A thoughtful reader passed this on:
This working class boy is having a hard time understanding the American idea of the middle class. Where I come from, the middle class is comfortably off and a huge step up the social strata from Working Class. I always thought the US was a classless society. What happened? And if there is a Middle Class, what happened to the Working Class? It seems like if you are Working Class in the US, you are SOL.
Where you come from my friend, is the land of low hanging fruit. You know that it's true that in 1978, when I graduated from high school, you could be a drill press operator and make homeowner money. I know, because five years later when I finally made sophomore year, I attended the wedding of a guy who was that, had a car, a mortgage and enough financial security to get married & live in San Diego. I said, I want to program computers and he looked at me like I was a martian, which I was in 1983. Drill press operators? Draftsmen? Forget about it. What happened to the working class? Well here's the way I see it.
The consumer society is about 66% of GDP, down a few points from before '07 when the auto industry tanked. The auto industry is really key because Americans are socially into cars. Not because cars are useful or special, but that we completely understand them, we have conferred status on them, and we spend lots of money on them and the secondary markets that sustain the key number which is how many new automobiles are made & sold every year in the US. Now if I remember correctly we went from about 19 million units down to around 11 million within a few short years.
Think about it. Who really needs to buy a new car? How many new cars do you need to buy in your lifetime. How many cars have you owned? If the answer is more than two new cars, you are rich by any reasonable standard. Add up all the money you have spent on automobiles including financing. Is that the American Dream? It is so long as you and 100 million other suckers think so. But if you can't get a new car, do you suddenly feel impoverished? But really do we need to sell 19 million new cars every year?
I bring up the demand side to illustrate the idea of low hanging fruit. There's huge money to be made when demand for new cars that cost an average of $20,000 are sold every year without fail. (thats 380 billion per year without a moment's consideration for spare parts, maintenance, gas, oil). Even if you cornered the windshield wiper blade market, you'd be a multimillionaire. How about 5% of the spark plug market? OK. Everybody gets it. But really how difficult is it to make and sell automobiles in America? It's so easy that lots of other countries have done so, and how difficult is it to build a 1965 Mustang from parts? Its so easy that most Americans with a 1965 high school education could do a fair job of it. BUT. Cars! Man they're simple. Any idiot with a drill press job could do it. And just having a nice one with a big back seat could get you laid. In 1965. Low hanging fruit.
Now every other country with a stable government and decent banks and can build and fix cars. BTW, how satisfied would you be with a 1965 Mustang right about now? No airbags, 15 MPG, drum brakes, no shoulder harness, change the plugs and points every 3000 miles, and an AM radio with one speaker. That's the stupid product for stupid people in the economy of stupid. Fine if you're from West China. Matter of fact, they tend to prefer enduro motocycles, not even cars. Low hanging fruit are ripe for the picking in the economy of stupid. All you need to do is inflate expectations and slowly boil the consumer economy so that people who buy a 1965 Mustang are pretty sure they want a 1969 Mustang. You turn a low maintenance culture with a slow, stupid economy into a high maintenance culture with a faster economy. The economy doesn't get smarter by the way, it just keeps up with the Joneses, until it doesn't. OK done with cars.
How much brains would you say it takes to build a toothbrush? And how much would you pay for a toothbrush? I cannot remember the last time I paid less than a dollar for a toothbrush. I just went to CVS Online and this is what I found:
Surround design. Removes 2X more bacteria (clinical testing underway). For a healthier whole mouth clean (overall bacteria vs. brushing teeth alone with an ordinary manual toothbrush)! Surround bristles to simultaneously clean both sides of the teeth, down to the gumline. Wraparound cheek and tongue cleaner. Dentists & Hygienists Recommend: flossing daily; brushing at least twice a day; replacing your toothbrush every 3 months; cleaning your tongue to remove bacteria. Made in Switzerland.
That would be 9 dollars for a pair, in a 'value pack'. I warned you about the New Retail many years ago. Saw it coming. Do you really need a clinically tested toothbrush? No, you don't.
