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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.

Comments

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Larry Hamelin
Sep. 4th, 2011 09:31 am (UTC)
Hear hear
tahkhleet
Sep. 4th, 2011 11:30 am (UTC)
Yah, it's going to get worse
Anyone who's thinking he's an alarmist, read up on Argentina in 01/01/01. I've talked to Argentinians and relatives thereof three times as I greyhounded a lot the last few years and they all agreed that the situation as far as most people live has not recovered. And what happened there? Massive currency devaluation. Which is precisely where America is headed because the bankers got to have their losses covered.

The only question is how fast will it take to fall apart. But just for contrast, I once got _mocked and derided_ by a dozen people on a blog I posted to a busy thread on for daring to suggest the USA could easily afford to pay for welfare for the people who've exhausted their UI. You know, the welfare all the other industrialized countries pay for as a matter of course. What struck me was how the definition of reasonable has been altered...first in America, and now echoing back over the whole world.

Canada just finally elected a majority government of a man who says he wants us to be just like the USA as soon as possible. He's a patient prudent man and I doubt it will be too long before gets his dream. From what I hear this is the trend in much of the world..and most of the rest is being run by socialist oriented governments who have a lot of heart and no money sense at all and are running their countries into the ground. Because underlying this change isn't just mean spiritedness but the fact the capitalist model never solved the crisis of overproduction, and now, after a century long interruption, we're back where we started.

So good luck and good night indeed.
peristaltor
Sep. 4th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Yah, it's going to get worse
Canada just finally elected a majority government of a man who says he wants us to be just like the USA as soon as possible.

I just read this recently which puts your observation on a whole 'nother level:

Canada and the U.S. have signed an agreement that paves the way for the militaries from either nation to send troops across each other’s borders during an emergency, but some are questioning why the Harper government has kept silent on the deal.

Neither the Canadian government nor the Canadian Forces announced the new agreement, which was signed Feb. 14 in Texas.


That was from 2008.
Oh that's not the half of it - tahkhleet - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yah, it's going to get worse - caraig - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Too busy watching the culture wars - tahkhleet - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Too busy watching the culture wars - nancylebov - Sep. 6th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
nancylebov
Sep. 4th, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
It could get worse-- the tools for economic surveillance and enforcement are getting tighter.

All money may be trackable within a generation.
bradhicks
Sep. 4th, 2011 04:58 pm (UTC)
Oh, I know: I was working at The Conspiracy when they were helping the Chinese government pilot a cashless-society project, and had a bit of a crisis of faith over it. I remember grinding my teeth every time I walked through the lobby and saw the trophy the Chinese gov't gave us for our outstanding cooperation in their effort to track dissidents by their spending.

But it's not as bad as you think. No cashless-economy tracking system is going to be able to keep up with the barter and informal labor that are the backbone of the off-the-books economy, and will struggle to keep up with the tiny little sums of cash, $2 or less, that make up most of the routine transactions. Any transactions they'll be looking for will be lost in the noise.

And you're assuming they'll be looking. As Venkatish documented, the cops in Chicago know fully well which 96% of the people living in that neighborhood are doing business in the underground economy; they know to the man who the members of the local drug gang are -- heck, if there's any doubt, the gang tells them who they are, so the cops know who not to mess with. The cops know that as long as there is no actual economy in there, their role is not to eliminate off-the-books economic activity (although rookie cops may make the diplomatic faux pas of threatening to do so in order to get a discount), nor is it even to shut down the criminal gang. Their job, in the limited couple of person-hours per month that the city will let them spend in that neighborhood, is to make sure that the neighborhood association and the churches and the local criminal gang have some kind of a process in place to keep gunfire from spiraling out of control. As long as that's getting done, everybody's happy.

Once your neighborhood is like that, why would the government care where you got the $2 you spent on smuggled Slovakian amoxicillin? If you bought it from some guy at the bus stop, paying cash, how will they even know?

Edited at 2011-09-04 04:58 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - nancylebov - Sep. 4th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nancylebov - Sep. 4th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lucretiasheart - Sep. 5th, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
rick_day
Sep. 4th, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC)
tough all over
did you pick that 85th percentile out of your butt? Because my wife and I are in the 94th percentile (top 5%) and it is still a struggle each month.

