The future of the middle class

2010-10-12

in Canada, Economics, Politics

Writing in The Globe and Mail, Vancouver author Douglas Coupland claims that: “The middle class is over. It’s not coming back.”

Discuss. In particular, to what extent do trade and technology put pressure on previously middle class professions?

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan October 12, 2010 at 9:40 pm

“to what extent do trade and technology put pressure on previously middle class professions?”

Neoliberal trade policies and extreme technology subsidies by “free market” governments are anything but the forces of nature you here imply.

The pressures on the middle class are predicted, understood, and purposeful. The pressure is roughly “they pay more and earn less” – i.e. they take on more debt, they have lower earning potential, etc… This is done to increase the wealth of society, a wealth which falls mostly to the elites (and “mostly” to a greater and greater degree, as inequality has been rising since the early 80s). This has to occur to keep the rate of capital accumulation up – and because it keeps that rate up, capital goes to huge lengths (including dismantling the post ww2 world economic system that brought so much growth to the world economy) to implement the policies it desires.

It’s essential to recognize that while neo-liberalism does have a historical origin in a group of people and a set of ideas, the forces that installed it in power are not ideational but economic.

The future is bleak and predictable: increased inequality to the point of a return to 30’s style labour struggles. Armies of unemployed turning to violence. Climate change causing migrations, increased xenophobia towards “foreigners taking our jobs”. See “Children of Men” for details.

R.K. October 13, 2010 at 9:58 am

In particular, to what extent do trade and technology put pressure on previously middle class professions?

I would say these things shift which professions are middle class, but do not eliminate the middle class as an entity. There will always be jobs lucrative enough to keep people out of poverty, but not so lucrative as to make them well-off.

They just won’t be the sort of jobs that can be done more cheaply by people overseas or by robots.

Coupland is being deliberately provocative here. Most of his claims become more plausible when scaled back somewhat.

. October 13, 2010 at 10:34 am
. October 13, 2010 at 10:35 am

The growing affluence of urban China would appear to be striking enough evidence that a middle class is already fast emerging. Cities that 15 years ago were grim, Stalinist backwaters are today aglow with the trappings of middle class life. The cities that have benefited most from the flood of foreign investment into China over the past decade—Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen—now boast more white collar workers than blue collar ones. The working class, which according to Communist rhetoric still leads the country, is shrinking. The state sector is crumbling. Private enterprise is booming.

The party itself, meanwhile, remains way behind the times. It still will not use the term “middle class” in its official documents, preferring instead such phrases as “those with high incomes”. To recognise such people as a class would turn the ideology of the last 50 years on its head. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate the capitalist-roaders and, despite the more tolerant economic climate of the past 20 years, it was only less than three years ago that the legitimacy of private enterprise was fully recognised in the constitution. President Jiang Zemin caused a furore within the party last July when he suggested that entrepreneurs be officially allowed to join. “

. October 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

“Thanks to a jump in productivity growth after 1995, America’s economy has outpaced other rich countries’ for a decade. Its workers now produce over 30% more each hour they work than ten years ago. In the late 1990s everybody shared in this boom. Though incomes were rising fastest at the top, all workers’ wages far outpaced inflation.

But after 2000 something changed. The pace of productivity growth has been rising again, but now it seems to be lifting fewer boats. After you adjust for inflation, the wages of the typical American worker—the one at the very middle of the income distribution—have risen less than 1% since 2000. In the previous five years, they rose over 6%. If you take into account the value of employee benefits, such as health care, the contrast is a little less stark. But, whatever the measure, it seems clear that only the most skilled workers have seen their pay packets swell much in the current economic expansion. The fruits of productivity gains have been skewed towards the highest earners, and towards companies, whose profits have reached record levels as a share of GDP.

Even in a country that tolerates inequality, political consequences follow when the rising tide raises too few boats. The impact of stagnant wages has been dulled by rising house prices, but still most Americans are unhappy about the economy. According to the latest Gallup survey, fewer than four out of ten think it is in “excellent” or “good” shape, compared with almost seven out of ten when George Bush took office.”