So these are two examples of cultural demand that has escalated the cost of stupid products made sophisticated into a high maintenance economy. It's not enough to write a five page letter written in longhand put a stamp on it and wait a week. You have to buy a computer, broadband and then tweet 140 characters. Is the 66% of our economy cost effective or is it just an inflated hyper-sophisticated version of the same thing we had 100 years ago? This is the kind of question you must ask to determine if the skills and habits you have are really appropriate to your freedom.
Are the skill and habits you have appropriate to your freedom?
This is the question I began asking several years ago when what was supposed to be originally a 400 billion dollar hit on the Dow turned out to be about 6 or 7 times that. Who knows how bad it is now. But I happened to also be around at Nissan when the CEO decided to go big and introduced the then brand new Armada. I was involved in building a new financial system that helped track what was called 'car flow' - basically the manufacturing inventory as it went from factory through distribution. Bottom line was that how people were living at Nissan depended on consumers buying the biggest SUVs ever. Remember SUVs? Remember when everybody decided that bigger was better? There wasn't an oil problem we couldn't handle. Bottom line was gas went to 3 and 4 bucks a gallon and people didn't buy the Armada. Nissan had to sell its HQ in California and move to Tennessee, which is where they are now.
Why live in California when you can live in Tennessee?
I'll just leave that one and continue with the prior history of my evolution in thought. You see, there's no question about all this 'class' stuff because class is not tightly bound to education, work and culture. That's the mistake Americans make because we've had the benefits of low hanging fruit that made economic expansion readily available. So readily available that you could be an employee at Nissan and expect to get a promotion and a raise. But Nissan misjudged. What's America besides an economy? Don't answer that. But note the parallel. If the low hanging fruit of all American industry is used up and American industry misjudged, then your 'class status' is like the Nissan guy's 'employee status': tenuous. A whole big bag of 'that depends'. Class does not depend upon your position in the economy, it depends upon your position in society.
So I eventually came up with the Peasant Theory which explains why millions of Americans who think they ought to be middle class actually are not. The middle class is illusory. It is just as illusory as 'middle management'. Or to put it bluntly, you're either an injun or a chief. Most of us are injuns. Well actually it's not that bad. There are three classes in America, just like there are three classes everywhere. There is the Ruling Class, there are the Peasants and between those two is what I call the Slice. The Slice are the people that the Ruling Class need to run things while they are out enjoying life. And guess what, the Slice is thinner than you think. Think Matrix Reloaded. There was the Merovingian and his bored wife. Rulers. Then there were all of the people at the party at the Merovingian Castle. Peasants. The Slice? Those were the guys you had to kill with the silver bullets and the ghost twins. You could probably count the guys battling in the marble room but really no more than 8. If you don't know at least a dozen millionaires personally, you're not in the American Slice. Or to be more proper about it if we were in England, the Slice would be the holders of Royal Warrants.
But this is America, you say! We are a meritocracy, you say. Ha! Do you really want to live in a meritocracy? No you really don't. You don't want your refrigerator drawings in the Met. You don't want your face on an IMAX screen. You don't want to try and defend against Kobe Bryant. You don't want to race your boat against Team Oracle. You don't want to argue with K Street lawyers. What you want is to play with people around your level. The bad news is that your level is called Peasant. The good news is that you have lots of company, not only now but throughout human history. Peasants persist. Nobody cares what happens to Peasants but the Peasants. What really matters is how well the Ruling Class earns the respect of the Slice, and in that regard I should refer you to Shakespeare's King Lear as the ripe example. Bottom line, you don't want to live in a meritocracy, you want to live in a neighborhood. Which is exactly how you would answer me if I asked you your exact salary, SAT score or weight. You would tell me it's in the neighborhood of X. You don't want judgment, you want acceptance. Peasants are good at acceptance. We call it manners. Which we need because at odd moments we recognize our harsh existential reality, plight and place in the System, and it ain't good.
