Portland liberals know Thom Hartmann as their voice weekday mornings on Progressive Talk KPOJ, and as the host of a nationally syndicated show on 65 stations on Air America, progressives' response to right-wing talk radio.
Hartmann, who started his local gig last year, became interested in politics as a teenager growing up in the 1950s and 1960s as the oldest of four boys raised by a tool-and-die maker in Lansing, Mich. His blue-collar upbringing may sound boring, but in his latest book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class—And What We Can Do About It, the prolific 55-year-old author and self-proclaimed member of the "radical middle" convincingly argues that the working class has become something of an anachronism.
WW spoke with Hartmann, who will read from his book next week at Powell's City of Books, after the father of three adult children had completed another six-hour workday last week in front of the microphone.
WW: How do you define "middle class"?
Thom Hartmann: I like the definition of the middle class that meets Teddy Roosevelt's definition. He suggested that a person earning a living wage with a single income can raise a family, pay for their children's education through and including college, pay for all their medical expenses, can have enough money to take an annual vacation, set aside enough money to have a reasonable and safe retirement and have a lifestyle that is neither lavish or impoverished. It's a definition that is necessary for a participatory democracy. It's a standard we reached in the United States between the 1950s and the 1980s. It's easy to forget that, but that's what it was like.
That sounds like we're fairly spoiled compared with other countries. Why should we fight for vacation time instead of helping developing countries get access to drinking water?
I don't think they're mutually exclusive. The idea that we have to reduce our standard of living in order to raise the standard of living in other countries where we're exporting our jobs to is ridiculous.
Screwed states that Americans spent more last year than they earned for the first time since the Great Depression, so aren't all of us to blame for our rampant consumerism and credit dependence?
Consumerism is a cultural, psychological and spiritual illness. I don't think it's changed so much since the '30s, when advertising came about as an industry. But the credit phenomenon is new, this whole thing of throwing easy money at people. Over the last 20 years or so, as people have come to rely more and more on credit, credit is being pushed on them more and more. That is the real big qualitative change in terms of how people are trying to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. People are relying on credit for things that they used to just be able to pay for.
What do you think of Portland's local media?
We have the same problems that you see all over the United States, and they have to do with the national trend toward corporate control and media consolidation. We only have one major [daily] newspaper here, but there are others giving them a run for their money.
How do you reconcile working for a media conglomerate like Clear Channel and having a problem with media consolidation and corporate control?
Clear Channel is playing by the rules. They have consolidated to the limit that the law allows. This is the same thing with my riff on Wal-Mart: I'm not critical of Wal-Mart because they're playing by the rules. I'm critical of the rules. I think we need to be working to change the rules, not vilify individual companies. I do a show for KPOJ locally, which is owned by Clear Channel, then I do a national show, which is syndicated by Air America. Those are kind of the two extreme ends of the media. The message I've gotten from Clear Channel and from Air America has been identical, which is, "Do a good show." They're both interested in my doing a program that is going to bring in advertisers and bring in listeners. I've never had anybody tell me what I should or shouldn't say on the air, and I really honor that. Both organizations just want to be profitable, and I'm not an anti-capitalist. I have no problems with profit.
To listen to the entire interview, go to wweek.com/media/7943.mp3.
Hartmann reads from Screwed at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Sept. 5, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free.
Full disclosure: WW editor Mark Zusman appears as a weekly guest Wednesday mornings on Hartmann's show on KPOJ.