ΠΕΡΙ ΤΩΝ ΜΕΡΙΔΩΝ ΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ Α’ (On the Classes, part the first)

Wherein are considered some several questions relating to:
class, unemployment and social mobility

We seem to accept in this country a division of the populus into three distinct classes: The Lower Class, The Middle Class & The Upper Class.1  The division between these strata is generally clear insofar as people tend easily to identify themselves as being a member of a particular class and insofar as these self-identifications seem generally to go uncontested.  However, it is a characteristic peculiar to the American experiment (or at least it was at the time of its inception; much of the world seems now to have caught up to it) that while one might inhabit a certain class, one is not bound to it.  This notion walks cheek by jowl with the idea of personal responsibility.2 That is to say, we expect that if a citizen of the Upper Class should act irresponsibly with respect to their personal finances, those finances will be proportionally and appropriately affected.  Likewise we expect that if a person should be born to the Lower Class, that person will work hard and in accordance with their own natural talents and thereby elevate themself.  Now the extent to which this is practicably true is much debated in our society.  And to the extent that it is untrue, one of the goals of this American experiment must be to make it incrementally more true.

The fluidity of movement between œconomic classes resides, quite literally, at the foundation of the American experiment.  Putting aside the question of religious freedom which also lies at our foundation, since the founding of Jamestown people have come to this land to better their œconomic prospects.  While I am by no means an œconomist, œconomic mobility must be at the heart of any capitalistic system, else there is no incentive to take risk.  And let it be stated clearly, œconomic mobility must flow both ways.  The potential for upward mobility must encourage risk and inspire creativity while the potential for downward mobility must give cause for circumspection and instill prudence and moderation.

The apparent lack of accountability for those most responsible for our current œconomic morass speaks, δοκεῖ μοι, to a loss of potential downward mobility for those inhabiting the very highest œconomic stratum.  This seems to be a major point, variously articulated, by the Occupy movements.3  However, this post is not very much concerned with the lack of potential downward mobility at the top, but rather the lack of potential upward mobility in Middle and Lower Classes.

In particular I would like to consider the question of unemployment insurance.4 While listening to Meet the Press this morning, I heard Senator Schumer (D.NY) arguing for the further extension of unemployment insurance, already at 99 weeks.  Now, prior to the onset of this œconomic winter which began in 2008 the generally accepted norm was 26 weeks of unemployment insurance.  Presumably we believed at that time that 26 weeks was a sufficient period for an individual to find new meaningful employment.  Therefore the fact that an individual can collect for up to 99 weeks, and the attendant idea that even this is no longer enough, must be a tacit admission on the part of our government that it not only no longer expects the unemployed to find new work inside of two years, but indeed that it expects them not to find new work.

No doubt any number of arguments will be confected on the right against such an extension.  Likewise on the left in support.  By now even the causal observer might prophecy with ease several arguments to be made by either side.  However, I here propose to consider the question of prolonged unemployment insurance vis-à-vis potential upward œconomic mobility.  Specifically, I shall try to argue that continued and long term unemployment insurance will likely often harm an individual’s potential upward mobility.

I mean to tread carefully here, for there are those who would argue that longterm unemployment insurance by its nature breeds a complacency in its beneficiaries; that it discourages the search for new employment; that it inhibits personal responsibility.  I say now that I reject these arguments.  I believe that most people in this country want to work, want to earn the food on their table and the roof over their head, want to walk with dignity and not be the object of another’s pity or charity.  I want to be clear about that.

How then, if longterm unemployment insurance does not breed complacency or inhibit personal responsibility, how does it harm one’s potential upward mobility?  The problem is twofold.  First, we must consider the peripheral problems that attend a person in a state of persistent unemployment.  Second, we ought to consider what might be termed the collective collateral damage to our society as a whole.

When we consider the misfortunes of the unemployed we tend to see only the most manifest symptoms.  We see people suffering in hardship, struggling to pay their bills, struggling to feed and clothe their children.  We see people for whom a single surgery or disease would mean absolute ruin.  What is less apparent, I think, is that the longer one is removed from the work force, the greater is the diminishment of their potential value to an employer.  Technology progresses and skills wane concurrently so that the less contact one has with the working world, the more difficult it must be to reacclimate.  The more training must be required to get such a one up to speed.

Further, and I don’t know how one would go about trying to prove this, I suspect there is a stigma attached to being unemployed.  It may even operate on a subconscious level, but there are almost certainly employers who when given the choice between hiring a young adult out of college or an experienced person who has been unemployed for two years will wonder what deficiency has prevented an otherwise experienced worker from getting a job for so long, even in such hard times as these.

