Stop Pretending You're Not Rich
July 28, 2017 9:27 AM   Subscribe

The American myth of meritocracy (slnyt) allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.
posted by knownassociate (117 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
Except that he's wrong - the professional classes do, in fact have more in common with the people under them than they do with the truly wealthy. The problem is that he's trying to apply the concepts of the British class structure to the American one, and it doesn't work, because they are very different structures.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:47 AM on July 28 [30 favorites]


I mean if it gets the upper-middle classes to vote with the Democrats more I don't see the problem.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:52 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


I mean if it gets the upper-middle classes to vote with the Democrats more I don't see the problem.

The Democrats really, really need to stop thinking white upper-middle class people are their natural constituency.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:59 AM on July 28 [26 favorites]


As someone who has recently moved into that upper middle class range, the amount of tax breaks that I now get is ridiculous.

Why do I get all this free stuff because I already have money. I needed this 10 years ago, not now.

Which isn't to say that I'm not taking advantage of it. I just feel guilty about it.
posted by empath at 10:18 AM on July 28 [50 favorites]


The Democrats really, really need to stop thinking white upper-middle class people are their natural constituency.

Under current circumstances I'd say the Democrats constituency are the folks who aren't completely insane and trying to set fire to their own house.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:23 AM on July 28 [23 favorites]


Which isn't to say that I'm not taking advantage of it. I just feel guilty about it.

I bet you haven't gone to Mass in a while either. Or confession.

I'm just assuming you're Catholic here.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:28 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


This is a summary of Richard Reeves' book Dream Hoarders. The associated web page (with a link to Chapter 1) is here. Given that its target subject and audience include the journalist/analyst class, it's provoked quite a bit of commentary.

In a long Q&A, Reeves notes that he could have titled it The Wealth Trap. In one interesting section, they discuss that increasing upward mobility among the bottom 80 percent necessarily means increasing downward mobility from the top. But if the steps that increase mobility also improve economic growth and the real-life consequences of relative downward economic mobility, then there wouldn't be as much fear of falling among upper-income households.

In the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein argues that Reeves "is too ready to think of economic advancement is a zero-sum game."

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson is a skeptic: " ...among children born into the richest fifth, only 37 percent remained there as adults. Roughly two-thirds dropped out. How much more downward mobility does Reeves want?"

In Vox, Matthew Yglesias notes "in basic dollar terms, the top one percent — and the top 0.1 percent and the top 0.001 percent — have truly pulled away from the upper-middle class even while most college graduates’ fortunes remain broadly similar to those of the median American." Therefore, "populist economic policy is a message that is appropriate in ... affluent, suburban communities.

But NYTimes columnist David Brooks focuses less on dollars than culture. Brooks has "come to think the structural barriers [Reeves] emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent."

If that's not enough commentary, search Google News for "Dream Hoarders".
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:34 AM on July 28 [8 favorites]


As someone who has recently moved into that upper middle class range, the amount of tax breaks that I now get is ridiculous.

Like what? Either I'm doing it wrong or I'm not rich enough, because over the years as my income has increased, tax breaks have gone away (deduction phase-outs, plus AMT), not increased. I totally agree with the sentiment that I should be paying more than people who make less, so I'm not actually complaining, but I'm genuinely curious what these deductions that rich people get are.
posted by primethyme at 10:36 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


The problem is that he's trying to apply the concepts of the British class structure to the American one, and it doesn't work, because they are very different structures.

Are they, though? The British class structure that exists today doesn't have much in common with Downton Abbey (or even the elocution lessons from the author's childhood). We have our own myths around class, and they're different from American myths around class, but I'm not so sure that the reality underlying it differs hugely when you drill down society to who's got the power and the influence.

We do still have an aristocracy but they're tiny in number. Focusing our concept of the 'elite' around that, or even the coat-tails-old-Etonian thing, is a convenient myth that allows us to pretend class is less pervasive than it is. I obviously don't know exactly how social class breaks down in the US, but I do know that over here, focusing on the '1%' (the aristocracy, the foreign investor oligarchs) allows us to ignore the way the top 5-10% is rapidly accumulating all the economic, social and cultural capital and the rest are falling behind. I've heard people who earn £100k a year talk about how it's not THAT much money, they're not RICH, they're just like everyone else really, they struggle just like everyone else... and, no.
posted by Catseye at 10:43 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


A lot of us making those 6 figure salaries have to live in a pretty constrained set of coordinates, which either means paying enough in rent to wind up living like someone far further down the tax brackets, or putting a lot of financial risk in a house, and either way, it means not having much money socked for a rainy day.
posted by ocschwar at 10:43 AM on July 28 [4 favorites]


[Tax breaks for upper-middle-class folk] Like what?

Mortgage interest deductions, lower rate for capital gains vs income, 401(k), cap on Social Security contribution are ones I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:50 AM on July 28 [16 favorites]


But NYTimes columnist David Brooks focuses less on dollars than culture. Brooks has "come to think the structural barriers [Reeves] emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent."

David Brooks' whole schtick is that the Western upper middle class are morally, spiritually, and culturally superior to the rest of humanity, so that's no surprise.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:53 AM on July 28 [16 favorites]


I guess that I wonder if there are several things going on at the same time. There really is a concentration of wealth at the very tippy top. There also is a concentration of wealth in the top 20%, and those people have a safety net that, while not as unbreakable as the safety net for the people at the very tippy top, isn't available to other people. On the other hand, it is also true that there are financial pressures on many people in the top 20% that keep them from feeling rich, and there are real sources of financial precariousness even for those people. We have a hard time keeping all of those thoughts in our head simultaneously, which means that we end up arguing back and forth about kind of simplistic narratives that don't really help us understand the situation.

And speaking of things that don't help us understand the situation, David Brooks is fun to mock, but he's not contributing anything valuable, and we should probably ignore him.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:56 AM on July 28 [30 favorites]


There are ways in which American society is set up so that even when you make objectively a ton of money you never feel quite secure enough, leading to selfish decision-making and a vicious cycle. I promise you I'm not being disingenuous when I feel that my husband and I, making an income that puts us roughly in the top 3% of the US household income distribution overall, feel much less secure and likely are much less secure than my parents when I was growing up in India who made about a tenth what we do.

The cost of living is very different, agreed, but not quite to the degree that would explain that. It's more that my parents knew they had a guaranteed pension, excellent healthcare guaranteed for life, great job security, great maternity leave, the ability to take a leave of absence from their job for a degree if they wanted and on and on. We constantly feel on edge, worried about our ability to manage our fat mortgage and childcare expenses simultaneously, the possibility of losing our jobs, what would happen if either of us ever became seriously ill - none of which are worries that even crossed my parents' minds.

So much of our time is spent wrangling bureaucracy just to ensure we're paid what we're owed - oh you used your FSA account - send us the bills to prove these are legitimate bills; oh you wanted that prenatal test but you're under age 35, we're going to spend 6 months back and forth with your insurer before you finally know what you're on the hook for. And I realize that I'm comparing the tippy-top of the American income distribution with the tippy-top of the Indian income distribution, so I'm extraordinarily fortunate any way you slice it, but that's the reality of how I feel. And it does lead to this mentality of - well we'd better sock that away for a rainy day - because god knows when a slight drizzle will turn into an outright hurricane in American society. I feel that I'm not able to be as generous as I'd like (though we still donate a sizable and increasing chunk to charities each year) and that is depressing.
posted by peacheater at 11:02 AM on July 28 [55 favorites]


A lot of us making those 6 figure salaries have to live in a pretty constrained set of coordinates, which either means paying enough in rent to wind up living like someone far further down the tax brackets

How do you figure? You may have to pay enough in rent to live more frugally than you would like, but the person in your city earning less than you has to live even *more* frugally.

Poor people are generally more, not less, geographically constrained than middle-class/wealthy people.
posted by splitpeasoup at 11:05 AM on July 28 [11 favorites]


[Tax breaks for upper-middle-class folk] Like what?

TFA mentions a couple big ones: 529 plans and mortgage-interest deductions. (They’re only relevant if you have a kid or buy a home, respectively.) The mortgage-interest deduction is particularly bonkers. Matthew Desmond did a deep dive on it in the New York Times Magazine about a month before the article in this FPP came out: How Home Ownership Became the Engine of Income Inequality (NYT Magazine). Some pretty compelling stories and reasons to tear your hair out in there.
posted by miles per flower at 11:07 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


How do you figure? You may have to pay enough in rent to live more frugally than you would like, but the person in your city earning less than you has to live even *more* frugally.

Poor people are generally more, not less, geographically constrained than middle-class/wealthy people.


Within a given city that is definitely true, but there are more lower-paying jobs outside big cities. I think what ocschwar means is that once you're in one of the six figure jobs you do kind of feel trapped, because your options for other places you could move to are limited, if you want to keep the same income level (and I realize that's a big if). So you could earn $50000 a year in many places in the Midwest for example, but six figure jobs tend to concentrate in the same few cities - NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle etc.

So why not just give up the six figure job and go somewhere where the cost of living is lower? Well, first of all the decrease in cost of living is not necessarily enough to offset the lower income. But the bigger issue is that often you've painted yourself into a tight enough corner job-wise that you kind of have to stay in a big city to ensure enough job security in the case that you get laid of. I can think of only 6 or 7 cities in the entire US where I could feel reasonably certain about getting another job in the same field if I got laid off from my current one.

Anyway none of the above is meant to imply in any way that things are actually easier for those on a lower income or making minimum wage than those making six figures - that is obviously ludicrous. But I think that's a bit of where ocschwar is coming from.
posted by peacheater at 11:16 AM on July 28 [14 favorites]


A lot of us making those 6 figure salaries have to live in a pretty constrained set of coordinates, which either means paying enough in rent to wind up living like someone far further down the tax brackets, or putting a lot of financial risk in a house, and either way, it means not having much money socked for a rainy day.

There are poor and middle class people living in these coordinates too. I live in NYC, and 6 figure earners that I know feel broke, even though they own apartments, send their kids to private schools (or live in an expensive neighborhood with good public schools), pay for lots of enrichment activities for their kids, take nice vacations, etc. Just because you (general you) live in an expensive area and your lifestyle makes it hard to save doesn't mean you're not rich.
posted by Mavri at 11:17 AM on July 28 [19 favorites]


How do you figure? You may have to pay enough in rent to live more frugally than you would like, but the person in your city earning less than you has to live even *more* frugally.

I am well aware of that.

But people in the (say) top 10%, because of the cost of living within commuting distance to those lovely jobs, are in just as precarious a state as the rest of the population. Since your savings are not accumulating, you share the 3-months-to-fucked state that everyone else has.

Ergo, the people in the 90th to 99th percentile are still in the 99%.

What makes someone a 1%er is being SECURELY wealthy.
posted by ocschwar at 11:18 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


So you could earn $50000 a year in many places in the Midwest for example, but six figure jobs tend to concentrate in the same few cities - NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle etc.

To that point, the WSJ published an analysis this week showing that eight US cities account for 27% of all tech jobs, and 40% of tech jobs that pay over $100K/year: Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Austin, Raleigh, Washington, Baltimore and Boston.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:26 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Except that he's wrong - the professional classes do, in fact have more in common with the people under them than they do with the truly wealthy.

Huh, is this what we're telling ourselves now?

We will make a lot more progress when people in positions of privilege stop trying to convince themselves how not-privileged they are. Privilege is only a sin when combined with selfishness--and nothing breeds selfishness like refusing to admit one's privileges.
posted by schroedinger at 11:26 AM on July 28 [10 favorites]


Also, the six-figure nonsense is a red herring. I can think of precious few jobs where one making six figures does not have the option to move somewhere where any loss of income is not more than compensated for by a reduced cost of living. You may not like the location and it may not be the perfect job--but having that choice of location and job is still a choice.

(p.s. if you make six figures and live on Baltimore or Raleigh you will live like royalty.)
posted by schroedinger at 11:30 AM on July 28 [11 favorites]



We will make a lot more progress when people in positions of privilege stop trying to convince themselves how not-privileged they are. Privilege is only a sin when combined with selfishness--and nothing breeds selfishness like refusing to admit one's privileges.


If it's true and you know it's true that you're one pink slip away from joining the barely-health-insured masses, you might be more inclined to support keeping them insured (for example), not out of a sense of nobless oblige but pure self interest.
posted by ocschwar at 11:31 AM on July 28 [16 favorites]


(p.s. if you make six figures and live on Baltimore or Raleigh you will live like royalty.)

I live in Boston rather than Raleigh because 1. the salary gap is slightly larger than the housing price gap, and 2. most importantly, in Boston I have a competitive array of employers, while in Raleigh 3 months of unemployment is much more likely to happen. (In Boston, you can get fired and hired within a day.) Crappy food, cramped housing, and Boston charm is a small price to pay for knowing my job prospects are good and my children won't know what "rolling coal" means.
posted by ocschwar at 11:35 AM on July 28 [10 favorites]


If it's true and you know it's true that you're one pink slip away from joining the barely-health-insured masses, you might be more inclined to support keeping them insured (for example), not out of a sense of nobless oblige but pure self interest.

This is absolutely true. I have a friend who works at the same company as I do, and we make around the same amount of money. However, her husband makes enough to put them in the 1% on his income alone and they travel in more moneyed circles than we do. She's not a horrible person: we have many conversations about what a nightmare the Trump administration is and she's genuinely worried about Trumpcare, both for selfish reasons and because she thinks no one should have to go without healthcare. She told me that a lot of her rich friends feel completely insulated from the effects of the administration and that she would sit them down and explain to them how, no matter how much money they make, they're really just one big health crisis away from bankruptcy, as that's the reality of healthcare in this country. Most people who go bankrupt from healthcare costs had health insurance.
posted by peacheater at 11:37 AM on July 28 [26 favorites]


It's good to see that instead of trying to figure out how to reduce inequality or fight its existing effects, we've decided to fight with each other over who is truly included in the Common People.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:44 AM on July 28 [15 favorites]


The extreme wealth of the 1% is the biggest problem when it comes to destructiveness of inequality.

That doesn't mean that the advantages afforded to the upper middle-class aren't also a problem. They are.

