The wealth and income gap in the United States is a real and damaging thing. The top bracket blames the lower echelons for being greedy and lazy. Many of the members of the sinking middle class blame a variety of villains projected for their benefit by the propaganda wing of the top bracket. Self-styled progressive thinkers point the finger at greed among the wealthy and ruthless business leaders.
My life began when the middle class was supposedly at its height. America was a prosperous and busy nation. But that middle class work force was mostly white, mostly male. Bloody battles were being fought, mostly in the South, to advance civil rights for African Americans. Women were struggling to be able to pursue their potential, unfettered by gender prejudice. The definition of a good life was expanding rapidly beyond just a white guy with a good job, a nice wife and a couple of kids, in a nice neighborhood.
During that same time span, a generation was born and raised with access to vividly depicted fantasies on film and television. These children of the fantasy era emerged into the work force in waves, each one more thoroughly indoctrinated than the one preceding it. One should hardly be surprised if a smaller and smaller percentage of each of them dreamed of some repetitive job in a factory when much grander adventures seemed so easily entered.
One day in about 1990, a scruffy man came into the bike shop where I worked. He said he worked for one of the traditional American bicycle companies. He regaled us with tales of drunks, druggies and derelicts working the production line. Maybe this was just the end of a long decline or the last precipitous drop as the company struggled with a changing retail landscape. But it reminded me of stories I was told by a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 1980, about sabotaging a Coast Guard cutter to which he was assigned, so that he and his buddies wouldn't have to leave the harbor and all its pleasures ashore. They liked the paycheck, they just didn't care for the actual work. They imagined a more pleasurable life for themselves and placed no value on the mission of the Coast Guard or their role supporting it.
These are snapshots, widely separated in time. But in college in the 1970s the sense was very strong that we were preparing ourselves to go get an income. Students chose fields they thought they would be good at or perhaps enjoy, but many favored traditionally lucrative areas like business or law. There was a little carry over from the mostly synthetic moral underpinnings of the counterculture, and some sense that environmentalism might be important -- if only it paid better -- but mostly it was about making your pile.
The 1980s were only too happy to bolster those fantasies. Smart, sharp people deserved to be winners. The dignity of labor had already lost its luster. Work meant long hours in an office, not a reasonable span in a production facility with time to breathe built into the schedule. You want to work a menial job? Work it, pal. I want to see shovels and mops moving. You want more money? Find the time and energy to get another menial job, loser.
The United States has two main contenders to be the national religion: money and work. We worship the trappings of wealth and the no-nonsense human sacrifice of toil. A person can work admirably without gaining wealth or be enviably wealthy without working. But anyone in the mid range, particularly the lower mid range, who does not labor to exhaustion is a contemptible slacker.
It's a pretty lousy set of standards. But did it evolve naturally from the failed experiment of widespread education and more even distribution of the rewards? Did the middle collapse simply from wanting the wrong things? Sure, we're misled by fictional portrayals of all sorts of things. Yes, the imbalance of wealth and power needs to be corrected. But that won't last if the majority of people don't know what to do with themselves once they've got it.
Developing nations have the advantage of a visible slope to climb. A lot of obstacles stand in their way in the form of environmental degradation and government corruption. No one knows if they'll make it. But say they do. Then what? Aside from an aggressive space program so we can export our craziness across the galaxy, what's worth getting out of bed for, every day? We could reach the maximum sustainable lifestyle long before we figure out efficient interstellar travel.
I feel that the future should be built on tolerance of diversity coupled with diversity that works to be tolerable.
It's hard a to write a rule or two, because they're vague and subject to flexible interpretation. Then you write another and another for clarification, until you end up with thousands of lines of code just to cover all the potential variations. Laws are a programming language for the unruly computer made up of billions of human brains. Unlike a machine, we cannot be compelled to receive a fraction of it, let alone take it all in and abide by it. It goes against our nature. Some people might like to be programmed, but then who is in charge?
If we restored manufacturing in this country, who would work there and how well would they work? Was erosion of wages a result of more people vying for them? As reality and the dream move farther apart, what could sustain morale in a work force? These are the questions that will immediately follow any reform of the distribution of compensation.