Further, there is emerging evidence that longterm unemployment carries a stigma.  In fact, many employers have become so brazen as to make current employment a prerequisite, as reported by the New York Times in July.  At first, I suspected a sort of unspoken prejudice whereby an employer would wonder what deficiency of character or ability has kept a potential employer out of work for such a duration.  But in fact, as reported by the Wall Street Journal back in 2009, employers are quite open about this.  There is an almost Darwinian philosophy at work which argues that only the fittest have been able to remain employed, a sort of economic Catch-22 which serves to keep the longterm unemployed in a prolonged penurious holding pattern.

As for the collective collateral damage to our society, here too we tend only to see the immediate symptoms.  That is to say we are more likely to consider the money that the chronically unemployed are not pumping into the œconomy, the social security taxes they are not paying, the spent government dollars which some would prefer to spend on other programs and others would prefer to spend not at all.  This is sufficient cause for concern today, but what about tomorrow?  A reasonable analogy might be that this is akin to paying famers not to grow crops in a time of famine.

Let it be given that we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens.  It can even be a self-motivated responsibility, for as Perikles is reputed to have said, “a flourishing state is altogether more helpful to individuals than when the individual does well on his own, but the state is collapsing around him.  For the man who is doing well on his own is nonetheless ruined when his state is destroyed, but the one who is in bad shape while his state prospers is more likely to find his salvation.”5  In any case, we cannot leave people to starve, we cannot leave children to wear rags, we can not watch whole neighborhoods be foreclosed upon nor entire communities pass into ghost towns.

If this is true, then we are obliged to help these people.  Three hundred dollars a week is not much, but our society seems to have concluded it is enough under the circumstances.  The question then becomes, if we resolve to pay an unemployed citizen $300 dollars a week, ought we to pay them to do nothing or ought we pay them to do something.  And if it be the state that pays, ought not a service be rendered in kind to the state?  They could be paid to plant trees or clean up roadsides.  Anything is better than nothing, surely.

How would this affect one’s potential œconomic mobility?  Even if no meaningful skills were acquired, it would demonstrate to a potential employer accountability and responsibility.  The potential employer would see somebody before them who, even if they required training, could be counted on to show up every day, on time and work hard.  This is an easier claim to make for somebody who has been working for two years than for somebody who has staid home for two years, even if the claim be true for both.

Sadly, as things are now, people can sit home for up to 99 weeks (soon to be more) and simply “get by,” if even that.  During this time they acquire no new skills, forge no new connections, make no contribution to the state or to their own personal betterment.  There is no hope of promotion, no brighter tomorrow.  Those who have fallen from the Middle Class to the Lower are less able to realize a reascension to their previous station, while those who already inhabited the Lower Class remain there imprisoned.  It is in this way that potential upward œconomic mobility is stunted, and there is no doubt but that we are all the worse for it, singly and together.


*This post was updated 12/5/2011 to reflect the journalism on the matter of many employers seeking only to hire those already employed.  Thanks to Justin Starr for the research.

  1. Added to this we might consider as a fourth class the military.  Mark Thompson examines this idea in greater detail in his excellent article for Time Magazine entitled “The Other 1%.”  For this post, however, I shall confine myself to the tripartite œconomic division identified above. []
  2. There is no doubt but that the term “social responsibility” means vastly different things to different people.  But left, right & center, I believe all Americans subscribe to some belief in personal responsibility, whatsoever it may mean to them. []
  3. I do not presume to speak for the Occupiers, nor do I count myself among them, but that this is an argument put forth by them seems self-evident.  If I should be in error, I encourage any Occupier to provide a more accurate articulation. []
  4. There is a helpful nuts & bolts analysis by Casey B. Mulligan of U. Chicago which was posted on the NYT. []
  5. …πόλιν πλείω ξύμπασαν ὀρθουμένην ὠφελεῖν τοὺς ἰδιώτας ἢ καθ᾽ ἕκαστον τῶν πολιτῶν εὐπραγοῦσαν, ἁθρόαν δὲ σφαλλομένην. καλῶς μὲν γὰρ φερόμενος ἀνὴρ τὸ καθ᾽ ἑαυτὸν διαφθειρομένης τῆς πατρίδος οὐδὲν ἧσσον ξυναπόλλυται, κακοτυχῶν δὲ ἐν εὐτυχούσῃ πολλῷ μᾶλλον διασῴζεται.  Th.2.60 []

