Tuesday, September 18, 2012

back to the future: who is middle class?

Here we are again: Barack Obama is running for president and we get mired in a debate about what constitutes "middle class."

I'm definitely less comfortable than I was four years ago drawing lines between the classes. I'm more cognizant now of the fact that people's income levels shift dramatically over the course of their lives, one key fact among many that Romney clearly is clueless about in his ignorant, elitist tirade against "the 47%."

Last time we talked a lot of median incomes and buying power and whatnot, but I think our whole conversation missed a crucial point: class is about much more than income levels. Either that, or in our society people frequently move from working class (college) to middle class (first job) to upper middle class (highest position) to working class (retirement) over the course of a lifetime. If that's the case, then "class" is nothing but a shorthand for how much you make at a particular moment, with no identifiable indicators of culture or power or anything else.

The point of "class" as a political concept is its connotations of privilege or the lack thereof, or as a sociological concept, in its connotations of a distinct sub-culture. The fact that we can't adequately define our classes, can't point to many things that are obviously exclusive to this or that class, is a good thing. The fact that the few things we can point to generally have a racial subtext is, obviously, less good. Conversations about privilege are mucked up by the prominent role of racism and modern-day segregation in shaping American attitudes toward each other, and the homogenizing forces like television have flattened cultural distinctions between classes.

I still think this it's ridiculous to put those making $200k/year in the same class as those making $40k/year. These two groups live worlds apart. Beyond that, it's harder to say.

Monday, September 17, 2012

the United States will not be pulling out of the Middle East, sorry

Steve Cook's great article on why the United States will remain the dominant diplomatic force in the Middle East is a helpful corrective to the talk about us losing influence that's become chic as of late. As a voting public, we're pretty ignorant on foreign policy; thus the old joke that war is God's way of teaching Americans geography. I don't think many people understand why we continue to have bases in the Middle East, and from what I can tell there are very few talking heads interested in explaining it. That is, of course, aside from those who think we should just shut the whole thing down and those who think we're waiting for Jesus to convert Israel to Christianity. I suppose the main reason for that is it's complicated, and there are both good reasons and bad reasons. Yes, we are there for oil. Yes, we are there to protect Israel. Yes, we are there to keep peace. Yes, we are there to plant and nurture the seeds of democracy. We're also there, however, because virtually no other countries want to be there, and the one other one that really does (Russia) is, in fact, a force for authoritarianism and brutality in that region. Our allies, meanwhile, benefit from our presence there. In fact, in terms of foreign policy the Obama Administration has greatly clarified this last point for me, the role of our allies' dependence on us in our foreign policy. As we discovered during the Libya conflict, the reliance on NATO and the Soviet Union for all foreign conflict for 50 years means that the US military is the only entity in the world capable of projecting significant military force and coordinating the forces of multiple nations. It is similar in Middle East foreign policy, where our diplomats and bases are also the proxy diplomats and bases of Europe and NATO.