Our (We) Working Class Pundits

Digby has a righteous rant about a discussion between Wolf Blitzer, Mary Matalin, and Paul Begala in which they revealed their utter divorce from the reality lived by most Americans as they discuss whether the $172,000 Robert Gibbs made as Press Secretary was a sacrifice. Here’s a taste:

According to these guys [Robert Gibbs’] job is right up there with curing cancer for sheer importance to the future of mankind.

Look, you can’t blame these two. They are both glugging from the same taxpayer trough half the time and have a big investment in believing that what they do is so special and so unique that they are just a little bit better than lesser people who toil at less exalted labor.

And evidently, they truly believe regular people don’t eat lunch at their desks and work long hours and have huge responsibilities. Or if they do, they are in very important jobs like media and investment banking where people are paid what they are “worth.”

You ought to read the whole thing.

I just wanted to add two things.

First, in the discussion, Matalin argues that, when you work at the White House “you really do work three shifts a day. You work 24 hours a day.” In response to which Begala elaborates,

The President’s trying to make a point here — he’s not trying to say that 172 thousand dollars a year is not a good paycheck. But compared to what the guy could be making… And, as Mary points out, if it’s a hourly wage, then Gibbs is probably making about fifty cents an hour. [my emphasis]

If Gibbs’ $172,000 annual salary were broken down into hourly salary, Begala says, with the assumption that he was working 24 hours a day 365 days a year,  then his hourly wage “is probably … about fifty cents an hour.”


There are 8,760 hours in a 24/7 year. Gibbs’ $172,000 salary for those 8,760 hours would work out to be $19.63 an hour. For someone working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, that works out to be a yearly salary of $39,260. Which for household salaries–not individuals–falls in the middle quintile of yearly income in this country, and less than $3,000 less than what Wolf says is the “mean” salary in this country (he actually means “median” and he may be using just full time workers).

Gibbs needs a break, Obama says, and Begala and Matalin agree, because even assuming he’s been working 24/7, he’s been working as hard for the same money as half the country. So we should feel sorry for him.

But here’s my second point: We online pundits are often no better at this.

Consider this question Kevin Drum asked the other day:

Suppose that you lead a comfortable middle-class life. Let’s say that you’re in your 30s, married, two children, and you make $100,000 per year. I offer you a fair coin flip with the following possible outcomes:

  • Heads: You will be stripped of most of your assets and will earn $30,000 per year for the rest of your life. That’s all you get, and neither friends nor family can top it up for you.
  • Tails: You will earn $1 million per year for the rest of your life.

Treat this as a serious question. Would you take me up on my offer to flip the coin? [my emphasis]

See the problem?

A household making $100,000 a year is not “living a comfortable middle-class life.” In fact, that family would fall in the highest quintile of household income in this country. His question should read, “suppose you live an upper class life, would you flip a coin to risk becoming solidly middle class for the possibility of becoming even richer?”

At first, I just attributed this to Drum living in CA, where $100,000 is still affluent but doesn’t go as far as it does here in flyover country. But it got worse, IMO, when he went on to explain why he was doing this.

I’m writing a piece about income inequality and other things for the next issue of the magazine, and in an email conversation with my editor she suggested that one point worth making is that in America today, “someone making $100K has a lot more in common with someone making $30K than someone making $100 million.” Now, there’s an obvious sense in which that’s true, but I suspect that there’s a more important sense in which it’s not. Yes, the zillionaire jets around the world and owns a bunch of mansions and has a staff of aides and servants to take care of things. That’s really, really nice. But our $100K wage slave also has a comfortable house, gets to fly around the world now and again, probably employs a gardener and cleaning service, has a pretty stable life, etc. etc. Also nice. On the other hand, a household earning $30,000 — which is well above the poverty line — lives a pretty precarious life on a variety of measures. So how to get at the difference? Well, I figured one possible way is this: if you really were a fairly ordinary upper middle class wage earner making $100K per year, and you had a 50-50 chance of either joining the ranks of the elite or falling down to the bottom of the working class, which seems further away to you? The answer from comments was loud and clear: the bottom of the working class. I didn’t count, but I’d say only about 10% of commenters were willing to take the coin flip. The other 90% would stick with their $100K lifestyle.

So what does this mean? Probably not much. But it’s suggestive that in terms of lifestyle, if not political goals, a $100K wage earner actually feels somewhat closer to the zillionaires than to someone barely scraping by. We intuit, correctly I think, that life at the bottom of the working class is pretty damn tough, while life at the tippy top is more exciting, but perhaps not fundamentally different from life in the upper middle class.

