Law in Contemporary Society
The Culpability of the Middle Class

Too often in class, an important point that has been stifled before it can be developed is the culpability of the middle class for the woeful state of affairs in which our nation is currently mired. By this I do not mean that working-class Americans should take the brunt of the blame for the egregious wealth disparity that exists in our nation or the recent subprime mortgage crisis that has further driven hard-working individuals into financial ruin. That blame falls primarily on wealthy individuals who give little regard to the human beings their uninhibited wealth-acquisition harms. However, we would be remiss in not recognizing that some of the actors who executed these evils, like Charles Prince (one of the architects of the recent mortgage crisis), are products of the middle class themselves.

While we could immediately dismiss this issue by cataloguing such actors among the American plutocracy, doing so would be an oversimplification of the struggle that exists between the rich and the poor. Perhaps instead we could answer this question by criticizing a capitalist system that equates wealth with merit. Or we could argue that the wealthy have cultivated a mindset among working class Americans that encourages the protection of wealth from the grubby hands of social do-gooders in Washington - even though such a mindset is to the detriment of those working Americans rather than to their benefit. (A question: Would this argument posit that individuals like Prince go from being the puppets to the puppeteers?) These would both be cogent arguments. But they would also make out middle-class America to be a collection of fools who are easily duped by the wealthy or easily indoctrinated by the ideas of Adam Smith. The fact is, many working-class individuals freely believe that they should be able to pursue their own welfare regardless of how it affects others, and it is this mindset that has come back to haunt them.

The middle class has been wholly inept at developing a sense of community among themselves. There is no sense of pursuing a common good. There is no empathy for those who are struggling to make ends meet, even though that struggle may be strikingly familiar. Perhaps this failure to recognize a shared purpose is the result of an Olson-esque collective action problem. Maybe it is simply that the construction worker does not really give a damn about the elementary-school teacher, and vice versa. I cannot speculate as to why middle-class Americans have failed to look beyond their own interests, I simply know that they bear some responsibility for it, because to state otherwise would make them out to be far dumber than what they are.

Mr. Prince may be an oddity given his rise up the social ladder, but his disregard for the welfare of working Americans reflects a mentality that is sadly pervasive in the very environment from which he came, and from which he is now unjustly profiting. If the workers of America are to unite and cast away the chains that bind them to underwater mortgages and low wages, they must first remove the cancer of selfishness that prevents them from doing so. If they fail, the favorite sons that actually make it in America will continue to return as predators, not saviors.

-- TaylorMcGowan - 04 Feb 2010

>the cancer of selfishness that prevents them from doing so. If they
>fail, the favorite sons that actually make it in America will
>continue to return as predators, not saviors.

This is true, although I would also say that fear is a big factor in addition to under-analyzed self-interest. (More on that some other time.) Thank you Taylor, this comment reminds me of an experience I had with a fortunate son who had bought into a worldview that did not serve working-class people, including his own mother. I’ll call him Jose. He was the grown son of a woman I’ll call Margarita, who was a union member at a laundry plant I was organizing. Jose was in his early 30s and owned a small construction business.

The day we reached a tentative agreement with the company, I invited all the members to come over to the motel where their shop stewards and the union officers were debating the TA. While we were in the lobby, Jose started talking about how his mom shouldn’t be “forced” to participate in the health plan the union had negotiated. We had got the employer up to paying for most of this plan, but the members still had to pay a $400 monthly premium. He said that Margarita would be better off getting her own health insurance “for $200 a month on the open market” and receiving the $400 as extra pay. (While some union contracts allow people who don’t take the health plan to get a credit back on their salary, that is a very hard goodie to bargain and this union did yet not have the leverage to get something that nice.) He made it clear he thought Margarita was being forced into a vaguely sovietized collective that deprived her of individual freedom.

One problem with his argument was that Margarita (a tough, smart woman and a good union member) had been a smoker for almost 40 years. She could not get health insurance on her own for $200. Another problem is that employer-provided insurance gets more expensive the fewer people participate in it. If everyone who thinks they can get a $200 plan on the market drops out, the employer won’t want to keep the remaining few people on the plan at some outrageous per cap. At that point it gets hard for the union to make the company maintain a plan at all. Then, oops, there’s no employer plan anymore, and when one of the $200 a month people gets shoved out of her private plan for being old or sick, or just discovers that her deductible in the fine print is $8000 a year, she has nowhere to turn.

However, for reasons of diplomacy, I couldn’t say these things to Jose in front of a dozen members. I talked to him later, but he seemed simply disgusted with the idea of people being “forced” to accept benefits when they could do better on their own. He did not agree that a person like his mom really was better off relying on the collective benefit she got from being in the union. I also felt some class issues from him. People who have recently come out of the working class sometimes have disdain for the lifestyle and culture they have left. This can include finding union membership embarrassing – a sign of being poor and unable to make it on your own. I don’t think Jose wanted to be a predator on his mom, but I assume he wasn’t providing benefits to any of the people who worked for him…after all, they should go it alone on the market.

Later, when her son wasn’t there, Margarita voted yes on the TA. Afterward she told me “My son likes to argue all the way up and all the way down. He should’ve been a lawyer.”

@Taylor I'm a little confused by your characterization of the middle class as, on the one hand, not having enough class-identity to form of a community of like-interests and, on the other, acting as a voting bloc to thwart Congress from actualizing social welfare programs. Would you mind clarifying?

-- EricaSelig - 07 Feb 2010

Erica, Thanks for your question. I don't really see middle-class America as acting in concert when they defeat any social legislation. Working individuals' focus on their own self-interests may appear somewhat congruent (on a more abstract level), but I don't think that they act collectively to ensure the protection of their shared interests. I feel this in kind of a weak response, but hopefully it provides some clarity.

-- TaylorMcGowan - 08 Feb 2010

Taylor, thanks for the response. I think I misinterpreted your point on selfishness, reading it as a wider sense of class self-interest rather than an every man for himself mentality. Regardless, very thought-provoking.

-- EricaSelig - 08 Feb 2010

I certainly don't disagree with the point (as I understand it) that the current distribution of wealth can largely be explained by unthinking pursuit of self-interest on an individual level; but, to me, this is a feature more of American cultural ideals than a shortcoming of middle class foresight.

"Perhaps instead we could answer this question by criticizing a capitalist system that equates wealth with merit."

I think you drove the nail home here. We perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy to our detriment, due I suppose to cultural/psychological needs to justify ourselves. If you've ever tried arguing with someone that they didn't earn their wealth or position in society, you probably know exactly how strong such needs can be.

My question for you is: Is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps to the rational person, living in/moving to America is like playing the lottery. You do it for the chance you could win big and hold on to those winnings at the expense of others; and you do so knowing full well that you're infinitely more likely to end up on the losing side of the bargain. True, this sort of argument presupposes that you have any other option, and as of now the game is rigged in certain populations' favors, but consider it abstractly.

The more we do to rid the country of inequality, the more we eviscerate this old "American dream"--for better or worse. If you think for better (as I do and I'd guess you do), where is the ideal balance between traditional American values and social justice/equality?

-- JohnJeffcott - 08 Feb 2010



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r9 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:21:17 - IanSullivan
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