Milan October 13, 2010 at 10:47 am

It does seem like various factors are putting a squeeze on the middle class in places like Canada and the United States, but I don’t think the future is as dire as Tristan expects. For one thing, if a large portion of the population became seriously concerned about rising inequality, it would be quite possible to alter the tax system to be more progressive.

Technology and trade patterns are always altering the relative returns of different skill-sets, industries, etc. Also, some of the same factors that have harmed the middle class as workers have helped them as consumers – for instance, the reduced prices for many goods that have accompanied globalization.

For those aspiring to a middle class lifestyle now, it certainly seems like sound advice to avoid professions that can be easily outsourced or automated.

. October 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm

(02/13/08) – Global Citizens Cite Uneven Wealth Distribution
(Angus Reid Global Monitor) –

“The majority of people in 34 countries feel that economic gains in their own nations have not been well distributed, according to a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes released by BBC World Service. 64 per cent of global respondents think the share of benefits and burdens of recent economic developments has not been fair.

In October 2007, a study by the Boston Consulting Group revealed that the world’s wealth expanded by 7.5 per cent in 2006, reaching $97.9 trillion U.S. It also showed that the wealth gap continued to grow over the past five years, with much of the benefits going to the already well-off.

On Jan. 31, Robert Rubin—head of the Citigroup financial institution—said a major issue facing the United States economy today is a growing wealth gap, adding that the problem is also affecting many nations. Rubin declared: “It’s a paramount task for policy makers to understand why market economy and globalization are associated with severe income distribution issues in almost every country; and then they must create policy to address the problem.”

http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/30578/global_citizens_cite_uneven_wealth_distribution/

. October 13, 2010 at 1:14 pm

“The intelligent minorities have long understood this to be their function. Walter Lippmann described a “revolution” in “the practice of democracy” as “the manufacture of consent” has become “a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government.” This is a natural development when public opinion cannot be trusted: “In the absence of institutions and education by which the environment is so successfully reported that the realities of public life stand out very sharply against self-centered opinion, the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality,” and are thus able to perceive “the realities.” These are the men of best quality, who alone are capable of social and economic management.

It follows that two political roles must be clearly distinguished, Lippmann goes on to explain. First, there is the role assigned to the specialized class, the “insiders,” the “responsible men,” who have access to information and understanding. Ideally, they should have a special education for public office, and should master the criteria for solving the problems of society: “In the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective, political decision,” which is their domain, “is actually brought into relation with the interests of men.” The “public men” are, furthermore, to “lead opinion” and take the responsibility for “the formation of a sound public opinion.” “They initiate, they administer, they settle,” and should be protected from “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” the general public, who are incapable of dealing “with the substance of the problem.” The criteria we apply to government are success in satisfying material and cultural wants, not whether “it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating in men’s minds.” Having mastered the criteria for political decision, the specialized class, protected from public meddling, will serve the public interest — what is called “the national interest” in the webs of mystification spun by the academic social sciences and political commentary.

The second role is “the task of the public,” which is much more limited. It is not for the public, Lippmann observes, to “pass judgment on the intrinsic merits” of an issue or to offer analysis or solutions, but merely, on occasion, to place “its force at the disposal” of one or another group of “responsible men.” The public “does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain, or settle.” Rather, “the public acts only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively,” once he has given the matter at hand sober and disinterested thought. It is for this reason that “the public must be put in its place.” The bewildered herd, trampling and roaring, “has its function”: to be “the interested spectators of action,” not participants. Participation is the duty of “the responsible man.””

http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199107–.htm

. October 21, 2010 at 8:50 am

“Economists will remind you that new technologies create new jobs as they destroy old ones. That’s true. When you have robots, you need robotics engineers. But those aren’t going to be mid-range jobs.

On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.

We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle.

