The Myth of the Middle Class

The 'Twin Peaks' Economy

That the middle class is somehow disappearing is a phrase that has been bandied about ad infinitum in conversations about the economy. I posit herein that the middle class had already disintegrated. We’ve become something else entirely. 

The goal here is to be able to explain that without boring the reader to tears. The problem with talking about the economy is that people simply fall asleep. Their eyes glaze over right away. They’re not familiar with most of the terms and get lost. They don’t passionately care about economics. 

Whatever the reason, it’s a complex subject. It’s not sexy. People want to understand, but when phrases like ‘bimodal distribution’ or ‘symmetrical bell curve’ are introduced, it’s already over and you can tell right away.

So how do you simplify an explanation to the point that it will be digestible to the most amount of people without reducing the subject to an absurd degree?

I came up with a short story that can help illustrate the situation simply. I follow it up with a rhetorical analysis that provides context as to how our economy became the way it is. 

The ‘Lake’ Analogy

Imagine a body of water, a big lake fed by an inaccessible river, that everyone depends upon to survive.

The people who live on the lake help others use this body of water as a resource, to their advantage. This benefits them the most because they have the best vantage point, beach front property. 

Everyone can get to the lake no matter what, but using the paths and getting water and fish from these residences is much, much easier for people. So much easier, in fact, that using any other method is ridiculous.

The people who own this beachfront property more easily organize the lake’s fish and water as a resource to distribute. They’ve been doing this for generations and have nearly perfected the system. This takes much less effort for them than everyone else because of their position and experience.

The water is clean and the fish are big and tasty. Both are abundant. The residents of the lake get what they want right away no matter what. They siphon off fish and water for everyone else to drink and eat after they have their fill. The system works fine.

Everyone else who doesn’t live right on the lake normally takes one of two main paths to the lake to get their water and fish. One path, near the inaccessible river, is really long and bumpy, leading out into the desert. The other path is locally accessed for those that live just behind or adjacent to the beachfront properties and the privileged people that inhabit them.

The desert folks need to travel far over a hard road, but they can just get more water and fish because of the abundance. This isn’t exactly ideal for them, it’s a hard and tough path to travel on, and it takes strength and tenacity to endure, but they make do none-the-less for their family and community. 

The people who live just immediately behind the residences of the beachfront properties still have to depend on them for resources, but they don’t have to travel far. Their lives are easy as long as they go along with everything the beachfront folks say and do. They never cause trouble or disagree because there’s nothing motivating them to do so.

polluted water representing our economy
A awful scenario, to be sure, unreasonable pollution of any system.

As time goes by, radioactive material slowly starts leaking into the river from a nearby accident, poisoning the lake. Over time the water and fish noticeably change. Eventually the people that live on the beach there figure out that this body of water is contaminated. This resource that everyone relies upon so much has slowly become poisoned.

In order to save the water quality, they clean up the radioactive material and dam the lake. They do this secretly and divide the body of water directly in half. Everything appears to be fine to the folks who commute to the lake for their water and fish because on the surface you can’t see the pollution. You just see the same, calm body of water, only now one half is clean and the other half is dirty.

To avoid having to explain to people the problem with the pollution and cause unnecessary panic, the owners of the beachfront property make sure to build the dam out of view of the two paths. They make sure that the radioactive material is disposed of far enough away that no one will think it comes from their lake. No one knows the lake has been divided in half and polluted, and life goes on. 

Everyone still takes these two paths to this body of water because they always have and don’t see any obvious reason to change. Sure, the fish have been tasting different, and things seem tense, but everything is still working okay. Why cause a ruckus?

The clean half of the lake is now poison free, but now it needs to also have fresh fish and chemicals consistently dumped into it because the pH balance is constantly off. Rumors about pollution have caused a hysteria that makes people ask for more fish and water, which has overwhelmed the lake and the residences there too. This has thrown off their organizational system as well, but no one notices because the changes are so slight that they’re essentially imperceptible.

The people closer to the lake, but behind the beachfront residences, have the advantage over those who live farther away. Most of them don’t even know about the dam, the radioactive material, or the halving of the lake. They happily take the clean water and healthy fish. Their lives remain relatively undisturbed. No harm, no foul.