Living in a coastal city with a high cost of living is a luxury. Saving for retirement is a luxury. Owning a home is a luxury. Paying for children's college is a luxury. Being married is a luxury. Having access to employer paid health insurance is a luxury. Going on even modest vacations is a luxury. Should these things be luxuries? No, but currently they are.

I think many upper middle class people think, "I don't live an extravagant life, therefore I am more like the working poor than the very rich" not realizing that the basics they take for granted are considered luxuries to 80% of Americans. This blitheness is offensive to the truly disadvantaged and they are resentful of our inability to acknowledge on even a basic level how comfortable our lives are compared to theirs.

Does that mean that upper middle class has it easy peasy? Of course not! But until we grapple with how very good we have it in comparison to most people in this country, until we can say "you're right, we DO have it better than you, and that's a problem" it's hard for me to envision real change.
posted by scantee at 11:50 AM on July 28 [28 favorites]


We will make a lot more progress when people in positions of privilege stop trying to convince themselves how not-privileged they are. Privilege is only a sin when combined with selfishness--and nothing breeds selfishness like refusing to admit one's privileges.

I'm doing nothing of the sort, nor are many of the other people who have noted the various privileges they have. What I'm pointing out is that, even with all those privileges, professionals (who make up most of the "mass affluent") are more aligned with the lower classes in terms of stability than they are with the securely wealthy.

Stop trying to make enemies out of potential allies - as Yglasias pointed out, economic class based arguments do resonate with the professional class.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:51 AM on July 28 [12 favorites]


Reading wealthy people's reactions to this reminds me of something -

I've never made more than $22,000 a year. I can live comfortably enough on that, with some caveats: I don't have student loan debt, a car payment, or kids. I can't afford private health insurance. I am only one small disaster away from being in debt. I can't afford to put much of anything toward retirement and will never own a house on that kind of money. So, while my day-to-day existence is comfortable enough, it's precarious and I'm acutely aware that it will end.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I made a new friend through a gaming community. His mother is an immigrant and works low-income jobs, and his father isn't in the picture. He's an adult, but he has a school age sister that he has to help look after, which makes it more difficult for him to find a good-paying job than it already is--there are some real racial and class barriers working against him.

For me, being precarious is wondering what I'll do when I'm too old or sick to work. For him, being precarious means losing a job now because he couldn't afford to put gas in his ancient car (which then broke down anyway), and his sister having a glass of milk for dinner because they ran out of money for food. He feels depressed and hopeless and is sometimes talks about suicide--but says he won't kill himself until his sister is grown up, at least, because she needs him. He has no health insurance at all and can't afford to pay for mental health treatment, and his experiences with free and low-cost services have been extremely shitty.

I bring this up because while, intellectually, I know that life can be difficult for people in poverty, I've been insulated from the worst of it because my social circle is mostly full of people who "made it" - if not into the upper middle class, then at least into an economic ladder where they're well-fed and have a little economic leverage (e.g. even have the OPTION of using credit card debt to finance a car repair). It was really only something I read about. But watching someone I care about go through it, and hearing him tell me the day-to-day struggles, really made it hit home, and really made me realize how different our experiences are.

I think it's human nature to want people to sympathize with the struggles that you face. They're important to you. But it is really, really easy for relatively privileged people to fall into the trap of thinking that because they have struggles, their struggles are just as bad as everyone else's struggles.

Which brings me to:

But people in the (say) top 10%, because of the cost of living within commuting distance to those lovely jobs, are in just as precarious a state as the rest of the population.

It ain't so.

You may not feel secure and you may have self-interested reasons to support a social safety net, but you're lying to yourself if you think you're in as precarious a situation as people with much less economic leverage than you.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:54 AM on July 28 [29 favorites]


Huh, is this what we're telling ourselves now?

We will make a lot more progress when people in positions of privilege stop trying to convince themselves how not-privileged they are. Privilege is only a sin when combined with selfishness--and nothing breeds selfishness like refusing to admit one's privileges.


Honest to god, I don't know what step two after getting doctors, nurses, and pharmacists - many of whom are on the front-line of the fight to get health care for all - to feel selfish and privileged about themselves is. What comes after that?
posted by notorious medium at 11:55 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]



Living in a coastal city with a high cost of living is a luxury.


No.

30 years ago, when a job was for life, maybe then. But a job is not for life any more. You HAVE to locate next to more than one potential employer. So depending on your field, living in a coastal city is a necessity.

The problem isn't wealth inequality. It's RISK inequality. Very few of us are set for life. The rest of us are over a barrel. And a salary in the 95th percentile still puts you in the precarious class.
posted by ocschwar at 11:57 AM on July 28 [15 favorites]


This is the age old debate, right? How should we draw the lines? Is it just the super rich (the 1% or the 0.01%) vs everyone or is the top X vs the bottom Y? And then whether we need to draw lines at all (aka the reason that economic growth is the ultimate political goal).

The upper middle class (say top 70-99th percentile) is a real class with real class interests that are sometimes in conflict with the class interests of lower percentiles. There are real republicans in that bracket that don't want their money to pay for poor people's healthcare, and you may think they are assholes (I do) but, well, the transfer of income is hard to ignore. And there are real well-to-do progressives that don't want to see their mortgage deductions disappear in order to finance healthcare either.

Of course terms of sheer income per capita and also aggregate wealth the top 1% is clearly opposed to everyone else, in the sense that taking from them and giving to everyone else would hurt almost nobody and help a ton of people. And they have more control over many of the institutions (businesses themselves but also finance and lobbyists) that actually allocate income and determine many of the economic superstructure that surrounds income.

You can also draw the lines in other ways, from marx's simple capital / labor to different industries to urban / rural. Or of course imagined communities based on ideologies. I tend to think most of them are distractions but there IS a limited pie in a sense and it's easy to get distracted if we don't have a good understanding of where the money actually is going.
posted by ropeladder at 11:57 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I'm doing nothing of the sort, nor are many of the other people who have noted the various privileges they have. What I'm pointing out is that, even with all those privileges, professionals (who make up most of the "mass affluent") are more aligned with the lower classes in terms of stability than they are with the securely wealthy.


Boiling it down a great deal, T. Piketty's work focuses on ever-compounding income from investment as the great driver of economic inequality. Everyone whose economic position is not primarily supported by income from investment (that is, the vast majority of the salaried) is therefore on the wrong end of the stick, so to speak.

None of this has to do with morality or relative poverty, really. Just a question of whose well-being is implicated by which forces, and how that naturally groups people. Biglaw lawyers in NYC are almost uniformly well-off at the least. But their profession is threatened by the same forces as threaten pink-collar workers everywhere, just on a time delay, and there is a natural split obvious to anyone who has one functioning brain cell between those who hold equity in their firms (equity partners) and the endless ranks of those who do not (everybody else).
posted by praemunire at 12:04 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


You may not feel secure and you may have self-interested reasons to support a social safety net, but you're lying to yourself if you think you're in as precarious a situation as people with much less economic leverage than you.

Good thing that nobody is saying that, then!