Retirement portfolios have dried up, we own one two bedroom house, one domestic vehicle and 2 scooters, and a business that breaks even after we put most of our other income into it, hoping things will turn around. We live here mmostly, to protect the place from copper thieves.

Meanwhile city fees on business are simply dragging us down. Plus we get the "luxury" of being a tax collector for the government, with no compensation, and all the penalty.

No man, things are tough all over. Wealth: It's all paper, an illusion; unless it is land free and clear. Millionaires can lose their wealth in one bad day (like..say..Black Friday).

This is what happens when people make 'jobs' a priority, and not 'living life'. It is possible to live within your means, just not comfortably.

Always enjoy reading your tomes, Brad :D

Edited at 2011-09-04 12:59 pm (UTC)
bradhicks
Sep. 4th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
Re: tough all over
I picked the 85th percentile number as one that came up, several times, in the context of the Bush tax cuts. All through the 2008 election cycle, and repeatedly since, Republicans have said that repealing the Bush tax cuts on people who make $250k/yr or more would be "raising taxes on the middle class." In that context, reporters have asked several Republicans "how much money do people have to make to be middle class, in your opinion?" and been given answers ranging from $200k to $250k per year ... and an income of $200k per year puts you in about the 85th percentile.

I've got more coming about the difference of opinion about what "middle class" means; a few sentences of this were pulled out of a longer piece I was working on about the difference between the egalitarian and winner-take-all views of what a successful, honestly run and free economy would look like, about how you would know it was working properly and not being manipulated by bad guys.

I saw in yesterday's news that yet another long-term unemployed guy, a guy who had been middle class before the mass layoffs of 2007, died of an abscessed tooth; he couldn't afford an extraction, he had just barely enough cash that he had to choose between filling his pain killer prescription and his antibiotic prescription, chose poorly, and died of cerebral edema. So, please, by all means: tell me what necessities consume all of your hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in income, the way Todd Henderson did. Because I just can't get enough of that stuff.

Edited at 2011-09-04 04:25 pm (UTC)
Re: tough all over - rick_day - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - bradhicks - Sep. 4th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - rick_day - Sep. 4th, 2011 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - joxn - Sep. 4th, 2011 08:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - joxn - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - gjm11 - Sep. 4th, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - interactiveleaf - Sep. 6th, 2011 05:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - kayjayuu - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - bradhicks - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: tough all over - rick_day - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
nebris
Sep. 4th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
May I re-post this to the_recession?

~M~

Edited at 2011-09-04 05:40 pm (UTC)
bradhicks
Sep. 4th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
You may.
(no subject) - nebris - Sep. 4th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Sep. 4th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nebris - Sep. 5th, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kimchalister - Sep. 9th, 2011 05:15 am (UTC) - Expand
What is your "other functional structure"? - nebris - Sep. 9th, 2011 05:27 am (UTC) - Expand
pingback_bot
Sep. 4th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
The Fifth Stage of Grief for the Middle Class Way of Life
User nebris referenced to your post from The Fifth Stage of Grief for the Middle Class Way of Life saying: [...] From The Infamous Brad [...]
peristaltor
Sep. 4th, 2011 06:25 pm (UTC)
Perhaps a silver lining
Though it may do nothing to the people portrayed in the book you recommend, I do see hope on the horizon. One of the body blows to the market power of labor was (in my opinion) the entry of the baby boom into the market.

The first boomers were born in 1947. Assuming many attended higher education, that means the average boomer of that year entered the job market at age 20 or so in 1967. Such a small blip wouldn't have done much, but the next year even more entered, and the next, and the next. . . .

By 1970 — according to Richard D. Wolff in his book Capitalism Hits the Fanthe living standard of workers stopped rising for the first time in 150 years. This might well have something to do with the fact that millions more young men were at that time entering the workplace than five years prior, at a time when American industry was winding down due to the rebuilding of Europe and Japan.