. October 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Poverty in the suburbs
Mortgage or food
The poverty gap is closing between suburbs and inner cities

Oct 14th 2010 | freeport, long island

FOR more than half a century, Americans have fled the cities in their millions, heading away from crime and poverty towards better schools and safer neighbourhoods in the suburbs. Now poverty is catching up with them. According to two new reports from the Brookings Institution, over the past decade the number of poor people in the suburbs has jumped by a whopping 37.4% to 13.7m, compared with some 12.1m people below the poverty line in cities. Although poverty rates remain higher in the inner cities, the gap is narrowing.

. November 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

To the Baby Boomers that either roll their eyes or raise their eyebrows when I say my generation is at a disadvantage, all I can say is this: We. Will. Not. Have. What. You. Had. Every generation before mine was defined by being better than the one who came before. The luckiest of us will break even. There’s nothing left for us. What could I possibly work for that would be mine?

When my first call came in from the agency, my only feeling was exhaustion. My day job is mind numbingly boring. In a 109-year-old converted textile factory on King Street West, my company is one hundred young people with headphones on doing something that will never matter to anyone. Somehow, sitting in a downtown loft staring at Reddit all day becomes excessively fatiguing. My job is essentially waiting for eight hours in what I call the Internet Depository. I kill time idly for approximately 7.5 hours and change the spacing on bullet points for the remaining half hour. My team is myself and seven unfriendly computer programmers. I’m a writer, but my boss has never been a writer nor an editor nor anything else related to software documentation before becoming a documentation manager. Her refusal to understand abstract concepts without a diagram, written explanation and interpretative dance to illustrate them would be inspiring if it wasn’t so depressing. Only fashion comes close in and inflated sense of importance to the software industry.

Tristan November 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm

We could end poverty – if only we could give up our paternalistic tendencies. Hey, I have an idea – stop hating the poor.

“To end poverty, guarantee everyone in Canada $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor?”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/to-end-poverty-guarantee-everyone-in-canada-20000-a-year-but-are-you-willing-to-trust-the-poor/article1806904/

Milan November 20, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Would you just give everybody $20,000 a year? Or give $20,000 a year only to those with zero income?

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 11:00 am

I would implement the program recommended in this article.

oleh November 21, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Tristan

I read the article twice. I did not see a description of a program. Do you know where the program is actually described, including dealing with how it would be funded, such as what are the consequences of the disincentive to work for those whose incomes are less than $20,000?

I will not be able to follow up. In a few hours I am off to cycle in western Cuba so I can follow up on my return. I may have an interesting perspective returning from a country where guarantees by way of food rationing are in place.
.

R.K. November 21, 2010 at 12:45 pm

A related idea is having a negative income tax, at very low levels of income. For instance, for every dollar under $10,000 a person earns, they could be given a refundable tax credit of $1.

That would provide income support, without removing the incentive for people to work.

Emily November 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

That would provide income support, without removing the incentive for people to work.

I think assuming that giving someone 20,000.00/year would be a disincentive to work is reinforcing this culturally ingrained idea that the poor are poor because they are lazy.

It’s entirely possible that some of the poor are poor because they’re lazy. But I think that is the exception and not the rule.

That also excludes the young mother in school scenario, where she might make no income at all.

R.K. November 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm

It’s quite possible that people choose not to work not because they are lazy, but because they want to use their time in other ways. That being said, on what basis is it morally asserted that everybody should earn at least $20,000 regardless of whether they choose to work?

Why should society at large help finance someone’s choice to be a stay-at-home parent, for instance? Does it matter if they have a spouse with a large income?

. November 21, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB)

The Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) is a refundable tax credit intended to provide tax relief for eligible working low‑income individuals and families who are already in the workforce and to encourage other Canadians to enter the workforce.

Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) calculation sheets

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Oleh,

The article discusses variations on Basic Income and Guaranteed Minimum Income Guarantees. I agree with removing barriers to guaranteed minimum incomes, such as:

“hundreds of rules. She has been sent away because she was missing one document. She has had to justify a no-contact order against her son’s father and had a caseworker scrutinize every detail of her bank account. Every interrogation “makes you feel very low to the ground,” she says. And the worst, she says, is that you learn quickly “that you can’t count on anything.””

