Stuck in the Middle with You

We here a lot about the "middle class" in European-modeled societies, but most people lack a real understanding of what the middle class actually is.

The easiest and perhaps clearest method for defining the middle class is by exclusion: e.g., what is *not* the middle class?

We generally consider a modern society to have three classes: upper, middle, and lower.

The upper class is generally thought of as the "leisure class", or "the rich", or variations thereof.  However, the primary characteristic of the upper class from a sociopolitical standpoint is this: their day-to-day livelihood and stability is ensured passively rather than actively.  Their lives are not subject to the whims of other or even dependent on their own labor or activities.

To phrase it another way, those in the upper class generate incomes based on the efforts or workings of others: through investment, through ownership, through inheritance, etc.  A person in the upper class need not do anything (or much) to maintain their lifestyle.  Income is entirely passive.  They can (and often do) choose to work in positions that interest them or provide some other benefit, but their core livelihood is ensured, for the most part, regardless of what they do.  If a rich person decided to stay in bed all day (and a few have been rumored to do so), they would still be rich and continue to be rich.

The lower class - the poor - is largely marked by constant effort and vigilance to maintain living - not a lifestyle, but the actual necessities of day-to-day life.  If a person in the lower class stops working, stops striving, stops putting out the effort - even for a short period - they often suffer major consequences with regards to their personal safety, security, health, or other basic needs.

The second characteristic of the lower class is high dependence on others: the state, employers, charity, etc. - as part of that struggle.  Any interruption of support from those sources, all of which are outside the control of the individual, can also cause serious or disastrous personal consequences for a member of the lower class.  That "support" can often be indirect; technically, a tenant is depending on the whims of a landlord in many cases in order to maintain their housing security.

To summarize: the upper class has (near-)total control over its basic needs and must expend little to any effort to maintain those needs, while the lower class has limited control over its basic needs and must expend nearly all of its effort to maintain them and/or live in a state of near-total dependence on forces outside of its control.

What, then, is the middle class?

The cheeky answer is "somewhere in the middle", but it's also the correct answer.  The middle class must expend some, but not all, of its efforts towards its basic needs.  It is less dependent on but not independent of others, a dependence most often in the form of employment.

From a simplified economic standpoint, we can consider the lower class as "those whose net worth is entirely equated with labor", the upper class as "those whose net worth is entirely separate from labor", and the middle class as "those whose net worth is a combination of labor and non-labor."

If we think about what we generally consider to be characteristics of the middle class, these definitions - and especially the economic distinctions - make sense.  The middle class works for a living but can afford to take time off for vacation, meaning that day-to-day survival is not dependent on day-to-day labor.  The middle class generally starts to accrue assets - car, home, retirement funds, maybe a small investment account; these assets are thus divorced from labor itself and can even constitute a small source of income/increased net worth that is labor-independent.  The middle class also strives to ensure inheritance of some of those accrued assets, further enabling a separation of survival/net worth from labor.

This isn't to say that any of this is "right" in any ethical or moral sense; a large portion of leftist-progressive politics is based on how to separate labor from needs for the lower (and to a lesser extent middle) class, while right-conservative politics often looks to reduce dependence in the same groups.  But understanding where the distinction actually lies may help shape these discussions.

For example, in the modern US, there is a lot of discussion about the "shrinking middle class"; this framing helps us understand exactly what that means.  In short, it is an increase in the dependence that middle-class individuals must place on their labor or on sources outside their control to meet their basic needs; living "paycheck to paycheck" is a prime example of this, regardless of why someone is doing so. It's also a decrease in the likelihood of accruing real assets; for most families, a home is the primary asset, but fewer and fewer families can afford to own homes.

Another aspect of this shift is a change in dependency: historically, the middle class was dependent most on employers, in the form of healthcare, wages, pension, and other benefits.  Many of those benefits have either disappeared entirely or are actively shifting out of the employer/employee relationship, with the result that those in the middle class are being left without that source of support.  Again, we can discuss whether separating retirement plans from employment (via 401(k), IRAs, etc.) or healthcare from employment (via single-payer or a hybrid like the PPACA) is morally or ethically good in the long run, but it is inarguable that this relationship that in the past helped to build the middle class is deteriorating.

One clear example is simply the notion of company loyalty: It's now considered extremely odd to have only worked for one or two employers in one's career, whereas that used to be the standard.  40 years ago, an employee started at a company in their 20s and often retired from that company 30 years later.  Today, the notion of loyalty from a company towards an employee (and, arguably as a consequence, from employee towards a company) has largely vanished; in some job sectors, working for the same organization for more than 24 months is considered a troubling sign on a resume.

As to why the middle class is considered so important in a society, that should be addressed elsewhere. 



A scientist makes observations through a telescope and publishes his findings.  They are somewhat controversial, accepted by some and challenged by others.  This does not deter him, as he is simply reporting the facts as they are observed.

The ruling authority gets involved, as the facts he has reported directly contradict  what the authority believes and wants the population to believe.  They chastise and harass him, trying to force him into retracting his ideas.

Instead, he publishes a book - ostensibly with the authority's permission - comparing his observations and theories with what the authority proposes, in language the average reader could understand.  He presents his facts, rebuts the arguments of his detractors, and makes his case.

The authority's response is immediate and total.  Within a year, his books are banned from publication anywhere.  His theories are verboten, and discussing them can lead to similar punishment.  The authority must not be contradicted.

He is sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

This isn't the plot of a drama or movie.  This is a brief version of the life of Galileo Galilei.  That book, known as Dialogo, wasn't taken off the banned list for almost 300 years.

One of the most famous diagrams from Dialogo depicts the Copernican model of orbit (Copernicus himself never suffered for his theory, as he died on the eve of its formal publication).  That page is shown below:
Galileo's crime was speaking the truth to an authority - the Catholic Church, in this case - that disagreed: Copernican theory was considered heresy, as it contradicted the Earth-centric Biblical view the Church officially supported.  In 400 years, the facts haven't changed, and many of Galileo's arguments and theories as presented in Dialogo hold up today, but he died a prisoner because he refused to deny the reality of the world.

America isn't at that point -  yet.  The current administration certainly seems headed in that direction, with blatant denial of facts, muzzling of the organizations that are responsible for publishing facts, and (it appears) a process for political review of scientific information before it can be released.

Many people, especially scientists, believe optimistically that facts are their own defense - that the truth can stand on its own against lies and deceit.  We have already witnessed that this isn't the case.  It is the duty of every rational person to support the truth and deny any attempt at burying or destroying it.  The truth needs its defenders.  Science needs and army.

In the last week and in response to the administration's decision to silence all public communication from many government science organizations, members of those organizations set up alternative media accounts to continue getting the truth out.   Right now, they are collections of individuals, and individuals are vulnerable.  There needs to be a movement, and movements need something to stand for.

I say that we follow Galileo and refuse to concede the truth, no matter the cost.  Science needs an army, and I for one am willing to fight.


The sexiest picture I've seen in years

That's Falcon9_Mission20 first stage - after having reached 100 km, 5000 km/h, 16 km downstream, separating the second stage, turning around, and flying back - landing, vertically and under power, at Cape Canaveral almost exactly on the target.

As the first stage is approximately 70% of the cost of launches, this is a very, very big deal for space flight.  With the upcoming launch of the Falcon Heavy - which has two of these as "boosters" around a third segment, all of which can potentially be landed the same way - we may actually see affordable major development in space.


The choice of right

Morality is fundamentally irreligious.

I don't mean that religious people can't be moral.  I simply mean that the basic fundamental of morality has nothing to do with religion.

It is, in fact, entirely aesthetic.

Many people like to go on about their reasoning or rationale for various moral choices - whether religious or not: there's a major topic in atheism about building a rational morality.  But all of these systems come down, at one point or another, to considering life to have value.

And therein lies the sleight of mind that most people miss.

If you think life is valuable or important because your god says so, with no personal involvement, you aren't really moral - you're obedient.  You've made no personal decision about right and wrong and merely follow orders.

Even in that situation, though, I know of no active religion that doesn't have some element of self-determination - of freedom of choice - within it.  And if there is choice, then there is the ability of the individual to decide whether or not to follow the dictates of the religion.  What's the basis of that choice?  Why does someone choose to follow the rules vs. disobeying them?

It's an aesthetic decision: an expression of personal taste or preference.  It's not justifiable in any way, no more than preferring the color blue or the taste of chocolate.  That aesthetic decision is, really, the fundamental moral act for the religious.

For others (like atheists), the choice is a bit more direct: rather than adding the layer of choosing to value life (or not) because some deity does, they simply make the choice on their own.  Again, it's often couched in vague or loose terms, and rationalizations are often presented if not simply the assumption of self-evidence ("of course life is valuable; everyone knows that!").  But it's still, at its core, an aesthetic choice.