I fully understand and admit that there are many, many people who are worse off and in a more precarious position than I am. But on the same token, I am not anywhere close to being fully insulated from risk either, even if I am more so than other people are. And that aligns my interests with the lower classes over the upper class.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:19 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


30 years ago, when a job was for life, maybe then. But a job is not for life any more. You HAVE to locate next to more than one potential employer. So depending on your field, living in a coastal city is a necessity.
Having "a field" is a bit of a luxury, I think. Most middle-class people I know have a set of skills (which could be soft skills like stroking egos, putting up with bullshit from customers, making people feel smart and attractive, etc., or they could be things like typing and being organized) that can be transferred to many fields. You could probably develop those skills if you needed to, and then you could move to lots of places where you could get a $35,000-a-year job using them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:27 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


A couple of rules of thumb:

1.) Take a look at what your income group by percentile is. If that group's real adjusted income risen since 1973, you are rich.

2.) If you know your income percentile off the top of your head, you are rich.
posted by FakeFreyja at 12:47 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


I get stuck on this conversation every time it goes around. Look, there are two different lines. I'm probably in the top 5% for household income, certainly in the top 10%. Politically, wealth should be redistributed from me to poorer people. While I worry about things related to money, that sort of worry is more neurosis than it is related to a real chance that something bad is going to happen to me or my family for lack of money. There are good reasons to call that rich, so if that's the line you're drawing, around whether you have any connection to suffering from poverty, I'm rich.

On the other hand, I'm a wage earner. I have investments, but only in retirement, so lower rates for capital gains taxes don't do anything at all for me. Public services, like schools and public transportation, are important for me -- replacing them by paying for private alternatives would make me significantly poorer. The amount of money I have isn't anything like enough to affect how much political power I have -- I don't have enough to make donations on the scale that would make a politician treat me like anything but Jane Random Constituent. To the extent that our political system is set up to serve and maintain the consolidation of great wealth, it's not set up to serve me, it's set up to serve the super-rich. So politically, I have a lot more interests in common with the 95% percent of the population that's poorer than I am, than I do with the top 0.5% of the population. You can call me rich, but I'm not rich like the people the Republican party is obediently serving.

I get that it's enraging to hear someone who's economically completely sheltered from harm to say that they aren't rich, but it does mean something politically.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:01 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


There sure is a whiff of competitive hair shirt one upmanship in this thread.
You'd think that anything that gets a 98%er to identify more with the 97% than the 0.01% would be a good thing.... But no, I guess anyone over the N% (where N is 1 greater than the commenter) isn't good enough to join the club.

No wonder identity politics worked (works) so well for the uber wealthy.
posted by cfraenkel at 1:02 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


I can think of precious few jobs where one making six figures does not have the option to move somewhere where any loss of income is not more than compensated for by a reduced cost of living.

I can only speak to my own experience, but it's real concrete experience based on my actual budget and income. I've seriously considered moving to lower cost of living areas, going as far as taking interviews, looking at places to live, and sketching out the budget based on those approximate numbers. In my experience, the reduction is pay is almost always larger than the reduction in housing cost, and housing cost is the only thing that turns out to be materially cheaper in "low cost of living" areas (at least the ones I looked at). There are a lot of expenses in life that aren't any cheaper in those places.

I'm sure people can find counterexamples, but I was unable to find a place in the US where I wouldn't come out behind by moving to a cheaper area.
posted by primethyme at 1:03 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


1.) Take a look at what your income group by percentile is. If that group's real adjusted income risen since 1973, you are rich.

I found a chart.

(I think I just found out I'm less rich than I thought but that's mostly because while I have a pretty good income it's the only one for my household.)

Being right where I am fuck the giveaways to homebuyers. Nonetheless I'm pretty sure the 99% thing was smart strategically.
posted by atoxyl at 1:03 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


this is a very interesting discussion and I'm appreciating the different backgrounds and perspectives (even if I'm not sure yet where I agree or don't on them). lots of food for thought. thanks, all.
posted by suddenly, and without warning, at 1:03 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]



You may not feel secure and you may have self-interested reasons to support a social safety net, but you're lying to yourself if you think you're in as precarious a situation as people with much less economic leverage than you.


If you come down with cancer, you're going to wind up bankrupt and may have to forgo care.
If I come down with cancer, I'm going to wind up bankrupt and may have to forgo care.

Yeah, my downfall may be a two step process rather than one step. But so what?
posted by ocschwar at 1:08 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


For the sake of this comment, assume a rigged system. Two people go through life under this system. One goes through the socioeconomic machinery and gets spit out making $32k in rural Indiana. Another person goes through the same machine and gets placed in a booming coastal luxury city making a six-figure income that doesn't begin with a 1.

Between the two, who was that machine constructed to benefit?
posted by FakeFreyja at 1:13 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


For the sake of this comment, assume a rigged system. Two people go through life under this system. One goes through the socioeconomic machinery and gets spit out making $32k in rural Indiana. Another person goes through the same machine and gets placed in a booming coastal luxury city making a six-figure income that doesn't begin with a 1.

Between the two, who was that machine constructed to benefit?


Is this supposed to be a trick question?

The person #3 you are leaving out, who owns part of the fund that owns the company that employs person #2, which has captured all the gains resulting from increase of productivity by person #2 since the 1970s, who is now wealthy enough that he feels comfortable attempting to privatize public systems supporting the decent life of both persons #1 and #2 for his personal economic benefit, and will continue to amass political power with the ultimate end of reducing everyone to a state more precarious than even person #1.

Are we really sitting here thinking that debate about economic and political policy turns on whether person #2 generally has it better than person #1? Because, duh. But that this is not, in itself, sufficient to identify each person's political and economic interests, to determine which person's interests are inimical to the well-being of society, or to determine which persons might be successfully brought together in coalitions based on perceived shared interests...that ought to be obvious to anyone bringing more to bear to the problem than high-school-level indignation. (Sorry, high schoolers. I was once one myself.)
posted by praemunire at 1:24 PM on July 28 [24 favorites]


If the point of this piece is to get people in the 80%-99% income demographics to reflect on their good fortune, vote against housing/retirement-plan tax credits, and do more to help those who are truly struggling, it doesn't seem to be very effective.
posted by mrmurbles at 1:25 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


"Between the two"

Hey, he wants part of your cookie!
posted by Space Coyote at 1:32 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


Yeah...I mean...do people think that convincing "people with healthy six-figure incomes" that they're "in the same economic boat" as the 1% will actually result in leftist gains? That is straight-up telling everyone who doesn't feel guilty enough to quit and go work at Wal-Mart that they should vote Republican out of their own self-interest. That strikes me as way more "dangerous."

I get it that oblivious upper-middle-class liberals have their distinctively annoying qualities (as do their conservative counterparts), but trying to drive people with knowledge, resources, and connections out of coalition with you precisely because they possess resources does not seem like a genius move to me.
posted by praemunire at 1:33 PM on July 28 [20 favorites]


30 years ago, when a job was for life, maybe then. But a job is not for life any more. You HAVE to locate next to more than one potential employer. So depending on your field, living in a coastal city is a necessity.

