When We Can No Longer Relate: Creating Characters in an Age of Growing Economic Inequality

MoralDisorderI was just reading a short story from Margaret Atwood's collection Moral Disorder titled "The Art of Cooking and Serving." To say the story was beautifully written is redundant; it was written by Margaret Atwood. In this particular story, an eleven year old tosses off a casual complaint about the fact that her parents' cabin doesn't have a refrigerator or a boat for water-skiing. It's not central to the story, but the detail suddenly kicked me out of the narrative and got me thinking about characterization and class. I expect that I am supposed to feel warmly toward the story's protagonist, but this small detail immediately makes me resent her. Her family can afford a second house but she complains about the amenities? I can barely afford one home which is far too cramped for my family, but we can't figure out how to get out from under it and into something more suitable. As an adult, I'm acutely aware that I am lower-middle class in my country (and very wealthy in relation to the majority of the people in the world). I don't think Atwood wanted me to resent the character (an 11 year-old, after all), but my class status makes this difficult. While I'm consciously aware that her childish reaction to the cabin is entirely realistic and understandable, and I can't reasonably expect an 11 year-old to count her blessings against the circumstances of others, I just have trouble relating to her. This one detail has made her feel distant. Not so much that I can't find other ways to connect to her and like her, but more than any single, small detail should affect my relationship to a character.  And, as a writer, that has me worried.  Income inequalityNot too long ago, Americans weren't even allowed to talk about class. The only people who spoke openly about it were the absolute dregs of our society; communists, artists, and academics. To even mention it, we were told, was to try to incite "class warfare." The forbidden nature of the subject didn't change the amount of money in anyone's bank accounts, but it did maintain the illusion of a cultural homogeneity longer than it would have lasted otherwise. At some point, the numbers told a story that all but the most ideological and willfully obtuse could not deny: The rich are getting dramatically richer. The poor are getting relatively poorer. The middle-class is thinning and fraying, like a rope pulled too tightly. There will come a point at which we have two distinct classes in America. There will come a point, at some unspecified time after that, when we acknowledge that fact. When it comes to social policy, I think it's all to the good that we are recognizing this change. Of course, it doesn't mean we can agree on solutions or even on whether it's a real problem. In our political climate, everyone has gone to their corners, of course. There's lots of talk about income inequality, and people are starting to talk openly about capital inequality now, too, though that's still pretty wonky. I could blather on it about it all day, but I won't. Rather than put forth policy proposals about changes to the tax code, as exciting as that would be for everyone, I think it's worthwhile for writers to consider what this will mean for us as we create characters.

Once upon a time, people calmly accepted the fact that their societies were composed of haves and have-nots. In literature's ancient past, the characters were almost all haves; heroic warriors who were also kings, beautiful maidens who were also queens or princesses. When peasants were depicted at all, it was because they were on their way to becoming haves through pluck or twists of fate (and even then they were mostly haves who had been mistaken for have-nots and had to rediscover their true, noble station). 

Readers rarely complained about the over-representation of wealthy characters in literature. That's because poor people couldn't read.

The middle class is a modern invention. The terms wasn't even coined until 1745, and even then it described a small but growing bourgeoisie population. Understandably, these mercantile city-dwellers didn't mind aspirational stories of middle class people becoming aristocrats, and they weren't turned off by stories that gave them glimpses into the lives of aristocrats themselves. As George Orwell pointed out, the middle class always wants to change places with the upper class. The upper class wants to stay where it is. Only the lower class wants equality, because they have the most to gain from it, so peasants might have wanted equality in the form of equal representation in literature, but again, they couldn't read. 

Exporting education to the lower classes is an even more modern invention. In the 1800s, elementary education became available to the (slim) majority of children, and even then secondary and higher education remained closed off to most students due to sexism and racism. Still, though some would point out that correlation is not causation, I am a firm believer that it was the rise of free, public education that created the middle class in America. 

Now we find ourselves regressing, and I wonder about the effect on literature. Once, when a writer wanted to write a story in which social class wasn't a significant theme, she could simply choose to make the characters middle class. Suddenly, it wasn't a story about poverty or wealth. The characters' class was still relevant, still defining in many ways, but it wasn't a signal to the reader that the character was too foreign to be relatable, or was deserving of pity, or was someone to admire or envy. The character had to earn pity or envy or admiration in other ways. 

