Eat The (Sorta) Rich

 

shutterstock_101105338Reihan 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.

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  1. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    He wrote that in high school:

    Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing.

    If it took him until high school to be subjected to such things then he should feel very lucky. When I went to school in Midland, Tx, (that place with now the highest average income in the nation) those distinctions emerged well before the end of elementary school. With the forced bussing that resulted form Brown the jumble of socio-economic classes in each school led to tremendous stratification and the torment of many a young soul. I know the experience colors my perception of the world even today.

    If I can get past the first paragraph perhaps I’ll have more to say about this.

    • #1
  2. gts109 Member
    gts109
    @gts109

    I don’t get why Salam wrote this. He’s usually so good.

    I mulled his argument a bit this weekend. His piece registers mostly as a series of rather unconnected complaints about a class of people whom it is fashionable to hate: well-to-do, white suburbanites. He seems to have a base distaste for strivers as a class, which he can’t quite put his finger on, but he decided to let them have it, nonetheless.

    Sure, there are professional cartels out there. But, as a lawyer, I can tell you that there’s a glut of us, and that our attempts at limiting our number have had no impact on the price of lawyers. And, don’t pretend that technological change hasn’t created a reduced demand for legal services. It has. Maybe Salam would know this if he had bothered to research his piece.

    Doctors are better at limiting their numbers, but is it good policy to loose or abandon licensing restrictions for guys and gals who cut us open?

    Another problem: I surmise that most upper middle class types actually work in non-professional managerial / supervisory positions at large companies, i.e. they are employed in a highly-competitive field by a profit seeking company that would fire them in an instant if it served the bottom line. These people are not a drain on the economy. Quite the opposite.

    Salam also complains that upper middle class threatens our economic future by keeping taxes low and government benefits high. LOL on wheels, pal. A family making $200,000 a year pays $40,000 or $50,000 per year in taxes and consumers far less in government services. Yes, they have their pet tax shelters (mortgage interest deduction, 401k plans, and 529 college savings plan). But, the latter two encourage savings. The first encourages home ownership. All three encourage behaviors that eschew dependency on government.

    And, even if you took away these things and the upper middle class paid more in taxes, our long term fiscal situation is still a nightmare because the two gigantic giveaways for the elderly (Social Security and Medicare, which disproportionately favor those who did not earn or save well during their working years) are simply unsustainable given our demographic future. You can hardly blame the upper middle class for that predicament.

    • #2
  3. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    I’m baffled the very concept of “upper middle class.” I’m told all the time how overpaid I am because I work for the federal government, but even if I doubled what I make I would still fall far short of his $200K mark.

    Also, if the upper middle class were such a heavy weight voting block, then the left would spend a lot more time catering to them. That is, unless all the help the poor rhetoric is targeted at assuaging their moral guilt for making four or more times the median household income.

    • #3
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    “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.”

    It’s credentialism, in a nutshell.  That’s their great power.  They insist on credentials because they have credentials, and they want to maintain the value of that currency.

    “But, as a lawyer, I can tell you that there’s a glut of us, and that our attempts at limiting our number have had no impact on the price of lawyers.”

    What do you think the price of lawyers would be if there were no law schools, or requirement for such?

    Lawyers are in a tough spot now because of technological advancements, as well as economic changes.  That’s the downward pressure.

    But I’m willing to bet that if law was still an apprenticeship-driven profession, as it used to be, there would be a lot fewer $120k/year (or whatever) first-year hires….

    • #4
  5. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I have, over the last few years, begun to think that part of the problem is a kind of identity politics.  Politics as a personal identifier that separates them from the hillbilly masses of most of the rest of the country.  (Some of that cuts both ways, but upper middle class folk would be surprised to think they would be susceptible to something so tribal.)

    • #5
  6. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Another thing I just thought of…this upper middle class is probably where most of our law makers are drawn from. Funny how all their down home stories start with their parents or grandparents rather than themselves. I’ve yet to hear a politician relate how “when I was making only $45K/yr and my wife stayed home with our two children because we thought it was the right choice for our family…”

    • #6
  7. gts109 Member
    gts109
    @gts109

    Tuck, it’s hard to answer your question. Maybe someone has done a quantitative economic analysis. I haven’t seen one. Anyway, to take a stab at it, we have too many lawyers as it stands WITH law school and the bar exam. The reason I make that statement is that there are a significant percentage of law school graduates (hard to put a figure on it) who cannot find long-term, paying employment in the legal profession. And, there are plenty of lawyers who wash out of the profession due to economic difficulties. This suggests, again, that we already have more lawyers than the market will bear. So, if you removed all barriers to entry, I don’t think you’d get many more lawyers than we currently have.

    • #7
  8. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    This is just another instance of silly class warfare. Upper middle class people pay a disproportionate amount of taxes and yet do not qualify for any financial aid to expensive private schools which many consequently can’t afford.  It is also the group that is likely to be deemed too wealthy to receive SS benefits when the inevitable reform comes along.  They will not starve in old age, but neither will they be rolling in dough, especially if plagued by serious medical problems.  Thankfully, many are conservative.