Once you've made that choice - or, if you're like me, and drill down a little deeper and make it there - you can use whatever framework of logic or reason to build up the rest of your morality.  Or, if you're religious, you just adopt the framework of a religion and can avoid spending much time analyzing the details (or do, if you feel like it).  One can build a rational or religious (or both) morality upon the basic aesthetic decision, but it's impossible to build either without that aesthetic decision.

If you believe that there is no such choice - that it is impossible to not choose to value life or whatever you see as the basis of morality - then you're back to mechanical obedience and morality cannot exist, whether it's obligatory obedience to a god or forced behavior due to physics and chemistry.


Hiding in plain sight

I like taking pictures.  I'm not a professional photographer, but it is a hobby I enjoy.

Someone meeting me on the street wouldn't know this.  Most of my coworkers don't even know this.  Heck, many of my friends haven't seen my photos.  Every time the subject of photography comes up, I have the option of mentioning that I do photography.  Occasionally, someone else who knows will say it for me.

Now, photography isn't really a controversial topic (unless you're in a media class), so the question of whether or not to out myself as a photographer isn't really important to anyone but me.

(And yes, you may see where this is going, but bear with me.)

There are many facts about ourselves that we choose to reveal or conceal in different environments, most without impact beyond ourselves.  The choice is (mostly) ours on how much we wish to include others in our lives and how much of our lives we wish to include in our relationships with others, be they coworkers, friends, family, lovers, or anything else.

Some facts, however, are far more controversial.  Sexuality is an obvious one, and one with which I'm very familiar, but it's not the only example: mental or non-visible physical differences, disabilities or disorders are another (do you tell someone you have a hearing aid? that you take prozac every morning? that you have a sixth toe?); another might be transgenderism.  Even things like marital status or level of education can be points of conflict in different environments.

With respect to sexuality, there are active social forces in many places including the United States that are very against anything other that basic man/woman relationships.  These forces are (at least in the US, but I see it elsewhere as well) losing power slowly, but they remain major sociopolitical factors for the moment.

There's an argument often made, especially by individuals in the gay community, that anyone who is gay ought to come out: it's often framed as a kind of debt, that such people owe it to society to be visible and proud and such.  The argument is legitimate: the more gay persons are visible in society as regular, everyday people, the harder it is for the opposition to demonize the group as a whole.

I have a couple of problems with this.

The first is an emotional/boundary problem: it's my sexuality.  It's part of who I am, as an individual.  To whom I express or reveal that part, and how much, and when, is entirely a decision that only I can and should make.  No one has a right to force me out of the closet (no, not even if I'm a raging hypocrite - sexuality is not a weapon to use against someone), even with the best intentions.

The second problem, though, is one that goes back to being a photographer.  It doesn't matter how many times I tell people I'm gay: there's always someone new coming along who doesn't know.  We often speak of "coming out" like it's an event, a touchdown or a party (or a disaster), but it's not.  It's a process that has to be repeated over and over and over.  Coming out never ends.

Do you realize how much of a burden is being placed on someone by insisting they must come out?  For someone like me, who isn't "obviously gay" and is regularly assumed to be straight, should I wear a button that says, "Hi! I'm gay!" everywhere I go?  Do I need to preface every initial meeting with someone with a detailed description of my sex life?

Even for me, it's a burden.  I frankly don't care if people know that I'm gay - no more than I care if they know I'm a photographer.  I'm not ashamed or hiding the fact.  But the effort it takes to constantly be coming out, to constantly be answering the questions that everyone asks (and they're always the same questions), is huge.  That effort is more than I care to make most of the time; most relationships just aren't worth it.

And it's just as true, if not more so, for all those other hidden facts about people.  I don't tell everyone I know that I'm ADHD, or dyslexic, or OCD, or slightly sociopathic, or allergic to alcohol and strawberries, or...  All of these things come with an added degree of effort to maintain any relationship in which they're mentioned.

I understand the sociological context of the "come out, come out, wherever you are" mentality.  And I very much want the world to be a place where people feel they are safe to come out, whether it's about being gay or diabetic or transgender or Autistic or even a photographer; that "want" bears with it a social burden that must be born by someone in society.  But I don't think that anyone - anyone - has an obligation to come out in any scenario, nor that anyone has the right to "out" someone else in any scenario (with the possible limitation of something life-threatening).


Stop the harm

Every decision to act is a cost/benefit analysis, even if we aren't aware of it consciously.

