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Doxology: Brian Holers’s Debut Novel

Doxology, the debut novel from author Brian Holers, is available in both paperback and digital format now! Fathers, sons and brothers reconnect over tragedy in this blue-collar Southern tale of love, loss and the healing power of community and family. Doxology examines an impossibly difficult...

Brian Holers

Who says there’s a war on the middle class?

When I decided to start writing this blog, I got out a bunch of pieces of paper (anyone who knows me knows how much I love lists!) and started making notes on a variety of subjects that came to mind.  Sure, a lot of what I do is tell stories, different things that have happened to me or people I know, and I am more or less an expert on those things.  Writing about them and making them interesting is just a matter of drawing out perspective or using different tools to point the reader in the right direction.  But when subjects of politics, economics, current events come to mind, subjects about which I can be extremely passionate, I keep running up against the fact I am not really educated in those fields, I have only done a lot of reading and contemplation in recent years.  However, the great joy of writing a blog is you can write whatever you want, nobody is paying to read it so the reader can’t really expect anything.  In other words, opinions are worth exactly what you pay for them at minimum, and possibly much more.  Reading this, you have nothing to lose, only to gain.

Many of us are overwhelmed by political and social issues and frankly prefer to stay away from them.  Some aren’t really interested, or maybe we have our opinions and don’t care to hear others, or don’t really have the energy to work to make a world more in line with our view of things.  I have this little phrase.  You may not be into politics, but politics is into you.  Like it or not, the decisions and actions of our fellow human beings affect us in so many ways.

We are surrounded by messages.  If we keep up with events at all, we hear a lot of the same messages about the state of the world over and over, and it is so easy just to believe things we hear again and again.  We all know conflict sells (and not just in real life; rule of fiction number 1: create conflict.)  So if anybody is out there preaching a belief that everything is going to work out fine, the world is an equitable place, justice is right on time, or the earth can and will regulate itself, that person will probably be laughed at or, more likely, ignored.  I’ve been hearing all my life that planet earth was overpopulated and could only sustain itself for a few more years; in fact I did a social studies fair project on this very thing in sixth grade.  Which was thirty two years ago.  But here’s the one I keep hearing about lately,  that goes along with the old adage “the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer” or “the struggle between the haves and the have nots;” sometimes I wonder if it’s not one of these lies that, repeated often enough, becomes the truth.  Here it is.  There’s a war on the middle class.  The middle class is shrinking. 

                I will leave it to people a lot more intelligent, learned, or perhaps manipulative than I am to offer statistical “proof” of this hypothesis (though it is presented to us not as hypothesis but as fact.)   I would simply like to offer a different point of view.

Here is what I see.  Life is hard.  We can’t have everything we want.  In many ways, physical survival, both here in America and in many other places, is not as challenging as it once was.  We have a lot more systems in place to keep us from starving.  We have much better ability, thanks to human ingenuity, to keep away deadly diseases and to treat them when we do get them.  In certain ways, we in the advanced world are spoiled, and we expect a lot.

Sometimes, nevertheless, we are inclined to think we got a bad deal.  Certain people are doing better than we are.  But someone else can do better than we do, can make more money or have more things, without taking anything from us.  We have to monitor our perspective.  It’s like the old thing Ronald Reagan said; a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose yours.

When things get tough, as they have for nearly all of us in the last couple years, we sometimes look to blame, and in the face of overwhelming amounts of possibly skewed information from media and internet, we get confused.  We listen to the news and figure somebody’s making out in all this mess.  Fatcats and bankers are printing money, and later we’ll all be expected to pay it back.  We believe what we hear about the “bank bailout” (in fact the TARP, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, funds have been almost entirely repaid to the Treasury with interest), and confuse it with the government “stimulus” plan, the nearly trillion dollar 2009 hodgepodge of make work programs that had limited success.   We know we, or our families, or our neighbors, or the people around us are suffering, hurting, are not living as well as we were a few years ago, we feel no certainty for the future and don’t expect to anytime soon, and we look to blame.  Somebody is getting a better deal, and they’re doing it by tearing down the middle class.  Bush cut taxes for the wealthy and now look what we’ve got.  The middle class is stuck with the bill.

It is true that a lot of people don’t pay any federal income taxes.  I believe it is more than a third.  But it’s not the top third.  Government statistics (Bureau of Labor Statistics) tells us that percentage of taxes paid, roughly corresponds with income.  The highest earners pay the highest percentage of taxes.  And the lowest earners in many cases pay none.  And those of us in the middle, or the “middle class”, pay somewhere in the middle.  Don’t hear me wrong; our tax system is wildly imperfect, and many potential solutions float around to make it better; an army of accountants and lawyers make their livings decoding and litigating our tax system.  But, even if you don’t remember the percentage brackets before, remember this;  the Bush tax cuts, cut taxes for everybody.  For better or worse.  Whatever you believe about who should pay income tax and how much. The 2001 tax cuts, which President Obama extended, affected everybody.  Sure, there are more rich people now.  There are also more middle class people that otherwise would have been poor.

In the last few years, times have gotten  tough.  Credit totally dried up.  Real estate dropped, and a lot of people who couldn’t really afford a house lost it.  I don’t mean to be crass, but how is that a loss? If not for government mandates that said, in essence, anyone can qualify for a mortgage with little or no money down, then when times get tough you can’t pay that mortgage anymore and lose the house you couldn’t afford in the first place, how is that a loss?   You’re just back to where you were before, renting.

