The American Economy and Me, But Mostly Just Me

by 10:14 PM 0 comments
I recently watched the documentary "Inequality For All" on Netflix, and it's a huge downer. Really, I can't say I recommend it. It starts off innocently enough, with Robert Reich talking about how much he loves his Mini Cooper because they're both tiny. That opening scene was adorable! And the graphics in the opening credits are pleasant with a nice color palette. From there, it's all downhill.

Basically, the movie films Reich talking about economic statistics regarding wealth distribution and upward economic mobility in the US. Both topics are pretty grim. In terms of wealth distribution, the top 400 earners control half of the wealth in America. We also have less upward economic mobility than most other developed nations, which is a huge problem since the US is supposed to be the unique country where anything is possible through hard work.

I double-checked some of the facts after watching the movie, I found different results for one of them: Reich said that we have less upward mobility than the UK, but according to the Wikipedia article we currently have more. Regardless, we aren't among the top nations in this category. The movie website also claims that some hourly workers make $2.15 an hour, but those wages are supplemented by tips, the minimum wage is actually $7.25. That's still not good, but the mis-representation leads to an easy path to question the film's credibility. I think that's a shame, because I agree with the message: tax rates on top earners are too low, as is the minimum wage.

The movie points out a fallacy in the idea that the wealthy shouldn't be taxed at high rates because they're job creators. As one millionaire points out, he can't keep employees in their jobs if there's not a middle class to buy his factory's products. When poor or middle-class people get money, they tend to use it to buy things. This grows the economy by creating demand for goods and services. However, most people don't continue to spend the same percentage of their income if their wealth increases. So the money that wealthy people make tends to be spent on investments and stored away in savings accounts that benefit bankers more than they do typical Americans.

But let me put the theoretical stuff aside and say that this isn't about 'the American economy', it's about me. I went to a great training about Israel where we discovered as a group that when we think we're talking about the country, we're really talking about our mothers. Or our idealism. Or our spirituality. "Israel" is rarely about Israel. I think much the same of American politics, when we talk about our ideology, we're talking about our personalities and our philosophies. After all, the neurological reactions of Republican and Democratic minds are different, so it can't all be about fiscal responsibility versus a social safety net (See this National Journal article, and this Mother Jones article).

"Inequality For All" really struck a cord with me because I graduated college in the Spring of 2009. In college, I heard all sorts of messages from older relatives and faculty members. Mostly they were, "Find something you love and work hard at it, you'll be fine" and "this is a great college, no matter what you study, you'll be fine." When people talked about being poor as a possibility, it was more like 'haha I only have a two-bedroom house I'm poor' not 'uh-oh I can't make rent this month' poor.

I studied French and English, and I thought that I was being super practical because I had a year's experience of PR internships by the time I graduated. Unfortunately, during my second internship the Lehman brothers collapsed, and a few months later I was sharing a desk with a 45-year-old 'intern' with 20 years of experience in the field, working for a stipend just like me.

So Plan A fell through, which led to Plan B, and more Plans...I'm not sure what letter I'm on now but it's probably somewhere around 'E.' Plan E is to become a speech-language pathologist.

And I'm doing it! I found a practical, reasonable field where I can make a living for myself and contribute meaningfully to our finances. But it has taken everything I've got just to get into a program. I worked for four years teaching EFL/ESL, studied like crazy to get good GREs, and spent plenty of time and money on another Bachelor's degree in the correct field. I don't know if I could have achieved this if I didn't come from a family that helped with my education from elementary school forward, or if I hadn't been married to such a supportive husband. It took two years to get into a grad program even with straight A's, and not everyone with the same transcript as me gets into grad school. The message board for my undergrad SLP program gets a post every few weeks written by someone who's been applying to universities around the country for 2-3 years, and has to give up their efforts towards becoming an SLP as a sunk cost. The market is over-saturated with people trying to get ahead because their first career didn't work out, but too many people have made this their Plan E, to the extent that grad programs can't keep up with the demand. This 'bottlenecking' creates decent salaries for people who are able to become certified SLPs, because right now, demand is out-stripping supply. (See? Republicans always say that Democrats don't know economics, but I took that class at one of the top economics programs in the country. So there!)

In the meantime, I need a part-time job while I'm in grad school, and the options are not well-paying. How is it fair to pay preschool teachers $10/hour? Preschool is, neurologically and psychologically speaking, the most important part of a person's education. Teaching preschool involves multi-tasking, planning, reacting quickly and efficiently, being compassionate, and constant focus. It's like waitressing, but much harder, so why does it pay less?

Actually, forget preschool in specific, how is it fair to pay anyone in the Bay Area $10/hour? With that kind of money, even working full-time, people need EFT, WIC, and affordable housing projects. Wouldn't it make more sense to just pay the workers more? Why do the Waltons get to have so much money while American taxpayers are covering the bill for their employees groceries and housing? And why would I have to work 30 hours a week to cover a tuition bill that compared to other schools is affordable? In Israel/France/German/INSERT NAME OF DEVELOPED NATION HERE, the cost is just not this high.

I'm not saying that I feel sorry for myself. I feel fortunate, but at the same time, I feel that I barely got over the divide separating fortunate and unfortunate. All of the schooling, all of the arts lessons, all of the hard work, all of the financial and emotional support, I used all of it to get myself into grad school. So what chance does a person brought up in disadvantaged circumstances have? Or someone with a learning disability? Or just a person with average intelligence coming from an average home? When you adjust for inflation, most jobs that used to be middle-class are now around the poverty line. How are those people going to get ahead, or at least tread water to maintain the same lifestyle that their parents had?

The nice thing about Downton Abbey is that no one is telling the butler "if you work hard enough, you may own this mansion yourself one day!" I feel like the American mythology about hard work bringing economic success is becoming almost equally absurd as a proposition. Sure, it can happen, but look at how often babies are born into situations where the cards are stacked against them from day one. If getting into grad school to follow a middle-class career path takes all of the efforts of an upper-middle-class, well-educated white girl, what chances do those other kids really have?

One of my favorite political quotes is from John Steinbeck, who wrote that "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Americans hear so often that hard work will lead to millions of dollars that it's become a dogma. Yet, when I look around, I see so many hard-working teachers, psychologists, nurses, chefs, lawyers, and other professionals who aren't rich, they're just getting by. As the income gap widens, the dream of wealth becomes more unattainable. So why are these dummies voting Republican? (Just kidding! Kind of! I'm a little bit serious here. But I know that there are smart Republicans who aren't rich or anti-abortion zealots. I just don't understand what they're thinking.) 

Anyway, the point is, I'm scared of where our nation is headed. When pollsters ask that question on the phone, I always think it's funny. There are so many ways to look at it, and it's silly to spend time predicting the future anyway. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I really, really don't like where this is going. Even if I can get on a life-boat, I hate to see the steering class passengers shivering in the ocean all alone like that! 

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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