Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 16:35 on 23-02-2014, Sister Magpie
I don't have anything to add to the 1% discussion - other than to agree with Dan. During the Occupy happening, I kept reading comments by POC, working class Americans going basically "What, now that you white middle class kids get a taste of what this society is like for the rest of us, NOW you suddenly want a revolution?"


While this reaction is understandable, does it really say anything against the "revolution?" Since the late 70s in the US, wages have stagnated and man costs have gone up. From what I've seen a lot of the focus actually has been on people who might call themselves middle class, but really probably aren't, like people making minimum wage. It's far more likely now that someone born into poverty will stay there, not because Bill Gates has too much money personally, but because government policies is designed to help him make as much as possible and has lost all interest in investing in the middle and lower classes.

Compared to many many people in the world a bank teller in the US has a pretty awesome life, but that's no reason the bank teller shouldn't prefer the far better economic system a bank teller would be living in in the 1960s. There's always a lot of talk about people not knowing how good they have it in discussions about this on US TV, for instance, and it's usually applied to people on the lowest ends of the economic scale.
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at 15:40 on 23-02-2014, Adrienne
@Ash and @James D, I got your gifts in Fallen London -- thank you! I was out to Zee, so I am just now sending things back. Ash, for some reason it's not letting me send you anything; I'm trying to figure out why that is.
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at 11:16 on 23-02-2014, Tamara
All I know about class in the UK I learned from Kate Fox's "Watching the English," and a little bit from George Orwell, and the conclusion I ended up arriving at is that it's all snobbery and self-image these days. The only interesting bit is indeed that apparently no one in the UK wants to be thought of as middle class, because it's just terribly gauche and pedestrian. While in the US (where all I know comes from 90's sitcoms) no one wants to be thought of as anything other than middle-class, because being non-middle-class is just weird and even pretentious, even if you're the heir to railroad fortune or are a third generation hobo.

None of this, of course, is at all useful or even relevant to debates about actual class politics, in any kind of Marxist sense.
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at 09:28 on 23-02-2014, Shimmin
In the UK it's traditionally largely based on a) your parents' background, and b) your own occupation.

Very broadly speaking:
*manual jobs and customer service jobs are working-class
*desk jobs, retail or owning a business are middle-class
*things demanding a degree (like medicine and law) have over the centuries descended from upper-class only to middle-class once education was more accessible

But there's a lot of arbitrary variation around that, and many jobs fall between the cracks. There's a fairly convincing (to me) argument that the old class structure no longer makes any sense because the nature of many jobs has changed substantially, the kind of jobs that exist have changed, and old power structures have shifted. The BBC had a bash at offering new ones.
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at 04:40 on 23-02-2014, Daniel F
I also had the sense that the US and the UK define lower/middle class differently?

In the US it's an income classification. How much money you make determines what class you're in. In the UK, where you work is relevant as well, so e.g. a tradesman is always lower class no matter how much money he or she makes? While if you're an office manager, you are middle class, even if you make less money overall than the tradie.

(Neither American nor British here, so please correct me if these are ignorant stereotypes.)
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at 22:09 on 22-02-2014, Arthur B
I think this is a perception which varies between the UK and US.

In particular, I get the impression that in the US the line between "working class" and "middle class" is different - that in the US everyone likes to think of themselves as middle class, whilst in the UK nobody likes to think of themselves as the same.
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at 18:15 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
How do you explain the middle class putting in place policies (as politicians and as voters) that aren't doing them much good?
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at 18:07 on 21-02-2014, Dan H
I'll be the first to agree that people with medium and high levels of wealth have plenty of illusions about ourselves and our privilege that we need to unravel, but I think positing our political power as equivalent to that of people with extremely high levels of wealth would be incorrect.


More or less what Arthur says.

In the UK at least, politics is a middle class game. Can the very rich hire lobbyists and run adverts and own newspapers? Of course they can. But the actual strings of power are held by middle class people with middle class values. When it comes to representation, what really matters is who makes the decisions, not who can spend money to put pressure on them.