So Drum’s editor (who, working at a lefty magazine, might not make $100,000 herself, but certainly is a member of a kind of elite), tells him he should write about how upper class families have so much in common with the families struggling to stay in the quickly vanishing middle class. To test the theory before he writes about it, he asks his readers what they would choose if they were upper class (though he doesn’t call it that)–to stay there, or risk joining the “the bottom of the working class” for a chance to become “elite”? And based on the fact that his readers overwhelmingly say, “keep the $100,000,” he concludes they chose that decision because they at least imaginatively felt closer to the zillionaires than someone “barely scraping by.”

Now, to Drum’s credit, he at least calls this $100,000 earning household “upper middle class,” which is less inaccurate. But I wouldn’t even consider someone working minimum wage 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year the “bottom of the working class,” given that so many people are having trouble getting full time hours in this day and age, but that person would make just $15,080, just slightly more than half of what Drum considers the “bottom of the working class.”

But Drum doesn’t consider the possible motivations of his readers. He doesn’t consider the statistically likely possibility (even assuming MoJo online has a relatively affluent readership) that most of his readers would consider $100,000 an improvement off where they are. That is, it may have nothing to do with a perception of whether being affluent is closer to being rich or being middle class, and everything to do with where some of them are personally. He might as well have asked at least some of his readers, “want a big raise, or want to increase risk?”

Now, I’m beating up Drum for his details, but I think his position is right: the affluent are closer to the rich than the members of the vanishing middle class. Though I might even suggest there are probably 4 positions here, the people who aren’t making ends meet, the people who feel constant risk of failing to do so and sometimes don’t, the people who spend all their money, and the rich. That is, this is all about risk, and everyone but the super rich feel the prevalence of economic insecurity, but the more affluent of us have a hard time imagining how much more acutely the middle and working class experience that risk and so we tell myths about what most Americans experience financially and how normal we all are.

Frankly, I’ve been living with an engineer for the last decade (albeit one who wasn’t working for some time), making my household far better off than most of this country (and even when I was a single grad student I recognized I was in a very elite position for someone making the $$ I was). So I can’t be sure I’m much better than all this (though it probably helps that I see how much some of my neighbors, both in W MI and in Ann Arbor, have been struggling).

But that really points to an underlying problem. Even in spite of the insecurity in the media, as inequality grows worse and worse, members of the media with the biggest soapboxes grow more and more distant (both geographically and cognitively) from the people really suffering as the middle class disappears. To most of those big-soapbox people (though not the equally disappearing local media), $30,000 or $39,260 may feel so distant that it can only be understood as “barely scraping by.” But if it is (and I do believe, for many families, it absolutely is), then those same big-soapboxes had better start screaming louder about it, because over a third of this country is in that plight.

Or maybe CNN can replace both Begala and Matalin with 4 members of the middle class each, so we can start hearing what’s really going on in America.

  1. PJEvans says:

    When I’m listening to a co-commuter talking about buying a new car – luxury type – to replace the luxury car he bought three or four years ago, and complaining because his ex can’t come up with enough cash to suit him … and I know from other things he’s said that he works at an investment company/bank, then … hell no, I don’t have that much sympathy for Gibbs, or any of the Very Serious People in DC, or the people who are spending tens of thousands a year on their toys and think everyone else is Like Them.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Oh, just wait until you hear people simper over lunch about what they have to pay to keep a decent nanny.
      That one’s a treat.
      It’s a miracle that I still have a tongue, from biting it so hard.

      • PJEvans says:

        The closest anyone I work with comes to that is looking for day care for their kid. Nannies are right out.

        Although I’m certain than one of my co-workers is a GOoPer and maybe even a tea-partier. (Badmouths the union members in our department, voted for McSame, probably voted for Whitman and Fiorina.) Said co-worker wants to be a manager – I wouldn’t work for them voluntarily.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This whole conversation is so tone-deaf as to defy belief. I wonder how long Blitzer, Matalin or Begala could “get by” on $172K/year. Each of them probably pays more than that in federal income tax, so they feel sorry for the poor schlep.

    Mr. Gibbs isn’t likely to be working fewer hours in his new gig; he is likely to earn ten times or more than his government salary while “taking a rest”, so all I have for him are crocodile tears. Lots of folks who earn a fraction of even his government salary work two or three jobs to get it, and don’t have an army of helpers on and off the job.

    Neither this White House, its advisers and spokespeople nor these bubbly pundits have a clue about how far $19/hour would go, let alone $10, and seem to care less. None of them advocate for policies that would make it easier to get a job, to keep it, or to live on those meager earnings.

