It's the Fourth of July, American Independence Day. It's a day I can't help but think about my home country, where it's at and where it's going.
I just saw a graphic on BBC News which showed how the American middle class has gone from 75% of the population 25 years ago to less than 50% today. In other words, there are now more people who are either poor or rich in my country than there are those who aren't described by either term.
I saw it in my own working career in America. Fresh out of college, I got a good job that paid me, on average, $1000/week. That was good money back in 1993. Twenty years later, even though I was much better at doing it, I was still making $1000 a week doing pretty much the same job. Wage stagnation, they call it.
In my generation, at least from my experience, we haven't been able to settle into a profession. Unlike America in the past, where a person could get a good job and then expect that job to be good throughout his working career, my career, big ticket appliance sales, just got worse and worse the longer I did it.
Well, tough shit, Joko. That's the reality of modern America. You should be happy making a steady middle class wage whilst all around you the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
I stayed the same, but the world got more expensive. Debts accumulated. The cost of living went up. As time went by, I found myself going from getting by to living on the edge. I tried to join those who were rich and getting richer. I became a loan officer at a mortgage company. A sub-prime mortgage company at that. Then, 2008 happened. Then I had a car accident.
Fast forward to 2013 and once again I was making pretty good money doing what I loved and was good at: hawking refrigerators and washing machines at a big box retailer. I'd gotten back into community theatre, so along with video making and the ukulele, my free time was rich and rewarding.
Down on luck
Just as everything was going great, corporate America struck a blow typical of the fate of the middle class these last decades: they slashed my wages by 25%. From that point on, I learned the ins and outs of the pawn shops, payday loans, and how to live on really shitty cheap food. I was definitely becoming poor.
At just about that same time, I got an offer in the mail from the company I'd worked for previously for almost 20 years. They owed me something rare in today's economy: a pension. They said I could cash in my pension now for a significant amount of money. Well, this was an opportunity to make a major change in my life.
Just as it seemed like the major change in my life was going to be from hanging on the edge of a middle class existence to being on food stamps and assisted housing, here came the funds to get myself a qualification to teach English, settle (most of) my debts in America and buy a plane ticket to start a new career somewhere else. I'd always wanted to travel and teach abroad, but I never had the resources to make that happen.
A brighter future
I took the money, cashed in my pension and haven't looked back since.
Now, I'm teaching abroad in Southeast Asia and even though I'm making half what I made in America, there are no money concerns. Not that I care about class distinctions, but I'm definitely amongst 'the rich' in Myanmar. I'm saving money for my eventual retirement, something I could never do when I was living paycheck to paycheck.
Unlike the last time I lived in Southeast Asia when I was student, nowadays, due to social media, I can keep up with what my American friends are thinking and doing. Me myself, I'm currently out of the steady decline of the financial security of the American middle class. But I remember being there. I've lived it. It's sort of why I'm here.
Anyways, when I look at America today, there's a political decision to be made that's in the front of everyone's minds. Both camps in the debate blame certain forces for causing the decline the American middle class, the key demographic to winning any American political election.
The blame game
Hillary blames corporations, and declares she'll stand up to them. This is an unconvincing argument given the amount money she's taken from them over the years.
Trump blames trade. 25 years ago, almost all the refrigerators I sold on my floor were made in America. In my last years of selling appliances, less than half were. This kind of mirrors the same trend in the buying power of my paycheck. Now, before you say Trump has a point, understand that the prices for refrigerators hasn't changed in that same 25 years. A top of the line fridge cost $2000 back in in 1990. It's still close to that today. The cheapest fridge cost $400; that hasn't changed. At the same time, everything else has gone up, including salaries, except for those of appliance salesmen.
I guess what I'm getting at it is that macro-economically, even for the middle class American, relatively cheaper prices for appliances has been a good thing. Less of the average American's paycheck has to go towards buying a new appliance, and that's a good thing.
If there were no NAFTA (and Mexican refrigerators), if China didn't have normal trade relations with America, if all the free trade influences that killed my career as an appliance salesman didn't exist, I'd still be living in America, making good money selling overpriced white goods. Meanwhile, there'd be folks living without food storage, tenants living with shitty fridges and far fewer folk being able to enjoy the benefits of ice and water through the door.
Clinton (Sanders) supporters blame multinational corporations. Trump supporters blame China and Mexico. Life is hard being part of middle-class America today. Perhaps before we start casting blame, we should look at what we, individually speaking, are doing as part of the modern global economy from which there's no turning back.
It took me a long time to realize that my chosen career was dying. America needs to honestly understand where it stands as a nation state in the 21st century. We can't magically recreate a country where state of the art fridges are made here instead of Korea. We can't bring back television, smart phone or air con production back to the USA when places like here in Myanmar, the cost of labor is $20 a week as opposed to $20 per hour.
I ain't got a solution for the declining state of the American middle class. Except to say that we need to face reality.
I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar