The new cable channel PlanetGreen keeps reminding me I’m not a person. It goes like this: an expert on one of their shows says, “If everyone in America would do this, we’d save eleventy billion tons of resources/pollution” and then they do something that only one who owns her dwelling is empowered to do. Those who can’t do it – renters, most of whom would prefer to be owners but can’t afford it – are not part of “everyone.” We are “no one.” We aren’t people.
This is not hyperbole. I live in a country that can’t stop slapping itself on the back for a document that declared “all men are created equal” but quickly followed that up with documents explaining that when they said “men”, what they really had in mind was “white male property owners over 21.” We already know people of color didn’t count (well… ugh) and women didn’t count. Now I’m taking a fresh look at my country, this supposed revolutionary style of governing in which (now that we’ve ironed out that pesky 1700s thinking) everyone is free and equal, and realizing that people who don’t own anything are simply not valuable.
Even though we pay the mortgages of our landlords.
Even though we pay more in taxes than most homeowners.
Even though we work and struggle through school and support ourselves, just like those of you who can afford to own a home.
I think we should redefine “middle class” as not just an income level, but also as having sufficient income to own a modest home within 45 minutes of where you work (if you live further from work or rent by choice, that’s okay – you just have to be able to buy a home within 45 minutes of your job). If you don’t meet that criteria, you would be considered working class rather than middle class.
Overnight, the “working class” of the US would expand tremendously and the middle class would shrink.
It’s not that I want to deny people the right to feel good about themselves over a label – I’m not ashamed by whatever class someone wants to put me in. I just think as long as life forces us to look at things from a classist perspective, we should drop in on reality for a howdy-doo and admit the middle class has become insanely hard to break into in this country. It used to be easy – for white men and their families, at least - to be middle class and wanting to get rich; now, if you’re not born into the middle class or higher, it’s damned hard for an honest person to “break into” the middle class.
And the vast majority of middle classers are only there because of two incomes, where it used to take only one. When I was a kid in the 80s, middle class white wives didn’t need jobs to feed the kids or even put the kids into college. That’s why there were debates about whether it was “selfish” for them to get jobs for personal fulfillment instead of tending the kids for personal fulfillment. It wasn’t always about money.
Of course, even then we were all sliding collectively and individually into unsustainable debt.
In fact, we should return to the 1950s picture of “middle class” so we’re comparing apples to apples:
- Owned a home and a car…
- On what one breadwinner brought home…
- To take care of at least four people and a pet…
- And vacation at least once a year…
- With no debt aside from a modest mortgage and maybe car payments.
How many of you fall out of the middle class when we go back to that definition of it?
When they talk about the possibility that the 60 year economic boom the US has enjoyed since WWII is over, consider that it’s been disintegrating for a long time, and only debt has enabled us to keep the delusion that it was still here.
Sadly, there’s no reason it has to be this way. There were tons of ways we could have prevented all this, but we preferred to keep our heads in the sand and imagine everything was fine.
This is why it’s important – both as a country and as an individual – to live sustainably. I’m not talking about going green – putting in fluorescents instead of incandescents. I’m saying it doesn’t take a degree in economics to realize that when lots of cities in your country have reached the point where very few people can afford to live less than 45 minutes from their job – when the salaries are that out of whack with the nearby housing market – something is off-kilter. When salaries stay flat for 30 years, during which the cost of housing skyrockets, something’s wrong. When college degrees become a requirement instead of an advantage during a time when the cost for college is rapidly increasing ten-fold, you’ve missed something somewhere.
Grow up, America. Dump your illusions and realize: your system can be gamed like any other. That is every government’s vulnerability. And those of you who let this go unchecked for decades because you didn’t care about how hard your kids or grandkids will work to clean up the mess as long as you got yours, you don’t deserve a rescue from anybody. Whether you’re a business that’s gone belly-up and you’re whining to Congress to save you or an aging Baby Boomer who proudly engaged in “spending my kids’ inheritance” who now needs your already-struggling kids to pay for your nursing home: starve.
You could’ve been just a little less greedy and still had tons of wealth and freedom and stuff. But the problem is, it wasn’t the wealth and freedom and stuff you wanted, was it? You wanted to waste the world, you wanted to explore greed as its own reward, you wanted to satisfy your ego’s insatiable urge not only to have everything it wants but to deprive people of others so what you have looks even more amazing. Excess wasn’t the means to the end – it wasn’t the journey: it was the destination for you.
For that, yeah – you should starve. And good riddance.