The positive recommendations are discussed mostly in the 2nd page of the article:

“Essentially, Dr. Hanlon says, people will make the right choices without an aid worker peering over their shoulders. “Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity,” he says in his speeches. “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

In Britain, an experiment was recently conducted with a small group of people who had been living on the streets for more than five years. They were given a budget that they could spend however they wished. The idea was to see whether the “personalized budgets” Britain gives to seniors and people with disabilities to pay for care (which include some conditions) would work for the very poor as well.

Within a year, working with counsellors who helped them with their plans and purchases, nine of the 15 participants were moving to some form of housing.

The results were not perfect: A couple of people moved back out of housing again, and at least one was imprisoned. But most spent far less than the money available to them, mostly on clothing, food and rent. On the other hand, one person who chose to remain on the street asked for music lessons, and that was all right too.

“Very often, services are about getting people off the streets, come what may,” says Joe Batty, who managed the program. “This is about normalizing people.” The program was considered so successful, he says, that the city of London is now providing financial support to expand it.

Canada’s forgotten experiment

The idea of a guaranteed annual income has been tested before in Canada – in the mid-1970s, in Dauphin, Man., a farming town with then about 10,000 residents.

In the only experiment of its kind in North America, every household in Dauphin was given access to a guaranteed annual budget, subject to their income level. For a family of five, payments equalled about $18,000 a year in today’s dollars.

Politicians primarily wanted to see if people would stop working. While the project was pre-empted by a change in government, a second look by researchers has found that there was only a slight decline in work – mostly among mothers, who chose to stay home with their children, and teenaged boys, who stayed in school longer.

Evelyn Forget, a researcher in medicine at the University of Manitoba, reports that Dauphin also experienced a 10-per-cent drop in hospital admissions and fewer doctor visits, especially for mental-health issues.

Dauphin resident Amy Richardson, now 84, was then trying to run a beauty parlour out of her living room, with four kids, an elderly mother and a disabled husband who could work only at odd jobs. The money eased the burden of costs such as school textbooks. “It helped out,” she says. “It just made things easier.””

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Another serious program is Robert Shiller’s recommendation of a negative income tax –

http://www.tobinproject.org/downloads/RP_Inequality-Indexing.pdf

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 2:19 pm

“That would provide income support, without removing the incentive for people to work.”

Great – that way people will be poor enough to work at fast food and other demeaning jobs – which use useful to those who consume such services, but would never consider working in the industry.

Those poor people, doing jobs that are harder and pay worse than ours. So useful!

. November 21, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Homelessness
Cutting out the middle men
The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them

Nov 4th 2010

WHEN the workers in the City of London head home each evening, a hidden legion of homeless people shuffles out of the shadows to reclaim their territory. The Square Mile has more rough sleepers than any other London borough except Westminster: 338 were identified by Broadway, a charity, over the past year, most of whom had spent more than a year on the streets. Policymakers have long struggled to find ways to shift such people, some of whom take deluded pride in their chaotic circumstances, resist offers to come in from the cold and suffer from severe drug, drink or mental-health problems (sometimes all three).

Broadway tried a brave and novel approach: giving each homeless person hundreds of pounds to be spent as they wished. According to a new report on the project by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a think-tank, it worked—a success that might offer broader lessons for public-service reform and efficiency.

The charity targeted the longest-term rough sleepers in the City, who had been on the streets for between four and 45 years (no mean achievement when average life expectancy for the long-term homeless is 42). Instead of the usual offers of hostel places, they were simply asked what they needed to change their lives.

One asked for a new pair of trainers and a television; another for a caravan on a travellers’ site in Suffolk, which was duly bought for him. Of the 13 people who engaged with the scheme, 11 have moved off the streets. The outlay averaged £794 ($1,277) per person (on top of the project’s staff costs). None wanted their money spent on drink, drugs or bets. Several said they co-operated because they were offered control over their lives rather than being “bullied” into hostels. Howard Sinclair of Broadway explains: “We just said, ‘It’s your life and up to you to do what you want with it, but we are here to help if you want.’”

