“Our Nation Can Do Better”

When the brittle floor of the U.S. housing market splintered in 2008 and the economy crashed, the men at the helm of the nation’s government and financial institutions swore again and again that “nobody saw it coming.”

But in reality there were many, some expert and some laymen, who recognized how fragile the underpinnings of our consumer-driven economy is.

Dr. Scott Fitzgerald, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the nation’s public policy debate needs to be less about defending positions and more about having honest discussions about societal problems.

One of them was Scott Fitzgerald, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Fitzgerald outlined his concerns in his 2007 book Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle-Class Prosperity. The book is a critique of a system in which the nation’s middle class has been bribed with cheap credit to believe in an illusion of prosperity.

I caught up with Fitzgerald while he was in Door County this summer to talk about revolution, the myth of American individualism, and how to create a more productive national discourse.

There are those who put much of the blame for the 2008 economic collapse on the shoulders of individuals who accepted loans they couldn’t afford. You seem to argue that we don’t have as much economic freedom as we believe?

As sociologists, Kevin (co-author Kevin Leicht of the University of Iowa) and I try to focus on these things that are larger than individuals. Social systems, economic systems, religious systems, political systems – we’re all embedded in these systems which will put parameters on our choices.

When a friend racks up $8,000 in credit card debt and can’t pay it off, you can talk about individual choices. But the availability of the credit and how that was funded are the structures that are beyond any individual decision.

There was a lot of anger directed at Wall Street after the crash, but that changed. Where did it go?

It has been turned toward something more tangible like unions and teachers.

What we’ve said is that private industry wages have gone down, so what we need to do is find a way to get those public sector wages down to the private level. Rather than talking about how we can raise wages for workers in private industry, it’s about how we can bring the public sector down. Nobody is suggesting we trim wages at the top.

You have harsh words for our economic system and the corporations at the top of it. Is it time to blow up the system?

I’m not a revolutionary. I might agree that we would be fundamentally better if we just scrapped this and started over, but I’m also a pragmatist and study politics enough to know that that is not going to happen. Even if you could convince enough people that an alternate arrangement makes sense, you’d then have politics that would prevent that from ever happening.

What we can shoot for are these small tweaks, but you have to perpetually do it. No, it’s not going to solve the problem, but it could reduce the bad.

Fitzgerald’s book, Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle-Class Prosperity, published in 2007, forecast the economic collapse of 2008.

Our national leaders are calling for more individual financial and social responsibility, pointing to our grandparent’s generation as models. But you don’t seem to believe there’s as much power in our bootstrap myth as many believe.

We call it a myth for a reason. The middle class grew in the mid-20th century with housing subsidies, the G.I. Bill, infrastructure investments. There’s always been an overlap between government and individualism. That doesn’t mean people don’t still have to work hard.

I think every one of us knows people who are working really hard, but if you’re making minimum wage, hard work doesn’t mean you can make a better life for your family. There has got to be something more than just hard work.

Postindustrial Peasants isn’t light reading, but it’s more accessible than most academic works. Was there a conscious decision made to write it that way?

Our goal was to take all this arcane academic knowledge about economics and politics and write it for a general audience.

If only a small number of people are really engaging in thoughtful discussion about what is going on, we have very little chance of doing anything productive about it.

So many of our conversations about these issues, be it in media or at home, are just people defending positions rather than actually talking about the problems. We try to get people to talk without simply defending positions, but creating solutions together.

Our nation can do better than this.

Interview has been condensed and edited.