    • #8
  9. PsychLynne Inactive
    PsychLynne
    @PsychLynne

    or through strict enforcement of professional licensing

    I read the article over the weekend and this was the one that resonated with me.  With respect to my own license, I’m of two minds about this.  Research indicates that therapy services from PhD’s are no better than for Master’s degreed therapists (counselor/social work, marriage and family therapist).  I actually agree with the findings, but at the same time, I have a not insignificant number of experiences that don’t disprove the research, but certainly made me wonder about the limits of practice for various professions.  How to resolve it?  I’m not sure, but I know my professional associations spend a huge part of their budget trying to limit practice roles of non-phds and I know that the other professional associations spend a great deal of their budgets on expanding their practice roles.

    There would be the people in Salam’s article, so that’s why his points hit home with me.

    • #9
  10. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    gts109:Tuck, it’s hard to answer your question.

    It’s OK, it was rhetorical.  I’ve read a bit about it in the past, the answer is yes.  That’s in large part the point of law schools and restrictions on practice.

    Here’s the President of the ABA explaining it (in 1966!):

    “For many years the economic condition of lawyers in the United States had been deteriorating.  Their incomes had not kept pace with the expanding economy and, in fact, had declined in relation to incomes of other professional men… The ultimate loser was the public [Of course!] because a Bar so circumstanced and impoverished could not render services of the highest standard.”

    But never fear!

    “During the past nine years great progress has been made.  Lawyers’ incomes have risen…”

    Largely, it appears, through the ABA’s efforts to teach lawyers how to raise their fees…

    • #10
  11. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    I agree with him about the zip codes and public schools point.  There actually used to be a Ricochet member who argued vociferously against school choice, explicitly because her children should not have to go to school with kids of less privileged backgrounds (I think she’s been gone for years).

    On 529 plans, I think he’s just flat wrong, as is the article he quoted. It may be that the plans are mostly used by the upper middle class, but that’s because the upper middle class is in the donut hole between affording to pay today’s sky-high tuitions and getting financial aid.  As it is, we are moving towards a national catastrophe with the student loan debt problem.  And–how often do we on the Right have to say it?–it’s not a subsidy to let you keep your own money.  It’s not like the government owns our money–we do.  All the 529 plans do is allow you (for once in your life) to keep a little bit of the money your money earns, after you’ve earned it once and paid taxes on it already.

    • #11
  12. Isaiah's Job Member
    Isaiah's Job
    @IsaiahsJob

    Quinn the Eskimo:I have, over the last few years, begun to think that part of the problem is a kind of identity politics. Politics as a personal identifier that separates them from the hillbilly masses of most of the rest of the country. (Some of that cuts both ways, but upper middle class folk would be surprised to think they would be susceptible to something so tribal.)

    Speaking as an actual hillbilly – meaning, I am part of that 14% of the population that lives in small towns and the countryside – we have little choice but to think of ourselves in terms of identity politics. Our numbers are now so small – and our society (meaning that of rural Americans) so degraded by poverty and drug use – that we must do so in order to combat our political, social, and economic disenfranchisement.

    • #12
  13. gts109 Member
    gts109
    @gts109

    Tuck, you completely ignored what I said about current market conditions, and inserted a quote from 1966. Is it possible that barriers to entry cause prices to increase? Yes, esp. if the labor market is tight, and people are not going to law school in large numbers. That’s not the case right now, however, and there are too many lawyers for the amount of legal work that exists.

    • #13
  14. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    Salam’s brief piece is incoherent and unpersuasive.  And its big conclusion is this statement:

    “I fear that the only way we can check the tendency of upper-middle-class people to look out for their own interests at the expense of others is to make them feel at least a little guilty about it. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

    Huh?  Our popular culture, politics, educational institutions, and even religious institutions have become rather efficient instruments of making upper-middle-class people feel guilty.  I don’t see any reason to further punish people whose only crime is success, and I am not persuaded that they “look out for their own interests at the expense of others”.  That’s a blanket statement make about a class of people who, on the whole, contribute a great deal to their communities, and to others’ through charitable giving.

    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The King Prawn:Another thing I just thought of…this upper middle class is probably where most of our law makers are drawn from. Funny how all their down home stories start with their parents or grandparents rather than themselves. I’ve yet to hear a politician relate how “when I was making only $45K/yr and my wife stayed home with our two children because we thought it was the right choice for our family…”

    We did this.

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Seriously though, so the people paying a big chunk of the taxes already should be taxed more an made to feel guilty about what they have.

    That is pure leftism and class envy. If there are barriers to entry is the the government screwing around.

    • #16
  17. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    The King Prawn:Another thing I just thought of…this upper middle class is probably where most of our law makers are drawn from. Funny how all their down home stories start with their parents or grandparents rather than themselves. I’ve yet to hear a politician relate how “when I was making only $45K/yr and my wife stayed home with our two children because we thought it was the right choice for our family…”

    We did this.