So are we Peasants actually SOL? Not by a longshot. We just aren't going to knock the knights off of their horses or talk back to the King. We have the natural benefit of what I call the Logarithmic Shadow. The best way to understand it is this. You, being a Peasant, are generally not worth the effort required to find you and punish you because you pose no threat to the Slice or the Ruling Class. So that's the good news. The bad news of course is that there are plenty of bigger, badder, stronger peasants than you. All of them went to your high school in your neighborhood, remember? And the other bad news is that because you pose no threat to the Slice or the Ruling Class, they could step on your head out of spite or accidentally and not suffer for it. There is no cosmic justice in the cosmos, just the laws of physics. No matter what neighborhood you live in or symbols you manipulate, greater than is always greater than. Thus the prudent ambition for the Peasant is to learn by what means the Slice exercises control over the Peasantry, and either avoid it, or use similar tactics to your own advantage.
Practically speaking what the hell does all that mean?
It means that right now in America the Slice is getting slimmer because it's harder than ever before to come up with a new set of ideas like the automobile economy that benefits so broad a section of Americans. It means you have to have a contract in Switzerland even if you want to enter the toothbrush market.
But let's get a bit of focus on the original question. What material distinction exists between the 'working class' and the 'middle class' that matters? Nothing. It only matters to those two classes because they're both Peasants. All of them are minions for those who created the markets in which they are employed. It doesn't matter if you're a mechanic or a finance manager. When Nissan moves to Tennessee, you move to Tennessee. This is an example of the "Who's Your Leviathan?" question. Who is the most powerful person who guarantees your well-being, your livelihood? With which power are your interests most tightly bound? If someone comes to bang on your door in the middle of the night, can you stand up to that person and say "Do you know who I am? If something happens to me, some very powerful people are going to come down on your head. They will find you and they will stomp you into the dirt." Do you have a Leviathan? Probably not. So your class interests aren't all that interesting, because if you can't get somebody to defend your life, then who gives a rat's about your 'class status'? You do. That's all. You and the guy you owe money.
Why is all this the case? Because your neighborhood depends upon some fraction of the economy functioning. And you have to understand that the whole of Motown can fall. And what do you have? Now we revisit the question- are the skills and habits you have appropriate to your freedom?
All of that depends upon how you are engaged with the economy. And I put that to you in the form of an axiom which is Cobb's Rule #31: If the poor and oppressed knew how to work the System, they wouldn't be poor and oppressed. The Ruling Class legitimates the System. It is their legitimacy which compels the Slice to build, operate and maintain the System. For everyone else, the System is the environment.
Liberty in the Shadow & Boyd's Law
Now I'm going to take a rapid right turn. I've been talking about the economy, but I also said the economy doesn't determine your class, your relationship to society does. Since the Logarithmic Shadow is human nature, why live in California when you can live in Tennessee? In this society we have meritocratic disciplines for weeding out the Peasants from the Slice, but we also have liberty. Liberty basically says, here is where the Ruling Class has staked their claims, but if you're not around there, you're free to do whatever. You have the advantage of being rodent-sized, but if you only want new cars and expensive toothbrushes, you're not using that size to your advantage. You're rummaging around the luxury estates where the cats and terriers are vicious.
Boyd's Law says:
The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero.
So if you figure out and accept once and for all that you a Peasant, then you can drop your pretentions and live within Peasant means. That is, unless like me you have permanent airs and are resigned to your contradictions. Nevertheless, I do try to reduce many of my needs to zero. I look for cheap toothbrushes and disposable razors with only two blades. I have ceased to be impressed by certain cultural & class signifiers, probably most significant of which is everything associated with 'alma mater'. And I am in other ways deprogramming myself and defending that which reassumes its basic dignity. Reading excellent literature (royalty free) and listening to excellent music tend to make me immune to much of popular culture.
Boyd says hoard your gold and go live in Tennessee. It made sense for Nissan.