suppressed power or depth in themselves, which is always the assumption behind the affair. It reflects their mutual wish to recapture the unrestricted experience they associate with childhood - no bar exams, no dissertations to finish, no spouses with budgets or habits of Internet wankfests at the work computer. You can see the affair coming with the first encounter between these two fair-haired parents who are the bored and aimless and also subordinate to their focused and competent spouses in each of their marriages. Unlike the breadwinners, these two are still looking for what they want to do in life. When they seem to find that thing in their daily poolside parenting and then later in their daily sex, they are put by the film into strict parallel with their preschool kids sharing their afternoon naps. It's a nice dream - play and sleep, play and sleep, all feeling unforced and unchangingly attractive, every day happily the same. As if.

The other true thing about the movie is that Sarah and Brad (Winsett and Wilson) resolve to run off together and then chicken out and chicken out accidentally-on-purpose, in ways that allow them to go "home" to their focused, successful spouses who are capable of taking care of them, and yet go home without acknowledging to themselves that this is what they really want. Sarah concocts a panic attack when her child wanders out of her sight for five minutes in the nighttime park where she had gone to meet Brad. Brad interrupts his trip to destiny to fulfill his wannabe skateboarder dreams, injuring his beautiful body and giving himself the perfect excuse never to try anything again. Lots and lots of us finally stand up for ourselves only to take this kind of dive right away, as soon as we decently can. One reason is that we stood up for the wrong thing, even though it took us forever to do so.

So can the problems be overlooked? Well let's inventory them. The movie polarizes straight and sensitive suburbia in a phony way. The other moms are stereotypes of sexual repression, living on the edge of hysteria. When Brad and Sarah first kiss in front of them (on a jokey dare from Sarah), the moms grab up their kids and flee just as the neighborhood moms do later at the pool when the registered sex offender is found swimming around with a mask and snorkel. The same false polarity infects the original marriages: the dominant spouses are so disconnected from their partners that you wonder how they could have been married for even a few weeks: why would a phony, money-grubbing "brander" ever have married a failed English lit PhD student, or vice versa, and why would a smart documentary maker ever marry the pretty but super-dull Brad, whose soul can be filled through the camaraderie of night-league football? In the film's clunkiest moment, Ronnie, the sex offender, has a date with an attractive, clinically-depressed thirtysomething (played well by Jane Adams), bonds with her in a sympathetic, fraternal way, and then as she's praising their conversation in the car starts to jerk off and threaten her like a possessed maniac. The moment destroys the analogy between criminalized and "normal" perversion that had helped to humanize Ronnie (his mother is the film's strongest single character, played brilliantly by Phyllis Somerville). His auto-mutilation at the end just reproduces the suburban sexual hysteria the film supposedly critiques. Equally implausible is that his tormentor, the other unloved man, ex-cop and night-league loser Larry, turns into his rescuer: this is the kind of instant redemption that the basic intelligence of this film would rule out. The problem is the film undermines the quasi-heroic struggles of
their flawed main characters - Ronnie, Brad, and Sarah - so that their weak and pathetic ends make the earlier dramas seem unreal in retrospect. If they fold THIS easily, then what were we watching the previous two hours.

The men in this film - ouch. They are useless and dangerous by turns. The women are suffocated and unhappy. The American middle-class comes off badly - spoiled, unfocused, and without the strength to save itself or anybody else. We are, the movie says, the little children of world.

Little Miss Sunshine

I finally saw Little Miss Sunshine last night and liked is as much as everyone else did. I had a special fondness for what happens to the family, where things start bad (picture 1) and get much better - I'll explain how (picture 2). The father, Richard (top picture, shirt and tie), is trying to make it as a self-improvement guru by selling his 9 -steps to winning formula. The core idea is that the world has two kinds of people, winners and losers, and the most important thing in life is that you not be a loser. Losing is signified by the other people in the picture: the nation's formost Proust scholar (with the beard) who has just tried to kill himself over a grad-student love gone wrong, the son who reads Nietzsche, refuses to speak, and wants to fly fighter jets, and above all the grandfather in the background, who snorts heroin, loves porn and sex equally, and swears like the blue-collar stalwart that he is. The mom holds it all together of course, and the 7-year-old daughter, who dreams of being crowned Little Miss Sunshine (not pictured), has unwittingly inherited her dad's desire to leave struggling working-classdom and enter the middle-class of sexpot-princess little barbie girls.

