Despite demagogic and alarmist claims that a relentless “War on the Middle Class” has left ordinary Americans pummeled and powerless, middle income people still manage to find enough money to secure most of life’s true necessities – like the grotesquely violent and anti-authoritarian video game Grand Theft Auto IV, which shattered all sales records in its first week of release.
Despite a price tag of sixty dollars (more than ninety dollars in the special edition), and despite its release on April 29, 2008, at the very height of national concern over a potential recession, the game sold an astonishing 6 million units in its first week. By the end of 2008, at least 11 million Americans will have purchased GTA IV, placing the game in nearly one out of ten households in the land of the free.
The stunning success of a game that glorifies guerilla warfare, murder, irresponsible driving, prostitution, cop-killing, international conspiracies and, of course, car theft highlights the real threat to the American Way of Life: it’s not the war on the middle class; it’s the war on middle class values.
The fact that so many middle income homes managed to find the money to buy the game (having already purchased the expensive hardware to drive it) indicates that the middle class is in no imminent danger of disappearance. But the decision by so many consumers of every age and income group to invest countless hours of time in the dark world of Grand Theft Auto IV nonetheless demonstrates a threat to American values.
Part of the unease, resentment and even paranoia of middle class Americans involves not the fear of powerful conspiracies bent on economic exploitation, but an even deeper sense of powerlessness in the face of an ongoing, seemingly relentless assault on morals and traditions and institutions.
The prevalence of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, for instance, threatens to sweep away the proud sense of respectability and family commitment always associated with the bourgeoisie. A 2008 study for the Institute for American Values reported that family break-up costs the government more than $100 billion a year in terms of the consequences to the legal system, law enforcement, welfare systems, social workers and more. The toll on private citizens could be even higher, and the appallingly common incidence of marital collapse surely causes as much financial distress for middle class Americans as outsourcing, high food prices, immigration or other sources of anxiety.
A 2008 USA TODAY story of middle class gamblers deciding to reign in their habit because of high gas prices highlights the reality that surpluses of choices afflict working Americans even more than shortages of cash. The article cited Marie Braun, 45, of Olathe, Kansas, who “has already made the decision to cut back, from five casino visits a year to two or three visits. Gas is too expensive for a 60 mile round trip to Missouri, says Braun, who works for a telecommunications company.” Ironically, she and the others quoted by the reporters had made the decision that spending twenty or thirty extra dollars in gas (maximum) made it irresponsible for them to continue to travel to casinos where they almost surely lost several hundred dollars each trip (minimum).
The vibrant economy gives working Americans more choices than ever before. The decline of middle class values – saving, deferred gratification, reliability, self-control, family loyalty, respectability – makes it somewhat less likely that they will make the right choices to promote their health, happiness and long-term prosperity.