The New American Divide   (January 25, 2012)

The widening divide between the Upper Caste and everyone below is not just of income and wealth--it is also cultural and values-based.

A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled The New American Divide by demographer Charles Murray described a widening cultural divide between the "haves" (the upper middle class, roughly the top 20% managerial/creative class) and the "have-nots," what many would call the lower middle class and working class.

Murray chose to focus on Caucasian Americans to avoid all the issues and emotions of ethnicity, but I think we can apply many of his class-related observations to ethnic minority populations in the U.S. as well.

This article (based on a forthcoming book) is important not because it encapsulates this tangled subject, but because it offers a well-researched first step to a much broader spectrum of issues that the author touches upon in passing.

The cultural divides the author cites is symptomatic of powerful financial and social forces that operate well below the surface of everyday life. I don't claim to have "answers" to these issues, but I find it remarkable that the author ends up concluding that community has been displaced by the Savior State, and the ultimate solution is to return to a life based on community rather than handouts and subsidies from the Savior State.

This aligns with my own conclusions stated in my books.

I think there is much that was left out of his carefully apolitical exploration of class in America and much left out of his general explanation for the widening divide betweem the "haves" and the "have-nots."

I think he is correct in fingering Savior State "free money" as the primary cause of the dissolution of working-class America's communities and households: with welfare, Section 8, food stamps, Medicaid, etc. then working-class women no longer need a husband to afford children, and men either drop out, become financially dependent on someone else, enter the "war on drugs"/prison complex or "work the system" to avoid working altogether.

He is also correct in pointing out the self-sustaining feedback loops created by Savior State support and Power Elite membership: both groups' children grow up in worlds where welfare or Elite status and perquisites are the expected norm. In this profound way, people grow up in completely different Americas, and these culturally inherited mindsets are very difficult to pierce and change.

What he delicately avoids exploring is the reality that the Status Quo works very well not just for the top 1% but also for the top 20% that forms what I call the Upper Caste of American society: the technocrat, managerial, creative class that does the heavy lifting for the top 1% who own most of the assets and income streams.

The bottom 80% is employed as service workers/debt serfs or bought off with bread-and-circus welfare to keep them quiet and passive. The system doesn't have to work for the bottom 80%, it just has to sustain them at a level that doesn't spark revolt.

The housing bubble was a gigantic scam foisted on the top layer of the working class and the lower layer of the middle class as a "sure-fire way" to join the speculative financial frenzy that enriched the top 1% and their enablers, the Upper Caste technocrat class. When the bubble burst, so did fantasies of living the Upper Caste lifestyle without the hard slog to a meaningful university degree and long hours slaving away for Corporate America to join the Upper Caste.

This notion that America no longer works for the bottom 80% (I would even say the bottom 90%) is something that standard-issue pundits like Murray cannot speak to or even admit. His "solution" is ultimately for the 80% to get on with life as an underclass and make the best of living in an economy which serves their interests only enough to avoid open insurrection.

Murray, a media-pundit in his field, studiously avoids the role of mass media in the creation of the divide. He touches briefly on the fact that we all once watched the same TV shows, a unifying cultral factor, but only because they were the only shows on TV. What I see, and what I believe research supports, is a vast chasm between the media the Upper Caste consumes and what the "have-nots" consume.

The really creative class is too busy to watch much TV or many films, or while away time texting and talking on cellphones. Rather, they create the context and content for these media and devices, and do so by avoiding addiction to their own creations--much like drug pushers never sample their own wares.

The managerial Upper Caste have all the devices and services, but their workload limits the amount of time they have to consume "entertainment" and communicate with text, twitter, email, etc. for amusement. But it is not just a matter of time constraints; they are highly conscious of the fact that consuming media and "entertainment" in quantity does not further their career. What provides the elitist sheen they desire to "fit in" to the upper tier of their caste?

The signifiers of membership in this High-Caste status are leisurely foreign travel in prestigious cities or exotic areas and foreign postings, study abroad, the ability to speak a foreign language, tasteful art in the home and office, facility with corporate-speak, participation in High-Caste cultural events such as the symphony, art-house foreign films, theater, an association (however flimsy) with an Elite university or other respected institution, pursuit of costly sports such as skiing, boating, etc., and last but not least, a network of associates and "friends" (real friendship being an increasingly rare commodity in America) who can be mentioned in conversation as owning/participating in these same high-caste signifiers.

The working class, on the other hand, is a voracious consumer of all media and entertainment; the TV is often left on 24/7 in working-class households and merely muted at night, and an iPod or internet radio is always providing a soundtrack to every activity, while Facebook (i.e. Global Channel of Me) can be a near-obsession, interrupting or taking precedence over all other activities, including, it seems, sex. Texting is constant, and social success is measured by signifiers such as the latest film on bootleg DVD, high-quality street drugs, large collections of films and music (i.e. media) and in rural areas, fishing and hunting trophies.

As correspondent Chuck D. recently observed, the divide extends to money management: the High-Caste class is deeply interested in investments and view high-earning investments as signifiers of status while the working class only sees the spectrum of consumption.

When High-Caste politicos like Al Gore or Mitt Romney attempt to cross the divide and mimic working-class signifiers, their attempts are either comical, wooden or downright painful. They live in a completely different America from the voters they are clumsily appealing to.

In some ways I have a bit of experience on both sides of this divide, having been lucky enough to graduate from an Elite prep school, snag a (non-Elite) university degree and gather the requisite bits of foreign languages and travel.

On the other hand, I worked in the construction/building field for many years alongside both deserters from Corporate/Central State America and working-class guys for whom construction was a relatively high-paying avenue to a middle-class life, if they saved their money (unfortunately not the norm).

There are two other critical long-term issues not addressed in the article:

1. The "mancession"-- the trend toward an economy that values the "female" skills of communciation, cooperation and education, while the "male" virtues of a strong back and a physical-world skill have steadily lost value. This is a very complex set of issues, but we can "state the obvious" by noting that the decline in factory/manufacturing work has apparently hurt males more than females, who have shifted to retail, healthcare, pink-collar and government work more readily than working-class males.

2. The ladder from the lower classes to the Upper Caste--upward mobility--is crumbling. Many commentators have noted that the gateway of upward mobility has narrowed. Yes, anyone can "make it in America," but making it America requires an increasing number of cultural knowledge bases and values--the very values and knowledge bases that are eroding in the classes below the top 20% Upper Caste.

While Murray describes the complex and knotty issue of declining marriage rates and soaring out-of-wedlock births, the larger question is what is powering these trends. Are men simply no longer needed as breadwinners, or are they being "selected out" for other reasons? Could the mass media once again be a critical if unspoken factor, as it has presented malehood as little more than an extended adolescence without end and fatherhood as a role for bumbling losers?

Yes, it's easy to "blame the media" but once again we must start by asking who is absorbing thousands of hours of this politically convenient (i.e. distracting and deranging) "entertainment" and who avoids it like the plague. How can ceasless propaganda not influence those who watch it daily for hours on end?

As many oftwominds readers have noted, Step 1 in liberating oneself from propaganda is to stop watching broadcast TV.

This divide speaks very directly to the core problems we face, which are not simply financial or political but cultural.

If this recession strikes you as different from previous downturns, you might be interested in my new book An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times (print edition) or Kindle ebook format. You can read the ebook on any computer, smart phone, iPad, etc. Click here for links to Kindle apps and Chapter One. The solution in one word: Localism.

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