I will try not to spoil the plot while still saying why this movie came as a huge relief to me. Richard is a schmuck whose desire to be a rich guru makes his family angry and miserable and makes him powerless himself. But as it turns out he doesn't have to be that way. OK, I'm about to spoil the plot a litle bit: Richard turns out to be more like his badass dad than he wants to believe, and so does the Proust scholar, and so does the weirdly mixed Air Force-intellectual son, and this is certainly true of Olive, the true Little Miss Sunshine. There's a lot of comedy extracted from the car troubles of people who can't afford new ones, and the film winds up as a study of class conflict in which, for once in Hollywood, going back to your unselfconscious and impulsive working-class self makes you "win."

I don't mean they win as the solid middle-class defines it, but as soon as Richard - without consciously deciding to - stops trying to rise and just throws himself into the mission of getting Olive to her contest, everything gets better. The movie rejects the classically stupid middle-class assumption that solidarity means reduced efficiency and self-fulfillment. The movie rejects the bourgeois failure to fight: things bump along once Richard and the rest of them just go with the screwed-up van, their lateness, their loser-ness, once they start bending and breaking the middle-class rules. Heroics aren't necessary, just a certain non-intimate acceptance of each other, that things will never be normal, that as people they aren't normal, that they don't have to be normal, and than in non-normalcy there is strength.

This makes Little Miss Sunshine a great parable of the middle-class ceasing to hate itself, embracing its blue-collarness (you'll know what I mean when you see Olive's actual contest dance), and being way way better off. Liberation from middle-class aspiration looks like people pushing a busted van. They have lost first-gear but have finally - to their enormous benefit - they have learned not to miss it.

Plus it's pretty hilarious, with great performances from absolutely everybody.

A nice contrast to Richard's fortunate middle-class demise as a guru appeared in today's Wall Street Journal, where Ron Lieber used his column to summarize some of the bestselling business books of 2006. The saddest is Rich Dad, Poor Dad, where author Robert T. Kiyosaki heaps scorn on "poor dad," "his actual father, a teacher he describes as a socialist who ended up a 'broken man.'" This equation is plausible only in dumbbell middle-class America: socialism leads to poverty which leads to a ruined life. Market capitalism leads to wealth which leads to happiness, right?

My first thought is that Kiyosaki can't possibly know anything about his father. This ignorance leads him to say things like "middle-class people are mediocre in their field, and poor people are poor in their field." There's only one game in life - making money - and your net worth is a perfect scorecard of your ability and skill. We middle-class folks have let ourselves be so mistaught by books like this that we seem to actually think that the will to wealth made the middle-class possible. In fact this obsession is destroying the middle class by encouraing it to get rid of the public systems and the culture - of sharing and spreading the wealth - that brought the middle-class into existence.

That's one of the subtler jokes in Little Miss Sunshine: the silent oldest son looks up from his copy of Freidrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and signals to his Uncle Frank that he doesn't talk because of the large painted image on the wall. Uncle Frank says, skeptically, "You don't talk because of Nietzsche?" Oddly, yes: the middle-class reads bad Nietzsche - these calls to the anti-social triumph of the commercial will - and shuts its mouth while its good stuff is taken away. But as the movie points out, it's easy enough to start rolling and talking again, and you never know what clear desire from what 7-year old Olive or 70-year old Grandpa will get us going again.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas to the Gods of Non-Sacrifice

Hwy 168 near Aspendel, Inyo County, California, December 23rd.

I like the original better than the sequel: Socrates better than Plato, Kirk and Spock's Star Trek better than The Next Generation's, the historical Jesus better than Paul. It's hard to say Merry Christmas, St. Paul! If Jesus was love and experience, Paul was the Law. Paul was "force till right is ready." Well that last part was Matthew Arnold, but it was also Paul. It's a good day to remember that TV's anti-Arnold was Capt. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who knew that the use of the Federation's military threat was ultimately a clownish gesture that would backfire in the end. He had to get his own clowning and goofy admiration for unknown cultures into the mix before he turned it bad, and his lounge-music overtures to the queens of unfamiliar planets were part of that. Jesus was more Kirk than Paul, since Paul, as the scholar of the ancient world Charles Freeman put it, focused on "insiders and outsiders, the saved and unsaved." For Jesus there really was no such thing as an outsider, which of course is why he may have thought of himself as the overturning of the Old Testament law rather than its continuation or fulfillment. In contrast to Paul, Jesus saw the world as a place where you couldn't fix anything or even live your life if you were, for example, always contrasting yourself to someone like Paul. For Jesus, the world was essentially an undamned place.

