Restoring the fortunes of the American middle class is a policy challenge. It is a political challenge. And it is an economic challenge. But it is a cultural challenge, too. For a start, let's start treating each other with a little more respect.Fortunately, the middle class is hardly a lost cause! Nevertheless: By attempting to fit entire societies into a single definition of social desirability, it's easy to become too afraid of what could still happen, instead of productively responding to present realities. For instance, one should not have to be a member of the middle class to qualify for home ownership, yet this unnecessary burden has particularly been imposed since the Great Recession. If we were able to acknowledge the actual economic circumstance of the marginalized, we could better understand how their ongoing efforts to improve their lives, mostly go unnoticed.
Prosperity need not be a matter of class standing, or a struggle to fit into someone else's ideas of economic success. When societies are stable, they are more likely to encourage a full range of options for economic engagement, a range which accurately reflects the resource capacity people actually have at their disposal. If governments and special interests weren't so intent on forcing entire categories of skills and resource capacity into narrowly defined rules for working and living, people might be less inclined to judge others according to their physical stamina or income level.
Meanwhile, the struggle that matters most is at the bottom income levels. Let's work on improving our overall economic settings here, instead of obsessing over the reliability - or lack thereof - of future middle class wages. Let's begin anew by becoming more willing to expand the horizons of those deemed short on social skills, college degrees, or "perfect" health for that matter. These individuals need the legal permissions and production rights that only we as citizens can make possible, to meaningfully improve their life circumstance. It should not be illegal, for those who appear as though in need of help, to be able to legally help themselves.
When the marginalized lose societal permissions to improve their lot, other citizens gradually find themselves more likely to fall into similar traps, such as were initially set for those unable to protest the losses. We don't often recognize how these traps may too eventually affect our lives, for they result from cumulative, yet often unseen small actions, taken to protect those who are already strong.
Given the chance, people with limited resource capacity could still create real wealth. Importantly, wealth need not be defined as "cutting edge" or supposedly "superior" in nature to already existing wealth. For that matter, new economic activity which is reciprocated at the outset without debt, could actually be more historically important, than wealth which requires such extensive debt no one really knows when it will finally be repaid.
People could one day live in settings deserving of respect, which don't demand high income levels to create. Instead of simply seeking respect as vested in building values and credentials, why not make it about how people derive economic meaning, whatever their surroundings may be. Ultimately, we need to find better means for storing continuous economic value in our aggregate time capacity, and not just our buildings where credential value is still being frittered away. As Ian Hathaway recently noted, too many potential solutions for wealth building are overlooked because they don't seem significant enough:
So, before continuing down The More of Everything path, consider an alternative. Sometimes the answer is more of something. But often, a more relevant question is how well something is being done. Are you getting the most out of what you already have? What can be done to improve community cohesion today? To what extent are the existing pieces integrating in a productive way?
In my experience, the answer to these questions comes not from adding, but from activating and transforming. That makes it an issue of culture and mindset, and means that seemingly small changes in behavior - adopted widely and practiced consistently - can have a big impact on outcomes down the road. It's not always the big moves that get you where you need to go.How well are we actually tapping the aspirations of humanity at a basic level? We don't have to continue throwing out the skills and intellectual capacity which our present institutions can't effectively use. Instead, we can do something different. We can build new institutions, which are capable of building real wealth from all we have to offer.