The difficulty comes in deciding what the actual costs and benefits are, and how to quantify them relative to each other.  What is the cost of a broken heart today versus one in three months?  How do we measure the benefit of a random smile?

One thing most people agree on is that a cost born involuntarily is worse than one born voluntarily; in practical terms, intentionally or accidentally forcing a cost on someone is ethically worse than intentionally or accidentally taking one on yourself.

Applying this logic to incidents of violence is generally fairly simple: if you see a fight, you try to stop it and prevent anyone - assailant or victim - from being hurt, even if you don't know what they're fighting about.  Now, we have a legal system that is moderately successful, so we have the advantage of knowing that even if the attack is somehow justified, stopping it likely won't stop the eventual justice.  Even without that, however, it simply makes the most sense to stop the harm first and worry about the rest of the factors afterwards.

When we try to apply this same logic to incidents of discrimination or bigotry, however, that basic calculus seems to get lost somewhere.  We often hear that we should work on helping the perpetrator with education or debate, being "nice" to them rather than chastising or confronting them.  Rather than helping the victim, the arguments often change to minimizing the harm to the perpetrator.

If person X is doing something that harms person Y, it shouldn't matter if the harm is a physical attack or an discriminatory act: the ethical responsibility is to first stop the harm to person Y.  Once that's done - once person Y is no longer being involuntarily subject to harm because of X's actions, regardless of what those actions are or how X is being affected by those actions - we can then look at X's situation and try to determine the most ethical course of action with them.  The harm has to stop first.

If we neglect this duty, if we allow harm to continue to be inflicted on victims while trying to somehow make the act of stopping the harm more palatable or less inconvenient to the perpetrators, we are complicit in the causing of the harm.  We're no better than the perpetrators.

In simple terms: you don't ask the guy attacking people with a knife if he has a bad relationship with his mother or why he's doing it.  You tackle him, disarm him, and then worry about his motivation.  The same is true if the knife is, instead, language, power, or privilege.


The Yellow Clarinet

The illusion of control is a very important thing.

How many superstitions about bad luck are there?  The number 13, walking under a ladder, breaking mirrors, real flowers on stage - there are numerous (probably too many to count) variations on what should or shouldn't be done to influence the luck on has.  Some of them seem kind of obvious - walking under a ladder doesn't seem terribly brilliant to start with, as something or someone might fall off, but I'm not sure how many people need to be advised not to randomly break mirrors (it seems, at best, a fractured hobby).  Some of them likely arise from random collusion of incidents or from historic prejudice.

Most people think most superstitions are silly - except their own.  I know hardened atheists and skeptics who knock on wood.  Of course, the "mote in my eye/twig in your own" phenomenon is fairly common among various belief systems, and they are, after all, a kind of extension of the same phenomenon: the need to exert or at least pretend to exert some control over the random events in one's life.

But there is a more practical, more sinister side to this illusory sense of control.

How many times have you heard, "It's his own fault he got mugged - he was in that part of town after dark!" or, "Tsk, she would have been fine if she hadn't been wearing a dress like that" or similar statements?

It's the same thing: this notion that the person (in this case the victim) had control over how the situation played out.  While this may be true to an extent, in situations where the person is the victim of a crime, there is only one person who had 100% control over how the events played out:

The criminal.

The concept is known in psychology as Defensive Attribution Hypothesis - the notion on the part of the bystander that "if only she/he/they had done (something) different, this wouldn't have happened."  The "goal", if one can call it that, is to determine causal mechanisms for the event that the bystander has control over and, therefore, that the bystander can use to prevent the event from happening.  It's a psychological defense mechanism: "this can't happen to me because I'm in control."

The primary problem, though is that if the bystander is in control, then so was the victim (at least theoretically), which means that, according to the bystander, the victim is at fault for being robbed/attacked/(insert crime here).

On the surface level, this is ridiculous.  I hear, in the virtual echo chamber of the internet, the audience saying, "Well, of course not, but..."

No "but".  No qualification.  The only person who has control over - and thus responsibility for - committing a crime is the criminal.  One can speak of ways to reduce risk - after one has plainly and unambiguously acknowledged this fact.  One can talk of how to defend one's self - after one has admitted that the need for defense is entirely because of the attackers, not the attacked.

The illusion of control is a very important thing.  It helps people to maintain at least a fleeting sense of security in a world where very few things are guaranteed.  However, it is an illusion.  Try to remember that the next time you wish someone "break a leg" or hear about a woman being raped.