These are the kinds of sentiments that I find just utterly blinkered and tone deaf. No, you absolutely do not need to live in a coastal city. Living in a coastal city is a luxury good for the people who have the freedom of choice to live other places (some people don't have that choice). There are many jobs in non-coastal areas that pay less and have lower costs of living, but fewer people want to live there because they find coastal cities so much more preferable even at high costs of living. The intangible benefits of living in San Francisco are enormous: access to the best culture in the world and close proximity to amazing outdoor spaces. San Francisco isn't insanely expensive just for random, no-good reasons.

But really, feel free to go to Nebraska and lecture people about how the Bay Area really isn't all that great, pretty much on par with Omaha, and how your six-figure salary doesn't afford you a more comfortable life with many more options than their $30k one.
posted by scantee at 1:36 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


There sure is a whiff of competitive hair shirt one upmanship in this thread. You'd think that anything that gets a 98%er to identify more with the 97% than the 0.01% would be a good thing.... But no, I guess anyone over the N% (where N is 1 greater than the commenter) isn't good enough to join the club.

With respect, it really isn't about being 'good enough to join the club'. It's about recognising that those of us in the wealthier brackets of society have advantages that those in poorer brackets don't, and that these aren't trivial, and that inequality isn't about the 1% vs. the rest of us but significantly affects capital and power distribution within the 99% too. Concentrating on the 1% and handwaving inequality within the rest "yeah, but we're all struggling, we're none of us RICH rich" is papering over some massive - and widening - cracks.

(And I say 'those of us' because I include myself among the relatively well-off - my household income is more than 70% of household incomes nationally. We aren't massively flush with disposable income, we aren't leaping through Scrooge McDuck vaults of gold, but we're over the average.)

It would be easy to say: compared to the Russian oligarchs buying up expensive luxury apartments in London, even compared to the people who will never have to worry about money, I'm struggling like everyone else. But I'm not struggling like everyone else, really. Food's expensive but my kids won't ever be going hungry during school summer holidays. Housing is precarious but I'm not stuck living in damp, mouldy, unsafe housing because I can't afford anything else. I can recognise and show solidarity with and vote for the interests of people who are not well-off (and I try to!), but pretending like there's no real and significant difference between us - pretending like inequality here isn't really important - is not solidarity, it's just kidding myself.

I and those like me have real privilege here. Like other forms of privilege, it does not mean my life is perfect and I never have to worry about anything. But it does mean I need to watch out for lumping myself in with those who don't have that privilege and assuming that what benefits me will also benefit them.

(and if being 'in the club' means being poor, I have been there too, and it was pretty horrible and hardly a club I would want anyone else to join fucking ever. Nor did I feel, at the time in my life when I was trying to decide between food and electricity because I couldn't afford both, like people on the kind of incomes I'm on now were basically just like me and facing all the same problems I was.)
posted by Catseye at 1:44 PM on July 28 [12 favorites]


There are many jobs in non-coastal areas that pay less and have lower costs of living, but fewer people want to live there because they find coastal cities so much more preferable even at high costs of living.


Not. The. Point.

There are plenty of jobs in company towns all over the US. But if that company town has a downturn, you lose your job, you lose your home equity, and you have to relocate or endure unemployment.


The intangible benefits of living in San Francisco are enormous: access to the best culture in the world and close proximity to amazing outdoor spaces. San Francisco isn't insanely expensive just for random, no-good reasons.

San Francisco's culture is available to visitors just as it is to residents, if not more so. That is NOT the reason programmers move there.

But really, feel free to go to Nebraska and lecture people about how the Bay Area really isn't all that great, pretty much on par with Omaha,

I've been to Omaha. If you're not a surfer or mountain climber, in terms of amenities, Omaha is not lacking. But the job market there blows.
posted by ocschwar at 1:47 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


My wife and I are a six figure household. We're 1.something income with no kids. We vote Democratic and fight for social equality because I want you all to have what we have. Because it should be something that anyone should have.

You should be able to afford a mortgage for a nice house in a safe neighborhood near your place of work without paying more than a third of your income. If shit hits the fan and you need money for car repairs or medical expenses you should be able to cover it with a short term credit card debt and not a payday loan that never goes away. You should be able to buy some nice things, you should be able to regularly engage with your hobbies or artistic tastes, and, yes, some of that should be shouldered by us, those who can most afford it.

If you work full time then you should be able to live a dignified life. Full stop. We're damn lucky but you shouldn't have to be lucky to live a life that isn't hanging onto the ledge by the tip of your god damned fingernails.
posted by Talez at 1:53 PM on July 28 [24 favorites]


It all comes back to the four freedoms:

Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear

Everyone should be able to enjoy those freedoms and if they're not we're failing as a society.
posted by Talez at 1:56 PM on July 28 [12 favorites]


With respect, it really isn't about being 'good enough to join the club'. It's about recognising that those of us in the wealthier brackets of society have advantages that those in poorer brackets don't, and that these aren't trivial, and that inequality isn't about the 1% vs. the rest of us but significantly affects capital and power distribution within the 99% too.

Recognizing your privilege may be good for your soul and make you less irritating to those around you. But building a successful coalition to prevent the expropriation of everything all but a handful of families has, which is a far-too-not-impossible future for this country a century or so down the line, is about way freaking more, and that includes recognizing which forces are acting on which people and to which degree. Like, saying that increasing inequality is largely driven by the capture of gains by the .1% (more accurate) is not the same as saying that there is no inequality among the 99.9%. It is saying that, to the extent any group in society is getting significantly comparatively richer through certain mechanisms, and leveraging those riches to accelerate the growth of their wealth even more, and promoting economic and political policies that will accelerate that growth at the expense of everyone else even more, that process is largely (not exclusively) happening in the .1%. Which means that everybody else has an interest in stopping it.

Which is what you want people to believe if you want them to vote left.

Every time some NYC professional pens an article in the NYT about how challenging it is to make it on their $350K income, me and my friends hold informal mocking parties. That's fun and all, but it's not super-productive, politically.
posted by praemunire at 1:58 PM on July 28 [14 favorites]


My parents, aunts and uncles are in the "professional class" -- i.e. pretty well off, but still working full time. Of the adult kids, less than half meet that definition. Most have gone into high-education, low-pay fields like art and teaching. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not going to result in a permanent class divide. You can pass down a bank account or a running business to your kids, but you can't pass down a job. Sending your kids to the best private schools and colleges and summer camps may be great for their intellectual development, but it isn't going to make them make a lot of money.
posted by miyabo at 2:05 PM on July 28


I and those like me have real privilege here. Like other forms of privilege, it does not mean my life is perfect and I never have to worry about anything. But it does mean I need to watch out for lumping myself in with those who don't have that privilege and assuming that what benefits me will also benefit them.

