Notes From Babel

Why This Generation’s Middle Class Will Never Be Like Last Generation’s

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After taking in the bleak picture painted in this article about America’s languishing middle class, I found myself asking a different question then the many burning ones asked in the article itself.  Why are we concerned with “why” the new middle class has been “treading water” for the past several decades, or “how” to restore every American willing to part with 40 hours a week into a position of affluence? We should not be puzzled that it is no longer easy to own a home and raise a family on a single income that requires no education and no training.  The question is why that could have ever been possible in the first place.

In Homer's Enemy, Frank Grimes worked himself through college to earn a degree in nuclear physics, and was alarmed to find that Homer, whose reputation for gross incompetence preceded him, "didn't need a degree. He just showed up the day they opened the plant." Here is the famous exchange that occurs when Grimes visits the Simpson home:

GRIMES: Good Heavens! Th-this is a palace! How c-- how can, how in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?

HOMER: I dunno. Don't ask me how the economy works.

GRIMES: Yeah, but look at the size of this place! I... I live in a single room above a bowling alley and (muttering) below another bowling alley.

GRIMES: God, I've had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut! And what do you have to show for your lifetime of sloth and ignorance?

HOMER: What?

GRIMES: Everything! A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory! Fancy clothes and (sniffs air) lobsters for dinner! And do you deserve any of it? No!

HOMER: (gasps) What are you saying?

GRIMES: I'm saying you're what's wrong with America, Simpson. You coast through life, you do as little as possible, and you leech off of decent, hardworking people like me. Heh, if you lived in any other country in the world, you'd have starved to death long ago.

BART: He's got you there, dad.

Gone is the era of Homer Simpson—nominally-educated button-pushing weekend warriors.  Now is the era of Frank Grimes—well-educated self-starters who find themselves waiting to see what scraps of our economy will be left over after the Homer Simpsons relinquish their posts, collect their generous pensions, clean out the social security fund, and savor their artificially overvalued property for what amounts to the longest retirement in history.

Today’s middle class does not languish as a result of the top 1%, as Edward Luce suggests in his piece.  It languishes because of yesterday’s middle class, who lived during a unique period of world history and embellished their good fortune through a mania of government regulation to enhance the value of their property, subsidize their retirements, and limit the entry of competitors for their wealth.

All of it is made slightly worse, of course, by our memories of how good life seemed just a few short years ago, and the resentment at its falling out of our grasp.

Sadly, the only ones who seem to be concerned with the plight of the middle class are the liberals and progressives who want to address the problem by offering government intervention as the medicine that will cure the sickness that government intervention helped cause.

Thus, perhaps the real question is, can we forget about how happy and how well the middle class lived in 50s through the 70s?  Or, at least, can we convince ourselves that it was a fluke of history that will never be repeated?

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Written by Tim Kowal

August 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

One Response

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  1. […] Why This Generation’s Middle Class Will Never Be Like Last Generation’s – Okay, we’ve been on and on about “Homer’s Enemy” around here the last couple of weeks, but even the Dead Homer Society doesn’t see it as a metaphor for America.  On the plus side, he did take the trouble to properly quote Homer and Grimes, and that’s always appreciated around these parts.  […]

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