CFL News
April 25, 2014

Not nourishing a middle class is huge mistake

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Ron Grossman

One of a professor's perks is that students feel obliged to laugh at his lame jokes, like a quip I'd make while handing out final exams in my Western Civilization class. It was a piece of advice if they were stumped by a question about, say, the Hellenistic Age or the French Revolution: "Always guess that the middle class was rising."

That wisecrack would fall flat in a contemporary American history course. These days, middle-class folks are barely treading water. The decent-paying industrial jobs that were their economic underpinning have been outsourced, wholesale. Upbeat reports that the Great Recession is over, from an investor's standpoint, have to acknowledge that Joe and Jill Six-Pack are still in limbo. Long-term unemployment hangs like a cloud over the streets where they live.

Yet from ancient times to the era of suburban soccer moms, the middle class was the engine of progress. When it prospered, civilization advanced. When it didn't, society went down the tubes. So having embarked on the experiment of making do with a shriveling middle class, let's rerun the tape of history — modified a la the classic movie "It's A Wonderful Life."

Having reached rock bottom, the hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, wishes he'd never been born, whereupon his guardian angel grants the request. Because he wasn't there to save his brother from a childhood accident, the brother isn't a war hero. Because he didn't run a savings and loan, his fellow townsmen never became homeowners. He sees his wife as a lonely spinster.

Apply that template to our common past, and here is what it looks like:

Socrates' father was a skilled stonemason; Aristotle's father was a doctor. Suppose those two occupations, plus other middle-class trades and professions, hadn't existed in ancient Greece. Who would have asked the big questions — like what is the nature of a just society? Centuries before Donald Rumsfeld, who would have posed the issue of how we know what we think we know? Probably nobody. Where a middle class is lacking, aristocrats simply hand down the answers, considering their views beyond question. So Western philosophy wouldn't have been born in Athens.

Hollywood's version of the Roman Empire features decadent emperors and voluptuous slave girls. But behind the scenes, the urban middle classes kept it afloat. Their well-being depending upon trade routes linking Britain and the Middle East, they needed the security of knowing the rules of commerce didn't change from one province to another. Without them, Roman jurists wouldn't have taught that law isn't arbitrary, a gift of the gods or the whim of a ruler, but the product of human intellect. But they did, and their insight can be seen in any county courthouse in America when a lawyer objects to an opponent's argument and offers the judge an alternate explanation of the legal issue.

Those prosperous Roman burgers were also on a spiritual quest. Not so the upper classes, which stuck with the Roman gods, as did the peasants. So without middle-class converts, there wouldn't have been a Christian church to keep learning alive during the Dark Ages, when cities and commerce dried up. The clergy were about the only literate folks left. Charlemagne, the most powerful ruler of the medieval period, could scarcely write his name.

By the Renaissance, there were again middle-class readers with a taste for spicy stories like Boccaccio's "The Decameron." His father was an Italian merchant, as were his readers. John Shakespeare was an English leather merchant; his artistic son William became an actor and writer — a middle-class saga if ever there was one. Except for the merchant families of the Low Countries, who would there have been to pose for those beautiful family portraits by Rembrandt and Van Eck?

Without a middle class to read his polemics, Martin Luther would have been an obscure monk ranting about the need for church reform. The French Revolution wouldn't have happened without a middle class. It started when the nobles tried to nix the king's demand that they pay taxes like everybody else. But that seemed fair to lawyers and other middle-class professionals who transformed France into a republic. The nobles went to the guillotine, and the revolutionaries' slogans — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — became the litmus paper of modern government.

Except for middle-class whiz kids, we'd lack a host of technological wonders, from the airplane to the iPad. Wilbur and Orville Wright were the proprietors of a bicycle shop. Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, was a professor's son. James Watt, who developed the steam engine, caught the bug for tinkering in his father's naval supply store. The father of Jonas Salk, of the polio vaccine, was a women's wear designer in New York's garment district. Bill Gates is the son of a lawyer. Steve Jobs' adoptive father was a mechanic and a carpenter.

America once was so in love with a middle class it couldn't get enough of it. The GI Bill paid for World War II veterans to go to college, a steppingstone to the middle class, and enabled them to become homeowners, the hallmark of having arrived there.

It's easy to satirize the lifestyle they built of shopping malls and cul-de-sacs lined with carbon-copy houses. But if the time has come to bid farewell to a once-flourishing middle class, let's also remember it for its gifts: democracy, rule of law, material comfort and something less tangible but equally real: an optimistic spirit.

The rich take their social position for granted. The poor may be stoically resigned. But as long as a single member of the middle class survives, its creed will be with us: an unwavering faith that, come what may, hard work is the surest path to a better tomorrow.