    • Mary says:

      “Mr. Gibbs isn’t likely to be working fewer hours in his new gig; he is likely to earn ten times or more than his government salary while ‘taking a rest’”

      That’s the kind of thing that hit me as well. What does someone like a Gibbs, or a Matalin, or a Fleischer actually add to society? Lies and evasions, without any code or consequence.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Or maybe CNN can replace both Begala and Matalin with 4 members of the middle class each, so we can start hearing what’s really going on in America.

    Gets my vote. I’d add replacing Blitzer, too.

      • bobschacht says:

        You gotta get with the lingo of today’s news world. Most of the schleps you see on CNN are “news readers” or “news presenters.” They typically look good, can read copy as if it is new, and generally have little to do with writing the copy they read, and may not have a background in journalism. That is, if they’re people, blow-dried hair and all. “Newsreaders” may also refer to several categories of computer programs.

        Then there are the people who actually have a journalism background, and participate in writing their own copy. If they can be made presentable, and can read copy adequately, you may see them on TV. These people ought to be referred to as “journalists on TV,” or TV journalists, but that is too many words for CNN and some other news organizations. I don’t know what words Fox “News” uses, but they’re probably inappropriate.

        The usage of words used to describe these people has not settled down yet, so there is as yet no well-defined semantic range that usefully differentiates one of these labels from another that I know of.

        Bob in AZ

  4. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Or maybe CNN can replace both Begala and Matalin with 4 members of the middle class each, so we can start hearing what’s really going on in America.


    I’m not sure why, but I flashed on Matalin being a member of WHIG. A woman who was surely in on sliming Amb. Joe Wilson, a man with a very interesting background, multilingual, well-traveled, as someone ‘who’s wife had to get him a junket to Niger.’
    Okay, maybe it’s because I’ve read EW so long.
    Maybe it’s because I watched “Fair Game” and recall the scenes of Sean Penn in that junket-haven Niger, trying to get brown, fetid water out of a corroded tap in his ‘hotel’ room (no, the water did NOT appear to be potable).

    So apart from the money nonsense, apart from the economic disconnect that Matalin and Begala exhibit, what arouses my derision and contempt is the notion that neither of them have half the cajones of a Joe Wilson. Can you imagine Matalin or Begala going to Niger? C’mon… not in this lifetime.
    Can anyone here even imagine Matalin going to any place without potable water, where there are no sewers and people urinate behind the local shops? Not a prayer.

    But she can slime **anyone**. She, like Begala, can sit in her DC house, driving her kids to private school when they’re not on some great vacation, and for that vaunted amount of money that she makes, she creates poisonous attitudes. She slimes ambassadors, she sells lies that justify wars, and then to top it off she simpers about how Gibbs is slumming it financially.

    And CNN is so shameless, so short-attention-span focused that they allow her on their network.

    I can take the money numbers out of the whole post and still be revolted.
    Here is a woman who sold the US into wars that have been economically catastrophic for the entire nation.
    Wars that help explain the income inequalities, the economic lagging of the larger economy.
    This is a woman who worked for GWBush, whose tax policies contributed to the very income distributions that are listed here.

    And Blitzer doesn’t connect any dots between Matalin’s former employers (Cheney, Bush) and the economic disparities of today.
    This whole conversation is sheer lunacy, conducted by narcissists.

    At what point does anyone say, “Mary, given your history, we don’t give a sh*t what you think or say. You are the last person on earth we will ask anything. Liz Cheney’s the second, and Begala’s the third.”

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      Which is why I don’t watch the Sunday Talking Heads or cable news anymore.

      This whole conversation is sheer lunacy, conducted by narcissists.

      Meanwhile, great article, Marcy. More minutes spent on crocodile tears for Gibbs, or the great plight of the unwashed upper middle class than spent on how many people die homeless in the streets in every U.S. city this year. Now that’s a society without qualities.

  5. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Apologies, but if I might beg one last indulgence…. I saw this commentary at the guardian.uk about Pakistan and instantly thought of EW posts going all the way back to the old TNH days.


    ..Pakistan will implode if the US does not leave Afghanistan
    The continuing US presence in Afghanistan fuels extremism in neighbouring Pakistan

    ….Crime in Pakistan is now at a level that breaks all records. Yet 60% of the elite police forces are now employed protecting VIPs. Where does that leave ordinary people? Young Pakistanis are being radicalised and the Taliban grow in strength. The US is no longer fighting just the Taliban, it is fighting the whole Pashtun population….