This was only a small-scale pilot project—though its results have been echoed by others elsewhere in Britain—but it underlines the importance of risk-taking in the provision of public services. In this case, although finance directors (and many voters) might balk at buying the homeless caravans, the savings should outweigh the costs. Some estimates suggest the state spends £26,000 annually on each homeless person in health, police and prison bills.

Milan November 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm

It seems to me like at least three relatively distinct groups are at risk of being conflated here:

* The middle class, who fear finding themselves with fewer prospects for material security, partly because of factors like technology and globalization

* The working poor

* The severely impoverished, for instance the homeless

To me, it seems quite likely that each need somewhat different policies to serve their needs.

Milan November 21, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I think assuming that giving someone 20,000.00/year would be a disincentive to work is reinforcing this culturally ingrained idea that the poor are poor because they are lazy.

It depends on how it is done.

If you declare that nobody can have an income of less than $20,000 and that the government will top up the income of anyone who falls below, you remove all financial incentive to work for less than $20,000. Someone who might spend most of their time caring for their children, but who previously had an occasional side job, would no longer have any monetary reason to work, since all earnings of less than $20,000 would effectively be taxed at 100% through the removal of support.

It would also encourage people to conceal the fact that they are working, taking informal jobs that wouldn’t cut into the $20,000 payment.

It would be less problematic, on these grounds, to just give everybody a grant of $20,000 a year. That would be rather expensive, though. Canada’s GDP per capita is $45,657. Even if it cost nothing to administer the grant distribution system, about 44% of Canada’s GDP would flow through it.

A Finance working paper from 2003 says that Canada’s government spending was about 38% of GDP at that point. No-condition $20,000 grants would probably displace some other forms of spending, but they would still represent a substantial increase in the proportion of the income of Canadians that gets taken in as taxes and redistributed as grants.

. November 21, 2010 at 2:45 pm

What’s a good way to give money to kids without spoiling them? My idea: For every dollar they earn, give them $N. That way they have to work, but they don’t have to work a repulsive yuppie job to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The main objection to this approach is that it is tax-inefficient. If the kid earns $50,000 per year doing something he finds rewarding and you give him $150,000 that year, you have to pay a big gift tax. Some sort of trust fund and/or life insurance policy that the kid can claim after you die would be more efficient.

Is an increased tax liability so bad? Not for the truly rich. These guys intend to give most of their wealth away to non-profit organizations. The federal government funds roads and airports that we all enjoy using. The feds pay for health care for the poor and the old. Our tax dollars pay for intrepid military personnel who go out and kill angry foreigners (in most cases) before they can arrive on U.S. soil and kill Americans here at home. For a non-profit organization of its size, the federal government is surprisingly efficient. Most federal employees work in big box-like office buildings, not in $300 million monuments to an architect’s ego. George W. Bush gets paid only $400,000 per year, less than half of what a lot of university presidents earn.

Can we tweak the $N bonus idea at all? What if a kid becomes a repulsive yuppie despite the lack of financial necessity? Won’t his siblings become envious when Chad, Jr. gets a $3 million check from Chad, Sr. to supplement his $1 million/year earnings at J.P. Morgan? Perhaps there should be a sliding scale for the bonus where the first $100,000/year is muliplied by 4, the next $100,000 by 3, the next $100,000 by 2, and the rest of the kid’s income is not subject to a parental bonus. Or there could be a lifetime cap of $10-20 million per kid (no Gulfstream for Johnny :-( ).

How about tweaking the tax liability? Perhaps the money could go first into an irrevocable trust, but only paid out by the trustee as a multiple of income. I’m not sure if this escapes gift/estate tax.

[Note: I drafted this idea at the request of a late 40s rich, but not retired, friend. He ended up implementing it for his teenage children.]

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 3:20 pm

“If you declare that nobody can have an income of less than $20,000 and that the government will top up the income of anyone who falls below, you remove all financial incentive to work for less than $20,000. Someone who might spend most of their time caring for their children, but who previously had an occasional side job, would no longer have any monetary reason to work, since all earnings of less than $20,000 would effectively be taxed at 100% through the removal of support.”