Being undamned, the world would allow Jesus to barge around in it with his raucous gang of followers teaching transformation and higher things. The historical Jesus was the overturning of the doctrine of Original Sin, though it didn't last long - thanks to the spirit of P . . . well we don't need to harp on that. Jesus taught here and there in Galilee after his baptism, and finally blew into Jerusalem, the richest and most important planet in his galaxy, where he didn't care enough about insiders and outsiders to maintain the political balance of power. He ignored the Prime Directive, he took on the ruling priests and the Roman governor, and he said some important things. He conveyed to his followers the sense that this world belonged to them and not to the men who ran it. From this world, from themselves, from some greater clarity in themselves than anything they could see in the political structure, they would build a new kingdom. He wound up pulling his greatest stunt ever in Jerusalem's main temple, for he overturned the tables of the moneylenders. It was this challenge to the money power that got him crucified.

Whoever Jesus was, he was the person who said that "the Temple should never have existed at all." Whoever God was, he was that whose spirit was not incarnated in the Temple. Whoever the souls were, they were those who did not use the world for the changing of money. Whatever the spirit was, it was work and experience and love for the world that would stay uneconomic. Whatever the new religion was, it was a vision of a world without sacrifice.

So raised among Jews and Catholics and separated by two college degrees from a hundred generations of workers of the earth, my hopes on Christmas are these:

May we, the economic majority, cease our worship of the Golden Calf
May we, the meek of Scripture, cease our reverence for the strong
May we, the poor and the middle, stop the naming of outsiders
May we, the confused and the patient, build an economy without sacrifice.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sprawl Ain't What It Used To Be

Time was that you got something for sprawl - that is, unbounded development on less-expensive land far from city centers that gradually chewed up rural land. Development spoiled that country feeling, and those of us who grew up in suburbs (in my case the western edge of Los Angeles) sometimes felt stranded in a no-man's land between city and country missing the benefits of both. Suburbs also reflected white flight, continuing and intensifying the racial segregation that is still with us. Nonethless, there was a big upside: more space, more green, more air, more peace, more of the uncrowded road. Above all, there was more affordability. Your money went farther, you could do more things on your middle-class or working-class wage. You could have hobbies, hang out, not worry about where the kids were, and take vacations. The historian Kevin Starr once pointed out that L. Frank Baum wrote the Oz books with 1900s Southern California in mind. Oz was the utopia of the little people, of the working-class he renamed munchkins. The suburb, free of ward bosses, mobsters, slumlords, bad sanitation, etc., was Oz on earth.

Well of course it was never like that. But it was pretty cheap. Thirty years ago, $20,000 bought you a three-bedroom tract-house on the edge of Santa Barbara,an area where the median home price is over a million dollars today. The line was that environmental protection - a passion in Santa Barbara - drove up housing prices. But in places like San Bernadino and Riverside counties, in the hot flat orchard and desert land below the not-very-Misty Mountains like the San Gabriels and San Bernadinos, you could still get a house for pretty cheap, spread out a little, and plan your next move. For a while at least, sprawl was freedom for the medium budget. These folks elected mayors and county supervisors who thought that sprawl was good.

An article by Jean Guccione in the Los Angeles Times on Friday December 15th nicely sums up the decline of sprawl.
Once a haven for first-time homeowners priced out of the Los Angeles County and Orange County markets, the Inland Empire is itself fast becoming less affordable, according to a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments released Thursday.

The percentage of households able to afford a median-priced home in Riverside and San Bernardino counties dropped from 48% in 2001 to 18% last year, as the median price for an Inland Empire home increased from $157,000 to $374,000 during the same period, the study found.