Yes an *individual* very rich person can exert disproportionate personal influence over the political process, but the middle classes as a whole make up damned near 100% of politicians, civil servants, journalists and ... well ... basically everybody else with political influence. Middle class interests are at the heart of government policy because everybody in government knows what it is like to be middle class because they all *are*.

Working class people, on the other hand, are routinely ignored, because politicians neither know nor care what working class people's lives are like. This is why you keep getting things likeIain Duncan Smith talking about how easy it is to live on £53 a week. I believe there was one a couple of years ago who insisted that being waterboarded wasn't that bad as well.
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at 18:00 on 21-02-2014, Robinson L
I have no idea if you're making fun of me or not.

Sorry, yeah, it's hard to convey tone of the internet. I've had my hand at organizing some in the past, with less than impressive results, so I'm a little bit in awe of organizers. Also, I've never tried organizing a workplace, which (rationally or irrationally) I find a much more daunting prospect.

Plus, I just really liked the way you put it.


Andy: I assume everyone saw this video that did the rounds a while back?

Actually, I hadn't. It makes some good points, but being me, I got pissed off by the narrator's casual dismissal of economic equality, blithe assumption that the desire to get ahead of everybody else is the only incentive people could have to do the work necessary to keep society running, and the somewhat contradictory assumption that hard work is desirable in its own right, rather than as a necessary component of keeping society running.


@Arthur: That's certainly true - as one long-time activist whose work I follow likes to put it, the middle class' role is to manage the working class on behalf of the owning class.

However, just because there are many among the middle rank who are willing and happy to put the policies of the ultra-rich into action does not mean that the middle rank, as a group, have comparable political power. If they did, then we would not expect to see so many economic policies which puts the squeeze on the middle as well as the bottom over the past couple decades.
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at 17:21 on 21-02-2014, Arthur B
I'll leave it to Dan to unpack his own point but as far as UK politics go I'd say it's an Inner Party/Outer Party/Proles thing: the middle classes overwhelmingly provide the civil servants, starry-eyed wannabe MPs, political activists and canvassers who enable the very rich to get away with what they get away with.

Put it this way: I can't remember the last time in an election where I had the option of voting for a billionaire or someone on unemployment benefit on my ballot. Political engagement in this country is a middle class game, at least as far as parties with any serious odds of being part of government (and a fair portion of the other parties too) are concerned.
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at 17:10 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
This often has the effect of maintaining or widening the wealth gap, to the detriment of the impoverished (and, incidentally, the people in the middle, as well); and they're all mechanisms which are closed off from the impoverished, the people in the middle, and the rich but not ultra-rich, for that matter.


I think this is the point. The gap between comfortably middle-class and desperately poor is a significant one, maybe especially conceptually, but it is much less so on a class level than between anyone and the super-rich. (Put it another way: it's not about lifestyle, it's about, um, well, yes, ownership of the means of production.) In terms of stagnant (or even declining) wages and lengthening hours, rising costs of access to good education and healthcare, a loss of bargaining power and representation in the workplace, etc. Some people are barely being brushed by all this, some people are being utterly crushed by it, but the politics is about who's causing it.

You are so cool.


I have no idea if you're making fun of me or not.
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at 17:00 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
Hm, is that really the 99%ers ideology, do you think? "Blame the rich"? Here the big occupy-type tent protests were aimed squarely at government policy. Pointing out the 1% thing isn't about marching into Bill Gates' house and taking his...I dunno, fridge magnet collection, I don't think. It's a way of pointing out problems with what, say, banking policy is doing to most people. Not saying that all those movements have a coherent and ideologically consistent political platform or even a practical and useful set of short term goals as a protest movement, but questioning the narrative of the protests here strikes me as barking up the wrong tree with what the whole 1/99 discourse is even aimed at.
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at 17:00 on 21-02-2014, Robinson L
Dan H: The problem isn't that disproportionate influence is wielded by the mega-wealthy, it's that disproportionate influence is wielded by the comfortably well off.

