Years ago I was at a basketball game with a good friend. She went into marketing and I consider her to be a genius in her field. I was asking her about a line of Lexus ads that I found to be annoying -- those Christmas ads with the new car in the living room, a big bow on top and the astonished, kinda ditzy, wife. I remember my comment being something along the lines of how stupid those spots were and that I could not imagine anyone seeing one of those commercials and then buying a Lexus.
My friend's response contained a brilliant insight that has stuck with me ever since: "You're not the target audience."
Like many in the subset of Americans who are more passionate about policy than politics, I did not take the presidential campaign of Donald Trump seriously. For the past fifteen years, I've done a weekly radio segment on Minnesota politics and this past summer, when the issue of Trump came up, I said it wasn't an intellectually serious conversation and thus I had nothing to say. As I indicated, I was on that show to talk policy.
As time has gone on, I've watched my Facebook feed -- a self-selected group of people with largely similar education levels and worldviews as mine -- deride Trump and his supporters. They're stupid. They're ignorant. They're clueless. They should go back to their NASCAR and reality television, which is what they're likely to do when it is actually time to vote. This has all been very condescending in that elitist kind of way.
And it all made me feel quite uncomfortable because, while I've spoken out where I felt compelled to, I've not had the same reaction to Trump as my peers. It wasn't until I read a blog piece by John Michael Greer that I actually understood why.
I'm going to refer to Greer's piece -- Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment -- for the rest of this column. Please read it. I've read it four times and spent many hours thinking about it over the past few days. The most brilliant things are so simple, yet so elusive, and when they are finally revealed you see they have been hiding in plain sight. Greer is one of my favorite bloggers, but this one piece in particular really filled a gap for me.
First, a brief aside. My official bio says that I'm the son of two elementary school teachers. While that's technically true and it paints a nice picture of a household with a certain level of affluence and intellectual discipline, it's not totally accurate. My dad didn't become a teacher until I was in the sixth grade. Before that he had worked at the paper mill, fell off a machine and was seriously injured, spent a couple years unable to work, went to college while maintaining the farm -- which is how we ate -- and then became a teacher. My mom stayed at home until my dad had a job and then she took the same path to becoming a teacher, which happened when I was in the tenth grade.
In short, I grew up in a working class family, with a working class extended family and I had working class friends and acquaintances. For some context: there were years where we went fishing, not for recreation, but for food. I never felt poor, but I was aware that we qualified for free school lunch every year I attended public school (we didn't take it, for various reasons, not the least of which that, living on a farm, food was never the problem).
Greer's piece -- and please read it -- identifies four groups defined by how they earn their income: investments, salaries, wages and welfare. He goes to great lengths to point out that these are broad generalizations, that there are exceptions worth noting, that there are other, valid sociological ways to look at this, etc... (which is why I'm telling you to read it), but the four categories make some sense.
People who earn their living off of investment income have a very different experience than those who earn their living from a salary. I can say from experience that those who earn a salary live in a way different paradigm than those paid an hourly wage. And it goes without saying that the experience of making do off of public assistance is unique from the other three.
Greer makes a compelling argument that three of these four groups -- investment, salaries and welfare -- have seen their fortunes hold throughout what we here at Strong Towns call the Suburban Experiment, but the fourth -- those who earn a wage -- have not.
In 1966 an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage could count on having a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other ordinary necessities of life, with some left over for the occasional luxury. In 2016, an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage is as likely as not to end up living on the street, and a vast number of people who would happily work full time even under those conditions can find only part-time or temporary work when they can find any jobs at all. The catastrophic impoverishment and immiseration of the American wage class is one of the most massive political facts of our time—and it’s also one of the most unmentionable. Next to nobody is willing to talk about it, or even admit that it happened.
I've watched this happen, in my family, my circle of acquaintances and the community at large where I live. One of the amazing things about the housing bubble of the early 2000's was that it allowed a lot of wage earners to make huge sums of money -- way more than the salary I was drawing at the time -- doing general labor. I knew guys who were insulating homes and hanging sheetrock that were making two to three times what I was as a starting engineer.
That all ended -- quite catastrophically -- in 2007/2008 and the despair here was enormous. After an agonizing shakeout, there was an exodus of that same group of wage earners to the oil fields of North Dakota. The money wasn't quite so easy, but you could stay out of foreclosure and feed your family by spending two weeks on, one week off, in the Bakken. As we've experienced a housing recovery -- a bubble with a more optimistic label -- and now an oil decline, those people have slowly trickled back.
