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The Simpsons Show as a Marker of the Demise of Middle-Class America

May 24, 2014 19 comments

Over the last five years, all of us have read a flurry of articles about the slow but certain demise of the american middle-class. While each group of commentators offers different (and often mutually contradictory) explanations for this change, it is obvious that the phenomena they are all talking about is very real. It is also clear that the phenomena in question started 2-3 decades (most likely in the early 1980s) and has been gathering pace since then. Unfortunately most of the well-known explanations for this phenomena are based in presentation of numbers and statistics- perhaps deliberately, to obscure the real extent of this phenomena. I will take a different approach to show how you how far the american middle-class has really fallen.

the-simpsons

I am guessing that most of you have seen more than a few episodes of “The Simpsons”. While many aspects of this show, from its longevity to changes in quality over the years, have been the subject of numerous articles and discussions- a few important ones have largely escaped scrutiny. I wrote about one of those ignored, but important, aspects about two years ago. Recently it struck me that the show was also a commentary, if largely unintentional, about the changing fortunes of middle-class america.

To fully comprehend what I am going to say next, you have to first understand that the show is not set in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s or the 2010s. So what era is it set in? The first clue comes from the names of the characters. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and many other characters in that show are named, and partially modeled, after the family members and childhood of the show’s creator- Matt Groening who was born in 1954. It is therefore very likely that Simpsons is actually set in the late 1960s, an era which is now seen as the peak of the american middle-class. This insight also helps us to understand an important, but often ignored feature, of that show.

The simpson family, though clearly working class, enjoys a standard of living which we today associate with the upper middle-class.

Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.

1] Homer Simpson has a decent, if somewhat boring, job at a nuclear power plant. It is noteworthy that he has only finished high school and was hired during a period of rapid expansion. He can also afford, if sometimes barely, to support a family that includes his wife and three kids. The family lives in an old but OK house in a modest but pretty well maintained neighborhood. Sometimes, he even has extra money to spend on some hare-brained scheme or take a family vacation. His job at the power plant is pretty stable, as are the jobs of his co-workers. Sure.. sometimes there is talk of downsizing, reduction of benefits, problems with adequate health insurance etc. But the owner of that power plant, Monty Burns, always relents and ends up keeping things the way they were.

2] One of the main and recurring antagonist of the show, Monty Burns, is the owner of the nuclear power plant. Depicted as an old and greedy WASP, he nonetheless is very different from the type of people who own and run corporations today. For one, he actually owns and runs his own business. He seems to have very few upper management types in the corporation and certainly nobody except his assistant, Smithers, have any significant influence on him. Contrast this to incestuous groups of “professional” CEOs and board members (and their butt-boys) running most corporations today. An even more interesting aspect of Monty Burns is that his main business, the nuclear power plant, produces something real- electricity. It also creates and maintains many non-minimum wage jobs for the locals.

3] The Simpson family, though not wealthy by any standards, has a comfortable lifesyle. The wife, Marge, can afford to be a stay-at-home homemaker except when Homer temporarily loses his job. The family also has enough money to own two used, but reliable, cars. Though they suffer from less than stellar health insurance coverage, they seem to have enough to get by quite well for everything except catastrophic illnesses. The school that Bart and Lisa attend, while not great, is OK- especially when compared to schools in non-upper middle class areas today. They seem to represent an era when decent, if not great, publicly funded social goods were available to almost everyone in the USA (except blacks, of course). Their neighbors, while often annoying, are reasonably decent people of a similar socio-economic class.

The Simpsons is therefore about an era (1946-1979) when even an average, and not particularly, bright guy could get a well-paid and stable blue- or white- collar job and live a pleasant, if not luxurious, life. What was once considered normal for the median person in the USA is now seen as something bestowed by the 1% (or 0.1%) on the 9%.The other 90% are SOL.

The Simpson lifestyle was considered lower-middle class in the 1960s. Today it is considered upper-middle class.

What do you think? Comments?