I'm afraid you're going to have to unpack that one for me. My understanding is that in the US (and other places, like the UK), the ultra-rich are able to influence the political process in a host of different ways - through employing small armies of lobbyists and attorneys to large campaign donations to financing think tanks and advertisements to owning media outlets. This often has the effect of maintaining or widening the wealth gap, to the detriment of the impoverished (and, incidentally, the people in the middle, as well); and they're all mechanisms which are closed off from the impoverished, the people in the middle, and the rich but not ultra-rich, for that matter.

So when it comes to wealth having a disproportionate say in policies (such as austerity), it's more like "We are the 99.9%." (In this regard, think "We are the 99%" is fine as a slogan - if, as with all slogans, you take it with a 3/4 tablespoon of salt as opposed to interpreting it literally.)

I'll be the first to agree that people with medium and high levels of wealth have plenty of illusions about ourselves and our privilege that we need to unravel, but I think positing our political power as equivalent to that of people with extremely high levels of wealth would be incorrect. (Or maybe just that it's dispersed among a couple million people rather than a couple thousand or couple hundred? Numbers obviously plucked from a hat.)


On an unrelated note: welcome back, Cheriola. Sorry to hear how rough things have been for you; here's hoping they keep improving.

Things in Ohio have been pretty snowy (which I don't mind) but they've warmed up quite a bit over the past few days.


Tamara: I actually unionize people in my spare time, and yes, i'm familiar with the conceptual hammering a worldview needs to take to stop assuming that whatever the wage ladder is at company X was not created at the moment of the Big Bang itself as a fundamental physical law. Of course, most managers and owners don't stop assuming it, it's just that they're overpowered :-)

You are so cool.

Apropos of nothing, are you guys planning to carry on with you Shakespeare podcasts project? Those were fun, and I ask completely because they were totally a wonderful and necessary addition to the slim field Shakespearian criticism, not because I've gotten back to swimming and something about the rhythm of them was just perfect for breaststroke. ;-)

Have to ask: is your iPod waterproof?
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at 16:37 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Aha, I hadn't realised it was a median figure. That makes a lot more sense then.

On this topic, I did actually look up the statistics on income distribution in the UK before and after tax recently, after reading some typical right-wing complaints that since most income tax is already disproportionately paid by those in the highest income brackets, it's unfair to get them to pay more. These statistics are quite revealing about how little difference in income distribution it makes having the rich pay disproportionately much tax though (and that's without taking assets into account).

Also, I assume everyone saw this video that did the rounds a while back? There's one for the UK somewhere too I think.
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at 15:53 on 21-02-2014, Dan H
Something else I might add is that I suspect income inequality is pretty steep all the way up.

Checking out the Forbes Billionaires list, it's interesting to note that the richest man in the world earns fully twice as much money as the 6th richest man in the world, who earns twice as much as the 32nd richest, who earns twice as much as the 119th richest, who earns twice as much as the 276th richest, who earns twice as much as the 41st richest, who earns twice as much as the 1250th richest.

There are 1342 people on the Forbes Billionaires list, the top 1% of people on that list earn (or are worth, or control) a total of $3308.5 billion dollars (EDITED to add - this number is clearly wrong, I must have miskeyed somewhere). The bottom 80% (who earn between 1 and 5 billion, I'm not going to actually add them all up, that would take forever) between them should earn something in the region of $2700 billion.

So the top 1% of billionaires actually earn more than the bottom 80% of billionaires put together (EDITED - again, got my numbers wrong somewhere - it should still hold true for the top 10% mind).

And while I do have to admit that I'd kind of love to see "Occupy Bill Gates' House" with legions of protesters outside holding signs that read "We Are the 99% of Billionaires Who Want This Country Back from the 1% of Billionaires Who Stole It" I think what this highlights is that income inequality is, on some level, self-symmetric. I'm pretty sure you could take any income group and you'd always find that the top 1% of earners earned more than the bottom 80%.

Again, I'm not suggesting that income inequality isn't a problem, just that it's a problem at *every level*, and that while the vast sums of money controlled by individual billionaires make for good headlines, the vast sums of money (and arguably even *vaster* sums of political power) controlled by people who are merely financially comfortable are just as problematic.
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at 14:57 on 21-02-2014, Arthur B
I'd also suggest that you're making some pretty major assumptions here - why on Earth do you think that rich people don't have to "make food, work, raise children and participate in normal living"?