Greer points out that wage earners find themselves in this position for a couple of -- now obvious to me -- reasons:
The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of two major shifts in American economic life. The first was the dismantling of the American industrial economy and its replacement by Third World sweatshops; the second was mass immigration from Third World countries. Both of these measures are ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by slashing the number of wage-paying jobs, on the one hand, while boosting the number of people competing for them on the other. Both, in turn, were actively encouraged by government policies and, despite plenty of empty rhetoric on one or the other side of the Congressional aisle, both of them had, for all practical purposes, bipartisan support from the political establishment.
Now perhaps this was always obvious to all of you. Certainly I've long been able to describe globalization, the offshoring of jobs and the impacts of cheap immigrant labor. What I wasn't grasping is the ways in which I -- part of that salaried class -- rationalized away these impacts.
Since the 1970s, the salary class lifestyle sketched out above—suburban homeownership, a new car every couple of years, vacations in Mazatlan, and so on—has been an anachronism: in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. It was wholly a product of the global economic dominance the United States wielded in the wake of the Second World War, when every other major industrial nation on the planet had its factories pounded to rubble by the bomber fleets of the warring powers, and the oil wells of Pennsylvania, Texas, and California pumped more oil than the rest of the planet put together. That dominance went away in a hurry, though, when US conventional petroleum production peaked in 1970, and the factories of Europe and Asia began to outcompete America’s industrial heartland.
The only way for the salary class to maintain its lifestyle in the teeth of those transformations was to force down the cost of goods and services relative to the average buying power of the salary class.
Here's the gut punch from Greer: As a member of the salaried class, I've long equated cheaper products and services with not only an efficient market but with prosperity itself. The remedy for this problem is not to make things less efficient or less prosperous -- why would we do that -- but to bring more of the wage earners into the salaried class. Again from Greer:
It’s worth noting, along these same lines, that every remedy that’s been offered to the wage class by the salary class has benefited the salary class at the expense of the wage class. Consider the loud claims of the last couple of decades that people left unemployed by the disappearance of wage-paying jobs could get back on board the bandwagon of prosperity by going to college and getting job training. That didn’t work out well for the people who signed up for the student loans and took the classes—getting job training, after all, isn’t particularly helpful if the jobs for which you’re being trained don’t exist, and so a great many former wage earners finished their college careers with no better job prospects than they had before, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt burdening them into the bargain. For the banks and colleges that pushed the loans and taught the classes, though, these programs were a cash cow of impressive scale, and the people who work for banks and colleges are mostly salary class.
For some time now, the Curbside Chat has included a conversation about Jimmy's Pizza, a little box of a place that pays three to four times the taxes per acre than the new big box stores in the same community. I've been trying to drive home the point that the opportunity provided by a Jimmy's Pizza is so much different -- so vastly more empowering -- than that provided by the Walmart. In the talk, I point out that the tradeoff in lost efficiency from slower, incremental development is made up for -- and then some -- in the added productivity, adaptability and resiliency. But I was missing an important piece:
As Trump broadens his lead, in turn, he’s started to talk about the other side of the equation—the offshoring of jobs—as his recent jab at Apple’s overseas sweatshops shows. The mainstream media’s response to that jab does a fine job of proving the case argued above: “If smartphones were made in the US, we’d have to pay more for them!” And of course that’s true: the salary class will have to pay more for its toys if the wage class is going to have decent jobs that pay enough to support a family.
Those three sentences are what hit me so hard. I'm embarrassed because I know this -- I intuitively know this -- but I'm a long ways from my wage earning roots and I'm guilty of acclimating to the expectation of cheaper goods and equating that to prosperity.
All those taunts of Trump supporters -- all those condescending statements of their ignorance and stupidity -- never sat well with me because they set off an innate sense of injustice. I wouldn't handle that injustice the way Trump seemingly wants to -- his commercial never appealed to me because I'm not the target audience -- but I now understand more fully why an entire class of Americans are willing to give it a try, why they see nothing appealing from any of the other agendas on offer.
My friends, we can also fill this intellectual gap. The Strong Towns movement -- incremental investments, resiliency over efficiency, adaptive and bottom-up -- acknowledges the failure of our Suburban Experiment, provides opportunities for hard working people to bootstrap their own success and puts us on a path to measure prosperity, not by the amount of lanes mile constructed or iphones sold, but by the strength and resiliency of our cities, towns and neighborhoods.
Don't turn your back on wage earners. They need us and we need them if we're ever going to have a nation of Strong Towns.
Top photo credit to Michael Vadon.