FDL Book Salon: Class Counts, by Allan Ornstein
(We’re pleased today to welcome Allan Ornstein for a discussion of his book Class Counts: Education, Inequality, and the Shrinking Middle Class. Please welcome him in the comments — JH)
Allan Ornstein, a Professor of Education at St. John’s University, has written fifty books and more than four hundred articles. I suspect that Class Counts represents something of a departure for Prof. Ornstein, both in style and content, although we can ask him that today. The book is part analysis and part jeremiad. It ranges widely in subject matter, displaying both passion and erudition, based around Prof. Ornstein’s core themes. Those themes include the ongoing struggle between elitism and egalitarianism in the American experiment, and how that conflict frames today’s unprecedented assault on the middle class.
It’s an important topic. “Class” has been declared a taboo topic in mainstream political debate. We (and by “we” I mean the media-driven arbiters of our political discourse) have declared that we are a classless society, and that any discussion of class and its policy implications is wrong-headed, socialistic, and the product of a cynical political calculus. For documentation, we need look no further that the media coverage and commentary of Al Gore’s 2000 campagin (with its “populism = cynicism” subtext) and this year’s coverage of John Edwards’ class-based theme. (Are his arguments valid? Look – his house is big!)
Class Counts is not a partisan political book or media critique, however. It looks at a bigger picture: How do today’s political actions reflect greater historical, economic, and cultural forces? What, if anything, can be done to change things? Prof. Ornstein musters an impressive array of statistics, cites a wide range of sources, and offers enough provocative arguments to start a good healthy debate with anyone – including me.
His thought-provoking ideas and observations include:
- The U.S. today is more like Athens than Rome
- John Adams was a “closet monarchist”
- The AARP reports that only 46% of American workers participate in any retirement plan.
- Class mobility in America is minimal – and declining
- Today’s “idealistic” business leaders – from Starbucks’ Howard Schultz to Ben and Jerry – offer “chicken soup” bromides while ignoring today’s underlying realities
- A class war is being waged against the bottom 80 to 90 percent of America’s economic population
The unspoken taboo against discussing class has been extremely useful to the architects of today’s radical upward redistribution of wealth. Prof. Ornstein has performed a valuable service by breaking that taboo, and by bringing a wealth of facts, citations, and ideas to the debate.
In addition, he’s a country music fan – and, for me, country music is our nation’s only remaining class-based art form. From George Jones’ “Small Time Laboring Man” to Merle Haggard’s “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” up to Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” it has been a voice for that 80% of Americans that are excluded from the new prosperity.
FDL readers know that any friend of Merle Haggard’s is a friend of mine. With that, let’s welcome Allan Ornstein. I’ll ask the first question:
- Prof. Ornstein, thank you for joining us. Do you agree that there is a taboo against public discussion of class – and, if so, how can it be lifted?