Got to say I don't get this part either, not least because several of those privileges aren't restricted to the megawealthy. Lots of middle class people don't cook their own dinners. There are lots of childcare centres and nannies whose main customer base are middle class parents. I don't know what "participating in normal living" entails so it's very possible I'm failing to do it right now. So saying that these are burdens the middle class still have to shoulder seems a stretch.
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at 14:32 on 21-02-2014, Dan H
@Janne

Most middle-class people are privileged, as said, but they still have to make food, work, raise children and in general participate in normal living even if they are living in material comfort or not threatened by lack of necessities.


Again, I think this is the problem with the 99% narrative. There's this idea that the gap between the super-rich and the middle classes is somehow larger and more unjust than the gap between the middle classes and the poor.

I'd also suggest that you're making some pretty major assumptions here - why on Earth do you think that rich people don't have to "make food, work, raise children and participate in normal living"? I'm especially confused by your apparent belief that very rich people don't work - as if corporate CEOs just hang around all day playing golf.

There's also the unstated assumption that "normal" life means, broadly speaking, the life of the middle classes. For a great many people, "not being threatened by a lack of necessities" is not *remotely* normal. Indeed you could make a reasonable argument that, even ignoring global issues and focusing on inequality within modern westernised democracies, the gap between somebody who has never had to worry about where their next meal is coming from an somebody who has is *massively* larger than the gap between somebody who owns a private jet and somebody who doesn't.

I believe it was, of all people, John Major who pointed out that a big problem with the way the UK is governed is that most MPs don't know what it's like to run out of money on a Thursday. The problem isn't that disproportionate influence is wielded by the mega-wealthy, it's that disproportionate influence is wielded by the comfortably well off.

"We are the 99%" is a rallying cry which tries to pretend that me, Arthur and David Cameron are exactly as marginalised as somebody living on housing benefit on a council estate. We aren't.

@Andy G:

As Tamara points out, it's a median rather than a mean, so the incomes of the top 1% don't skew the average at all. If you want to look at it another way, $50,000 is a below-median salary for a primary school teacher. Now obviously primary school teachers are well qualified middle class people, but they're not exactly known for their disproportionately large incomes.
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at 12:05 on 21-02-2014, Janne Kirjasniemi
This discussion reminds me of a few things that have been floating around recently. First, there have been several articles about the psychological fallacy of thinking your position and privilege in society is a result of your own attributes instead of societal issues. This Slate article(and some of their links) focus on the rich people, but if such a fallacy is a common, perhaps even a universal one, like many such fallacies tend to be, it stands to reason that everyone would be affected by it, not just the rich. Although it might be, that the super-rich do have such an accumulation of wealth and power that such tendencies could get more extreme. If the case is a psychological one, then clearly the solution is a matter of recognizing and reasoning through it, like any fallacy. How this is to be done practically, I do not know, but it might still be pragmatic to think of it as a failure of reasoning rather than just a failure of morals. Well a failure of morals is when one refuses to acknowledge it, but we do have several defense mechanisms to shield us from unpleasant thoughts. Like this one we're discussing really. If the more unfortunate deserve their plight, then clearly one does not have to feel guilty about it. And clearly it would not be nice to extend this reasoning to oneself.

On a political note, it is true that the average middle class person in a first world(if one is allowed to use that term in this context) country is very much more privileged than most of the worlds population. Still, the sort of 99% thing does have some points for it. First, such movements are movements of a given society or political body. The accumulation of resources and power to the first percent skews the power dynamics of a political system and surely the accumulation of power to just the select few will not help with the global issues at all. Rather it is a recipe for civil discord, which results in less attention given to those of lesser fortune especially abroad. And if wealth and power makes people think less of those less "successful", and this effect is stronger the richer you are, then this distribution of wealth to the top is worrisome. Most middle-class people are privileged, as said, but they still have to make food, work, raise children and in general participate in normal living even if they are living in material comfort or not threatened by lack of necessities. And really, isn't it a false dichotomy, that because the 99% is focused on the wealth disparity in the US rather than globally, then it is not an issue worth discussing at all? The perfect movement that will deal with all of the issues at once will probably not materialize, so would it not be politically wise to support the movement that is at least in the right direction?