This is about to reverse. Might that explain why anti-union sentiment has been fomented so fervently? I'm certain employers are speaking to demographers. I'm certain they realize this population tsumami is starting to retire with fewer replacement workers filling the empty roles. Those replacement workers will have more market power, and perhaps wages will start to rise.

Perhaps.
pingback_bot
Sep. 4th, 2011 07:01 pm (UTC)
Getting it only a little right.
User jsl32 referenced to your post from Getting it only a little right. saying: [...] http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/449062.html [...]
tormentedartist
Sep. 4th, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
What about leaving the country to some place better? America isn't all its cracked up to be and hasn't been for a long time.
interactiveleaf
Sep. 4th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
What about it? I always find it amusing the way this is portrayed as an easy choice. Which country do you think is better, and why do you think they'd have you?

These are sincere questions.
(no subject) - bradhicks - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lucretiasheart - Sep. 5th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Unfortunate math - (Anonymous) - Sep. 9th, 2011 12:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
You haven't tried to migrate I take it? - tahkhleet - Sep. 4th, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - amblinwiseass - Sep. 5th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
joxn
Sep. 4th, 2011 08:15 pm (UTC)
Or shorter hours and more work to go around. But in America it's taboo to take salary increases as leisure time; that's why there are draconian rules about how much you have to work to be even eligible for "benefits".

The Wobblies originally wanted 4 day weeks and 4 hour days.
kayjayuu
Sep. 4th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Brad, I enjoy your thoughtful commentary, as depressing as it all is. :(

Is there a similar study or commentary about those who don't live in the cities? Rural or lower populated states? I will eventually pick up this book through interlibrary loan, but in the meantime I'll be honest and say that this entire premise is as foreign to me as being dropped off on a deserted island in the Pacific.

Sorry for being culturally naive. I'm working on it.
bradhicks
Sep. 4th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)
If you find one, let me know. I picked up Nick Reding's Methland hoping it would be it, but it was too specific in its focus. After all these years since Farm Aid, I'd like to think that there's some useful textbook on how people survive rural poverty, but I haven't found it yet.
I could tell you first hand - D. Mitchell - Sep. 11th, 2011 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mercyorbemoaned - Sep. 4th, 2011 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - drewkitty - Sep. 5th, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
nancylebov
Sep. 5th, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/investment_manager.html

Claims that the really disproportionate wealth and power (and the only real security) is at the top half of a percent, and it's mostly composed of people who are doing more damage than good.

****

I remember first hearing about 401K's, and going into libertarian cynicism-- if everyone is being encouraged to save in the same, public way, doesn't it make the money easier to steal?

badnewswade
Sep. 5th, 2011 01:17 am (UTC)
Sorry, but as I said in the_recession I don't agree with your basic premise. Such a society would be inherently unstable; you'd end up with civil war like in Africa or parts of the former USSR, or authoritarian rule like in Russia or Venezuela.

BTW, apparently the Argentinian economy has rebounded, partly because devaluation made exports more profitable and partly because they elected a social democrat who told the IMF to go fuck 'emselves.

The reason we had such a good standard of living in the first place is because our ancestors didn't give up, even when confronted with Fascism and global war -which at one point it seemed almost inevitable that Hitler would win. Fuck "acceptance". Bite their ankles!
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - badnewswade - Oct. 29th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
pingback_bot
Sep. 5th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
And again, the once-weekly post. - 28 August-3 September 02011
User silveradept referenced to your post from And again, the once-weekly post. - 28 August-3 September 02011 saying: [...] that you can scrape by in the economy that believes only the ultra-rich deserve any sort of luxury [...]
(Anonymous)
Sep. 6th, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
I hate it when the satirists are right.
My spiritual guru, Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius, "joked" a while back that sometime around 1996, the world had turned into a dystopian sci-fi novel.

Looks like he was right. The genre resembles cyberpunk, but with crappier artificial limbs.
(Deleted comment)
Re: I hate it when the satirists are right. - (Anonymous) - Sep. 12th, 2011 08:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I hate it when the satirists are right. - jsl32 - Sep. 23rd, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
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