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August 18, 2011



I was writing a somewhat sympathetic comment disputing a common (but wrong) diagnosis of the plight of the modern American 'working class,' when I got to really thinking, for the first time in a while, about the long-term prospects of those who used to be medium-skilled industrial workers in the US. I don't think there has ever been a time (since the start of the industrial revolution) when the medium-skilled workers in manufacturing enjoyed such relatively high wages as white American men did in the 50s. To those peculiar circumstances in history we will never return, but is the 'working man' destined to an indefinite, asymptotic decline (relative to jobs requiring specific cognitive skills that might be out of reach)?

Yes, it seemed likely, I was forced to admit. But, I thought, what if the cost of living fell faster? What if we stopped artificially constricting supply in various ways? Then it occurred to me that the real cost of living for a given standard probably has declined relative to wages, but the standard of living has risen more quickly. Put more concretely, even if a working-class person can afford things that would have been luxuries or even entirely unavailable at any price, the basis of comparison keeps rising (roughly) along with GDP, so that now one feel economically excluded without ever more goods. And I'm not even sure they're wrong.

But I think one need only look at a farmworker or a busboy to see that one is indeed very privileged. I know I am reminded of my tremendous good fortune every time I bike home through the Tenderloin, in a way I never was when I lived in more suburban settings. I think it's isolation from each other combined with overexposure to popular media highlighting the rich that makes people feel poor and disenfranchised. Of course, overexposure to the down-and-out can also give the impression that those less well off are all drunken, belligerent louts who made their own fate.

But the people who *really* work hard are the immigrants, especially the 'illegals' who come here to absolutely work their butts off and live in tiny spaces so they can send money home to their families, or to support their families here. If we had more around, I think fewer Americans would feel poor. They'd realize how amazing it is to have a refurbished iPod and weekends and all the other luxuries that almost everyone in the US except working single mothers enjoy.


All of which I mention because I was thinking of your various commentaries on the topic the whole time.


I've sensed you becoming more and more restrained in your writings. I, myself, have been thinking about how I'll have to censor my own writings if and when I attain a PhD (not a certainty by any means). I've also had fantasies about running for public office someday, and so I had better start writing in such a way as to leave little room for misinterpretation or misrepresentation.

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