Great. In exactly four years, sprawl became unaffordable in its last great stronghold in California. Where is everyone supposed to move now? What's the middle class Plan B?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Still Learning Their Numbers

Tori made me forget to report the usual Sunday pondering of the country's declining economic majority. Here's Ben Stein, in his Everybody's Business column in the New York Times business section for December 10th:
In 2004, the top 130,500 taxpayers — roughly the wealthiest 0.1 percent of earners in this great nation, with added family members that brought their numbers to 300,000 — had more income than the 120 million Americans at the bottom. Put another way, that sliver of the population at the top of the heap was paid, as a group, more than the bottom 40 percent of all Americans combined.

To be sure, there has always been income inequality and there always will be income inequality, just as there will always be death and taxes. But to give you an idea of where we’re heading, in 1979, a scant 25 years earlier, the top 0.1 percent had aggregate income that was one-third that of the big group at the bottom.

To understand this change, you need know only that while the income of the bottom 60 percent of Americans has barely budged since 1979, the income of the top dogs has risen by more than a factor of three.

Thank you for noticing, Mr. Stein! Even if he is in my top 10 favorite Republican writers (Kevin Phillips being my perennial number 1), I have to say that he is very slow to observe the obvious. And by the way, why don't any of these guys quote Doug Henwood, whose Left Business Observer has been reporting such figures for about fifteen years, and who wrapped it all up in his classic work Wall Street in 1997? Why can't they even cite their fellow Republican Mr. Phillips, who put the early versions of all these numbers in The Politics of Rich and Poor during the Bush I administration and had done it two or three more times since?

Credit is important, because it involves the fate of ideas. If Tom Friedman gets to lead the charge against the war in Iraq in 2006, it means that he wasn't completely wrong to support it in 2003, and that the ideas that led him to support it weren't also wrong (forced democratization, US rule in the Middle East, American-style globalization as universal enlightenment). The same is true for middle-class decline. If the Ben Steins become the great crusaders for the economic majority, and the Doug Henwoods are kept to one side, it means that Republican tax and business policies are just fine, as long as they're trimmed back a little. It means that Republican tax and business policies don't SEEK middle-class decline, when in fact that's exactly what they do.

Mr. Stein's solution is perfectly dumb. The rich should leave the fairways, he says, and head for the schools of poor neighborhoods, where they will teach their money skills to the poor so they too can be rich. The end of his essay is a time machine straight back to the 1890s, when President Cal Coolidge was still in school. Stein is a very astute man who knows a huge con when he sees it - his shredding of the management of United Airlines in January 2006 was a classic of its kind. So why would he actually argue that if the rich do some volunteer teaching, the poor will be rich too? Gaaah!

Because if wealth is just a question of knowing how to save and invest, it means that the American business system doesn't create inequality, people do - that is, people without enough education. Here's where Stein, Larry Summers, Bill Clinton, even Robert Reich all agree: anyone who educates themselves for the New Economy can print themselves money for the world's greatest wealth-making machine. What this denies is that American industry took the "low road" a long time ago (in the much-missed economist David A. Gordon's phrase), meaning that its enormous profits of the last few years depend in large part on a persistent squeezing of wages. In other words, systematic corporate wage and benefits polices have produced the stuck middle-class we have right now, not the absence of free extension courses taught by the Forbes 400.

Ben Stein doesn't con people, but his bad ideas do.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I Missed Tori's Yard Sale