Ok, sure. Agree with all that. If you make $100k, your life is a lot easier than if you make $10k. Self evident and not very interesting or informing. What gets me is the divisiveness of the 'privilege' conversation. It's a distraction, just like the rest of identity politics has been.. to protect the powerful at the top of the pyramid. Focusing on inequality between the 10% and the 50% (pick any two numbers greater than 0.01) takes the focus off changing our society to take back the power from the top. We have to get to a place where it's shameful to run a hedge fund, or to park money in a tax shelter. Privilege just feels like a concept tailor made to muddy the water. Lets you and him fight.
posted by cfraenkel at 2:08 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Y, what praemunire just said.
posted by cfraenkel at 2:11 PM on July 28


With respect, it really isn't about being 'good enough to join the club'. It's about recognising that those of us in the wealthier brackets of society have advantages that those in poorer brackets don't, and that these aren't trivial, and that inequality isn't about the 1% vs. the rest of us but significantly affects capital and power distribution within the 99% too. Concentrating on the 1% and handwaving inequality within the rest "yeah, but we're all struggling, we're none of us RICH rich" is papering over some massive - and widening - cracks.

I and those like me have real privilege here. Like other forms of privilege, it does not mean my life is perfect and I never have to worry about anything. But it does mean I need to watch out for lumping myself in with those who don't have that privilege and assuming that what benefits me will also benefit them.


I... don't know if this is a wise comment for me to make but I guess I'm gonna put it out there anyway. I guess I'll preface it by saying pleace believe me when I say I mean it in good faith and in the interest of honest discussion, it's not a position I'm cemented on but it's a thought that struck me pretty hard reading this. Also it may seem really tangential at first but please bear with me.

This argument reminds me of one I see a lot and is pretty personal to me--whether or not asexuality should be included in the LGBTQ moniker and whether or not asexual people "belong in the LGBTQ" community.

I'm asexual (genderfluid too but that's tangential here). My commonality with much of the LGBTQ community is that there are/have been significant hardships in and to my life specifically caused by my sexuality or rather expected societal norms regarding sexuality/gender/gender performance/etc. And the majority of them haven't been due to genderlfuidity. I won't get into it but being asexual has significantly and deeply caused direct harm and trauma in my life.

This idea that ace people are "basically/really heterosexual" and are basically masquerading as non-hetero in order to be "part of the club" and--as is often implied--in order to ignore the privileges some do have over some individuals of certain groups (trans people, homosexual people, etc.) is a major point of contention among certain circles (don't get me started on tumblr) who feel virulently that asexual people do not and should not 'belong' in LGBTQ communities based primarily on ideas of 'relative oppression' and the idea that asexual people 'share privileges with the oppressing classes' (e.g. cis heterosexual people). Frankly the oppression olympics arguments cause me no end of anger because everyone in the LGBTQ community faces different and differing severity of challenges and risks based on multiple vectors of sexuality/gender/performance and even things like class/upbringing, etc.

Anyway. Done with the background. To the point, now.

I guess I'm just not convinced of the value of dividing groups with huge potential to sympathize with and work with each other.

When people have enough in common circumstance-wise it seems counterproductive, regardless of tensions that should be and will have to be dealt with within the group and discussions that need to be had, to divide them too terribly much. I understand there will inevitably differing opinions on where that line between groups should be drawn and I think those are arguments worth having but when you have the opportunity to foster a good relationship based on mutual life situations/experiences/circumstances and create an environment more conducive to positive change I think it's worth that risk and effort. I see a lot of value in inclusiveness if nothing else for the purpose of furthering the greater good.

Unlike certain topics (referring specifically to unrepentant racist people vs. those actively working against racist ideas and behaviors, misogynists, and other groups like that) I don't think there are as many irreconcilable differences between the upper tiers of the 99% and the lower and I think the cost of including the upper tiers is outweighed by the potential benefits, something that can be done while still acknowledging that they are under different circumstances and def are afforded certain privileges/luxuries while still being harmed and/or at significant risk of being harmed by the same system that deeply affects and harms the lower tiers of that 99% group.

All of that said: I don't think it should be the onus of the more greatly oppressed/harmed group to pull the majority of the weight here. I don't think those lower in the income level should be expected to always be available to have that conversation without compensation, or even at all. That's a problem I think needs to be worked on. It's another burden it shouldn't be their responsibility to bear. Which is one reason why, despite not being on solid ground with my opinion on all of this yet, I really appreciate those in the upper tiers speaking up for and pulling for the voices of the lower income people of the 99% group. Of which I am one.

I don't disagree that considering all 99%ers completely and utterly in the same group is 'papering over some widening cracks'. But I think in terms of affecting change it's wiser to be inclusive as it is possible to form strong and mutually beneficial alliances (unlike with other issues where this has proven to be generally ineffective like w/ blatant racists etc.). I think, like with other groups, we are far, far stronger and can achieve more together.
posted by suddenly, and without warning, at 2:13 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


that process is largely (not exclusively) happening in the .1%.

Reeves's point is that this is not the case - that the top 1% are benefitting more than any other group, but that they are small enough in number that this wealth accumulation is very far from the whole problem, and that there is a pretty significant and growing divide between the top 10%-20% and the rest.

I think this sets out his perspective a bit better than the article linked in OP. Of particular relevance:
That’s the question economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow Richard Reeves has set out to answer, and his findings are worrying: the top echelons of the US middle class – those earning over $120,000 – are separating from the rest of the US, and pulling up the drawbridge behind them.

The result, Reeves writes in a new book Dream Hoarders, out this week, “is a less competitive economy, as well as a less open society”.

“The upper middle class families have become greenhouses for the cultivation of human capital. Children raised in them are on a different track to ordinary Americans, right from the very beginning,” he writes.

The upper middle class are “opportunity hoarding” – making it harder for others less economically privileged to rise to the top; a situation that Reeves says places stress on the efficiency of the US economic system and creates dynastic wealth and privilege of the kind the nation’s fathers sought to avoid.
posted by Catseye at 2:14 PM on July 28 [4 favorites]


The reason I get on about the "privilege" is because of the tendency of human beings to look at someone else in distress and say "well, I've got it hard too, maybe they should've worked at it like me!" It is a pretty classic Republican tactic and I am kind of surprised nobody is picking up on it.

It's also important because the things that benefit the middle class do not always benefit the poor. For example, spending money to forgive college loans as opposed to spending it on early childhood education. These are actual trade-offs that we need to consider, and if you've conflated your situation and wants with that of people in a dramatically lesser position, then you'll end up lobbying for programs that won't actually benefit those who need the most help.
posted by schroedinger at 2:15 PM on July 28 [13 favorites]


The point of having upper-middle class people acknowledge their privileges isn't so that they'll align themselves with the 1% more so than 80%. The goal is to get them to recognize that their privilege should compel them to action rather thinking they don't need to give more or do more because they themselves are the disadvantaged. All too often, upper middle-class people will write off collective action for the benefit of 80% by telling themselves that they are not really that much better off and so really they can't be expected to sacrifice anything for the benefit of others. I mean, their lives are exactly the same as the working class in Omaha so please don't raise their taxes or expect them to donate their time or money to important causes or *gasp* take a slightly lower paying job at an organization doing important progressive work.
posted by scantee at 2:17 PM on July 28 [9 favorites]


I guess I'm just not convinced of the value of dividing groups with huge potential to sympathize with and work with each other.

And I would totally agree with that! I just don't think that pointing out the areas where we're already divided is the same as divide-and-conquer. Solidarity doesn't require us to pretend like we're all coming from the same place, just to recognise that we share the destination, as it were.