And this is what worries me. Sure, it's a small concern in the scope of the problems that will arise as income inequality grows, but it's an issue writers will have to wrestle with. If I create a character who complains about the condition of her second home, I need to worry about have-nots feeling what I feel toward Atwood's protagonist in "The Art of Cooking and Serving." Conversely, I don't know how a much wealthier reader might feel about one of my characters who is, say, searching through the Target circular on Thanksgiving night to go bargain hunting on Black Friday. Do very rich people know what that's like? Do they feel pity for people who have to clip coupons? Disgust? Condescending amusement? If the scene of a family going through those circulars was presented as joyous and warm, would a much wealthier person admire those poorer characters or envy their family bonding? I just don't know. I don't know what's it's like to be very rich. I can try to imagine it, but I can also imagine what it might be like to walk on the moon or swim with mermaids. That doesn't mean I'm good at predicting what real astronauts or real mermaids will identify with in my stories.  

Once the middle class has essentially disappeared as a cultural group in the United States, will it even be possible to write characters without every story feeling like it's a story about class? Maybe that's fine. Maybe it's just a part of acknowledging something we should have been openly discussing all along. I'm very curious to see how writers (of novels, screenplays for TV and film, plays, etc.) handle the bifurcation of our society along economic lines. How are writers managing this question currently? How should they be?

Poverty Beats His Children

After coming across this great article which blows up some of the insidious lies that cripple our debate about our country's social safety-net, I remembered a piece I wrote back in June for my previous blog, and I thought it would be worth republishing here.  

Poverty Beats His Children

The other day, a friend of mine voiced the opinion on Facebook that America is the ultimate land of opportunity, and that people who are in poverty are at fault for blaming others for their plight. It was, he argued, a question of perspective. If people are poor, he argued, they should take more responsibility for their circumstances.

My friend isn’t a greedy or hurtful person. Though we haven’t seen each other in almost two decades, based on the pictures of his beautiful, happy family, he strikes me as somebody who has his priorities in order. But this statement got under my skin and has been itching. I’ve been scratching at this for a little over a week now, and I’m not quite sure how to express why this irritates me so much.

Should I begin on purely factual grounds? He states, without evidence, that the United States is one of the foremost countries which provides its people with the ability to raise themselves out of poverty.  “Unlike nearly any other country, you can start in poverty and move into the middle or upper income bracket within a few short years...definitely into a generation.” What he’s describing is something economists call "social mobility." It’s measurable. And he’s simply wrong.  At best, we rank 4th. When other factors are included, like unemployment, inflation, and respondents’ satisfaction to standard-of-living and employment opportunities, the U.S. comes in 18th. Of the 195 countries our government recognizes, that means we’re not even in the top 5%. That hardly sounds like “unlike nearly any other country” to me.

Or should I challenge his notion that income inequality is irrelevant? He claims that we don’t have “haves” and “have nots”, but “has” and “has more.”  This sounds like merely bit of optimistic semantics. It’s all in one’s perspective, he claims. But that’s wrong, too. The distance between the “have nots” and the “has mores” produces real world consequences. According to economists, it impedes growth in a number of ways. It doesn’t take a lot of economics training to imagine why this would be. People who are far down the economic ladder can’t demand higher salaries. Beggars don’t haggle. When they have lower salaries, they can’t buy as many goods. The ultra-wealthy still live very well, thank you, but they store their money in accounts rather than investing in businesses which sell goods to people on the bottom of the income spectrum because that’s a better investment. If you reduce the buying power of the poor, you reduce the selling opportunities for the rich. This leads to less sales, less employment, less of what economists call “churning”: money growing because it’s changing hands in exchange for real goods and services. Widening income inequality makes some people much richer, and creates the illusion of economic growth when the total GDP is divided to become the Per Capita GDP, but in truth the standard of living of the vast majority of people decreases.

But this kind of sunny optimism is worse than just bad economics. In my friend’s defense of his position, he cites Christian scripture, pointing out that people have an obligation to use the talents they’ve been given to achieve success. He cites the parable in Matthew about the bags of gold entrusted to servants, Matthew 25:14-30. This is what an English teacher would call “bad reading.” The passage is clearly not about money, it’s about faith. The master says, quite clearly, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” If the parable were about money, one would have to imagine that the “things” Jesus is teaching his disciples to take care of are quantities of money. This from a man who told people that they should take all they have and give it to the poor? This from a man who told people to give Caesar his coins back? This from a man who told people that wealth would make it more difficult to get into heaven? This from a man who told people not to store up their treasures on earth? This from a man who, at least according to scripture, was aware that his death was imminent and yet spent more time talking about concern for the poor than any other single topic during the limited time of his ministry? It’s certainly a convenient interpretation to use when one is trying to justify an investment strategy, but it cannot be justified by the text as a whole.

