You are the traffic...

So, this topic has been on my radar to write for some time. However Gordon's excellent recent post gave me a kick in the ass. I highly recommend that everyone go read it right now. His post is all about how our system is broken. My post is about how we misrepresent groups of people in this country in a way that blinds us and the impact of the broken system on our every day lives.

"Honey, we're totally fucked."

I want to start with a huge cognitive problem that I see with analysis of data and trends. I'm sure this already has some nifty psychological term, but I can't find a reference to it. I'm going to call it cohort blindness. Basically, we are very good at labeling groups of people, but not very good at acknowledging that the composition of those groups change over time.

For example, there's a long-standing idea that people become more conservative as they age. According to the Roper center, Obama received a higher proportion of younger voters than older voters in both his elections. Long term voting trends show the same... the older you are the more conservative you get. But not so fast. Turns out this is a myth, based on cohort blindness.

What people don't get is that "old people" is not a fixed set. The members of the cohort are constantly changing based on people dying out and aging into it. If you're 30 right now, then in three decades "old people" is going to be you. It turns out that people are as conservative as they are because of their experiences when they came of age. So how you are at 20 is pretty much how you will be the rest of your life. You might even get a bit more tolerant and liberal as you age. The reason that old people seem more conservative is because society has been getting more liberal over time, so each previous generation is more conservative than the last. They start out as conservative 20-year-olds, grow into conservative middle age, and then become conservative old people. The generation who comes after is less conservative, so the perception is that old people must become more conservative as they age, but they don't.

We do this with the "old people" group all the time. Here's a really shallow Forbes story on why old people fall for scams more frequently. The three reasons they include are: loneliness, cognitive impairment, and financial insecurity. Leave aside for a moment that fact that the whole premise might be incorrect (at least in Canada). It's that third reason that interests us here.

The premise is that people who came of age during the Great Depression feel financially insecure throughout their lives and that insecurity makes them more likely to fall for scams. Really? The Great Depression officially lasted from mid-1929 through around 1938. If you were 10 in 1930, the youngest possible age at which you could be considered to be "coming of age" during the Great Depression, you'd be 95 right now. If you were 15 in 1930, you'd be a Centenarian. How many more decades are we going to use this lame excuse before we realize how silly it is ("those in the 130 year age bracket were scarred by the Great Depression").

The point is that we just aren't good at coping with the fact that time keeps moving on, and different groups change composition as that happens. The penny pinching Great Depression elders are almost all gone. Now we're looking at really old people who came of age during the WWII boom, old people who were from the Ozzie and Harriet days, and retirees who were hippies. These are not your father's old people!

Here's a completely different example: Waze, the crowd sourced driving app. It does a great job of telling you where problems on he road are and suggests alternate routes for avoiding traffic. I've used the app, but I'm not unaware of the irony. It helps people avoid traffic, but hello, you are the traffic. What you are trying to avoid is what you are a part of. You are part of the shit that annoys you. Congratulations.

And as a final example, and the most relevant one for this discussion, the woes of the middle class. First of all, if you aren't familiar with the US, you should know that absolutely everyone is part of the middle class. It's part of our egalitarian sense of classless-ness, the fact that we are all equal and... you there in the back, stop laughing. Still, this is why politicians and media in the US are always going on about the plight of the middle class and helping the middle class... traditionally, half of everyone in the US considers themselves part of this group.

I appreciate the honesty of the 2% who are like "I have no idea"
For economic policy, the definition is something like the middle x% around the median income. So, according to this article, "As of 2013, anyone earning between $40,187 and $65,501 is in the middle 20% of households. Anyone earning between $20,900 and $105,910 is in the middle 60% of households." The result of this thinking is that we talk about the middle class like some fixed entity:

Income data indicate that the middle class, including the upper middle class, have seen far slower income growth than the top 1% since 1980.

Being In the Middle Class Means Worrying About Falling Behind

For the first time since the Great Depression, middle-class families have been losing ground for more than a decade.

OK, based on cohort blindness, who can tell me what's wrong with this thinking? If your income is down, you're worried about falling behind, and you're losing ground... well, odds are you aren't in the middle class anymore. "People making the middle 60% of income" is not the same as "the middle 60% of people." The problem is not that the middle class is struggling... it's that there's fewer middle class people over all. The middle class isn't doing worse, they are disappearing entirely.

They forgot "functional democracy."

And where do you think they are going? The vast majority certainly aren't becoming wealthy. No, they are entering the ranks of the poor. That's what income inequality means, a few people with everything and the rest with nothing. No middle any more. And people are waking up to that reality. Even in "the land of opportunity" people are getting wise. Fewer people are self-identifying as middle class now. Instead they identify as lower class or lower middle. I can't overemphasize how huge this it. Being middle class is one of the great American mythologies. It's why people who make 20K a year and people who make 250K will both proudly say "I'm middle class."

See, we are taught from birth to hate and fear the poor and envy the rich. No one wants to be poor because poor people are lazy and shiftless. And rich people love the polite fiction that they are middle class too, so they won't be hated and envied. So everyone in this country gets to be middle class... until a bunch of irate people suddenly realize that they aren't. And I see examples every day that the entire infrastructure of the middle class is disappearing.

For example. In 2003, we needed to get a new mattress. We shopped around and noticed that everything seemed either really cheap (in price and quality) or really expensive. There were fewer mid-range options in the stores we looked at. We ended up spending about $1000 (gulp), which was sort of upper end of middle. The mattress had a 20 year warranty and we anticipated not having to buy a mattress again for many years. After only a few months, the cover began to shred off the mattress. We returned it and got a similar model with a different cover. This was fortunately covered by our warranty. The sales rep pointed out that we were lucky there weren't any stains -- which would void our warranty -- and we should buy a mattress cover. So we did.