Way to not read the article, nor the sections of the article I directed cited.

Milan November 21, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I was responding to Emily’s comment, not the article.

You don’t need to be lazy to be hesitant about working for no pay.

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 5:45 pm

“You don’t need to be lazy to be hesitant about working for no pay.”

Your econ 101 musings are contradicted by your favorite thing – empirical research, which I cited above:

“Canada’s forgotten experiment

The idea of a guaranteed annual income has been tested before in Canada – in the mid-1970s, in Dauphin, Man., a farming town with then about 10,000 residents.”

“… a second look by researchers has found that there was only a slight decline in work – mostly among mothers, who chose to stay home with their children, and teenaged boys, who stayed in school longer.

Evelyn Forget, a researcher in medicine at the University of Manitoba, reports that Dauphin also experienced a 10-per-cent drop in hospital admissions and fewer doctor visits, especially for mental-health issues.”

They are also contradicted by contemporary research on the relation between money and motivation – which, according to Dan Pink, tends to show people are much less motivated by money as we thought, and far more motivated by mastery, autonomy, and self-directedness.

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm

“It seems to me like at least three relatively distinct groups are at risk of being conflated here:”

The original discussion was motivated by Douglas Coupland’s claims, “The middle class is over. It’s not coming back.”

In that context, what allows us to a priori draw distinctions between middle class, working poor, and destitute poor? If the middle class is over, presumably that means the middle class is being driven towards the status of working-class or working-poor. If you look at the debt loads of “middle class” families since 1980, you might come to the conclusion that the lifestyle the “middle class” today afford comes at the cost of being as shackled to employment (through debt) as the working poor are through the need to eat.

In this context, the relation between guaranteed access to substantive goods and the ability to be free – i.e. not be entirely tied to an employment, is obvious, and applies not just to working poor and working class, but to the middle class which are being driven downwards by the attack on the wage share.

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 5:56 pm

“You don’t need to be lazy to be hesitant about working for no pay.”

Have you ever heard of volunteering? What do you say of those who choose to work here to save up in order to spend extended time volunteering in the West Bank, or in Latin America, or Haiti? And why should these opportunities be afforded only to those who are able to accumulate the savings, or have parents that can supply the money required for people to work for no pay? Is more value is afforded by someone who works full time at MacDonalds than someone who volunteers living with Palestinian farmers, noting IDF human rights violations and attacks on their crops by militant Israeli settlers? How much more do you care about a steel worker in Hamilton getting their big-mac on time in the drive through, compared to a farmer near Havat Gilad having their olive trees destroyed?

Milan November 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Tristan,

While there may be the occasional person who works primarily for enjoyment, I think a comprehensive empirical survey would show that the great majority of people would choose to work less if they received no pay in return.

The existence of overtime pay provides some evidence of how people work for money, and demand more of it to work more than a set amount per period of time.

people are much less motivated by money as we thought, and far more motivated by mastery, autonomy, and self-directedness

I think this only becomes true at a certain level of affluence. When you are earning just enough to stay housed, clothed, and fed, your primary concern is for the money. When your basic needs are taken care of, you can start seeking more abstract benefits from work. You may argue that nobody should have to work boring or unpleasant jobs, but those are (unfortunately) the bulk of the things out there people are willing to pay someone a living wage to do. Nobody will pay you or I to read in coffee shops, or take photos of subjects that interest us on our own schedules.

It also seems unjust to set up a situation in which some people get big grants to support them in doing whatever they like, but others should get nothing. If some formerly unemployed people are going to get $20,000 a year to care for their children, volunteer at Science World, or fly fish, why shouldn’t cardiologists earning over $100,000 a year be given grants of the same size?

you might come to the conclusion that the lifestyle the “middle class” today afford comes at the cost of being as shackled to employment (through debt) as the working poor are through the need to eat.

People have always been ‘shackled to employment’. I think we should be grateful that the opportunities on offer now are mostly better than agricultural toil was, for most of our ancestors.

