Thursday, July 22, 2004


One Hour Cleaners

The WSJ ran a story this week which is getting a fair amount of juice, at least in the blogosphere. No, it's not 'Dennis Endorses Kerry'; it's about the effects of the Bush tax cuts, (and is extra-piquant at the moment because of the current weird showdown (mano a mano in Bushspeak) over extensions of some of the cuts). If you have time to read only one essay about it (after the story itself), check out Billmon's.

One of the main points of the WSJ story is: "[the] tax cuts . . . have sharply benefited upper income households relative to others.." Was that result ever in serious doubt? Not really. (It has been in plenty of unserious doubt, of course...) How do they get away with this crap? I would suggest that one way they do it can be illustrated by this classic (Pythonesque) Bonzo Dog Band routine from the intro to their song Shirt:

"When can I pick these up?"

"About 3 weeks, gov'ner"

"3 weeks?! But your sign says 'One Hour Cleaners'!"

"(slightly wearily) That's just the name of the shop, Gov'ner. Of course if you want starch, that'll be four weeks...."


The tax con is abetted by the fact that Americans famously define themselves as 'middle class' no matter what income group they're in. But deep down, we all know that, when the rubber meets the road, there is a material middle class dream, defined by what we buy, or can buy. Middle class today means having a cushion of truly 'disposable' income - running through a certain amount of 'non-essential' stuff. You know, Consumer Things. And that's after health care and tuition. If you drive a crappier, older car, or your footwear is a little off, or fill-in-the-blank, you might be 'sorta poor' and sort of a 'loser'. (This obviously doesn't apply only to kids.) You needn't be actually poor, but you know you aren't really 'middle class'. It's no wonder that there is a vogue among some younger, and some not-so-younger, people for 50s-60s 'ring a ding' nostalgia: those years were the Great Awakening of true Consumerism. The images of that era seem sweeter in the context of our much more developed consumerism. It's a kind of fetish, and an understandable one.

So what is the actual dollar amount for the middle class 'dream'? [For the sake of argument, I'd like to leave aside (but not 'behind') the people who have crushing debt.] What does it take to be reasonably solvent, raise a family, and have all the things you deem necessary for your basic self-image as a quasi-50s/60s-style middle class person or couple? Some may quibble, but I'd say between mid-$60k to - mid-$100k, depending on where you live, etc. Is that the 'middle' in any real way?

Actually, the median (literally 'middle' - opposed to 'mean', or 'average') US household income is a little below $50k. But even that might give too rosy an impression, because the point of a middle class is having a plurality of people making enough to feel successful - a cultural bulwark we used to be very proud of having developed in this country. It used to be called the 'broad middle class'. Since the curve downward in numbers (percentage) of people making $65k-$150k must be VERY sharp (given that only 2% make above $200k), clearly, the middle class, as I defined it, is not very many people at all - certainly undescribable as 'broad'. 'Thin' is more like it.

So how do they get away with it? As with the 'maturing' Dry Cleaning Business, the idea is to keep the name the same but change the meaning of it - absurdly. 'Middle class' is now defined by what it 'should' be rather than by how many people can actually afford to be in it. There's nothing 'middle' about it in the real world, in terms of percentage (or even, pathetically, median). We just call it that. In other words, a middle class income is what you should be making if the vast majority of you weren't such losers.

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