The people who live farthest from the lake take the path that leads near the river. They previously had nothing to worry about, aside from that hard path, but now can only get these weird looking smaller fish and funny tasting water. Their lives are the most changed from everything that’s occurred.

They get sick, they aren’t as healthy, and it’s far more difficult for them to have decent lives. Suddenly, that hard path they take to the lake is even harder and tougher because they have all these new problems. Meanwhile, the people who own the beachfront property tell these people who are suffering that they should be happy to have access to their lake at all. 

If they act out they will be banned.

Distribution & ‘the Curve’

a symmetrical bell curve
a symmetrical bell curve

This above is a decent example of how our economy works and how we got to this situation. The idea that there is a disappearing middle class is empty lip service without any real evidence to back it up.

The US economy can appear to be healthy, because half of it truly is, and because economic analysts have methods that make it seem that way. The lower section of our economy (of what is more accurately described as an American caste system rather than a traditional ‘lower, middle, upper’ class structure) is continually fed the same bullshit.

We’re made to believe everything is fine, but it’s obvious something’s wrong. Most Americans can’t articulate the ideas and don’t understand how to fight it. Plus, if we’re too busy fighting each other, you could literally disenfranchise anyone not super rich from their property and prosperity. They might not even be aware anything is happening at all if they were distracted by that type of bipartisan chaos.

The way ‘experts’ talk about our economy is ridiculous. They illustrate a positive economic outlook using what’s called a symmetrical bell curve. Traditionally, this model of distribution worked because the middle of the curve was made up of manufacturing, and/or the middle class. 

Analysts average out the earnings of American workers across all areas and then apply them to this type of model without further scrutiny. There’s no acknowledging that our economy has been ripped in half, so according to this official looking graph everything is on the up.

Before our economy changed, this massive set of similarly-priced earnings made up the ‘middle class’, and/or our manufacturing-based economy. One job could easily support an entire family, you could own a house, cars, and go on vacation annually. 

This type of economy reliably bolstered the entire bell curve structure, making it a legit representation of distribution. Using that method was a reasonable way to provide economic analysis. The phrase ‘grading on a curve’ comes from exactly this fact.

bimodal distribution
bimodal distribution

But now, like a damned lake, our economy has been halved. The American economy has de-evolved into what is more accurately described by ‘bimodal distribution’. This is a curve with two peaks, instead of the traditional one. 

Whereas the traditional bell curve was built upon the middle class and manufacturing, this ‘Twin Peaks’ economy represents the ever-widening division between the have-nots and the have’s. 

This is why stocks are still rising. This is why economic analysts continually provide what seems to be reliable evidence as to how everything is on the up and up. All short term economic indicators aside, for the ‘have’s’ who live on the beneficial side of the new curve(s), everything truly is improving. They’re making more money and doing well. 

The haves are made up of special skilled workers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and heirs to fortunes. They’re insulated from the effects of economic disparity. Our media, our politicians, and anyone involved in that system will be able to simply point to what looks like a decent situation on paper.

No reason to panic. Their lives go on undisturbed. They don’t even know it’s happening, and have no motivation to kick up dust.

The have-nots are made up of service workers, laborers, the unemployed, and destitute. People who make minimum wage, undeclared workers, migrant workers, and the poor. Everyone knows that things are going wrong, but they have neither the resources or the ability to lift themselves up to fight such a thing because they’re concerned about feeding their children.

Couple this with downsizing / out sourcing and no penalties for either, union breaking, the dissolution of collective bargaining agreements, having to fight tooth and nail to raise the minimum wage to a level that still doesn’t provide a livable wage, two generations worth of supreme court decisions that support corporate rights over the individuals freedom, any democratic social service that benefits the ‘have-not’s’ being demonized as an evil socialist agenda to destroy America, and intersectionality issues causing social chaos and panic that easily divides the population with a media that seems addicted to stoking the flames like crackheads to the rock.

Under those auspices, how can someone who is poor realistically get ahead?

You don’t have to be an expert to understand this, as evidenced by the ‘Lake’ analogy above. For people in economic disparity, especially if they have families, it’s a level of oppression that’s nearly inescapable. Determinism, for these folks, decides whether or not they’ll live a good life or a hard one based merely on the situation in which they were born.

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