That’s not what bothers me, either, though. I’m not a Christian. If Christians want to pick apart their scripture to justify widening income inequality and callous disregard for the plight of the poor, that’s their business. They can write a new translation which actually includes the phrase “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps,” stick it into the Sermon on the Mount, and shove those words into Jesus’ mouth, and if that’s what they all decide they believe, who am I to argue? I could point out that it’s a very different interpretation of scripture than other Christians have had before, tantamount to a different religion, something earlier Christians would have called a heresy, but they could quite correctly retort that Christianity has changed a lot over the years. Some have learned to read around the misogyny. Most have learned to stop using scripture as a justification for racism and slavery. A growing number are even learning to get around the bigotry towards homosexuals that’s clearly in the text. So if they want to decide that all the commands to care for the poor, to suffer with those who suffer, and to recognize worldy wealth as a threat to their salvation are just cultural relics of a time gone by and scold the poor for having bad attitudes, it is absolutely within their 1st amendment rights to do so, and they can take that up with their god when they get to the end of the road. That’s no longer my business.


Except I have to live with these people. And not just this particularly venal and callous kind of Christian, but with a greedy and self-defeating kind of American. This kind of attitude has real-world policy implications which harm my country, my community, my family.

No, that’s not it, either. I can abide people I disagree with, even when their beliefs harm me and mine. I can live with people who deny evolution even though their beliefs hurt our country’s international reputation and our scientific competitiveness. I can live with people who have regressive beliefs about immigration even though their selective notions of law enforcement will split up families, hurt our own economy, and ultimately fail to do anything but align them with racists. I can live with people who deny the reality of global climate change even though their intransigence will have dramatic and disastrous effects on the economic, political, and even physical health of their fellow citizens. I can live with people I find to be wrong. Why? Because I am sure I’m wrong about some things, too, and I’m sure the ways I’m wrong will injure others. Of course, I don’t know how I’m wrong. As Wittgenstien pointed out, “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.” If I’m wrong about something, I can’t know it at the time. But I can assume I am wrong because I know I’ve been wrong before, and because I know that being wrong about some things has always appeared to be an essential characteristic of every other human being with whom I’ve come into contact, including those people who are far smarter and far wiser than I am. I try to surround myself with the kind of people who can tell me how I am wrong, and I’ll bet this post may motivate a few of them.  I may not know what god to believe in, but I do believe in people, complete with all their absurdity and outright folly. Sartre said “Hell is other people,” but I think other people are the point of existence. Without them, including all their multifaceted wrong-ness, life would be meaningless. An un-observed tree falling in a forest may or may not make a sound, but a man in a crowd who doesn’t care about any of the people around him makes no difference.

And that, ultimately, is why my friend’s point bothers me so much. It’s the callous disregard for others that I cannot abide. I cannot claim to be an expert on poverty from personal experience. As the Everclear song says, I’ve “never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.” I wish I could explain poverty as eloquently as Sherman Alexie does early in his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. (If you haven't read it, do so forthwith.) I just don't have the skill.  But, in my experience, that kind of personal history doesn’t always give people a whole lot of insight into the nature of poverty anyway. I know too many people who raised themselves out of poverty, sometimes terrible, tragic poverty, and their response has been to look back over their shoulders with contempt and say, “I did it. Why can’t they?” I’m starting to recognize that I understand poverty better than some people who experienced it more acutely because, though I might be exactly as middle class as my parents (American social mobility, right?), like them, I’ve chosen to work for people who haven’t escaped poverty. That’s taught me about more than the path out. It’s taught me about the people who are stuck inside.


I came across a great illustration of this today. There's a powerful if unsurprising relationship between effects of dyslexia and the wealth of the dyslexic. Dyslexic children born to wealthy families are identified earlier and are able to get more interventions. As one would expect, they are far more likely to overcome their disability. Now, we could say to a dyslexic, as my friend does, “If you're working has[sic] hard as you can and not getting anywhere....change what you're working at. You need a new perspective or a new path.” But, in this case, we’d be saying, “If you are working hard to learn to read and it’s difficult, you really should have started working hard with a specialist when you were much younger, and in order to do that, you should have been born richer. Choose that path.”


