Denial: Yes, I know that they're breaking the unions, and laying people off left and right. But we're the strongest, smartest, most productive people on earth! Our way of life will survive, it has to! Anger: They can't get away with this! Take to the streets! Bargaining: Maybe if we adopt some of their proposals, create something called New Labor, or become Third Way Democrats, they'll let us keep our middle class way of life? Despair: Oh, god, no, they won't, not after the bankers successfully blackmailed us into covering 100% of their losses, and certainly not after Citizens United. And Obama keeps selling us out. I'm so depressed, I can't even watch the news any more.
Those were all natural stages of the grieving process for the way of life that the G.I. Generation, the Greatest Generation, intended to leave to us as their legacy. The time period from roughly 1946 to 1972, in America and in the UK and in Japan and in parts of western Europe, was one of the rare times in human history where people -- in this case, the people who lived through the Roaring 20s, the horrors of Prohibition gangsterism, the further horrors of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the even further horrors of World War II -- set out to build for us a world where nobody was so poor that they had nothing left to lose, and where nobody was so rich that they were above the law.
It was a beautiful world. It was a dream worth fighting for, and they fought for it. It was better than what we have to day. But it's been hit by one hammer blow after another since the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. And now, that dream is dead. You've had your time of denial in the 1980s and 90s, and your time of anger during the second Bush administration, and you spent the whole 2008 election cycle and the almost three years since then bargaining. Which is why most of you have already reached despair. And that's good. It was necessary to your healing process. But now, maybe, it is time to move on to the final stage of grief for that lost egalitarian dream: Acceptance.
The winners, the right wing Democrats and the Republicans, New Labor and the Tories, have said it out loud, and repeatedly: they consider the "middle class" to be people between the 85th and 95th percentile of income, and everybody below that to be poor. And as several of them have said lately, they deeply resent the generosity with which they allow poor people, in America and elsewhere, to cling to unnecessary luxuries ... like air conditioning. And a telephone. And a refrigerator. They resent that they let you keep those luxuries, which means if you're not in the 85th percentile of income for your country, you better take it for granted: those luxuries are going away. Period. In the post-Citizens United world, a world where the people who fund the only candidates who can win in either party's primaries are universally convinced that any resources that are going into lifting the bottom 85% of society out of poverty are wasted resources, where that's taken for granted by vast voting majorities of the elected representatives of both parties no matter what else they quibble about? In that world, no amount of denial, or anger, or bargaining, nor despair; neither angry violence nor peaceful protest; neither inspirational speeches nor cynical compromise, is going to change that.
It's a done deal. Maybe it's been a done deal, as some people warned us at the time, since Reagan dissolved the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization, but whether or not it was then, it certainly is after Citizens United. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get on with what's really important. Maybe, for you, that's still a life in politics, if what you care about are other issues, like women's rights, or the environment, or whatever. If not ... and for me, if we can't get that right, it's mostly not ... if not, for the rest of you who are like me? It is time for us to get on with planning for what our new lives are going to be like once the changes are done.
Welcome to the rest of your life. Specifically, welcome to this: Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's 2006 book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. If you haven't done so yet, you need to read this book. I don't know how many of you read the last book I begged you all to read, Nick Taylor's American Made. I get the sense it was maybe a quarter of you. But if you want to know what your life is going to be like if you aren't already in the 85th percentile of American life or up, you cannot do better than to read this book, and I'll tell you why.
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist with some training in economics who dedicated eight years of research (1995-2003), most of it embedded with his subjects living and working alongside them, to trying to understand better than has ever been understood before how it is, exactly, that people survive in an urban ghetto: what do they do all day, where does the food that feeds them come from, how do they survive the brutal winters and the summers, how do they deal with crime in a neighborhood where, at most, the cops come every 20th or so time you call them, and never stay longer than an hour or two before going back to some neighborhood that actually has property values left to protect? What he found surprised him; if you haven't lived that life, it'll probably surprise you several times, too. But more about that later; here's why it's important to you:
The older people in this south Chicago neighborhood, a couple of blocks from where Cabrini Green used to be, reminded him that they remembered a time when, due to harsh segregation both of housing and economics, south Chicago had black poor people, a thriving black middle class, and a modest group of wealthy blacks. When housing desegregation came, those middle class and rich people left that neighborhood, commuting back in to their old family churches but otherwise never seen again ... and that was in the 1960s. The neighborhood he studied is one that is almost entirely literally post-economic, in exactly the way that your life is going to be: a place with few honest imports, and few honest exports, a world down to its last couple of people living anything that you or I would recognize as a middle class way of life. A world where only 4% of the population has the luxury of never doing business with people who are, at least technically, criminals ... not coincidentally, the 4% of the population who have jobs nowhere near the neighborhood and who don't socialize with anybody near where they live. A world where technically 20% of the population was unemployed even before the 2007 financial collapse, and where 40% were unemployed by the broader (U-6) measure of unemployment. But on the other hand, it's also a world where almost literally everybody works, actually works, at least an 8 hour day, frequently a 10 to 16 hour day ... just, mostly, off the books, getting paid 25¢ to $2.00 a day plus barter.