Why didn't anyone tell me? Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott decided to "make a fresh start" by opening "their house to all comers and offered their possessions for sale Friday and Saturday." I love garage sales! I love fresh starts! I love people who get fresh starts by having a garage sale! Especially when they call the media, hire bouncers, and print shopping bags that say "Tori Spelling Estate Sale" on the side. Speaking no doubt for the feelings of everyone there, Dean said, "We were the top news story all day in the entertainment capital of the world." And he was right - ten "news" helicopters hovered overhead while camera crews clogged the streets and angry neighbors called the police (thankfully reported in detail by L.A. Times writer Gary Polakovic). I'm sure Dean and Tori's rejected stuff was really good, as, for instance, those shoes above. One shopper said, "She's a celebrity, so you expect to find good brands" of merchandise. My thoughts exactly! No wonder "As many as 300 buyers stood in line for up to three hours as security personnel allowed only 20 shoppers in the house at a time." Luckily, "film crew guy Patrick 'Trainwreck' Gilman managed the queue, collected phone numbers of females and had people making coffee runs for him." You would want a guy called Trainwreck managing an event this important. You would also want one of the TV crews to be from your own "reality show" (Tori's is "So NoTORIous") so you could get live footage of real people into your scripted reality show featuring actors and actresses. That is what I call "news"! I was impressed that Kim - Kim Pappas - would spend her 27th birthday waiting in line for hours for a crack at paying ten dollars for items like "colorful bottles" from Tori's household - her used and hopefully rinsed-out wine bottles, I guess, which come in dark green, lighter green, and sometimes a yellowish green. I was only surprised that no one mentioned they were there to support Tori because after her father, Aaron Spelling, died, she found out that he left her mom $300 million and stuck her with only one million dollars! Ouch! Tori may only get as much as one of the people in line would earn by working for 20 years (before taxes). So sell the shoes and hire the lawyers! Heather (Heather Fill of Marina Del Rey) put it all in perspective for me when she said, as she waited in line with the 300 others, "I'm just intrigued. . . My yard sale never got picked up on 'Access Hollywood.' Only in L.A.!" That's right, Heather. There are NO OTHER DIFFERENCES between you and Tori, so if you see how she does it, 10 "news" helicopters will come to your next yard sale too. And so will I - call me ahead of time!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Forgotten Infantry

Sunday in America has become the day we mourn the passing of the American middle class. The Los Angeles Times has published a long piece called “Rebuilding the Middle Class.” The title implies that we already know that the middle class has collapsed, which will come as a big surprise to most of the middle-class itself, which votes as though it believes that tax cuts and booming inequality has helped it thrive and grow, but never mind. The good news is that the columnist Joel Koktin and his co-author David Friedman at least see the problem, which is that the U.S. has become a “plutonomy” (a plutocracy?) in which the wealth of the broad population is of very little concern.

Their piece has some nice moments of telling the truth. “Since 1980, . . . Manhattan's inequality rate has risen from 17th to first among all U.S. counties. The richest 20% in the borough now earns 52 times what the lowest fifth does, a disparity roughly comparable with Namibia. Last month, just as Wall Street hailed record bonuses of more than $25 billion, thousands of New Yorkers lined up for 185 jobs — 65 of them full time — at the M&M's World theme store in Times Square.” The jobs pay a little under $11 a hour. It’s fun to wonder why Manhattan, the world’s headquarters of democratic capitalism, has the same level of income inequality as the world’s poor kleptocracies.

Koktin and Friedman state that “similar wealth concentration is occurring throughout the country.” This is most true of the coasts and the big cities where the wealthy especially like to live, for it is there that the working and middle classes find themselves in direct competition with the rich. My town, Santa Barbara, California, has seen the price of family housing driven up by people who can pay several million dollars for four or five bedrooms and a couple of shade trees in a dry climate. In most urban areas in California, a family earning the median can afford between a tenth and a fifth of the housing stock, all at the bottom end. Rents continue to rise because of pressure from people that would in the past have entered the ownership market. As wealth becomes skewed towards the top - “In Los Angeles County, 20% of the population pocketed about 55% of the region's income” - people in the middle get pushed down the food chain. The driver is the money that the top pulls in from everywhere else, nicely summarized by a couple of charts from recent issues of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In the first chart above, income increases are largely monopolized by the top. When we look at charts like this, we shouldn’t succumb to the myth that wealth is created by the top and then generously handed down to the rest of us. In fact wealth is created by everyone that works, and then much of it is skimmed through the thousand financial mechanisms and complex ownership positions that have become more sophisticated and less decodable over the last several decades. Whatever the means, the outcome is very plain.

Take a look at the second chart at the top. The economic “golden age” that followed World War II correlated directly with wider distribution of wealth. Today we’re almost back to the 1920s, where the concentration of wealth left the country’s social and physical infrastructure entirely unprepared for the depression of the 1930s.

