A Permanent Underclass

I’d love to complain about the poor leadership being demonstrated by our President and Congress. I could write about the issues behind the shutdown. I’d love to pontificate about the “playing politics” rather than deal with the growing debt and continued overspending, or how political groups on both sides of the aisle are creating smoke screens rather than deal with the issue of entitlement reform. I would love to write about how John Kotter in his book “Leading Change” described how change events fail due to a lack of urgency. In other words those involved with implementing the change don’t really believe it is necessary. This leads to a half-hearted effort to create the necessary change. Because of this lack of urgency, the change fails. I’d love to write about all of this, but what caught my attention this morning during my reading was an article entitled “Visions of a Permanent Underclass.”

William Galston wrote about Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” which “analyzes the dynamics behind the rise of what he terms hyper-meritocracy.” These dynamics include growing economic inequality, falling male wages, declining labor-force participation and the rising share of the national product flowing to capital rather than labor.” I find this interesting because of my thoughts around wealth and what constitutes too much wealth, and my thoughts concerning personal responsibility.

Glaston describes a scenario that we all should be concerned with. Are we fast becoming a society where wealth and status is distributed according to general intelligence; a society where those who are considered losers deserve their condition and should just accept it? Glaston argues that “the Great Recession unmasked the fact that U.S. employers had taken on more middle-wage workers than they needed or could afford.” Thus with a changing technology these companies could release these employees because they weren’t needed anymore. These employees, in order to work, are required to take less paying jobs. Therefore leading to a shrinking middle class.

In the book “Average is Over” the author describes what the future could look like, “It will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow the real wages to fall and thus we will allow the creation of a new underclass.” In fact we will have created one class that is “fantastically successful” working in a creative-complex environment, and another one that is living in a “shantytown.”

Karl Marx talked about this as leading to a proletariat rebellion, while Mr. Cowen says this permanent underclass will accept their lot without much complaint. They are a people who is viewed as people who are satisfied “with cheap food and cheap fun.” Glaston describes this scenario as “15% of Americans enjoying fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope for a better life, tranquilized by free internet and canned beans.” If you are a part of the meritocracy you’ve got it made, but if not you better get good at video games.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we can live with that kind of situation? Do we feel it is ok, for some people to be denied the opportunity to be socially mobile, or that some receive all of the benefits just because thy have the opportunity? I am all for taking initiative and working hard, but if the system is stacked in my favor for one reason or another can I live with that? Can I be morally indifferent to a system that produces those results?

Glaston’s final paragraph states, “Whether by accident or design, Mr. Cowen’s book represents a fundamental challenge. To government-hating, market worshiping conservatives, it poses a question: If this is the consequence of your creed, are you prepared to endorse it? To Liberals and Progressives: What are you going to do about it? And to all of us: Is this a country you would want to live in?”

These are words to ponder. I am all for affluence and opportunity, but I am all for a system that is equitable. This should be a system that provides an opportunity for all to earn a new way. Not one that promises the same result to everyone.  However, I also believe that if I do well, I need to help others who haven’t done so well.

And that is my thought for the day!


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