    So to underscore my earlier point:
    We’re listening to Matalin.
    Matalin worked for Cheney.
    Cheney, IIRC, was ‘in charge of’ our Pakistan alliance with – Musharaff!
    Pakistan, post-Cheney meddling, as a result of Cheney-meddling, is (assuming Imran Kahn knows whereof he writes) now more dangerous than ever before and polarization and extremism are increasing.
    Matalin defended Cheney and got us into this war.
    And now we are supposed to listen to her sneer and preen because Robert Gibbs has been slumming it on a government paycheck?

    At some point, where did the attitudes of feudalism, of dog-eat-dog, of uberAlles, get such a foothold at CNN?

    As far as I’m concerned, Fareed Zakaria is the only CNN person who knows WTF is going on in the world that I hear about through other, non-CNN sources.
    And — like billions of other people on the planet — he’s multilingual. And I’m guessing that he probably could figure out how to get water out of a tap in Niger.
    Matalin and Begala, not so much.

    That Imran Khan article is well worth reading, particularly after the events in Arizona today.

  6. lawordisorder says:

    Hello sportsfans

    Kinda think Ropert gibs was worth every cent…kinda think he did well

    Sorry for changing the subject

    REM how i emphazised that condy reserved her last visit and we were “pinkslipping” an admiral?..now girl what are the connexion with Lord Thomas Justice….nukes and Col Klien germany + a little danish newspaper Information.dk? also Pirates now get normal trials?…..just rem i can tell you but then i have to kill you…..(Just kidding)


    Just my five cents worth


  7. lawordisorder says:

    on editorial note rem torturelaws come with sentenceframe..all a man need is to find two bend pilots fake some engine problems a procecutor and a judge with Titanium Cohones..

    Se also EU demashe controvercy ..and who was Danish PM who headed that? see also TASKFORCE ferris spring 2002 missing memo danish defence paper… -> and the connexsion with “jægerbog” were the danish military procecutor was ending up charging two officers for lying….you get bumped out if your a NCO, get promoted if your the guy that creates the smokescreen (se above)





    Now who was JSOC in spring 2002 ,-)

    If i was papadick…i would think twice before he travels

    See also taskforceferris (Thats the google doc)was part of civil afgh lawsuit against Danish Gov.

    have a nice day t004r

  8. jdmckay0 says:

    But if it is (and I do believe, for many families, it absolutely is), then those same big-soapboxes had better start screaming louder about it, because over a third of this country is in that plight.

    You sure that’s “a third”? Seems that is too small off top of my head.

    Over last decade, this is the thing that amazes me the most… eg. such a large swath of US Public gets passed over/ignored by most everything in Fed Politics. Yet, so much of this class seems to be voting for the crooks who have executed trickle-down by another name. Middle Class Tea party’ers hoot & hollar (and possibly now, it seems shoot) what they consider prolifigate spenders, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of what Fed’s have spent that pushed us over the edge was on WS/bank’sters, ME war profiteers, Enron “fix the books” crooks and such.

    Or in other words, how can a public be so dumb? The disconnect is wide & deep, but continues to go ignored.

    Just in last few weeks, financial pages all saying how the “big” investments/profits are heading towards “emerging” (emerged?) markets?

    While US 2nd’ary ED gets cut more (beyond bare bones).

    China’s already got blueprints connected Far >> Middle east by 2019, yet incoming congress wants to cut “stimulus” $$ for a few piddly local hi-speed rail projects.

    Really, really hard to figure how a populace can support the hand that’s got ’em by the jewels.

  9. allan says:

    Change in per-capita income by state (adjusted for inflation).
    Media-ville is doing quite well, thank you. The rest of us, not so much.
    And this is pre-Great Recession.

  10. radiofreewill says:

    Mere peeps as us don’t really have any idea of what it means to be a player in the DC circuit.

    At Gibbs’ level, these people have salons of social moths drawn to power around them. He and the other members of the ‘inner circle’ are each ‘stars’ in their own minds, full of gravitas, always aware that each step they take is ‘historic’ – just ask the people they indulge with their favor.

    It’s a ‘Court of the King’ environment – where power and access are actually everything – a bubble even stronger than the factual truth.

    It has a hard, crusty ring of career bureaucrats who operate in this ‘glow’ – federalist society members, birchers, religious fundamentalists, etc – who constitute the ‘true believers’ that keep the bubble of ‘greatness’ inflated – and they actually look a lot like the Tea Party, too – the same dissociated, seemingly holy, stare over the word ‘patriot.’

    It has a very focused corps of lobbyists who keep the bubble socially lubricated – making it their business to manage every aspect of the legislative process while stroking the power players.