I think my friend doesn’t understand poverty (and again, he is in the company of my middle class friends who climbed out of it themselves). Poverty is an abusive father who beats his children. He stands in the foyer of his house, punching them and kicking them, and they cower in the corner, curled up into tight little balls, trying to protect themselves. Every day his blows rain down on them, but while he beats them, he tells them to get out of his house. Behind him, the door is open. For some, it’s open wide. They are gifted with intelligence, athletic ability, good looks, resilience, perhaps an indomitable will. For others, the door is open just a tiny crack, smaller even than their little bodies. Maybe they are not exceptionally smart or brave or beautiful. Maybe they are afraid to leave the house that at least protects them from the weather. For whatever reason, some of these children remain cowering in the corner, while others make a break for it, scrambling for the door. Some of these escaping children run and don’t look back. “I made it out. Why can’t they? It’s their fault.” Others stay inside all their lives. But here’s the greatest atrocity: We are standing out on the sidewalk, and we can always see into the door, at least a little. We can see Poverty beating down the poor. And, to my amazement, many of us say, “It is their fault. Why don’t they take responsibility for their circumstances? Look at the way their choices keep them inside the house of Poverty?” But we stay out on the sidewalk. I want to ask my friend and anyone else talking about taking personal responsibility for poverty: "Who is supposed to take responsibility for where you stand while the poor suffer? Isn’t that up to you?"

An Idea for Addressing Income Inequality

Lately I've been more than a bit frustrated with the complete tone-deafness of America's political leaders when it comes to the issue of growing income inequality. Democrats, it seems, are so beholden to their big donors and/or so afraid of being called communists by right-wing talk radio that they only mention income inequality in hushed tones and don't dare to do anything substantive about it. Republicans, on the other hand, either want to use rising poverty rates as a club to beat up on the President, or they want to cut programs to assist the poor as a means to punish them into not being poor anymore. As John Oliver pointed out on this week's The Bugle, this attempt to address the problem of poverty is a bit like a doctor trying to awaken someone from a coma by repeatedly hitting the patient in the head with a wooden plank; it's unlikely to work, and if it does, the guy is going to be pretty pissed off when he wakes up. hacksaw

I could rage about this for a few hours, but it's more constructive to try to think about solutions. Since the problem, as I see it, doesn't come from an inability to address the issue of poverty (we've done it before, quite successfully, with some of the very programs people are trying to cut now). It's caused by a lack of political will. So, tackling poverty should start with addressing Congress. Electric cattle prods might be a popular solution, but I'm pretty sure that's illegal, and if it's not, they have the power to make it so. Instead, here's an idea:

What if Congressional salaries were legally pegged to the median of U.S. incomes?

First of all, it shouldn't be the mean income ($55k), because Congress could skew that number upwards and enrich themselves by creating more policies that enrich a few people at the top. Instead, it should be the median. That's not an easy number to find, it turns out, but if I'm reading this correctly (click here, then, under the Table H-1. Income Limits for Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent, click on the "All Races" and note the top of the second quintile) it's probably right around $40k. Or, according to data from the Social Security Administration, the median per capita worker income is $26k. Like I said, it's not easy to find, but I'll bet it would get a lot more attention if the salaries of everyone in Congress were pegged to it. Oh, and the median would have to be calculated based on the income people actually pay tax on. In other words, if Congress continued to allow people to pay a different rate of tax on investment income, that income would not be included in the calculation of their own incomes. You can bet they would quite suddenly have a come-to-Jesus moment about investment income being taxable as income.

Buddy Christ


Anyway, that would have to be all these politicians were allowed to live on. Anything they owned previously would be put in a trust until after they were out of office. They would have to live in some pretty crummy neighborhoods in D.C., and that could open their eyes a bit. The President's salary should be exactly the same, but with the added perk of a really nice house. To make sure that all these politicians couldn't just live in near-poverty for a couple years and then cash in as consultants for the companies that were promising them lucrative future salaries in exchange for bad bills, the politicians would have to live with the mode for an additional ten years after leaving office, but with any difference between the current year's mode and the mode of the year they left office doubled. In other words, if the median went up by 1% the next year, they'd get a 2% raise. If it went up by 5%, they'd get a 10% raise. Conversely, if they padded the stats by creating economic bubbles while in office, and then those bubbles burst and the median went down by 2%, their income would go down by 4%. Consequently, they would be motivated to enact policies that would lead to longer term growth.

