Middle class suicide; or he who pays the piper calls the tune

medieval piperBear with me, as I begin this post about America’s middle class committing genteel suicide by retelling the sordid story of a distinguished law firm at which I once worked. The story’s purpose is to illustrate something about middle class morals, which are too often tied to fear over missing the next mortgage payment.

Back in the day, I had a swift hand and a fairly decent memory. This was useful because, while I seldom understood the principles taught in my law classes, I was able to take detailed notes and then, parrot-like, reproduce their content for exams. I therefore had grades far in excess of my understanding and abilities.

These grades saw me land in a law firm that had no business employing someone as clueless as I actually was. More accurately, I should say that I was employed in the small branch office of an international law firm. That this office existed on the periphery of the firm’s primary location is central to my tale.

A short time after I started to work at the firm, I got hooked into the firm gossip mill, something that’s important for every striving employee. You don’t want to be the subject of gossip, of course, and it’s dangerous to be a gossip purveyor (although you may have to release innocuous tidbits to stay in the gossip game), but you definitely want to be on the receiving end of the big stories. You need to know which attorneys are tipplers, which are backstabbers, which are lechers, and so on. If you’ve got your eye on an eventual partnership — and every young attorney does — you make friends with the invaluable support staff, and you listen to their stories.

Paramount among the stories I heard was the one about the very high-level partner in our office who routinely padded the bills. In addition to adding an extra 50 hours or so to his bill every month (which, in the late 1980s, brought in more than $200,000 every year to the local office and made the partner look very good to the home office), he also padded the out-of-pocket costs he claimed. Thus, when business took him overseas, the unwitting client ended up paying for his family’s travel plus custom-made shoes and other luxury items that caught his eye.

As a very junior attorney, I had no idea whether these stories about the partner were true. Since I didn’t like him, I assumed they were true, but my information was hearsay on hearsay. As it subsequently turned out, the stories were entirely true. Significantly, it was also true that mid-level management, senior partners, and senior associates in the local office all knew for a fact what he was doing because they’d seen the bills.  The home office, of course, was clueless, because they never saw the discrepancy between the partner’s activities (minimal) and his bills (maximal), nor did they get a gander at his Saville Row wardrobe.

The partners, senior associates, and mid-level managers in the local office of my firm were decent people. They didn’t pad their own bills (or at least not much), they were ethical attorneys, they paid their taxes, and they didn’t run red lights. They had children to whom they taught values such as honesty, moral courage, etc. Nevertheless, not one of these people said a word about the fraud they knew was taking place right under their noses. It was only years later that the truth came out, and that was only because a departing attorney, who had a job waiting for him, whispered a word into the ear of a friend in the main office.

This all took place thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson: No matter how principled they’d like to think they are, most middle-class people will turn a blind eye to corruption in their midst rather than run the risk of being unable to pay their mortgage or fund all of the other payments necessary to support a middle-class lifestyle. They don’t think of themselves as dishonest or complicit in dishonesty. They think of themselves as cautious people who aren’t going to risk their children’s future for some grand-standing that, rather than resulting in applause, could leave them unemployed and desperate.

This episode from my past makes me doubt very strongly that Hillary Clinton will be indicted. I know that the rumor mill keeps saying that FBI agents, from Comey on down, will quit if Loretta Lynch lets Hillary walk. Some of the FBI agents whispering this to friendly reporters may even believe that they’ll quit.

Mostly, though, this is a bluff.  Why?  Because the people talking about quitting are middle-class people with mortgages, and school fees, and insurance, and all the other expenses that keep us in the middle-class living up to our own expectations. If Hillary really does walk, 99% of those “I’ll quit if she’s not indicted” agents will manage, very quickly and easily, to convince themselves to stay in their jobs, and get their salaries and pensions.

(By the way, I’m not trying to assert that I occupy any moral high ground here. I have absolutely no idea what I’d do were I in their shoes. I do know, though, that it would be very difficult for me to make a big show, one that might come to nothing, knowing that I might blow my comfortable lifestyle sky-high, leaving nothing but dismal gray confetti in its wake.)

We middle-class people — the ones who collect paychecks for showing up and doing our job — are not paying the piper. We’re not entrepreneurs who get to make our own decisions. Instead, we are dependent on the goodwill of the very people who may stand accused of corruption. It’s the government, the high-level management, the business owner, who pay the piper and call the tune. We just dance.  And if we miss a step, we’re out on our derrieres with nothing to show for all the skillful dancing we did for so many years before we alienated both piper and payor.