And yet, they live. They, and their parents, and in some cases their grandparents, have lived without anything you would recognize as a middle class standard of living for longer than most of you have been alive. One that goes almost entirely without reliable health care, and certainly goes without anything resembling honest law enforcement. A life that includes bouts of sleeping in abandoned buildings or basements or alleys for nearly everybody, at least a couple of times in their lives, lives that are shorter than you were lead to expect and you're not going to get now. They come to the bus stop after the last bus has left, or hang out on stoops of abandoned buildings during the day, or make out with each other on thown-away alley couches because, crammed 20 or 30 people per house, that time outdoors is the only privacy they get. (If you think Facebook is eroding your privacy, wait until you find out what poverty will do to it.) And the ghetto is a horrifically awful place for children, and they know that; even the prostitutes and the drug dealers struggle with how can they better provide for their children with no more resources than they have and no more help than they're going to get, without sacrificing what little income the community has that feeds those children?
It is not a life that you would want, although if you're a majority voter in the 85th percentile of income and up, it is a life you think is entirely fair for people who deserve less than the truly deserving do, the 15% of us you consider to be the only productive members of society. And it is, as that majority of the upper-middle-class and the wealthy will certainly argue, a life that is humanly possible, and one that has love in it, and even occasional moments of happiness, for almost everybody. And if you're not in the 85th percentile by income or above already, and you don't know how you, personally, will live, when the people you think of as "middle class" and that your rulers think of as "the poor" or "the working class" are reduced to ghetto levels of poverty and scarcity and danger? This is the best book that I've found, yet, to get you started about asking yourself this question: when it comes to that, which of these people do I want to be like? How will I live?
Will you be like one of the three truly powerful women he got to know, in the neighborhood -- women who owned big but run-down houses free and clear, who operated off-the-books boarding houses to the hustlers and prostitutes? Or will you be one of the prostitutes, or will one of your family members be one of the prostitutes who bring home the money so that once in a rare while the family can afford some fenced black-market penicillin or the occasional tooth extraction? Will you be one of the three or four shade tree mechanics per neighborhood, undercutting the above-board garages while paying a couple of bucks a day in protection money to the local street gang so you can work unmolested in an alley, giving the corrupt cops deep discounts on their oil changes so they don't run you in? Will you be the woman who runs an illegal unlicensed catering business, selling $2 lunches to the construction workers around town who work on the rich peoples' houses and office buildings, or one of the army of street hustlers getting paid $2 a day plus lunch to hand-deliver those meals for her? Will you be one of the hustlers who interviews and vets homeless people, getting paid a small commission by the property owners of the empty properties, to find reliable homeless people willing to get paid $1 to $2 per week plus free rent to sleep in the basements of those properties to ward off the copper thieves? Or will you be one of those homeless people? Or will you be one of the less reliable homeless people, who get paid $1 a week or less and the bartered right to use a store's bathroom, store your stuff in its storeroom, sleep under cardboard in the alley behind it, and sleep indoors on the stockroom floor during (and only during!) the worst couple of nights of the year, in exchange for a promise to be there, in that alley, from sundown to sunup to call the police or the fire department or the street gang if needed? Will you join the gang, and provide contract negotiation services between hustlers and their clients, and security that sometimes does extend beyond the protection racket to the trying-to-be-above-board stores? Will you own one of those stores? Or will you be the guy selling (probably shoplifted) socks and underwear for $2 as you walk down the street or in the park? (Or, to pick an example I see every time I take the train, the guy selling pirated DVDs of newly released movies for the same price?) Will you be one of the storefront pastors who try to keep peace in the neighborhood, and try to provide for the children, even though most of your salary and all of your church's rent are covered by the $2000 per gangland funeral you collect?
Unless you are already in the 85th percentile or above, you need to read about these people's lives, and ask yourself which of their niches you will fit into when the ghetto comes to you. Because only when you find one or two that you could be comfortable in can you start to plan, and only once you start to plan can you begin to be prepared, and only when you're prepared can you put your mind at rest. Only then will you be ready to get on with the rest of your life in what reduced standard of life, like the reduced standard of life after any loss, will pass for happiness. Only then will you be ready for acceptance.