Whenever I go to a city that hasn’t yet turned into a ghost town due to suburban sprawl and shopping malls, I always notice a beautiful mansion high on a hill, built by a local businessman who made it big. The house may be empty now, and in need of a coat of paint, but it’s still a powerful symbol for those of us who grew up on the streets below.
I think this house holds the key to why so many voters still staunchly support the government’s economic policies, despite the fact that so many of us are having such terrible economic problems. I’m not talking politics here: The Democrats and the Republicans each make their own unique mistakes. But something is very wrong when ordinary people find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or in a state of constant job insecurity. Also, many retirees are really hurting because the CDs and bonds that they depend on for income now provide so little interest that people cannot live. And yet, the tax relief program, and the administration’s economic policies in general, concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, as if they’re the only ones who can be trusted to spend it wisely.
Cheap labor abroad has changed the available jobs in this country from manufacturing to service. This was probably inevitable because in the best scenario, manufacturing jobs will continue to travel around the globe until everybody is middle class. But the other side of that coin is that the entire world is liable to become more like Malaysia or the Philippines and less like home, and fast. For some people, nothing’s changed: Those who work in the minimum-wage sector of the service industry are still cooking our food, waiting on us and cleaning up afterwards, for the same dinky wages. And the people at the top are getting richer and richer and richer.
But for those of us in the vast middle class, something has changed–we now look like bosses, not workers. We have beautiful homes and wonderful clothes and cars. We tend to identify with management, and not with workers, especially those aforementioned folks wearing blue collar uniforms.
We may be just squeaking by, after the mortgage, car payments and tuition, but we assume we’ll be sitting in a windowed office someday, and living in that house on the hill. What we don’t realize, despite Enron and similar shenanigans, is that the cards have been stacked against us. We don’t run in the right crowd, we don’t have the right family name and, most important, we’re just not ruthless enough to win. We’re not going up that hill, we’re just being conned by those who are already on top into thinking that we might just make it.
Am I the only one who remembers when dad’s salary bought the same lifestyle that mom-and-dad’s combined income does today? Today, two income families are a perfect excuse for companies to pay everyone less, and hope they don’t notice.
Over the past twenty or so years, we’ve forgotten that we’re workers, and started to think of ourselves as CEOs-in- waiting. Most of us are still waiting, while working longer hours, taking shorter vacations, and receiving fewer benefits than any other workforce in the developed world.
Blue collar working stiffs captured the good life over the two decades after World War II because they unionized. They demanded high wages, retirement benefits, health insurance. Then CEOs discovered they could move their manufacturing abroad, where people were happy to work for pennies an hour, and those halcyon days were over, but for one brief moment in time, a worker could live as almost as well as his boss. Now CEOs make salaries that would astonish the court at Versailles.
Why are we letting this happen? The ordinary American is never going to make it into the house on the hill, no matter what conservative politicians and commentators would have us believe. We of the middle class have been raised to ask politely rather than demand, and we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we have a shot at the top. Those old union guys never heard false promises like the ones we’re currently buying. They knew that economic life is war, and they knew they needed to fight for their piece of the pie. They never expected to make it to the house on the hill, and they knew to thumb their noses at false promises from above.
Maybe we should find the courage to do the same.
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