I know that such correlations do not prove causal connections. But the intuition of a causal connection between broad prosperity and public services is becoming so widespread these days that opponents of government involvement in the economy - like Kotkin himself - are starting to change their tune. Rebuilding the middle-class here means nothing other than a large program of public projects. Kotkin and Friedman invoke a Democratic precedent - 1930s programs to organize “about 3 million workers, many of them unemployed, . . . to build roads, bridges and dams” - and a Republican precedent - Eisenhower’s 1950s “interstate highway system that, when completed, reduced travel times and made the economy more efficient . . . [and] also sparked an unprecedented growth in homeownership for working- and middle-class families.” We should do the same thing today, they say: these activities would be especially valuable in an economy that is losing even its high-tech middle-class jobs: “Despite enormous media and stock market hype, for instance, the U.S. has lost more than 700,000 information industry jobs since early 2001.” So the reconstruction of America would fix up a dilapidated country while generating hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs, producing “more balanced economic growth.”

But here’s where Kotkin and Friedman’s piece crumbles like an L.A. sidewalk - at the very moment when you are asking yourself, “So are these erstwhile advocates of sunbelt business interests calling for government jobs?” You notice they never use the term “public works.” And you also know perfectly well that the same business system that has run down public infrastructure by campaigning endlessly for tax cuts and tax credits are not going to volunteer to start shelling out again. You know too that pro-business “moderates” like Arnold Schwarzenegger also want to rebuild - as long as they don’t have to spend new money. Arnold wants to borrow everything, and California citizens are now paying around twice as much every year for interest on their borrowed money as they spend on the University of California’s ten-campus system. Kotkin and Friedman go one step beyond our borrow-and-spend Governor: they want to pay for infrastructure through restored tax rates “tax breaks and incentives.” I am not kidding. These guys are going to give us a renewed public infrastructure by reducing public revenues. They are going to rebuild America by giving more public money to the businesses that have let it fall apart.

Excuse my rudeness, but this is exactly the kind of dumbass non-solution I expect from today’s middle-class policy people. These guys are smart enough to know that the middle-class depends on public services for its existence. But they are afraid to ask anyone to pay for the public services, maybe because thirty years of conservative polemics have cooked their brains. The outcome is always the same: continued deterioration leading to borrowing that doubles the cost of the public services that do about half the job.

If you are wondering why Kotkin and Friedman are afraid to offer more than their mini-me New Deal supplied by another round of tax breaks, you can read David Wessel’s “Capital” column in the Wall Street Journal for November 30th. Wessel chimes in by noting how even the Bush Administration’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and its recently-appointed Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke “warn that widening inequality threatens the political consensus for globalization, deregulation, and flexible labor markets, all of which they deem essential to economic growth.”

This means that they have figured out what the left, labor, et al have been saying for twenty or thirty years, but let’s not dwell on that - better late than never, right? Not this time. Wessel cites Clinton’s former labor secretary Robert Reich saying we need to “rebuild the middle class” through trade policy, industrial policy, stronger labor unions, anti-trust, public R&D, and the like, only so he can accuse Reich of “tried Democratic rhetoric.” If Reich is tired, what is fresh and new? It turns out it’s someone called Gene Sperling, who rejects “industrial policy” and “public works” - very original! - and then says the U.S. must become “a magnet for high-value job creation.” How? Well gosh, “it’s tough to say with confidence what will work because, given the global labor market” etc etc etc. In other words, Sperling has absolutely no idea what will work better than public works.

All the more reason for Wessel to tell us that the empty-headed Sperling is fresher than old, tired Reich with his actual suggestions for government action. For Sperling is a mentally paralyzed middle-class liberal who wants middle-class jobs but none of the functioning society that actually produces them, because a functioning society costs actual up-front money. The only thing Sperling knows is that industrial policy and public works are wrong. Therefore he can prove the point Wessel wants to make, which is that we have to HELP the middle class by keeping the same policies and the same prejudices that have DAMAGED the middle-class. That way, the rich can keep getting rich by quieting a potentially rebellious middle class without shareing more actual resources with them. Kotkin and Friedman know that they will no longer be seen as fresh and original advocates for the middle class the minute they suggest that the middle class should keep more of the money that, in fact, it actually earned in the first place.

This last idea is the big thing that’s missing from these pitiful efforts to help without helping. The middle class believes it is entitled to a certain status and comfort but not to the value of its labor, about which it is very confused. It doesn’t see that the rich’s money comes from their advantaged place in a system whose wealth is created by everybody who works. Every member of the system has the right to a system that works for them too, and not just for the people for whom it already yields the most. This is an extremely difficult concept for the middle-class, which learns in school and work that one’s merit is expressed not through a contribution to a larger system but through the income that one extracts from it. The working classes have a clearer sense that the value of their contribution is larger than what they gets back in income. The middle class can be defined as that group that believes in a general equivalence of the two, which means that Bill Gates really earned every dollar he has, and has no obligations to the society in which he earned it.