The thing about inequality is that it's usually not a two-tier us/them thing, it's a gradient. If you imagine it as a bar chart with the super-rich at the top, say - you could take everything in their bar, and spread it out across the rest or even use it to raise the ones at the bottom. But you'd still have a gradient, and gradients in themselves can be the cause of problems, especially when they are steepening.
posted by Catseye at 2:24 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Being poor is hard. Being upper-middle class is easy, especially if you live as if you're still poor. I know both of these things from experience, and I have little patience for people who make six figs and can't make ends meet. Find out where the dude working at Subway lives, move there and stop whining.

But still, the kind of wealth at the top is the sort of wealth that can't be attained through wages or salary. That wealth comes from inheritance, investment, entrepreneurship or crime (most likely all of the above.) The middle and upper classes are entirely dissimilar in terms of lifestyle, opportunity and outlook, but comparing either of them to the rich is an epic category error.
posted by klanawa at 2:25 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


I mean I can only speak for myself but my feeling that I am still insecure even with a household income in the 3% doesn't mean that I don't donate to progressive causes or spend time trying to get Democrats elected. If anything I feel more compelled to do so. You can go look at the election threads from last year if you need some proof of that. And I am super aware that I am very lucky and extraordinarily privileged. I mean heck, I grew up in India, I was extraordinarily privileged just because I had three square meals a day. And yes, I am definitely less insecure than someone who makes the median American income, but it is a difference of degree, not kind.
posted by peacheater at 2:35 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


The problem isn't wealth inequality. It's RISK inequality. Very few of us are set for life. The rest of us are over a barrel. And a salary in the 95th percentile still puts you in the precarious class.

I am someone who is living the dream; in the last 8 years, my spouse and I have risen from the lowest income quintile in the US to the highest.

This statement is absolutely false according to my experience. I am gobsmacked reading it that someone could write this.

Wealth is absolutely the difference, and it makes the difference in how risk is mitigated. I am absolutely not at risk in so many ways the way I used to be--do I have more to lose now? Yeah, sure, but I still have more.

Medical expenses that would've completely destroyed my finances, and my relationship most likely, like having the same knee scoped twice in two years, after entering the higher income levels, became nuisance bills, rather than "Well, are we buying food or are we paying this bill?" expenses that they would have been. I suffered with a knee that would lock up for a week or two at a time two or three times a year for about a decade before I had insurance that could take care of it. I hobbled to class on crutches because I didn't have a car.

Wealth is where the gap is, and the risk mitigation that wealth provides is staggering, as staggering as the gap between the haves and have nots in our society. In no way is my life as or anywhere close to as precarious as it used to be.

Could I still be wiped out by circumstances beyond my control? Absolutely. But the circumstances that are beyond my control were a list as long as me eight years ago, and that list has shrunk significantly in the time since, because now I got some fucking money.

It's all about wealth. The difference between rich and poor people is just wealth. That's it. Give poor people money for a generation, and they'll be rich. That's all there is to it.
posted by turntraitor at 2:38 PM on July 28 [17 favorites]


Good thing that nobody is saying that, then!

In my comment I quoted someone in this thread who was said exactly that. Here are their words again: "But people in the (say) top 10%, because of the cost of living within commuting distance to those lovely jobs, are in just as precarious a state as the rest of the population."

I didn't say that being economically privileged makes you a bad person, that economically privileged people can't experience precarity, or that economically privileged people's interests never align with those lower on the economic ladder. What I said is that someone who's making six figures doesn't experience the same level of precarity as people making a fraction of that. This should not be as controversial as it apparently is.

I tried to approach it diplomatically as well; I used myself as an example, to try to show that I empathize and that I don't consider this to be an issue of bad people against good people, but an issue of experience.

Quite frankly, the defensiveness on this thread has been eye-opening and reminds me of many other discussions of privilege. If it's not outright denial that the privilege exists, it's "don't talk about it, it's divisive."

Well, first, there are good reasons to talk about it, as others on this thread have explained. And second...argh, this really bothers me... second, the privileged are not the only people whose feelings matter when trying to build cooperation, not even from a practical standpoint. If you really want to alienate people less privileged than you, refusing to recognize that you're privileged, or treating any discussion of it as an attack, is a good way to do it. It's very effective at building distrust.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:13 PM on July 28 [17 favorites]


All too often, upper middle-class people will write off collective action for the benefit of 80% by telling themselves that they are not really that much better off and so really they can't be expected to sacrifice anything for the benefit of others.

The question is whether rhetoric that classes the upper-middle tier with the middle-middle through bottom does that, or whether it provides a basis for solidarity. I'm inclined more toward the latter view but obviously there's a little more to it than that.
posted by atoxyl at 3:39 PM on July 28


do you make your money from owning capital? (y/n)
posted by indubitable at 3:42 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


I've been to Omaha. If you're not a surfer or mountain climber, in terms of amenities, Omaha is not lacking. But the job market there blows.
What are you talking about? The job market in Omaha is fine. Unemployment is 3.3%, which is well under the national average. The average salary isn't super high, but the cost of living is also low. For an actual middle-class person (as opposed to a top-20% person), Omaha is a pretty good place to live.

It is really weird to me how many Mefites literally can't comprehend living a life like mine.
The question is whether rhetoric that classes the upper-middle tier with the middle-middle through bottom does that, or whether it provides a basis for solidarity. I'm inclined more toward the latter view but obviously there's a little more to it than that.
I guess I think it could, but it's not automatic, and we need to think about how to frame that rhetoric so that it does lead to real solidarity. (And I don't just mean to rhetorical solidarity, which isn't in short supply.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:44 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


I mean the point of the 99% rhetoric is not that redistributing wealth away from the top 1% will fix inequality in America. Of course it won't. The point is that it's a huge step that's the ultimate no-brainer because 99 percent of people, even "mere" millionaires, should have no rational objection to it.
posted by atoxyl at 3:48 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Racism is what motivates people who vote against social spending, and it's not the exclusive provenance of the top 20%

White people without college degrees are almost 2x as likely whites with college degrees to say that people on welfare would rather be on welfare than have jobs.

posted by mrmurbles at 3:55 PM on July 28 [14 favorites]


It is really weird to me how many Mefites literally can't comprehend living a life like mine.
This is a specific case of something I've been wondering about more generally. I recall (a decade ago now! sheesh) a study saying that the number of close confidants people have has been dropping over time; and that by 2004 the most common case (25% of Americans!) had nobody to talk about important matters with.

I haven't seen an update to that in the last decade, but I've been wondering if the trend's continued and that people are getting more and more isolated. (It certainly feels that way, but...)

Put another way, I wonder if it's getting more and more common that many Americans simply can't comprehend living a life that is not their own, because they don't have anybody to talk to about it. (And, if they do have somebody to talk to, it's more and more likely that they're within a similar walk of life.) Add it together and everyone's miserable and defensive.

Along those lines, I've found the discussion in this thread pretty illuminating and well outside my experience. Thanks, all, for the food for thought. ♥
posted by ragtag at 4:03 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


These are actual trade-offs that we need to consider, and if you've conflated your situation and wants with that of people in a dramatically lesser position, then you'll end up lobbying for programs that won't actually benefit those who need the most help.