But in trying to fix everything, and in trying to make life in America more “fair”, more equitable, presumably to help counteract the effects of this war on the middle class being waged by “corporations”, “bankers”, “fatcats”, the “military industrial complex” (and how it would help any of these organizations if people have less money to buy their products and services is beyond me), what we have done is drive this great nation to the brink of exhaustion with debt.  Yes, Bush ran up deficits too, way too much, but only about a third of what the current administration seems to favor.  We are on a precipice.  Others more intelligent or learned can argue the good or bad of short term debt; but no one in this equation is talking about short term debt.  We’re not in a place now of, do we spend billions here or spend billions there.  We have come to a philosophical place.  We have allowed our government to get bigger and bigger and bigger (it just so happens that in the last two years it has gotten bigger a lot faster than in previous years) that we have to ask ourselves more serious questions.  Not, how can we shave a dollar here and a dollar there.  It’s a bigger question; how can we make ourselves strong again, prepared to take care of ourselves and save for our own futures, and stop looking around at what everybody else has and thinking somebody else has got a better deal.  How do we do that?  How do we stop the blame?

There are a lot of things I can’t understand.  Like it says at the top of this website, I’m just a regular guy.  I have an undergraduate degree in psychology from an average college which I earned a long time ago.  I haven’t been in any sort of school since I was 21. I read a lot and listen to political talk, and I hear again and again that the middle class is shrinking.  There’s been no real growth in wages, adjusted for inflation, in forty years.  Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not true.  If it’s true, what does it mean? Is the government supposed to step in and make companies pay people more, in order to protect the middle class? Is the government supposed to just take over everything and run all the companies, thereby making sure everyone is paid a fair wage, with an annual cost of living adjustment, ample vacation to refresh and renew so we all have time to travel to Europe to witness firsthand the marvels of a worker’s paradise?  We have more billionaires now than we ever used to have.  So? Billionaires create economic activity, which makes jobs for people.  Right now I wish we had ten times as many billionaires.  I wish I were a billionaire.  I would singlehandedly make a dent in the unemployment rate.

Is it just me, or are most of us infinitely better off than we were forty years ago? I’m not talking spiritually, I’ll leave that, too, to people more learned than I am.  But we live longer.  Our houses are bigger.  We have more stuff.  Just about every family has two cars.  Look around America.  It doesn’t exactly look like we, as a people, are starving.  I don’t have any statistics, but we certainly eat out a lot more than we used to, as members of the middle class.  What makes us middle class is access to consumer products, and consumer products cost a lot less than they did forty years ago.  Thanks to human ingenuity, stuff is made by machines using computers, and it’s made in China or other places where before there was no opportunity, and it’s cheaper.   I remember paying thirty dollars (of my parents’ money) for a pair of jeans in high school.  They don’t cost much more than that now.  So maybe wages per se haven’t gone up, but if we lived the same way now we did then, and chose to have one car instead of two, and ate at home all but once a month and canned our own vegetables like my mother did, then middle class people would have a lot more money that they used to.  We don’t have any more money.  We just have a lot more stuff.

Sure, things change.  The internet has changed so much, and will continue to.  Sometimes we don’t want to change.  We want things to stay just like they were before.  We manufactured  things just fine here in the U.S. of A. and had good contracts and ample vacation and time and a half on Sundays.  But then these corporations got greedy and started shipping our jobs overseas and now we’re not gonna take it anymore!  Certainly, when our life changes, and it changes rapidly, that is hard.  Certainly.  But the good old days we look back on fondly,  took the place of other good old days for the ones who came before us.  The one constant of history is change.  And just because that change means there are more people now who have more than we have, how does that mean we got screwed? One of the billionaires who wasn’t a billionaire forty years ago is Bill Gates.  Who did he take all his money from?  He didn’t .  He earned it.  He made something people wanted, and it’s made life better.  And it’s made products cheaper, which has made America’s middle class grow, not shrink.

I’ve spoken before about the prevalence of a victim mentality.  Belief in a “war on the middle class” is just another example.  We face a massive challenge.  I believe we are a great nation, in fact the only nation of its type in the world, and I believe we will come out of this upheaval better and stronger.  But now we face a philosophical divide in our views of the proper functions of government.  Many believe someone else has made things go sour, and we must rely on a growing government to fix it.  To stand up to the banks.  The corporations.  The billionaires.  But the problem is this.  We only have an economy at all because people, individually and in groups, want to make money.  Government in America has been roughly the same size, under twenty percent of our GDP, for many years.  And now, it’s growing rapidly.  Government doesn’t make anything.  It takes.  All government does is make us reliant on government.  When a business doesn’t have enough money to do what it wants or needs to do, it either decides not to do it, sells more stock, or borrows money which must be repaid in a timely manner.

But government doesn’t seem to have those obligations.  Government takes the control of our lives out of our hands.  And the more we perceive our lives as out of our hands, the more we think short term.  When we see ourselves as responsible for our own futures, we learn to stop thinking we got a bad deal just because somebody else got a better deal.   We learn to think long term.  We learn to live within our means.

Yes, we face a lot more uncertainty.  We as a nation have let a lot of things get out of hand.  Social Security and Medicare, two things presumably designed to keep more people in the middle class, face major problems and, certainly, major changes.  It will be hard, it will take time, and it will hurt, but I believe we will find a way to make things better.  A lot of it is adjusting our attitudes and our expectations.  When our neighbor loses his job, we want the government to do something.  When we lose ours, we want the government to do absolutely anything.  But the more we rely on government or any outside entity besides ourselves and the millions of small groups of people around us we call our friends, families, and support systems, the more we see the possibility of reward without cost, and the more we want.  That’s when we see the people around us who have more, who haven’t been hit as hard, who still have their jobs and houses and cars and dinners out and their undying membership in America’s middle class, and think we somehow got a raw deal, and somebody should do something about it.  And that is just positively un-American.

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