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Class Warfare in America: Middle Class vs. Middle Class

What does it say about our society when we turn on the very people who we grew up trusting, learning from, and depending on? Why is it that during these tough economic times, we have chosen to focus our wrath on those who are just like us: our friends and neighbors; people who have to live by budgets, careful not to overspend, sacrificing and planning for things like vacations and college tuition? Why is it that we begrudge the police officer, whom we look to for protection, a good pension? Why do we loathe the teachers of our children for having good health insurance?

Is it really in our best interest for there to be less incentive for teachers? Is it really in our best interest for police officers and firefighters to know that they can get equal (or better) benefits performing other jobs in the private sector? Are we so angry at public sector employees for having good benefits (not great mind you, but good) that we can’t see how we all lose when these jobs aren’t incentivized? Attracting the best and brightest talent to private industry is a great thing. But that doesn’t necessarily benefit me. Attracting the best and brightest to public sector jobs — to teach our children, protect our cities, design bridges and highways, repair our infrastructure — is essential to strong, solid communities. That benefits you and me. Are we so angry, so easily manipulated by a political philosophy that blatantly favors production over people, that we don’t get it?

The recent uproar in Wisconsin over the Republican governor’s efforts (with the Republican controlled legislature’s approval) to take collective bargaining away from public sector employees is only the latest salvo by the party of the rich aimed at all who are not rich. Obviously emboldened by results of the midterm elections last fall, Republicans are on a rampage, at both the state and federal levels. They’re releasing all that pent-up anger from the 2008 election. It is quite evident that unions are at the top of their “payback” list. The effort to strip bargaining rights from public sector employees is also going on right now in Indiana (where the now-fired deputy Attorney General, a Republican, suggested using live ammunition on the Wisconsin protesters) as well as Ohio. In Michigan, the business-friendly new governor, the former CEO of Gateway, Rick Snyder, began his term in office by villainizing state workers, purposefully misusing statistics to claim that their compensation was much higher than private-sector peers.

At the federal level, Speaker of the House John Boehner dismissed the possible laying off of a quarter-million government employees with the simple statement, “so be it.” “We’re broke!” he exclaimed, justifying firing the workers. Of course, we’re not too broke to waste $450 million dollars on a redundant engine contract for a new fighter jet, the unnecessary engine to be built in Boehner’s district (the proposed spending was shot down last week against the Speaker’s wishes). And we were never too broke between 2003 and 2008 to spend a gazillion dollars on George’s War in Iraq. But spending gobs of money on war is a Republican specialty. Spending money on programs that help our own citizens, not so much. But I digress, and stray from the topic at hand.

Why does the middle class tolerate attacks on the middle class? It would seem logical that during this time of financial stress, the middle class would be lashing out at the upper class. After all, the rich are benefitting from middle class suffering. Consider this: the stock market has been on a tear the past six months, rising 20% to new highs. At the same time, the unemployment rate remains painfully high, real wages for the majority of Americans are stagnant, and the real estate market is still in the tank, with foreclosures continuing as a nationwide problem. How can it be that Wall Street is booming while the vast majority of Americans are hurting? There’s obviously a disconnect between the upper class and the rest of Americans. But that fails to answer the question: why is the middle class allowing itself to be attacked? And why, in some cases, is the middle class attacking the middle class?

Perhaps the answer is apathy. From corporate scams like Enron and WorldCom several years ago, to the financial industry bailout, to excessive and unwarranted corporate executive compensation, to the recent renewing of tax cuts for the rich, if there’s one thing the middle class has learned in the 21st Century, it’s this: the rich will always take care of the rich. But it hasn’t always been as easy to do as it is today. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the federal government worked to level the economic playing field. Taxes on the wealthy were higher. Financial regulations were more stringent. Corporate accountability to the public good was more than esoteric. Oh, my God! It reeked of socialism!

Then came the 1980s, a man named Ronald Reagan, and the idea that if the economic (and some would argue, social) shackles were taken off private enterprise, business, and by default the nation, would boom. Trickle-down economics: if the rich get richer, hopefully they’ll brush a few more crumbs from their table so the rest of us can have a small taste of the good life. Deregulation became the buzzword in business and on Wall Street. Who needs government to tell business how to (insert item here)? Thirty years later, the middle class still seems to be mesmerized by the idea that Daddy Warbucks will always look out for its best interest. Just trust him.

The past ten years have certainly exposed the folly of that idea. Anyone who hasn’t learned that greed is much too powerful a human instinct to be left unfettered hasn’t been paying attention — or has been blinded by the fruits of greed himself/herself. But there’s too much toothpaste already out of the tube. The rich are enjoying the hands-off approach to government (a.k.a. deregulation), and are making a financial killing off it. If you think they’re going sit idly by and allow for a return to the bad old days of checks and balances on power, greed and corruption, you probably also believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. As the recent battle over extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich showed, nothing will part a rich man from his money. Hence, the apathy of the middle class.

The rich and powerful have effectively neutered government in its role of watchdog and righter of economic and social wrongs. So, why direct anger and frustration for our current economic morass at the rich? That’s a waste of time and effort. And of course, the popular whipping boy for economic and social ills in the late 20th Century, the poor, can’t be blamed for today’s problems. So, who is left? The middle class. Add a little message manipulation by the rich and powerful, a la Michigan governor Rick Snyder (the lie that public sector employees are compensated at a much higher rate than their private sector peers, for example), and you have the middle class turning on the middle class. And that suits the rich just fine, thank you.

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