Oxfam reported recently that the richest 85 people control as much of the wealth in the world as the bottom half all together. So clearly, while everyone living in too plentiful opulence in the first world should probably look at that mirror a bit closely and strive to act accordingly, this is not a reason to ignore the accumulation of wealth at the top, if not for any other reason, then for the practical reason of political and economical power.
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at 11:01 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
Oh, goody. The word 'income' has lost meaning after writing that last post. There's a Marxist statement ;-)
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at 10:59 on 21-02-2014, Tamara
To quibble even further, 50k (just over 51k, actually) is US annual household median income. So it isn't skewed as much by the high incomes of the 1% as the mean average, and anyway is probably looking mostly at 2 incomes. And then a lot of the wealth of the, um, wealthy, is hard to capture in terms of income anyway.
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at 10:17 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Not that it makes much a difference, I make it a factor of around 16.5.
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at 10:10 on 21-02-2014, Andy G
Just a mathematical quibble, but does it make sense to compare the average income of the 1% of Americans with the average income of the 100% of Americans? Doesn't the $50,000 average itself incorporate the incomes of the 1%?
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at 02:07 on 21-02-2014, Cheriola
Yeah, I've been missing them as well.

Also: Hi, sorry for dropping off the radar so suddenly. I did indeed get very sick, the morning after my last appearance here. And while I was lying in bed that day, too feverish to bother going online, an integral part of my telephone system experienced planned obsolence failure. I didn't get well enough to leave the house until January, so it took a while to fix that. And since then, my depression has been acting up (lack of sunlight, birthday, etc.), so I wouldn't exactly have been good company. But I'm through the birthday sinkhole now and the weather has been sunny and ridiculously balmy, so I could start gardening very early this year, and so now I'm feeling somewhat better.

I hope you guys aren't flooded/freezing/drought-stricken/heat-wave-plagued too badly. Apparently Germany is the only major Western country that got lucky these last few months. We've had all of 10 days of frost this winter where I live, and that's in the northeast, which is just on the edge of the maritime/continental climate border and thus sometimes gets Russian winters. Last year, the snow stayed straight through from January till early April (that's a month longer than average).

I don't have anything to add to the 1% discussion - other than to agree with Dan. During the Occupy happening, I kept reading comments by POC, working class Americans going basically "What, now that you white middle class kids get a taste of what this society is like for the rest of us, NOW you suddenly want a revolution?"
Relatedly, I've been listening lately to a few interesting talks on climate change, food security and the politics thereof, and in the back of my head, I'm always thinking: "You're clearly very, very aware of how damaging and frankly ethically problematic for example flying is, and yet you're going on a world tour with your book?" I mean, with people like Lester Brown, he at least makes an impact into foreign governments with his face time, and Rob Hopkins had to be talked into doing his US tour last year specifically because he refused to fly for years. But Gwynne Dyer relating an annecdote about going to Teneriffa "for a bit of sun" in the middle of a radio series on the horrifying likely political results of climate change, does make me scratch my head at the lack of self-awareness. At least Kevin Anderson has the grace to point out that when he says that only relatively small percentage of Western rich people really have to change their lifestyle to avoid catastrophic consequences for most of the world's poorest people, he means people like himself and other climate scientists, i.e. middle class and upwards. (Nevertheless, if the weather keeps you in this weekend, I highly recommend watching all of these. The one by Rob Hopkins last, and there's a more recent update too. Oh, and maybe this documentary by John D. Liu as well, even if he does have a bit of a tendency towards self-adulation. And perhaps this one about Cuba. Just as an antidote to the paralyzing hopelessness.)
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at 00:24 on 21-02-2014, Melanie
I liked them, too! And really over a year? Time flies, I guess.
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