Eight years later and the mattress was completely trashed. Horrible sagging in the middle, uncomfortable, the works. I called the local branch of the company (we'd moved) and sent them photos of the number of inches of sag. They agreed to replace the mattress, if there were no stains (and because we'd kept a cover on it all those years, there weren't), but refused to pay for return and shipping because we'd already returned the mattress once. So we paid to have the old one picked up and went to the store (in the next town over, delivery was expensive) to pick a new mattress. Of course in the intervening years prices has gone up significantly for the same features and quality, which meant we ended up paying more on top in order to get effectively the same mattress... with no guarantee that this one will hold up any better than the previous one.

Another example: my daughter needed new jeans. Our local upscale consignment store (our first stop for all clothing ventures) yielded nothing. We decided to go to the mall and just pick up some Levi's. JC Penny and Sears were complete busts. The stores looked abandoned. The stock was messy and disheveled, there was almost no selection, and staff were non existent. We ended up at Macy's, where there was lots of stock and staff... but higher prices as well.

I remember a few years ago exclaiming that it was becoming impossible to afford quality any more. In order to get something that would last, you needed to spend a ton. Only cheap shit was affordable. Of course what I was seeing was the death of the middle. No matter what you buy, you have two options: pay more than you can afford to get some semblance of quality (and maybe go into debt to do it) or pay less but get cheap shit that will fall apart in a few months (forcing you to rinse, repeat). There are just no options in the middle. I spent $600 on a suit for work meetings that's really great quality (and it had fucking better be for that price) but moderately priced casual shirts from the same store look like rags after two washes.

I see this over and over. Want to visit a local attraction? You either need to buy an annual membership (and go as much as you want!) or shell out $60 for a family afternoon visit. No middle ground. Want to travel? The price gap between coach and business class has been widening. "Economy plus" is the new business. All the while coach service and space decrease steadily. Food? Unless you're lucky enough to have a completely local agricultural base, it's all Whole Paycheck or Grocery Outlet. School? In many places if you can't afford a half million dollar house or private school tuition, your kids are at shit-hole high, where they'll be lucky to survive, let alone graduate. And middle class housing is a thing of the past.

Middle class people are clinging to their position on the economic ladder for dear life. Because as far as I can see there aren't any rungs below any more. One slip and it's a straight shot all the way to the bottom -- and not many options for climbing back up. Our economic mobility is pathetic.

Yet we keep pretending. We need to quit thinking that bad things are happening to the middle class and that the middle class has voting power and that the middle class are the ones keeping the economy afloat. There is no more middle class and bad things are happening to all of us. We are the traffic, you know?


  1. I've been following your blog since noticing your comments on Rune Soup.Your insight is on par with Gordon. You're becoming one of my favorite stops on the web.

    The premise the middle class is going away is correct. I don't need any charts to tell me. I've watched the same changes you've noticed. I was an Advertising Consultant for the Newspaper industry when the shit hit the fan in 2008. I went back to bartending, and started chasing some passions. I'm a professional hypnotist, meditation coach, martial artist, and tarot reader. None of that has gotten me out of the near bottom just yet. I'm also not playing entirely by their rules.

    My mind keeps wondering how many more poor are created, how many lose everything, and how wide the gap gets before something pops? That isn't likely to go well and pretty. Toss in the fresh water challenges around the globe, displaced populations, and the warmongers assuring investors not to worry. Now that's a nasty stew brewing.

  2. "I'm also not playing entirely by their rules." I think you're onto something here. The system as we know it is completely breaking down. And it's not that there's a new set of rules (which is what the pundits like to exclaim) but that the rules are arbitrary and highly changeable. Flexibility is going to have to be our plan moving forward. And we need to enchant wherever possible.

    Thanks for the compliment (I take any comparison to Gordon as high praise indeed, because he's the best at this sort of analysis).

  3. I agree; you've thought this out carefully and laid out your case with a clarity that is on a par with Gordon. My grandparents were in their thirties in the 1930s — and now they're dead. My parents were babies in WWII, teens in the 1950s, and now retired and aging. And me? I'm in my prime earning years, quite close to the median income... and if my parents didn't believe that the government would/will take most of their property at their death through estate taxes, and make periodic gifts to me... I would be dropping like a rock. As a teacher in a private school which serves the upper echelons of the middle class and the lower echelons of the upper class, I see this happening: the middle class families are graduating from here, and sending their kids into meat-locker high schools... reluctantly climbing down the ladder. While the lower-end of the upper class families are graduating — and seeking financial aid from big-name private schools. We're not in a neighborhood that has access to the top 5%, much less the 1%. And I think that bodes ill for the long-term survival of the schools like mine that used to serve the ambitious middle class.

    And this is why I don't entirely play by their rules, either. Why I'm learning so many skills like sewing and carpentry, and teaching students skills like weaving and knitting and electronics, and how to use a slide rule and an abacus. Enchantment is good... Enchantment and competence in material-world skills is an improvement on that.

  4. It didn't end up in my post, but one of the reasons I think that older Americans are really targets for scams is that they are the only ones who have any money. If you call up most people in their 30s and 40s, they can't get scammed because they don't have anything to be scammed out of.

    The school system is just reflecting society as a whole. The options around here seem to be afford to live in an upscale neighborhood to get a decent public option, go to a school where the graduation rate is one of the worst in the country, or pay out the nose for a private school (less if you're religious). And public schools are becoming more and more regimented, focused on standardized testing, eliminating recess and music/art, and expecting higher and higher levels of conformity.

    Anyway, that's a rant for another day. In the mean time, your focus on real world skills is spot on and something I'll be touching on.

    Thanks as always for the comments.


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