On the way home from work one night I was able to catch an episode of the show Indivisible on NPR. If you’re not familiar with it, Indivisible chronicles the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency and has covered a ton of interesting topics in ways that don’t necessarily have to do with politics. Anyways, the episode I listened to was America’s Shrinking Middle Class (you can listen to it here).
The discussion focused on things like wage stagnation (several callers expressed frustration that while their employers were posting record profits their wages were staying flat) and how student loan debt holds Millennials back from doing things like buying houses and starting families.
Yes, over the last few decades productivity has increased compared to wages. By how much, though, is debatable.
We also know that college degrees, healthcare, and houses cost a lot more than they used to. And that thing about CEO pay being 2000 times more than that of hourly workers.
Elsewhere on the internet, reports of anywhere from 50-75% of Americans saying they live paycheck to paycheck have blown up. And we know most people don’t have the cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency.
The callers had real concerns. They sound like good people who just want to do good. Or well. Which one is it?
Only two people do good: Jesus and Superman. Everyone else does well.
Doing Well, But Up To No Good
Some of us are doing well. We’ve either taken paths that led to lucrative careers, or done our part to stay healthy and informed, or learned to live a lifestyle that values time and freedom as opposed to materialism and consumerism like 99% of their fellow Americans. Some folks are doing all of it. Some none of it. Some are more able than others.
Although I’m sure we all had good intentions. You know, the American Dream, right?
So in our desire to do well, what have we done?
- We live in houses twice as big.
- We spend more of our food budgets (if we even have one!) on take out than groceries.
- We spend $400 billion a year on fast food, and 60-70% of that is IN THE DRIVE THRU! DOUBLE FUCKING WHAMMY!
- About 40% of us have credit card debt, and those of us who carry a balance (aka don’t pay it off every month) owe on average over $16,000.
- We’ve extended our car loans to 72 months, which doesn’t matter because we’ll trade up after a couple years and just roll that debt onto our new loan.
This is probably the worst of it, but just for good measure, we’ve also, as a collective, have continued to put ourselves first and our neighbors second.
Consider two options:
- Jeff makes $75k a year, while most of his neighbors make $50k a year.
- Jeff makes $75k a year, while most of his neighbors make $100k a year.
Chances are, Jeff is going to be happier in #1, even though he makes the same amount of money in both. Status is a huge factor in happiness for people, and comparing earnings is an easy way to measure status.
Ask anyone if they agree with the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats”.
I think a lot of people would.
Then ask the same person whether or not they would pay higher taxes to reduce pollution in their city. Less pollution might improve the health of everyone and lower healthcare costs, giving the city more money to spend on education and infrastructure, which would further improve the lives of it’s citizens. Some would, but I gather a lot more wouldn’t, especially if the initial issue doesn’t affect them directly.
It also doesn’t lift their boat fast enough, especially compared when the alternative is a juicy tax cut.
Less taxes means more money in your pocket and a better house, car, TV, and restaurant selection. All the better to keep up/surpass/conquer the Jonses’, amiright?
The People are at war. With themselves. Alongside globalization and rising CEO pay and outsourcing and rising living costs is us, figuring out how to make our boats go higher, how to get a better car than our coworkers, how to present a more exciting life on facebook than our “friends”, how to show everyone that we’re doing well.
We’ve become sicker, poorer, and more miserable. We take on more debt, save less, and are so occupied with our own little boats that we don’t care that we’re destroying the commons just to live shittier lives in a country that’s crumbling with worse leaders and less knowledge all for the sake of doing well instead of doing good.
When you lower the tide for everybody, your boat sinks too.