© Copyright Geoffrey B. Garwick. All Rights Reserved.
“Class warfare” and “income inequality” are now common terms among progressives, and even some conservatives, but it needs to be noted that only in the last two years or so have these terms been bandied about by national and state political candidates. The more socially acceptable code for these perspectives is “protecting the middle class”, a phrase focuses on the victims of sweeping economic shifts since Reagan, as opposed to emphasis on the victors, via phrases such as “the One Percent” or “the Billionaire Class”. As a proud non-economist, I would like to remind us briefly of what I see as eight signs largely based on of the financial disempowerment of the “middle” -- which are only sketchily acknowledged by the so-called experts, and are evident even in relatively successful locales within the stable and (most-often) liberal state of Minnesota in which I live.
1- YOU DON’T GET PAID FOR SAVING UNLESS YOU’RE ALREADY RICH.
Admittedly, 5% is neither a breathtakingly rapid nor hefty return. For many years after World War II, you could be a risk-taking speculator if you wanted, but even a child, a disinterested saver, or a forgetful accumulator could earn that noticeable, and sometimes significant five percent return on savings. Nowadays, we middles are supposed to try to search for 4/10 versus 5/10 of a percent, and that’s only if we’re lucky. Sure, you can get big bucks by trading in securities and junk bonds or even in the housing market, but multiple times in the last 25 years, we’ve seen all of these arenas go bust. Don’t make me laugh at gold, but I’ll be happy to underpay you for yours.
2- PAWING at a PAWN’S BELONGINGS.
There are two separate etymologies behind that curiously loaded word, “Pawn”. When you are a “foot soldier” with little control over what happens around you (whether spelled “peon” or “pawn”, which have the same derivation, Latin ped for “foot”) you are low person on the trading board. Period. “Pawn” as in “pawn shop” is from Latin’s pignus meaning “pledge” or “security for a loan”. I always thought, perhaps due to being a speaker and researcher on sexology, that the three yellow balls or circles of antiques pawnshops looked like diagrams of reproductive human organs, perhaps reflecting what happens to many folks who have to pawn their stuff. In any case, I see pawnshops multiplying and enlarging. Look around, how many pawnshops does your community really need? They supply some helpful services, but they are signs of economic despair and disability increasing. Communities which rely on pawning are displaying an increasing number of economic pawns.
3- USURY, PAYDAY LOANS and OTHER FEES.
I recently read in the popular press that in Minnesota, at least one big pawnshop owner is also a proprietor and ardent advocate for barely regulated payday loans. When former middles find themselves ensconced in such services, their pawn status is clarified, and certified abysmally. The usurious rates many credit cards are able to charge in our deregulated times are extraordinary historically and not much different from those exorbitant payday loans. Middlings who are paying only interest or minimums on their credit cards are teetering on the brink of leaving the Middle and dropping into the abject Poor, while clearly serving as pawns to big organizations. In a similar pawn-spawning category are the tricky and frequently bulky fees that the cards (Big Plastic), the banks, many stores, and even utilities throw about. The banks are wriggling around in their usury-dispensation wallows, striving to reformat some of the lending practices recently outlawed. But they are not interested in using this same ingenuity to start raising the interest they pay – which is eminently fair and just -- as the Federal Reserve increases their own bank rates.
4- DOLLAR STORES and RUMMAGE STORES.
Like pawnshops, they provide a service, but what was wrong with charitable groups such as Salvation Army or Goodwill running these stores? Dollar stores are basically glorified rummage shops; and they are beloved by many, but how many of them do we truly need in an economically healthy community? Do they support a strong middle class or merely confer some scant supplies and solace to the “De-middling” Legions? Perhaps, but they in conjunction with the other symptoms listed here are ominous when in numbers like we see today.
5- DISCOUNT MALLS.
I’m not sure how many any metropolitan area needs, but such malls are generally celebrations of brands and big name franchises, not local businesses which may have middle class owners and connections in the community. My impression is that these malls are another place for Middles to desperately seek lower cost goods, but it’s not clear that the costs are substantially lower or the selection better.
6- COLLEGE CUT-THROAT LOANS.
This fundamental attack on middles and their values has been well-publicized, with special places in hell for all those conservatives who have pulled the rope ladders up after themselves if they used public colleges or GI loans to get their own tidy little degrees. Again, those at the higher reaches of the middles may be able to repay loans or otherwise finance college, but it is those at the lower reaches of middling whose children are excluded or whose families are too impoverished to enter wholly into the great American Dream of equal opportunity – in education, then jobs.
7- BLACK THURSDAY / FRIDAY and WORKING HOLIDAYS.
They didn’t work so well this year, I’ve heard from insider pros in the retail game, but I assume such strategies will continue. Shoppers who must rise at unusual hours, go store-visiting instead of hanging around with family on Thanksgiving, or who endure desperately crowded struggles for bargains, may just enjoy the hunt, but in many cases these forays are forced forays for items they could otherwise not afford. Those who must battle for bargains and those who must work on holidays are displaying another form of pawnism.
8- RESPECT for the MIDDLE CLASS by the YOUNG.
As much as I insist on the absolute necessity of having a prosperous and burgeoning middle class, it is a sign of troubling, even pathological economic debility when our own youngsters must campaign for the future of their own middle class, which by all that is right and decent, they should eventually inherit anyway. It is far more hopeful for our society when the young and restless feel comfortable enough about the future to critique the bourgeoisie and lambaste their parents’ materialism, rather than live in fear of losing their … birthright Middleness.
-- G.B. Garwick, Ma.RS, Ph.D, L.P., FAAIDD