Tristan November 21, 2010 at 7:24 pm

“You may argue that nobody should have to work boring or unpleasant jobs, but those are (unfortunately) the bulk of the things out there people are willing to pay someone a living wage to do. ”

Do you have a different understanding of the term “living wage” than differs from the rest of society? How many boring and unpleasant jobs actually pay a “living wage”? Or are you going to understanding living wage tautologically in terms of what the job actually pays, not the amount required to live a meaningful and somewhat free life?

You are exposing your “confirmation bias” to a great extent by your unwillingness to consult ideas on motivation that may conflict with your religious tendencies to uphold cliches about motivation that underlie basic economic theory.

“People have always been ‘shackled to employment’.”

You can ignore Lincoln’s differentiation between chattle and wage slavery in terms of the ability of one to become free by becoming self-employed if you want. Don’t expect others to believe that being shackled to an employer is a necessary condition of a fulfilling life.

“It also seems unjust to set up a situation in which some people get big grants to support them in doing whatever they like, but others should get nothing. ”

Well, it’s understandable you would think this – you think it’s less arbitrary to be born to a poor family, than to redistribute wealth.

Moreover, the “empirical research”, which you clearly will only refer to if it supports your congealed intuitions about economic life, suggests that people won’t “stop working” simply because their wages are guaranteed.

Milan November 22, 2010 at 9:14 pm

How many teaching assistants would there be at York, if every dollar they earned was deducted from a $20,000 annual grant everybody received?

Tristan November 23, 2010 at 10:34 am

I could answer this question – but I really have no interest discussing how little you care for the autonomy of the poor, and how society must exist as the exploitation of those born with less privilege than yourself – otherwise you might lose the right to earn interest from capital.

Tristan November 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm

It’s really quite amazing that you think you have the right to earn interest off capital invested in the tar-sands, because if you don’t it might put you in a difficult retirement position – and at the same time you think the poor have no right to redistribution which might increase their autonomy and reduce their need to work exploitive, unpleasant and unfulfilling jobs. This literally means you think that your well being, 30 or 40 years from now, is more valuable than the well being of the working poor today. That’s a certain kind of utilitarian calculation – but not one that any ethical theory will validate.

. November 23, 2010 at 7:08 pm
Tristan November 23, 2010 at 9:43 pm

If your only alternative to investing in the tar sands is keeping a pile of twenties in a safety deposit box – maybe you have to keep a pile of twenties in a safety deposit box. What gives you the right to profit from the tar sands? The mere fact it would be inconvenient not to profit from them? Oh, I’m so sorry that not participating in such a great crime against the future is inconvenient for you. It would be ideal if doing the right thing were easy and convenient.

Milan November 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm

When it comes to systemic problems that will take a lot of work to change, coming down on particular friends of yours who are already doing much more than the average person isn’t a very effective strategy. It alienates the people who are the closest to being your allies, along with those with more moderate views. It also makes it easier for people who oppose what you want to denounce their opponents as extremists.

A bit of humility and constructive engagement is likely to accomplish a lot more than being hyper-militant.

Tristan November 24, 2010 at 1:03 am

I think this is an important point of principle – I don’t see how any of us have a right to profit from the tar sands. Nothing about it seems justifiable to me. If we have to divest from Canadian banks to make sure we aren’t profitting off this event, maybe that’s required of us.

If you can give reasons why we should still support Canadian banks while they are enabling this disaster – why for instance it might be more important to hold up the current financial system than to demand that it refrain from funding such environmental atrocities, then feel free to give them.

If the tar sands is actually the kind of event which might tip the balance between human survival and human extinction, then maybe we should think about profitting off of it in the same way we think about profitting off of the extermination of a people.

If it’s true that it is wrong to invest in Canadian banks given the current situation, then it would be wrong to attempt to silence people from making this wrong apparent. It seems to me that the burden is on those who would justify the current investments, not those who decry them.

I personally have not yet divested from TD. I don’t think there is any reason to act overly quickly – we should figure out what we should do, and then do it, and then encourage others to do it. I’m not for quick-action, but neither am I for stifling discourse on the basis that it might make people uncomfortable. This discourse will not make people as uncomfortable as the environmental catastrophe which not dealing with these issues will produce.