I think this idea would be a huge improvement. At the very least, it might prevent a few jerks in Congress from telling people without shoes to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. At best, it could lead to a very different way of regulating the economy. And it can't be accused of being communist, since flattening incomes towards the middle wouldn't change the median at all. This would make politicians try to raise the bottom and the top, but it would make them focus on the quantity of people at the bottom, not just the average per capita income.

What do folks think of this idea? Silver bullet or total dud? And if you think it's a dud just because the people in Congress would never vote for it, ask yourself why you would vote for anyone who wouldn't.


[Note: When I posted this originally, I kept writing "mode" instead of "median" and "median" instead of "mean." Luckily, I have friends who are smarter than I am who quickly pointed out the error. Fixed!]

Update: September 24th

My friend Scott, who blogs here and generally engages me in great debates because we come at problems from very different ideological angles, has a wonderful pair of ideas I want to share:

"[T]ax inheritance by the beneficiary rather than by the deceased; several small inheritances from one large estate should be taxed lower than the whole going to one or a few single individuals. The concern should be less about how much the deceased had acquired and more about how much any single recipient is getting; after some baseline (which should likely be pegged to a median home price, or should account a primary residence of the deceased as separate from normal liquid assets), the rest ought to be treated as regular income."

This is a great idea because it would encourage billionaires to give their inheritances to a broader number of people or put more of it in the public coffers. That's a winner.

Scott's second idea is more complicated, but I like it, too:

"[T]ax brackets should be pegged to median incomes. The executives with the highest salaries and thus highest tax brackets would be far better incentivized to raise wages and salaries beneath them and they have far more control over this. And it would need to be clear that this is the median of all filers, rather than just the employed.

"...an illustration.

"Let’s take the Ike tax brackets that are so widely discussed. He had a really high rate (something like 90%), but that marginal rate was only on incomes over $400,000 at a time when the median income was about $6,000. This is very different to today, where the highest bracket can hit a middle class person in a boom year that may not be representative of their overall wealth, opportunity costs, risks, future earnings, etc. So the idea would be something like this. Let’s take that ratio that Ike had and say that the top rates kick in at 50X and 100X the median salary. That is to say the top rate goes back down to 35% for whatever that bracket is today ($400,000, the same nominal value as in Ike’s time but drastically less in buying power). The next bracket jumps up to 70% on incomes over 50X the median, while incomes over 100X the median are taxed at 90%.

"Now let’s look at this in practice. The median household income in 2010 was $51,017, and it dropped to $50,054 in 2011. These numbers could not practicably be applied for anything but a two-year lag, so the rates generated would apply in 2012 and 2013, respectively (enough time to have the data compiled and have the rates known publicly by Jan 1st). In 2012, the rates would kick in at $2.551 million and $5.102 million, while in 2013 they’d drop to $2.507 million and $5.005 million, meaning that for any person making more than $5.2 million, $48,150 more would be exposed to 70% rather than 35% taxation, and $96,300 more would be exposed to 90% taxation rather than 70% taxation. Thus a person ends up paying a little more than an additional $36,000 in taxes because the median income dropped.

"That might seem somewhat small by comparison to the salaries, but let’s look at it in a different light. If the median income jumps $10,000 from $50,054 to $60,054 (assuming we’re talking several years, here) then the tax burden for that person making more than $5.2 million drops $375,000. That’s a huge incentive to business leaders to raise their employee’s salaries, and gives them a direct stake in raising wages and reducing inequality.

"This is a quick-and-dirty illustration to make the point, but theoretically the entire set of marginal rates could likewise be set. That $400,000 bracket could be changed to 8X the median. If the median increases, you lower your tax burden for a given nominal income.

"Currently, brackets rise with inflation. This means that as inflation goes up, tax burdens go down in order to account for the fact that $100k means a very different thing in 1990 vs. 2010. That makes some sense. To a degree, my plan accomplishes the same sort of thing, because inflation generally rises with average incomes. But the difference is that it only remains fixed to inflation alone when inequality remains constant. If inequality rises, however, the tax code becomes more progressive, and if inequality falls, the tax code becomes flatter.

"Ideally, a mechanism ought to be incorporated to look not only at the median, but some metric that assesses the 20th and 80th percentiles as well. The reason for this is that Wal-Mart raising wages across the board is unlikely to bump the 50th percentile directly, and the connection between wages/salaries and progressivity would be slightly less direct than is desirable. But I think it would be a good start."

See what I meant about having smart friends?