Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Middle Class

Several years ago both Monique and I participated in the production a four-volume work entitled Social Trends & Indicators USA, a project that we’d envisioned ourselves and which then appeared under the copyright of ECDI† in 2003. The concept behind SIUSA (as we abbreviated the project in-house) was to illuminate trends in society by the use of government statistics. Each entry in these volumes consisted of a graphic followed by a page or two of succinct commentary. We placed the actual statistics we’d used to make the graphs at the back of each volume in numerical format—following the general rule that in socio-economic studies others should be able to examine your logic with all numbers disclosed. Six of us labored on this project virtually day and night to bring it home by the deadline. It was a memorable year filled with valuable discoveries. The highlight of each week was a meeting in the course of which each of us presented the entries we’d produced that week in summary—and we discussed them all. Perhaps the most general of our discoveries was that demographic structure drives everything else, all things being equal—but often also when they’re not. But all this just as a preamble to something else.

The other day Monique sent me a link with the laconic subject: “When you have a spare hour…” The link turned out to be the video of the 2007 Jefferson Memorial Lecture presented at UC Berkley by Elizabeth Warren, the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. (Yes, I do! I bow to those who fund these chairs. Many people don’t share their wealth, and those who do deserve the bow.) The lecture’s title was “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” You can see the lecture here. Yes, it takes an hour. And yes. It’s worth it!

In this living version of the Ghulf clan there are quite a few of us with a keen interest in the cultural and cosmic climates. Tracking and documenting pieces of it that become visible in some way—through statistics, literature, comic books, pop music, esoteric culture, however we can get at it—is occupation as well as preoccupation. SIUSA and the other USAs we have produced were and are part of that effort. So is our interest in Peak Oil and my own in cyclic history. Well, Elizabeth Warren undertook a very careful study, in methodology identical to that which we followed in SIUSA. She compares a representative (median) family of four as it existed in the early 1970s to one as it was in the early 2000s. She too presents graphics and then makes succinct but penetrating comments—and the conclusion that emerges is dramatic. Listening to her one feels as if watching (helplessly because we are so tiny) the slow-motion evolution of a major disaster that’s coming with what seems to be a kind of inevitability.

But enough said. The lecture is worth seeing, the conclusions worth pondering. It’s better always to face the future knowing than not—and we may even be enabled to change the course of the raging river despite only holding a little cup in the hand.
†Editorial Code and Data, Inc.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, listening to Warren's lecture increased my desire to take on a new edition of SI-USA. Only in retrospect do I fully appreciate the year we were given to work on that project, a year to spend in such interesting work.

    And yes, we are better off facing the future with our eyes open. In fact, as a true Ghulf would explain, it is one's responsibility to try and do just that, anticipate the future and in so doing, help to propel civilization forward. Help to provide a safe place for civilization to thrive, serviving through the dark times and expanding joyously when the light is bright.


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