Book Review: Under the Affluence-Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise

under the affluenceEvery once in while there comes a book that makes me want to shout from the roof tops, “Everybody, please read this book if you truly care about humanity and society!” Tim Wise’s book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, is one such book. And though it may sound melodramatic, I truly think Mr. Wise’s book is an excellent primer on exactly why our nation seems so skewed, confused and messed-up, especially during one of our most scary, yet important presidential election years ever.

Scholar, activist and writer, the aptly named Tim Wise, has focused on societal issues since college and one of his first jobs was working against former KKK grand wizard, David Duke’s presidential bid. Since then Wise has worked on behalf of many progressive causes and has written several books, Under the Affluence being his latest.

In 2016 Wise wonders why do we (as a nation and a society) shame the poor (and let’s face it, anyone who isn’t mega wealthy) while praising the super-rich? And what does that say about us and what impact is this having on society?

Wise calls this detestable movement “Scroogism,” and, yes, based on Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. And it is a theme that has shaped our thinking about the haves vs. the have-nots and have-lessers, much of it encouraged by big business, Wall Street, billionaires and millionaires, CEOs, the radical right political pundits, the current state of the GOP, conservative Christianity, mainstream media and often, ourselves. And yes, that includes the have-nots and have-lessers. And Wise offers evidence through nearly 40 pages of end notes to give gravitas to Under the Affluence.

Under the Affluence and its theme of Scroogism is divided into three well-researched, scholarly, yet audience friendly, maddening, heartbreaking and in the end, cautiously hopeful chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Pulling Apart-The State of Disunited America
  2. Resurrecting Scrooge-Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty
  3. Redeeming Scrooge-Fostering a Culture of CompassionIn Resurrecting Scrooge,

Wise carefully researches how in the 21st century the United States is a society that bashes the poor, blames victims, the unemployed and underemployed, embraces a serious lack of compassion and celebrates cruelty while putting the wealthy and the powerful on a pedestal. And Wise examines the origins of class and cruelty in the United States, the ideas of the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal, the myths and realities of the War on Poverty from its inception to Reaganism (and how liberals responded), and the concept how culture of cruelty affects who receives justice and who receives nothing at all except horrifically de-humanizing insults, both in rhetoric and reality. It is probably these two chapters that truly stirred my rage, and at times, I had to put Under the Affluence down and take a few deep breaths.But just as I was about to chuck Under the Affluence across the room and spend a week in the corner rocking back and forth, I read the final chapter, and felt a bit of hope. Perhaps, as nation things aren’t as bleak as they seem. In this chapter, Wise reminds us to look for possible roadblocks on the way of redemption. He also mentions that besides facts, use storytelling because behind every fact there is a very human face with a story that must be heard. He behooves us to create “a vision of a culture of a compassion” and how we can help communities to control their destiny.

Now, I am a realist. I know for the most part Under the Affluence is a book that preaches to the choir, especially in 2016. But maybe, just maybe, Under the Affluence will open minds, soften hearts and act an agent for, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it, “peace, love and understanding.” Under the Affluence is not only one of the most important books to come out in 2016; it is one of the most important books to come out in the 21st century.

Wise also takes a look at the world of the working poor and the non-working rich, the myth of meritocracy, horribly mean-spirited remarks, much of it coming from the radical right, including pundits and politicians, excessive CEO and big business pay, the devaluing of work that truly benefits all of society-nursing, teaching social work, protecting the public, improving our infrastructure, creating art, taking care of the elderly and disabled, and so on. And let’s not forget the very valuable work that doesn’t pay-parenting, eldercare, volunteering, etc.

In Pulling Apart, Wise takes a hardcore look at our current state of joblessness, wage stagnation, underemployment and how they affect us in this stage of “post-recession recovering” America. He investigates today’s realities and the long-term effects of income and wealth inequality. Wise contemplates who and what caused these problems and how race, class and economics are involved.

Retro Review: Rivethead-Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

49990303c7274_4619nYou’re at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re white collar, blue collar, pink collar or no collar at all. Now imagine a grown man walking around your workspace wearing a cat costume. The name of this creature just happens to be Howie Makem (How We Make’em, get it?). Are you imagining this? Are you shaking your head and thinking, “What the hell?”

Well, former GM factory worker and writer Ben Hamper doesn’t have to imagine Howie Makem; he experienced him. And he writes all about it (and other assorted hijinks) in his hilarious and yes, thought-provoking memoir, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line.”

