Inequality, Privilege, and the Upper Middle Class image

Inequality, Privilege, and the Upper Middle Class

Inequality is one of the most entrenched, persistent and socially divisive problems in the modern West. Yet most of us misdiagnose the problem. We imagine that the issue lies with those much better off than us—the 1%, the super-rich, or whatever we call them—rather than with people like us. (More than a third of the Occupy demonstrators in 2011 had annual earnings of over $100k.) Richard Reeves sees things differently. In his Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What To Do About It, he argues that the top 20%, rather than the top 1%, is the real problem, and he admits that this puts both him and the vast majority of his readers in the firing line. “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”

There are all kinds of reasons why inequality persists, but most of them revolve around the fact that the people with the power to change things are also the ones with the most to lose. In absolute terms, of course, wealth creation is not a zero sum game: whether the rising tide lifts all boats or not, it is clearly possible to make some decisions (on trade, technology, tax, and so on) that benefit everyone; the classic comparison on this is the factoid about the poorest country’s life expectancy today being higher than the richest country’s life expectancy in 1850. But in relative terms, you moving up means me moving down. Upward mobility requires downward mobility. And the upper middle class people who proscribe what everyone thinks, write the news, choose what’s on TV, own the financial capital, shape the universities, and run the country, do not want their children to experience downward mobility. Who does?

Some inherited privilege is purely financial, in the form of tax breaks, opposition to death duties, and boondoggles that overwhelmingly benefit middle class families (tuition fees, anyone?) But much is not. Some of it is educational and cultural, based on the age your parents are when you’re born, the number of words you hear before the age of five, the quality of schools in your area, the possibility of investing in tutors or other educational advantages (let alone private schools), the availability of enrichment experiences, the help you get from parents with homework, the sorts of friends you make and things your family talks about, and so on. (If everyone goes to University, Reeves explains, the upper middle class simply go to University for longer. If everyone has Bachelor’s degrees, the Dream Hoarders simply get Master’s degrees.) Some of it is genetic: clever, educated people marry clever, educated people and therefore produce clever, educated children (in contrast to the antiquated class system of Britain a century ago, in which IQ mattered far less in choosing a life partner than “breeding” or whatever). Some of it is geopolitical, as internationalist, free market policies generally favour “anywheres” (who capitalise on globalisation and technology) over “somewheres” (who are more likely to be displaced by it). And some of it stems from deliberate manipulation of the system, what Reeves calls “opportunity hoarding”: zoning, unpaid internships, University admissions, and the like.

The whole thing is pitched as meritocratic. Smart kids go up, less smart kids go down. But in reality, Reeves explains, it does not work like that, because of the countless ways in which richer people can stack the system in their favour. (A small personal anecdote here: because our children have disabilities, we have got to know the benefits system pretty well. It is frightening to see how much easier it is to get access to certain state benefits and assistance if you can write well, articulate your view clearly in front of strangers, handle numbers with confidence, and so on—and this, of course, in an area that is designed to help less privileged families.) One fascinating example of unmeritocracy is that fund managers from poor backgrounds perform better than those from more affluent families (or, as Reeves rather impishly puts it, “more of the posh ones are useless.”) So we flatter ourselves that we are meritocrats—whether or not that is a good thing in the first place—but what we actually are is a hereditary meritocracy, in The Economist’s phrase.

Reeves has a whole bunch of policy proposals to fix all this, from contraception to college admissions to teacher recruitment to curbing zoning. But in many ways the key contribution of his book, and the one that was the most challenging to me, is his argument that upper middle class parents—and though I don’t earn $100k a year, from an educational point of view I’m probably in his crosshairs here—have to be prepared for their children to do less well, if they are going to get serious about social inequality. Reeves quotes both Charles Murray (“I am not suggesting they sacrifice their self-interest”) and Robert Putnam (“This is a book without upper-class villains”), and then challenges both:

It is easy to see why Putnam and Murray are so gentle with us. We are, after all, the people who will read their books and perhaps act on some of their ideas. If you are trying to build a political coalition for change, it is not generally advisable to attack a powerful constituency like the upper middle class. Better to pick on smaller or more distant groups instead. Conservatives assure us that it is the poor or immigrants who are to blame. Liberals protest that the super-rich are ruining America. Either way, whatever our political leanings, those of us in the upper middle class can be reassured that we are the good guys.

But this strategy of placation has run its course ... While the majority is struggling, the upper middle class is flourishing. Recognising this fact is a necessary step toward creating a political climate in which real change is possible.

It’s a careful and in places wonkish book, full of charts and facts and figures (although sadly, no instructions for dancing), yet it is also surprisingly readable, brief, and human. If you’re interested in discussions about privilege, wealth, inequality and what to do about it, you should check it out.

← Prev article
Next article →