It’s this same mindset that allows the federal government to call the shots about urbanizing suburbs, something that even Progressives in the suburbs resent. Here in the Bay Area, we suburbanites have to deal with ABAG, aka the Association of Bay Area Governments, which dictates that small, suburban communities must build high-density housing, with a certain percentage of that housing made available to low-income (i.e., minority) homeowners.

Most of us in my little community have no problem with minorities — but we want them to enter the community on the same terms we did, which is to say that we want them to have worked like crazy to get here, to have invested most of their money to live here, and to have deep stakes in the community’s health. Section H or similar housing leaves a community with a lot of residents who don’t give a damn. Too many of those “I don’t give a damn” residents, and you’ve got no community.

ABAG, of course, is not an independent entity. It is, instead, an outcropping of the infamous “Agenda 21,” which is ostensibly a “non-binding” UN initiative aimed at creating “sustainable” communities. The stated purpose behind Agenda 21 is to provide more housing for poor people, to decrease reliance on automobiles (dense populations better support public transportation), and to make it easier to deliver basic utilities and services to the greatest number of people.

It all sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Cynics like me, though, look at the fact that, in every American election, the dominant pattern is for densely populated areas to vote Democrat and more sparsely populated areas to vote Republican, and we draw our own conclusions about the Democrat-run federal government’s efforts to force people into more urbanized environments.  Thus, as understood by the Obama administration, abiding by Agenda 21’s non-binding terms means forcing suburban and rural communities to urbanize through high-density housing, unaffordable public transportation, and mandatory low-income housing.

There is some resistance, of course.  People living in the suburbs, especially the flashy, expensive suburbs such as mine, like them just the way they are. We’re the middle-aged middle class, who started out in urban areas, where we found jobs, cheap apartments, public transportation, and a heady social life. And then we grew up.

We kept the jobs, but our wages grew, so we bought cars (no more sharing streetcars with lice-ridden junkies), looked for something better than squalid shared apartments, and eventually had children. It was those last that drove us to look for areas with good schools, safe streets, needle-free playgrounds, and family-friendly neighborhoods. So for us it was suddenly “Welcome to suburban life.”

It’s these lifestyle choices that see staunchly Progressive suburbanites rear back in horror as Agenda 21’s dictates touch their neighborhoods. They didn’t spend their 20s and 30s working like crazy so that their kids could grow up among green swards, only to have high rise apartments and traffic jams take over their towns. Where I live, these suburbanites are fighting tooth and nail against this urban encroachment.

These fights, however, while full of sound and fury, signify nothing. The urban encroachment is still coming because the federal government wields the ultimate weapon: In some form or another, most of these pretty green communities are getting federal funds. Communities get grants for their fire or police departments, for their schools, for their pretty nature habitats, and for the public transportation the residents don’t use, but they understand are green, so they ought to have.

That’s why supervisors and town councilors nod patiently when outraged mothers stand up in town meetings to express horror at the high rise by the high school.  The people in suburban government understand their community’s bottom line and know that they cannot afford to walk away from these ABAG or court-ordered projects. If they say “no” to the projects, they’re also saying no to the federal funds that communities have come to depend upon. The federal government pays many pipers and it gets to call the urban development tunes.

There’s a simple reality at work here:  The middle class, to stay middle class, got hooked on federal funds so that they could quickly turn their suburbs into story-book places with full services. As is always the case when the feds start handing out money (think of college tuition), that “free money drives up prices, making these middle-class communities ever more dependent on federal funds to get the services they want.

Saying no to those funds means no more friendly neighborhood police, no cute public library, no special projects at the schools, no cute suburban streetcars, which are always empty. And so the suburbanites find themselves complicit in their own demise because their dependence on these middle-class accouterments means that they can’t stop dancing as long as the federal government keeps paying that piper to play.

Human nature is fixed. Those of us comfortable with our status are also trapped by our status. While there are people with sufficient moral courage or insufficient investment in their middle-class status who will take a stand, most of us will manage to tell ourselves a series of comfortable lies that enable us to live with the embezzler, the corrupt politician, and federal zoning demands on our formerly sweet little communities.