The Tragedy of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno

One cannot but be amazed at how Attention has focused herself on this one man, Joseph Vincent Paterno.  To be sure, his is an enthralling subplot, a sort of handmaiden to the horrors that have of late manifested themselves in State College, PA.  Yet, in the first week after the news broke, it seemed as though for every story written about the crimes themselves, there were three more written about this the winningest coach in the history of Division I football.  At first I was troubled about why this should be so.  After all, should not our energies be focused on the victims?  Should we not be more concerned with finding out the full truth and reach of these most scelerous crimes.  Our collective preoccupation with this man, and his downfall, became a source of fascination to me.  At last it occurred to me that for those of us not immediately involved, these events have constituted a sort of drama.  Indeed we have watched this drama, this tragedy, unfold before us in real time.  Each day brings a new scene and we are riveted.

Drama and Tragedy.  I choose these terms, I hope, with precision.  For I believe that this is how we are processing what we see.   To put it simply, the story of Joe Paterno is nothing less than a Greek tragedy, and he is its hero.

I bid you consider the tortured mythology of ancient Thebes.  In that mythology there are many stories, many characters, and it stretches for generations.  But within the Theban mythology there is also a tale of narrow scope.  The story of one man, one tragedy.  A proud and mighty man brought low by his own hand.  Is this not also true of the drama unfolding at Penn State?  I do not suggest that Joe Paterno is a perfect analog to Oidpous, but that they are of a kind.

We will return to Oidipous later.  But for the moment, I beg your consideration: what is tragedy?  If you would indulge me, pause for a moment, and consider with yourself how you would define this word.  Like as not, you have arrived at something along the lines of “a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster.”1  And certainly it has come to mean this.  When people talk of what has happened at the hands of ὁ οὐκ ὀνομαcτόc2 as being a tragedy, this is surely what they mean, and by this definition, they are just as surely correct.  But the word tragedy – τραγῳδία in its original Greek – had a much more specific meaning, one which Aristotle went to great lengths to define.

Before proceeding further, I feel it is important to clarify how I view the actions of Joe Paterno at the time of this writing relative to the shower incident.  He had, δοκεῖ μοι, three ways in which to handle the information brought to him by his assistant coach.  He could have done that which we all wish he had done; gone straight to the police.  He could have done his due diligence and nothing more, which is what it appears he did.  He also could have actively tried to cover this up.  Based on what has been made public at this time, I do not believe that he actively tried to conceal this, to hide it, to bury it.3  If I should turn out to be wrong about that, the following analysis will largely fail in its inherent accuracy, though I think it will still go a ways toward explain the amount of attention he received in the first week after the story broke.

Aristotle in his πἐρὶ ποιητικῆc4 – the Poetics – gives what he believe is the purpose of tragedy, six major components and what sort of central character is most pleasing to an audience.  The purpose, put simply (& perhaps too simply) is, through the representation of pity (ἔλεοc/eleos) and fear (φόβοc/phobos), to affect a purification – his word is κάθαρcιc (catharsis) – from these troubles (1449b).5


The most important of the six components,6 according to Aristotle, is the plot (1450a).  It is the sine qua non of any tragedy.  And the most important elements of a tragic plot are the sudden reversal of circumstance or fortune (περιπέτεια/peripeteia) and the recognition of something previously unknown (ἀναγνώριcιc/anagnōrisis).  An example of peripeteia would be Oidipous going from king of Thebes to disgraced exile.  An anagnōrisis would be his discovering that he killed his father and married his mother.  Again, this is a simplification, and it omits much, but it is sufficient for this discussion.

Turning now to character, there is a certain type of hero which Aristotle believes is most favorable to an audience, one which best arouses eleos and phobos.  He is neither a supremely good and moral man (ἐπιεικήc/epieikēs) passing from good fortune (εὐτυχία/eutychia) to misfortune (δυcτυχία/dystychia), yet neither is he an excessively base and immoral one (cφόδρα πονηρόc/sphodra ponēros) passing from dystychia to eutychia.  For the one is “neither fearful nor piteous, but is repulsive…[the other] might be pleasing to our sense of justice, but is not piteous or fearful.”  Rather, what is wanted is one who “suffers undeservedly and yet is like us, for we pity the undeserving sufferer and fear for one like ourselves (1452b-1453a).”

What he means by “undeserving” is that the character does not suffer his reversal of fortune because of some innate evil or moral depravity (κακία, μοχθηρία/kakia, mochthēria), but by some horrible failure of judgment (ἁμαρτία/hamartia).  Furthermore, this generally befalls one who is “held in great repute, is in good fortune and is preeminent amongst his fellow man (1453a).”  Again, Aristotle has more to say, but these are the key and salient points.

