Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think
by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm
(New York: Basic Books, 1999), 256pp.
W. Michael Cox is a Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas and Richard Alm is a Dallas journalist. Together they have written a book praised by libertarian organizations on why the U.$. people are better off than they think.
Cox and Alm level their attack on the New York Times and other newspapers in particular which reported anecdotal evidence that economic times are hard, that people have gone from good jobs to hamburger-flipping jobs. Not surprisingly, the authors review the evidence that MIM has already published in the Spring of 1992 in MIM Theory #1.
The New York Times, social-democrats and unconscious social-democrats including most calling themselves Marxist harp on the factoid of falling U.$. wages since 1973 when inflation is accounted for.(p. 5) As MIM long ago pointed out, that particular factoid leaves out benefits. Total compensation per worker has always increased in the United $tates, and at an astonishing rate.
The notion that the country is becoming a people of hamburger-flippers is also wrong. Almost 70% of fast-food workers are teenagers (p. 147) as MIM has pointed out before. We may even hope that teenage boys are doing more cooking and middle-aged wimmin less thanks to the popularity of fast-food.
MIM also agrees with the fact evident for anyone to see that there is class mobility within the United $tates. We see it to such an extent that MIM does not believe it is possible to speak of a white proletariat. Before they know it, people who would be white proletariat find themselves in the middle-classes or if they do not find themselves as such, they know many people from their milieu that have "gotten ahead." Thus, no class identity can form. Almost 30% of the people in the bottom fifth find themselves in the top fifth within 16 years based on a study covering 1975 to 1991.(p. 73) Less than 20% of the bottom fifth stays in the bottom two-fifths of income. The reason for this is that the bottom fifth contains a large portion of youth and immigrants who will "make it" with time. People who fall into the bottom fifth are largely retirees.
As MIM noted in a 1998 Congress resolution, even most of the internal semi-colonies are petty-bourgeoisie. The bottom fifth has a higher chance of generating oppressed nation consciousness, but it is not based on the status of individuals. It has more to do with the possibility of looking around and gathering national consciousness. Less than 1% of people in the bottom fifth stayed in that bottom fifth every year between 1975 and 1991.(p. 74) Such a miniscule pocket of people less than 0.2% of the population cannot form a class. It is too isolated and influenced by other groups. It is unfortunate that among those calling themselves "Marxists," only MIM is not perpetuating massive delusions on this score.
Unlike social-democrats who fight for principles no longer environmentally sustainable and unlike economists who likewise get caught up in abstractions unconnected to us down here on earth, Cox and Alm take the trouble to talk about physical reality. By doing so, they unconsciously go back to the last major economist to talk about the physical world--Karl Marx. Marx attacked as "commodity fetishism" those who followed non-physical (currency-denominated) statistics in their own right.
For example, the average persyn in 1970 had 478 square feet of house space. In the mid-1990s the figure was 814. Color TV went from 34% ownership to 97.9% ownership.(p. 7) Going to college went from 25.4% of high school graduates in 1970 to 60% in 1996.(p. 56)
In 1971, 31.8% of all households had air-conditioners. In 1994, 49.6% of households below the poverty-line had air-conditioners.(pp. 14-5) The poor also do better than 1971 U.S. households in clothes dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, VCRs and Personal Computers. That is not comparing the poor of now with the poor of the past. We are comparing the poor of now with all households of 1971 and the poor of now are better off.
There are countless facts like these and they prove that the standard of living is getting better, sometimes for reasons of purely technological progress--which MIM points out is paid for by the cheap food and manufactured goods produced by the Third World. Cox and Alm show that a food basket containing three pounds of tomatoes, one dozen eggs, five pounds of sugar, one pound of bacon, one dozen oranges, one pound of coffee, a half gallon of milk, one pound of ground beef, one pound of lettuce, one pound of beans, one pound of bread and one pound of onions costs less as time goes on. Between 1970 and 1997, the real price of that bread basket fell so that it took 26% less of the workers' time to buy that food basket.(pp. 40-1) To get at this calculation, the authors used the wages of manufacturing production workers who are not supervisors.(pp. 215-6) That is exactly the question Marx was also interested in. Wages did not shrink relative to the food necessary to reproduce workers. Wages increased, not through arduous unionization and class struggle within the United $tates, but by class struggle against the rest of the world, the Third World in particular.
There are numerous lying, wishful and half-assed "leftists" who are determined to drive Marxism to an early death with their sentimental drivel. In contrast, we at MIM believe it is necessary to accept the truth, no matter who presents it or how it is arrived at.
Even these two bourgeois mouthpieces Cox and Alm have a greater grip on economic reality than most "leftists" and economists, so we feel obliged to agree with almost all their main points and wish them success in destroying social-democracy. The twelve points summarizing the book (pp. 195-6) are basically all true of the United $tates in isolation from the majority of the world's population suffering under capitalism and contributing to U.$. wealth. In the United $tates, the standard of living has risen the last 25 years; the poor are getting richer and life is easier in the material sense. So-called Marxists who fail to recognize this only prove to the people their disconnection from reality. They deserve not the slightest trust. The bourgeoisie and proletariat are engaged in a global war and accuracy counts in war. It means the difference between more or fewer casualties.
For those who equate Marxism with what Lenin derided as "economism," Cox and Alm have delivered a death blow. Amerikans achieve advances in the workplace, including flexible hours and reduced hours -- without even organizing more labor unions to do so. People who organize for such economic reforms are absolutely no threat to the system. They find themselves lying and exaggerating in order to make themselves seem of some use with their social-democratic politics.
Capitalism as a lifestyle of imperialism
For Cox and Alm, capitalism is clearly just a lifestyle of ever better technological gizmos and higher income. Whether such a successful system leads to war or environmental catastrophe does not enter in any meaningful way into their thinking. The limited insight they provide into the conditions of Amerikan capitalism cannot be denied.
Here is their whole sentence on the environment: "Environmentalists warn of global warning, deforestation, hazardous-waste dumping, and the loss of endangered speices."(p. 201) Now if only our phony communists and social-democrats would abandon the field so gracefully! Cox and Alm know enough not to say things about what they don't know about or don't care about. Could there be a connection between the profit-system and environmental devastation that would be undercut by the dictatorship of the proletariat? Cox and Alm don't provide answers.
Nor do they provide any answers about militarism. The causation of war is not something they attempt to address. MIM asks why the Amerikan chauvinist "leftists" have to contest Cox and Alm on their own terrain of living standards in an imperialist country when they have conceded us the field on the environment and war. Cox and Alm have left themselves open for target practice by making concessions on the last page of their book: "We shouldn't let a few aspects of life overshadow two decades -- no, two centuries -- of progress in our living standards."(p. 202) Starvation, war and ecological catastrophe be damned! We have garage-door openers now! (We should have TWO garage-door openers the social-democratic and phony Marxist morons chime in oh-so "critically.")
The one claim that Cox and Alm make that they should not make is about the rest of the world outside the United $tates. They have no comparative evidence for the Third World and no sense of comparative history enough to say "Why has it paid off so handsomely for the United States? Because U.S. citizens have been working hard within an economic system that gives individuals free reign to reap the rewards of their efforts, imaginations, talents, and good fortune."(p. 187)
MIM does not deny the wealth of the United $tates. It only denies the sources and associated costs of obtaining that wealth are as the bourgeois mouthpieces say. U.$. wealth is great because of the super-exploitation of the Third World and the U.$. system is unsustainable environmentally and creates additional impetus to war. That is more than reason enough for socialism.
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