Hamper grew up in Flint, Michigan and worked on the assembly line at the local GM plant. Working at GM was in Hamper’s blood. He was a third generation GM “shoprat.” His grandparents, various aunts and uncles, and his own father worked for GM. A tour of the GM factory where his father worked (when he wasn’t drinking and womanizing) made a young Ben Hamper want to avoid the factory as much as possible. Hamper wanted to be an ambulance driver and later a disc jockey, but with a less than stellar educational record and a family to support, Hamper reluctantly applied at the Flint GM plant where he ended up squeezing rivets (hence the name of the book).

At GM Hamper had a job, not a career. It was a place to earn a paycheck, a paycheck Hamper fully reveals he often used to pay for nights at his favorite bar and punk records. The assembly line was hot, repetitive, stifling, noisy, greasy and often mind-numbingly boring. To break up the monotony of their shifts, Hamper and his co-workers came up with all kinds of shenanigans—racing to the drinking fountains, feeding the factory mice Cheetos, skeet shooting Milk Duds. Hamper and his co-workers also indulged in an activity called “double-up.” To double-up, one worker would do two jobs at once while the other worker would do something else. During double-ups, Hamper would read, hole up at a bar, and often he would write.

Hamper would be the first to admit he and his co-workers didn’t always have the most amazing work ethic and he also knew he was making some great money for his so-called unskilled labor. Yet, there were hard times. Hamper dealt with several layoffs and the possibility of factory closings. And when actually at work, Hamper saw his co-workers do everything from overdosing and barfing their guts out to torching an innocent mouse.

To encourage workers, GM management tried inspire them through an electronic message board, which flashed such erudite quotes such as, “A Winner Never Quits & a Quitter Never Wins,” “Safety is Safe” and Hamper’s personal favorite “Squeezing Rivets is Fun!” But to really get the workers juices flowing, it took a factory floor roaming life-sized cat to make the best quality vehicles on the planet—Howie Makem. Of Howie Makem Hamper writes:

Howie Makem stood five feet nine. He had light brown fur, long synthetic whiskers and a head the size of a Datsun. He wore a long red cape emblazoned with the letter Q for Quality. A very magical cat, Howie walked everywhere on his hind paws. Cruelly, Howie was not entrusted with a dick.

Howie would make the rounds poking his floppy whiskers in and out of each department. A “Howie sighting” was always cause for great fanfare. The workers would scream and holler and jump up and down on their workbenches whenever Howie drifted by. Howie Makem may have begun as just another Company ploy to prod the tired legions, but most of us ran with the joke and soon Howie evolved into a crazy phenomenon.

Hmm, Howie Makem sure beats Successories.

To cope with his job (and Howie Makem), Hamper turned to writing, which had been a passion of his since he was a teenager. An unsolicited record review to a local alternative newspaper named the Flint Voice introduced Hamper to Michael Moore (yes, THAT Michael Moore). Moore likes Hamper’s writing style, and encouraged him to write about working for GM, which steered Hamper to writing his own column. Hamper’s column became one of the paper’s most popular reads.

Soon Moore got a job as editor of the notable Mother Jones magazine. He figured Hamper would be the perfect addition, and Moore’s inaugural issue of Mother Jones’ cover story was on Hamper. Hamper thusly became a minor celebrity. He was featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. Being an unpretentious guy, Hamper is humored by the idea of celebrity. But before he could become the Hunter S Thompson of the lunch pail crowd, Hamper had to deal with some more serious issues with both his health and his tenure with GM.

All of this led to Hamper writing Rivethead, probably one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I have never worked on an assembly line, but I totally related to Hamper’s tales of workday tedium, silly management decisions, threats of layoffs and restructuring, and oddball co-workers. And I’ve worked in fields that would be considered “creative” where stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen.

Hamper writes in way that is fearless and funny. He gives it to you straight, with no chaser, and dares you to drink it all in and stifle your laughter. Sure, Hamper acted like a goofball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are reading this review while at work. Yet despite all the shenanigans Hamper describes, I don’t doubt for a moment that he also toiled very hard at a gritty, thankless job that probably wasn’t always appreciated.

Though Rivethead was released over twenty years ago, it is a book that is both timeless and timely, and one I think should be required reading. Sure, we can read memoirs and biographies of industry titans like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But perhaps it’s time to give a working class (anti) hero like Ben Hamper the attention he, and so many other faceless blue collar Joes and Josephines, deserve.