Now then, what of Joe Paterno?  There is no question that he was held in the highest repute both within the world of college football and beyond.  No doubt that he was preeminent not only in his profession, but amongst our citizenry generally.  Yet neither was he epieikēs.  He had his critics, had been called arrogant and stubborn.  And yet his downfall, while entirely his own doing, was not come from some kakia or mochthēria.  We know who the morally depraved man is in this story, and we do not name him here.  Whatever Paterno’s failings in this matter, they pale next to the putrescence of the crimes themselves.

In Joe Paterno’s success, we see one like ourselves.  The sort of man we aspire to be.  Born of a humble beginning, he raises himself to greatness.  He builds a program of great renown, not just for its athletic prowess but for the rate at which it graduates its athletes.  He molds young boys into men, and in so doing inspires lifelong loyalty.  Indeed, we see now, in the riots following his ouster, that he inspires loyalty amongst those whom he personally has no direct relation.  Yet in his later years he grew jealous of the power he had accumulated, felt a sense of entitlement.  A remarkable man, but a very human one.

Oidipous & the Sphinx

So too Oidipous.  Raised by a shepherd, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, returned his city to prosperity and was beloved by his people.  At the close of the play, the chorus says “κράτιcτοc ἦν ἀνήρ, οὗ τίc οὐ ζήλῳ πολιτῶν ἦν τύχαιc ἐπιβλέπων – as a man he was the strongest,7 and who was there amongst men who could look upon his fortunes without envy? (Soph.OT.1526).”  Yet he too was jealous of his power, and suspicious.8

The downfall of Joe Paterno then, δοκεῖ μοι, follows quite closely Aristotle’s description of the highest order of tragedy.  Somewhere in this sordid tale he experienced his own anagnōrisis.  Whether it was the day that an assistant coach told him he had witnessed something awful in the shower, or whether sometime before, Paterno at some point had to face the awful recognition that his trusted lieutenant was a child predator, a monster worse even than the ancient Sphinx.

Between the anagnōrisis and the peripeteia lies the hamartia, the fatal flaw, that critical error in judgment.  Whether out of ignorance like Oidipous or arrogance like Agamemnon, he surely failed.  Failed himself, his institution, our poor children.  And from this failure flows his peripeteia.

Certainly the peripeteia is evident.  The reversal of his fortunes has been profound.  No doubt there will be a closing act to his story.  Like the Oidipous at Colonos, where the hero as on old man wanders the countryside, blind with only his daughters to guide him, Paterno too seems destined to end his life in some sort of exile.  Like Oidipous, his good deeds will not be forgotten,  yet will he be a source of a shame to his city, his institution.

These, then, are the reasons I believe we have focused so much attention on Joe Paterno these several days.  Whether sitting in the Theatre of Dionysios 2500 years ago, or sitting in front of our televisions today, we know good tragedy when we see it, and we know it instinctively.  It is a sorry tale that rouses in us pity and fear.  And in this downfall, there is some small measure of catharsis for us.  With his exile, the process of purification can begin.  All these generations later, we still read the tale of Oidipous and the stories are just as powerful today as they ever were.  It may yet be that generations from now they will still be singing the tragedy of Joe Paterno.

  1. dictionary.com []
  2. He who is not to be named; abominable []
  3. I’ve toyed with the idea that Paterno had no more freedom of choice here than did Oidipous.  In theory, he could have acted differently.  Yet I wonder if, on some level, he was bound by his personal custom – his ethos if you will – and by an antiquated worldview to do as he did.   But that is a discussion for another day. []
  4. A reasonably good translation can be found here.  Unfortunately, the translator uses his own numbering system (which is just cruel), but the analysis on tragedy begins at his section 6. []
  5. I have cited chapter numbers according to the traditional numbering of the Greek text, in the interest of intellectual honesty, though they are not given in the above referenced English translation. []
  6. For brevity’s sake, I will not bother with an enumeration of these components, but will only deal with those that are relevant to this discussion.  However, a discussion of all of these can be found beginning with section 6 of the above linked translation. []
  7. A somewhat tangential, but lovely little anecdote.  The word κράτιcτοc (kratistos) can mean either “strongest” or “best.”  When Alexander the Great was on his deathbed, he was asked to whom he would leave his empire.  He answered “τῷ κρατίcτῷ.”  To the strongest?  Or to the best? []
  8. Cf. e.g. Soph.OT.532-678 []