It is hard to classify this piece by VDH. It is a rumination on reality vs. perception and a dissection of several insidious narratives being pushed on us by the media and by politicians of both parties. He begins by arguing that we are in for intense class-warfare rhetoric and then raises stunning questions about the perceptions on which our thinking about class is based.
Here is a striking quote:
“Sometimes the class blending is more mundane. I went into the Selma Wal-Mart at 7AM and by noon, and after a long drive, walked through Neiman Marcus in the Stanford Shopping Center, 180 miles and a planet away. I was investigating, you see. Was the casual ensemble of pants and shirt at Wal-Mart priced at $25 all that much different from the counterpart priced at over $500 at Neiman Marcus? I saw also children’s outfits that went for $10 in Selma, and not much different ones for $180 in Stanford. Ah, but you connoisseurs object — “Victor, Victor, there are questions here of brand, subtle qualities unnoticed by your bumpkin eye, matters of signature.” Yes, of course. But as far as day-to-day durability and the casual look, I don’t think there is over a $170 difference.
My point for the nth time? In today’s globalized world of cheap Chinese imports, money buys you a constructed status tag, but not commensurate value beyond what the lower classes can ever hope to attain.
We Are Not the Cratchits
Try another example. Go to Sizzler and Ruth’s Chris as I did recently. You can easily spend $20 at the former, and $100 at the latter per person. And, yes I know, food at the latter tastes far better, but not $80 per plate better. The thick steak at Chris is not necessarily safer (and may be more unhealthy) than the thin chuck cut at Sizzler. I don’t think the atmosphere at Chris is $80 a plate better than at a boisterous Sizzler. We are not in Dickensian London when the pot-bellied rich ate fat geese and the poor were left picking their bones.
I went into Save Mart this weekend and purchased $70 worth of groceries. In my state and federal tax bracket, that meant I had to earn about $140 for the tab. The person next to me bought $200 with an EBD card. I don’t think she had much of an income (I’ll spare you the details). Was one really in the food-sense rich, the other really poor? Today’s destitute, as in my youth, are not buying huge thirty-pound bags of rice, beans, and flour.”
I think the examples cited here show just exactly how we are losing our minds as a nation. We are brand and celebrity addled into paying ridiculous prices for a shoe with a celebrity name on it or an “in” steak or “designer” clothes. We are farther and farther from actual work and know less and less about actual value. Since there are fewer things we can do for ourselves we are at a loss to even figure quality in simple things like clothing.
“For all John Edwards’ talk of “two nations,” of Barack Obama’s lifelong effort to demonize “corporate jet owners” and “millionaires and billionaires” (the latter 1000 times wealthier than the former), for all the sociologists and economists who get tenure by writing obscure, clever little essays that few read on insidious class differences, the classes have never been closer. Globalization, rapidly advancing technology, the Chinese exporters, and a huge redistributive government, printing money to service $16 trillion in debt, have all accomplished what bureaucrats and politicos could not: the simulacra of equality. Add with a vast expansion of the money supply, near-zero interest, massive deficits and aggregate debt, huge expansions in entitlements and the federal work force, and fewer and fewer paying income taxes, things can certainly be spread around.
I also say simulacra because few in Selma vacation in Tuscany. But sitting in front of a big-screen TV, with some Italian music on, while watching Rick Steves (with TV sound off) touring Florence seems not all that different from the 28-hour hassle of flying to rural Italy. The former is free; the latter “rich” people alone afford.
Oh, you object: poverty is better gauged by lack of opportunity, of exposure, of the cultivation of the mind. Well, in 1959, it was true only the wealthy in the Bay Area had access to opera, symphony, and good libraries. Out here in rural Selma there were no book stores, a sole tiny library in town, and no cultural enrichment to speak of.
Now? A Google search in about five seconds can give you information about anything. All sorts of sites offer free downloads of the classics. Videos offer any symphonic performance you wish. Computers are cheaper than many video games and big-screen TVs, whose sales after Thanksgiving cause near riots.
In short, we live in an unacknowledged age in which a poor man with a laptop who taps into a free signal at Starbucks has more information at his fingertips than did the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford just forty years ago.”
Yet we are being told to want more and more and that our inability to have what we want is the fault of “the rich” who are in fact the taxpayers who are responsible for all the largesse listed in the article. That they are apparently only 49% of the American public and both shrinking and targeted for more wealth extraction only emphasizes the fact we are dancing on the rim of a volcano.
A very thoughtful piece from a man who both farms and teaches in the rural part of a state being ruined by the political classes we somehow continue to elect.