America’s Spine Is Aching

A conservative commenter on my blog post, Unions And The Middle Class Declinemade this point:

WHY is middle class income going down, really?

It is not because union wages are on a downward trend. It is because the middle class has yet to figure out that “labor”, rather simple and uncomplicated labor is NOT the way to a middle class life in a flat world. Today one must do more the just punch a time clock. A middle class aspirant must PRODUCE something that really will sell. No they do not have to invent the computer, but they damn well must be ready to IMPROVE the computer that they make.

Otherwise, just go punch a time clock and see what happens to your wages over time.

Here is my reply:

I’m only going to address your comments about the middle class, which, to put it kindly, are utterly ridiculous.

Forgetting that folks who “just” punched a time clock (man, that really galls me that you have such a low opinion of people who made America the economic powerhouse it still it is today) saw their wages rise considerably after WWII, I want to say that whether right-wingers like you acknowledge it or not, folks who teach school, put out fires, make cars on an assembly line, deliver the mail, etc., are producing something. They are producers and there is inherent value in what they do.

But what is the value of their labor? That is partially determined by the dynamic between workers and management (and this part is my focus). If workers utilize the power of collectivizing their labor, of forming unions to bargain on their behalf, it changes that dynamic in a positive way for the workers. The result is higher wages than would have been if individuals bargained on their own (of course, most workers don’t bother to bargain at all).

Altering the dynamic between labor and management is what has been happening in, of all places, China (even apart from the Communist Party-controlled ACFTU).  Guess what the business response was (and is) to the spontaneous strikes and demands for higher wages and working conditions in China? They have threatened to leave there and go elsewhere. Typical.

Finally, to claim that “a middle class aspirant must PRODUCE something that really will sell” is to guarantee that there will never be a strong and prosperous and inclusive middle class. There just aren’t that many folks out there who can create new or improve existing products sufficient to meet your criterion.

In fact, I can’t for a moment imagine the world you describe. What it would look like? Would the middle class comprise only folks who own small businesses? Huh? Would the middle class comprise only inventors? Huh? Would the middle class comprise only people who have to constantly tinker around in their garages to keep up with the Joneses?

You are condemning most of the people who exist in a nation’s real economy—teachers, cops, firefighters, auto workers, construction workers, postal workers, soldiers, etc., to a substandard existence as Americans. Your view is not only full of absurdities, it is pessimistic beyond words.

The people who teach our kids, police our streets, build our cars, deliver our mail, are not only producers, they are the spine of a nation.



  1. ansonburlingame

     /  June 6, 2012

    To all,wou

    It of course was my comment that caused this retort from Duane.

    But the idea behind those words came from my reading of the book The Flat World by Thomas Friedman written some 12 or so years ago.

    His key point was that for America to remain competitive with a strong middle class society in a globalized world where particularly labor competes worldwide today, will reguire a huge incrasee in American ingenuity, creativity, brain power if you will, etc. to sustain our competitive edge.

    I agree with such sentiments expressed by Friedman, a noted and usually progressvie writer of some fame.

    Go to to read a more expanded explanation of why I feel that way. I won’t repeat all those points herein.

    Then go look “inside” the Class of 2012 that recently graduated from JHS. 413 kids graduated. Left unsaid were the 110 that dropped out of that class and never walked across the stage. As well at least 50% of those graduating failed to achieve proficency as defined by the State of Missouri in English and Math, basic skills needed by EVERYONE in our modern society.

    15% of those graduating did so with honors and I have no concern for them in the future if they continue to apply themselves as they did in high school Another 10% (my guess) did their best and will also be good citizens in the future.

    But over 300 of those graduates or drop outs give me great concern over their ability to contribute to society in the future. They are not prepared in knowledge and some cases the ability to act as responsible citizens in today’s America.

    Finally wishing for a world such as the one following WWII is hopeless. No way can anyone go back to such an era. Instead all Americans must adapt to the reality of today’s world, a flat, globalized world.

    The key in my view to be able to successfully adapt is to achieve the highest possible academic and citizenship skills possible before entering the workforce and to have the ability and willingness to continue to learn over one’s working lifetime.

    And for damn sure, expecting others to provide for you is becoming an increasingly difficult expectation to achieve. There are too many people asking and not enough money to go around, the world, today.



    • KABE

       /  June 6, 2012

      AB, let me get this right. If I invent something that is the next must have item, under your scenario I will have no labor to produce because they are inventing their own must have item. We all cannot be Thomas Edison. What did you invent? Let us think back to all of our thoughts when Duane introduced us to the young aspiring welder.

      As far as education, I share your concern. You like to point out the failings of public schools. There are probably many places you would be correct, but I would not include Joplin. I have known many well off families in Joplin who’s children prosper in the R-8. I place the blame of the drop out rate in Joplin squarely on the parents, or should I “parent”. You and I have discussed the image of big city problems vs. Joplin in the past. This is another example of my point of view. 110 drop outs is an embarrassing number for Joplin.



      • KABE

         /  June 6, 2012

        I just searched drop out rates and under a page called civil reports guess who had the best graduation rate in 2011? Wisconsin! I had to laugh at that. 85%, go figure.



      • KABE,

        In Anson’s initial comment, if anyone in the future “flat” economy wanted to prosper, he would most certainly have to have the qualities of Edison. You got his point, even though he has subsequently crawdadded away from it.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  June 6, 2012

    Kabe and anyone else “listening”,

    There is a real storm brewing in Joplin in regards to graduation rate and the efforts to increase it. I must leave it at that for now but am sure more will be revealed in the coming weeks or months, maybe.

    As for everyone being an Edison, of course not. But it would behove many to be capable of working as Edison’s lab tech, following the directions of the great man.

    Look as well at Microsoft where many “small millionaires” were created in Microsoft. I am sure the same applies to Apple as well.

    Finally I wrote on this subject with a focus on unskilled labor at in case you are interested.



  3. I can’t help but think the underlying concern with your comments AB is that almost everyone can agree that effort should be rewarded: the bromide often heard is work hard play by the rules, and prosper, or words to that effect.

    I think your comments would suggest a shift to applied ability being rewarded. Support for that idea is generally pretty widespread too, but not as universally so.

    In other words there’s discomfort with the idea that forrest Gump might have a toughter time becoming middle class in the world being birthed.


  4. Effort may not matter as much as something you receive arguably by chance, not effort.


    • Bruce,

      I think I like that idea, if I understand you correctly. I believe that most of what we are and become is the result of forces well beyond our control. That is why we should be willing to collectively adjust some of those forces in order to facilitate, say, make moving into the middle class much easier.



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