    So, in this miasma, in Gibbs’ experience – he’s getting $172,000 to wield power, and control access, over multi-millionaires like Blitzer, and billionaires like Murdoch, day in and day out.

    In his swollen-minded world, how could he not feel vastly under-payed to be wielding such power and controlling such access?

    If you’ve been to DC and spent any kind of time at places like the Supreme Court cafeteria, you can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the power bubble on display in real time.

    They are living in a world far, far away from working-class us.

    And, the ‘professional left’ is not a member of their club – they’re culturally vaccinated to turn their backs on anyone who would intrude on the narratives of the power elite with ‘the facts’ in a quest for the truth – they intuitively ‘know’ that ‘power rules over principle’ in their world.

    Except for FDL and a very few others, there just isn’t any real Journalism going on in DC. The ‘news’ is being sold to the highest bidder with the most bias.

    And Gibbs, like all of them, just wants to keep his face in the feedbag…

  11. bell says:

    these folks are serving the royal court! that explains their high pay grade… they are completely out of touch with the commoners…

  12. oldtree says:

    This is still one of the best 10 sites there is, period. Marcy is in a class by herself. That being said, I lost touch with Digby because the focus is on actors and the entertainment world. Every time I see intelligent people talking about actors, without acknowledging they are only that, it causes me to wonder if this is remembered by the persons so pontificating? The TV business is about the AFTRA union. The “anchors” are only actors. They were never journalists, they simply call themselves that. There haven’t been but 8 or so investigative journalists associated with TV for 20 years now and perhaps 3 in the last 10 years. A press secretary is only an actor in a different union. It never states truth, or answers a question truthfully. It is a propaganda wing of a political party trying first and foremost to protect and enrich itself at the cost of anything else. It is a club of sociopaths that will not admit their membership, their fellows, or their desires because they know themselves to be crippled inside.
    To give it legitimacy in any way is to harm the thought process in our own minds. To argue with fiction in an attempt to prove it wrong? To expect anything but entertainment from a television set? To expect anything that resembles reality from an actors point of view about events and issues that are scripted before they say them? Does the world need to know what actors think on sunday morning, then wait and be told what to think on sunday night with 29 1/2 minutes?
    TV is a script written by an agenda for a purpose. One harms themselves participating in such activity by expecting an implied reality that doesn’t exist. And everything I say is a lie.

    • pdaly says:

      with Digby … the focus is on actors and the entertainment world.

      This is an inaccurate statement obvious to anyone reading Digby regularly.
      At Hullabaloo Hollywood movie reviews have been posted on weekends by her guest blogger Dennis Hartley.

  13. pdaly says:

    A paycheck away from homelessness might be another way to gauge poor vs. well off.
    Perhaps by this metric, however, lower wage earners may fare better, having learned how to scrimp and save to survive on less.

  14. rgreen says:

    I did a bit of math on the salary as well, and came up with a bit more than 50 cents, and more than $19 an hour. I simply do not accept the 24/7 hype. No one can do that, not even the highly exploited hospital medical interns and residents. Being on-call is not the same as “working”. Even if one is at the command of events 24/7, there are few circumstances that require the level of commitment Matalin is claiming. So given $172K a year, 50 weeks, and a grueling 70 hours a week, grosses close to $50 an hour, not 50 cents. Such is beyond spin; it is flagrant lying. The one can wonder why this matters so much as to generate the lying.

  15. rosalind says:

    arizona shooting related: i was really impressed by the surgeon who gave the press conference on the victims’ conditions, seemed to really know his stuff…and he really does: Giffords’ surgeon trained on the battlefield

    Dr. Peter Rhee, a 24-year military surgeon who has treated “hundreds and hundreds” of battlefield injuries during stints in Iraq and Afghanistan…When I did go to Afghanistan and Iraq, I wasn’t in a hospital. I was in very forward surgical units, so I was very accustomed to working with very little gear and people and personnel, very little resources, with wounds that are very different than civilian injuries,” Rhee said Sunday.”

  16. jdmckay0 says:

    Kind’a sort’a OT, but… anyone ever heard of the “Hemline Index“? This was a new one to me.

    The theory suggests that hemlines on women’s dresses rise along with stock prices. In good economies, we get such results as miniskirts (as seen in the 1960s),[5] or in poor economic times, as shown by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, hems can drop almost overnight.

    Can’t help wondering if “hems can drop almost overnight” is a “revealing” faux pas?

    Hey… maybe if the powers that be simply coerce hemlines “up”, a reverse hemline effect may take hold and carry us to the next wave of prosperity!