David Brooks argued in the New York Times yesterday that, "America should focus less on losing its star status and more on defending and preserving the gospel of middle-class dignity."
The middle class is a segment of society that has simultaneously grown exponentially worldwide and diminished greatly in stature here at home. A matter of relative perspective, Brooks explains. There are simply more of them, and less of us. While no longer as powerful in their ability to set national priorities, the American middle-class is not yet "eating cake." They simply aren't as distinguished amid so many others.
The middle class - and the United States - have been derided as "tepid and materialistic." In fact, those are the very traits – while stoked and exploited by those with more means – that have led to its nadir. The foreclosure crisis and the looming hammer of debt above are both underwritten by our continued dependence on ever-increasingly expensive fossil fuel; and it has whittled away our disposable income to point of seething anger and blind rage.
However, redemption is not impossible.
Ben Franklin, Brooks reminds us, was one of the original champions of the middle class. While superficially defined as having the means to spend on non-necessities, Brooks explores its deeper values of quality over quantity, of pluralism, innovation, and objectivity. In other words, distinguishing ourselves by what we spend on rather than by what have to spend. Or knowing what is simply not necessary.
"American culture was built on the notion of bourgeois dignity." This dignity is being rediscovered by overcoming the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease wrought by car-centric sprawl and the commoditization of our health and nutrition. It will be reclaimed by standing up and refusing to be marginalized by a lack of transportation options and infrastructure that ignores a great many people's needs and forces them into near-servitude.
Many Americans go into debt because they feel they must own a car, even while 37% of the money they spend on it is lost to depreciation.
Diabetes and its complications claim one in every five dollars spent on healthcare in this country. This "lifestyle" disease is the reason why so many of us cannot afford health insurance and it is now beyond any doubt that urban sprawl and its drive-only mandate bears much of the blame. Not only because it robs us of the time spent moving our bodies, but of the time spent preparing quality meals and sharing them with quality people during quality time. Robbing us of the expendable income to spend what is actually necessary.
I see a revolution of holistic self-sufficiency and the abandonment of suburbia. Robust transit systems that complement streets which welcome walkers and cyclists along with manageable and safe traffic flow, encouraging efficacy, commerce, and vibrant community will diminish our crushing debt and nihilistic consumerism. Rather than spend two hours a day in the car, then obsessively jump on a treadmill after grabbing take out, the new middle-class will simply bike to work or walk to the train, and have the time afterward to enjoy a real meal with family or friends.
Fewer teens are getting a driver’s license than at any point in the last 25 years.
Measured austerity and real sustainability (as opposed to the "greenwashing" of hybrid cars, wind powered parking garages, and carbon credits – i.e. bullshitting ourselves) will come to define the middle-class in the very near future. It will be the one characteristic that gives them back the power they once had.
Not the power to buy or own what it neither needs nor can afford, but to free themselves of the compulsion to do so.