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Reihan Salam has a provocative piece up on Slate on how “The Upper Middle Class Is Ruining America”:
By the time I made it to a selective college, I found myself entirely surrounded by this upper-middle-class tribe. My fellow students and my professors were overwhelmingly drawn from comfortably affluent families hailing from an almost laughably small number of comfortably affluent neighborhoods, mostly in and around big coastal cities. Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group. Yet without really reflecting on it, I felt that it was inevitable that I would live among them, and that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened…
I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.
Put another way, these are the same people who live in the Belmont of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: not the super-wealthy, but the highly successful; not those who are striving to get ahead, but to stay ahead. In general, we’re talking about well-paid, hard-working professionals such as attorneys, doctors, white-collar management, etc. They live in SuperZips whose air smells faintly of vanilla.
Salam’s thesis is that this group sits in a political sweet spot: more wealthy and socially engaged than the rest of the middle class, but much more numerous than the billionaires. Whereas the Tom Steyers and the Kochs have the means to influence other voters’ decisions, these folks have the means to enact their own agenda.
By and large, Salam argues, that means keeping what’s theirs and running interference on everyone else. This means pushing very hard to keep tax breaks that benefit them (in a way the super-wealthy can’t be bothered about) and making sure they’re insulated from potentially unpleasant market disruptions, either through manipulating property laws to suit their purposes, or through strict enforcement of professional licensing. And — due to their aforementioned resources and numbers — they are really good at it.
It’s grim reading, especially considering — as Murray argued — that these folks are basically those that have done all the right things: they (disproportionately) work hard, get educated, attend church, marry well, stay married, and produce decent, well-adjusted children. Murray ended Coming Apart by urging such people to “preach what they practice.” But if Salam is right, it’s not simply that they are, as a class, unwilling to do so; it’s that they are throwing barriers in others’ way to ensure they stay away.