Tristan November 24, 2010 at 1:07 am

Moreover, there is nothing “militant” about divesting from banks and keeping money under your pillow. Militancy refers to taking up arms – and I’m not advocating this. I want to advocate actions that are far more threatening to the state than any romantic paramilitary nonsense – peaceful noncompliance which paralyzes current disastrously violent institutions, like these banks for instance. I think this kind of action would be the logical extension of Gene Sharp’s revolutionary approach to non-violence. If we are going to avoid appearance of a false dichotomy between empty liberal approaches and disastrously counter productive violent approaches, revolutionary non-violent actions are exactly those we need to cultivate.

Milan November 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm

But asking people to make a big sacrifice – when there is no evidence that it will do any good – isn’t a very effective policy.

Pushing for someone to develop a post-carbon index tracker seems like a much better idea. It will allow people to make a positive contribution to the parts of the economy that can be decarbonized, while no longer providing capital to the parts that are fundamentally bound up with fossil fuel production.

. December 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm

If people feel as if the country is changing quickly, that’s because it is. The first set of numbers from the 2010 decennial census will be published in December. They will, sadly, be less interesting than in previous decades, as the census form has been radically shortened this time. But plenty of other data get collected by the Census Bureau every year, and our trawl of what has been gathered over the past decade already reveals some seismic shifts. Baby boomers are retiring in large numbers; the young are more racially diverse than ever. Hispanic immigrants are transforming communities, bringing both promise and tension. The first decade of the 21st century was not kind to America’s middle class—real median household income was 7% lower in 2009 than it was in 2000. The gap between rich and poor widened (see table). And the young are doing relatively badly in education.

. December 5, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Lots of developed countries fret about the cost of welfare, but—at least in western Europe—Britain is a special case. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, the British are more likely that anyone in western Europe to think poverty is caused by laziness, and more likely than anyone else in the 27-strong European Union to blame it on immigration: the French prefer to blame the “pursuit of profit”, and the Germans bad policies. The same survey shows the British to be less convinced than any other nation in the European Union that poverty can be tackled with increased social benefits; they prefer to offer the poor work, training and regeneration schemes.

When it comes to rugged individualism, the British can be found—as usual—paddling in the middle of the Atlantic, somewhere between Europe and America. The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey of Europe asked whether success in life is determined by “forces outside our control”. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, most respondents fatalistically answered “yes”. In Britain, 55% said “no”, though that was trumped by the response from America, where 68% said “no”.

. December 9, 2010 at 7:29 pm

COMPARED with many other developed countries, Canada has had a good financial crisis. Its banks and public finances are sound, and the economy recovered quickly and strongly from recession, even if the pace is now slowing. But there is one sense in which Canada does less well. When it comes to child poverty, it ranks 22nd-worst out of the 31 countries in the OECD, a rich-country grouping. More than 3m Canadians (or one in ten) are poor; and 610,000 of them are children.

The problem is a chronic one. Back in 1989 Parliament unanimously supported a resolution to eliminate child poverty by 2000. Having failed, the politicians last year approved a woolly resolution to do better. This week they were rebuked by Campaign 2000, an activist group, which reported that child poverty is now as bad as it was two decades ago. Earlier this month Food Banks Canada, an association of charities, reported that 900,000 Canadians rely on food handouts, up by 9% on last year. Many are among the country’s 300,000 or so homeless people.

All this is despite long periods of steady growth over the past two decades. But only a third of the poor are in jobs. The rest are mainly single mothers, disabled people, aboriginal Canadians and immigrants. In the 1980s and 1990s these groups suffered cuts in welfare payments (which are too meagre to keep someone above the country’s de facto poverty line) when governments, both federal and provincial, cut public spending to restore fiscal health. One of the keenest slashers was British Columbia, which despite being one of the richest provinces has one of the highest rates of child poverty (10.4%) after taxes on family income. Critics of such policies say that children who grow up in poverty forfeit the chance to prosper as adults, or to become productive workers.

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