The same middle-class muddle ruled in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, this timid group mostly shunned even Keynesian solutions to its own predicament - government-created demand, meaning jobs, subsidies, the works - even as it sank further into the mire. What right did the middle-class have to government services when that would mean asking the rich to pay more for them? It was rescued from above by a card-carrying member of the top 0.01% percent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an American aristocrat who borrowed ideas from socialist and labor programs while the middle-class obediently lined up behind that classic examine of college-educated technocratic blindness, the Stanford engineer Herbert Hoover.

FDR understood something that is beyond the Right and the Middle in the U.S. today: society does not belong to rich people, who then include society at their discretion. Society belongs to everybody, and is created by all of them through their labor. The rich, who benefit from the efforts of society as a whole, are obligated to participate in making it function properly.

This insight was the origin of FDR’s Forgotten Man speech in April 1932. “It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry--he staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army. These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans . . . that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

It is hard to imagine those who now speak for the middle class, the Kotkins and Wessels and Sperlings, being fresh enough to abandon Coolidge and Hoover for Roosevelt. But until they do, they will be not be helping rebuild the middle-class, but continuing to block it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

An Example of the Problem

The writer Tom Wolfe has an angry piece in today's "New York Times" about the cave-in of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to Big Real Estate. It expresses a classic middle-class division between cynicism and hope, snidely recounting the history of the Good Government attempt to confront developer desires with the public interest (the "Goo-Goo" philosophy) whose passing infuriates him completely. There's a mystery here: the Goo-Goos were gutted, but by whom, exactly?

The surface answer is Big Real Estate and the mayors who serve it. The real answer is the middle class Goo-Goos gutted themselves. The Landmarks Preservation Commission had been set up in the 1960s, after the destruction of the classic Penn Station to build Madison Square Garden, as an arm of the professional middle classes and their wealthy preservationist allies against Big Real Estate. As Wolfe puts it, "the commissioners had made names for themselves professionally as scholars, architects, city planning consultants" and were in general leaders of the aesthetically trustworthy Creative Class. So far so good, but the Creative Class didn't have the stomach for any kind of fight. Why not? Well, they turned out to be supremely impressed with their new access to high society and to its special goods and services - celebrity parties, VIP-only arts events, private lessons given by one ballet immortal to another. The middle class was effortlessly manipulated by its desire to be upper class, or be so approved of by the latter that it can come on all the good rides. The textbook example of this problem is William Jefferson Clinton.

Part II: when the gloves come off, the Creative Class goes down like a bag of cement. When Mayor Ed Koch decided to redo Byrant Park behind the New York Public Library in 1987, the Commission, led in that case by the exceptionally accomplished Anthony M. Tung, turned him down, and Koch informed him his Commission appointment had not been renewed. No other commissioner backed him up. In Wolfe's bitter retelling, "Barely a peep in Anthony Tung's behalf was heard from any commissioner or the chairman, even though all of them had so bravely agreed with him at the outset. Well . . let's face it. One has to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's doesn't one? But we'll get to decide on the rest, won't we? And still be invited to all the parties?"

Pathetic, and yet true. I would also say typical. The middle-class today survives its actual financial decline with desparate identification with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, who have never done better, thanks to the incessant labor of the world's poor and the political dumbness of the middle class. If it couldn't play rich - home entertainment centers, gated communities, golf, SUVs, etc - could the middle-class psychologically survive? Second, can the middle-class fight for anything, even for its own stuff, such as the public goods like open space or nice architecture that it will never be rich enough not to need? It gave away poor people's stuff to developers, like Times Square and Hell's Kitchen before Disney came in, but it gives its own things away too, like the public culture of Manhattan architecture it can look at even though it can't afford to buy.

Wolfe's piece ends by describing a "citizens emergency meeting" where the crowd "bayed for the blind goddess, Justice," to go to work again. People are mad as hell, but the goddess doesn't work for them. So what are they going to do?