    So did we.  In fact we still are.  When we were in training, my wife stayed home with our 3 kids and made do with my 35K salary.  She had the car and I biked to work everyday (year-round in Iowa).  We are not unique.  Almost every doctor or lawyer I know did this.

    • #17
  18. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    It’s also quite laughable that the upper middle class (like me) have an outsized influence on national politics or regulations.  Anyone paying attention to the national scene today should notice that the politicians pander to the ‘middle class and poor’ while they are financed by the super-rich people like the Kochs, Buffets and Hoyers.

    Meanwhile, the scorn is directed to people who own businesses or professionals.  After all, “You didn’t build that”.

    • #18
  19. Palaeologus Inactive
    Palaeologus
    @Palaeologus

    Okay folks, Salaam isn’t a leftist. He’s just not. He wrote a rant.

    You know how I know that? Because Salaam is a policy guy and he didn’t pitch a policy.

    Now, was it particularly constructive? Probably not, but he’s hardly the only person around these parts engaged in “class warfare.”

    What on earth do y’all think you’re doing when you’re deriding “intellectual elites?” Or the “dependent class?” Or “crony capitalists?” Or “bureaucrats?” Or “Media/Hollywood elites?”

    That’s some good class warfare, right there.

    That’s politics.

    • #19
  20. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    Bryan G. Stephens:Seriously though, so the people paying a big chunk of the taxes already should be taxed more an made to feel guilty about what they have.

    That is pure leftism and class envy. If there are barriers to entry is the the government screwing around.

    I don’t think that’s right.  Most licensing requirements — whether the probably justified ones for doctors — or the almost certainly laughable ones for hair braiders — have a narrow economic interest that has worked to get them enacted and guards them jealously.

    • #20
  21. user_477123 Inactive
    user_477123
    @Wolverine

    Maybe he should just have written an article about pervasiveness of rent seeking which every class, every group and every profession is guilty of given the incredible nexus between the public and private sectors in this country, instead of singling out one group of people. As such a member, I made decisions based on the rules as I found them. His one point about raising taxes on those above 450K was a poor illustration of his overall point. Of course I was relieved that that tax increase didn’t affect me, but I was not celebrating that Obama raised taxes on them either. The ironic thing for me is that upper middle class individuals, the strivers, are the group that Obama seems to have the most resentment towards, and now this conservative is attacking them as well.

    • #21
  22. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    Peter Fumo:Maybe he should just have written an article about pervasiveness of rent seeking which every class, every group and every profession is guilty of given the incredible nexus between the public and private sectors in this country, instead of singling out one group of people. As such a member, I made decisions based on the rules as I found them. His one point about raising taxes on those above 450K was a poor illustration of his overall point. Of course I was relieved that that tax increase didn’t affect me, but I was not celebrating that Obama raised taxes on them either. The ironic thing for me is that upper middle class individuals, the strivers, are the group that Obama seems to have the most resentment towards, and now this conservative is attacking them as well.

    That’s really the most absurd part of the article — the implication that there’s something special about rent seeking in the upper middle class.  When you put the government in charge of everything, naturally you’re going to have everyone coming to the government looking for something.  That’s what we’ve done.  And that’s what has happened.  And it has happened up and down the class structure and across all sections of society.

    • #22
  23. user_977556 Member
    user_977556
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Let’s stop using the word “class.” That’s Marxist drivel. We don’t have classes in this country. Never have. That’s one of the things that makes the United States exceptional. I propose “upper middle income.”

    • #23
  24. user_477123 Inactive
    user_477123
    @Wolverine

    I have an idea for Salam. Why doesn’t he research how much upper middle income earners pay in taxes, take away in government services, support local institutions through voluntary engagement and charity, how often their children committ crime, have children out of wedlock, how often they get financial aid in college, how often they go to Church, how many hours a week they work, how often they divorce, then compare these metrics to the average American earner, then write the article about how upper middle class people are ruining America if they are found to be lagging behind other Americans in these areas. Somehow I doubt the article gets written.

    • #24
  25. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    Peter Fumo:I have an idea for Salam. Why doesn’t he research how much upper middle income earners pay in taxes, take away in government services, support local institutions through voluntary engagement and charity, how often their children committ crime, have children out of wedlock, how often they get financial aid in college, how often they go to Church, how many hours a week they work, how often they divorce, then compare these metrics to the average American earner, then write the article about how upper middle class people are ruining America if they are found to be lagging behind other Americans in these areas. Somehow I doubt the article gets written.

    Charles Murray already wrote it, in book length.  I’ve read it, it doesn’t exactly support the upper middle whatever ruining America thesis.  (And I’m fine with income if you prefer it Theo — class does carry the implication of not only a variance in resources but a variance in legal status, which we obviously don’t have.)

    • #25
  26. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    In my experience, if you already have the license then it is an imperative to practice in the applicable field.  If you don’t then it isn’t.

    I am generally opposed to licenses to practice but when it’s a matter of life and death in a technically complex activity (surgeon, pilot), then the argument against seems pretty weak.  In most things in life judgment, training and experience matter.  In some things the externalities of an absence of these are life-threatening to others.

    • #26

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