If we taxed income for the 0.1% at post-war levels and capital gains as income, we'd have enough money for programs that help a whole bunch of different people.

This is why the constant division of relative privilege is so frustrating to me - all of the money we need is out there, and arguing that program X is more impactful than program Y takes our eye off the ball from the fact we can have both.
posted by notorious medium at 4:08 PM on July 28 [15 favorites]


It is really weird to me how many Mefites literally can't comprehend living a life like mine.

You know what really strikes me? The comment that living in Boston means your kids won't know what "rolling coal" is.

(I'm sorry you don't live in Boston. It must be really hard to breathe through all that coal exhaust. /s)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:10 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Let's flip this around.

Upper middle class people might feel like they have more in common with the working class than the 1%, but the working and middle classes sure as hell don't feel like they have much in common with the upper middle class. So when someone who makes six figures and lives in a world-class coastal city says, "we're the same, we have the same struggles, and I'm no better off than you" that is often a huge slap in the face to someone who is working or middle class. That person probably doesn't know or interact with the super rich, the 1%. Other than idle day-dreaming, their goals aren't to be fabuously wealthy -- to never work again, to own a yacht, to travel the world -- their dreams are to have what you already have. They're not dumb, they can see all of the ways your life is much, much better than theirs even though you're not independently wealthy. But by eliding any difference and saying you're "just like them," you minimize their struggle and negate their dreams.
posted by scantee at 4:11 PM on July 28 [19 favorites]


The Democrats really, really need to stop thinking white upper-middle class people are their natural constituency.

I just realized something: all the elected Democratic officials above a certain level (senate, congress, governors, other high statewide positions, state legislators of some large states and big city mayors) as well as high-ranking party officials ARE upper-middle class people, and if they rose up through the ranks, they are themselves examples of the Bootstrap Myth. No wonder they buy into it...
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:20 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


The problem with this framing is that it tries to get people with some financial insecurity to say they're in the same position as people who have no financial insecurity.

This inevitably drives the conversation toward a focus on the financial insecurity people do have, and away from how much better it is to have a little financial insecurity than a lot, or no financial security at all.
posted by mrmurbles at 4:25 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, the Oregon Office of Economic Development surveyed the hundred biggest cities in the US and found that only three of them hit the sweet spot for having high quality of life, job availability, and housing affordability. They were Oklahoma City, Des Moines, and Omaha. So yeah. I don't want to romanticize Omaha, because it has plenty of problems, including a lot of racialized poverty. But it's a place where you can own a nice house on a teacher's salary. It's a place where you don't have to be in the top 20% to have a middle-class life.

I dunno. I've been thinking about this a lot with respect to the politics surrounding school funding. 1%-ers, I think, typically send their kids to private schools. They certainly have the option, even if they don't necessary choose to partake of it. People in the top 20% don't necessarily have that option, but they want their kids to be able to compete with the kids of the 1%. So they're the people who really have an interest in using property taxes to fund local schools, so that their taxes ensure that their kids can have all the extra AP classes and super-experienced teachers and various enrichment activities that will allow them to compete for college spots and internships and scholarships. There's a seductive rhetoric that involves looking at the kids in the rental apartments across town and saying "we're all in this together, because we're all public school families, unlike those 1%-ers who send their kids to swanky private schools." But we're not all in this together if the high property-tax revenues in your leafy neighborhood are making sure that your kids' schools are better than the schools of kids who live in less-fancy places.

I get that there are ways in which everyone who earns a living through working is in the same boat, but there are also ways in which we're different. And I think it's important to note both the ways we are the same and the ways in which we're different.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:33 PM on July 28 [13 favorites]


The point of having upper-middle class people acknowledge their privileges isn't so that they'll align themselves with the 1% more so than 80%. The goal is to get them to recognize that their privilege should compel them to action rather thinking they don't need to give more or do more because they themselves are the disadvantaged. All too often, upper middle-class people will write off collective action for the benefit of 80% by telling themselves that they are not really that much better off and so really they can't be expected to sacrifice anything for the benefit of others.

You must be aware that there are and have been many rich people who have found no discordance among recognizing that they are "fortunate," making donations, and continuing to vote for and otherwise build profoundly unequal systems.

Relying on individual senses of guilt and complicity to drive broad societal change is not a winning strategy. It's a neo-liberal substitute for one. People find all sorts of temporizing gestures to absolve their guilt. "Vote left because you're well-off and should feel like you have to compensate" is not going to beat "vote left because you need that stuff, too, and your kids will, even more."

"don't talk about it, it's divisive."

If we want to win elections, we actually do have to unify a great many people to vote for the same party. I'm really not normally one to wave the banner of unity, but saying that it is literally "dangerous" to encourage a group with significant power to conceive of themselves as sharing interests with the left because, while it may be correct, it's not woke enough, is ridiculous. I think it is untrue, as well as an unwise choice of rhetoric, that, viewed in the long term, the SF coder earning $150K is "in the same economic boat" with the VC guy reaping most of the benefits of his labor. (I also think it is untrue that the $150K SF coder lives in conditions of parity with the $25K Wichita WalMart greeter. I will admit to being a little baffled by people who seem to think the one automatically contradicts the other.) It might be worth saying something divisive if it's true. It's immensely self-defeating to do it because people who haven't counted their blessings are annoying.

(Yes, eventually, by their nature, coalitions crack or are pried apart. That time will come, of course it will, but it's not now.)

Seriously, if you think the real threat to a decent American future is the $150K SF coder, I think you're wrong, but I guess it's reasonable to focus your attacks on him. But do people on the left actually think that?
posted by praemunire at 4:37 PM on July 28 [11 favorites]


People who can't get a job in Omaha move.

And people who are, you know, gay. But #luxury
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 4:53 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


I just realized something: all the elected Democratic officials above a certain level (senate, congress, governors, other high statewide positions, state legislators of some large states and big city mayors) as well as high-ranking party officials ARE upper-middle class people, and if they rose up through the ranks, they are themselves examples of the Bootstrap Myth. No wonder they buy into it...

What on earth makes you think all top-level Democratic officials buy into the bootstrap myth?

Because there's pretty strong evidence against it -- Hillary Clinton's actual presidential policy proposals which included:

--Hiking taxes on the rich higher than any time since the 1980s
--Tax cuts and credits for the poor and middle classes
--Increasing the minimum wage (a bill she tried to pass repeatedly back in 2006 as a senator, by the way, not some new Bernie Sanders idea)
--Increased government spending on healthcare, including the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid
--Universal pre-k
--12 weeks paid family leave and 12 weeks medical leave
--Increased education spending including college tuition
--Massive amounts of government spending to repair infrastructure and generate jobs for people without college degrees
-- Making it easier for employees to unionize

And a bunch more stuff that you would only implement if you believed, as she said at a Center for Economic Progress event, that "some communities have, frankly, more ladders for opportunity than other communities" and wanted to change that.

It's just the most pernicious, dangerous bullshit to pretend Democrats are the ones standing in the way of using government money to help people when you have Congressional Republicans doing their damnedest to bankrupt and kill by repealing Obamacare.
posted by mrmurbles at 5:15 PM on July 28 [20 favorites]


Relying on individual senses of guilt and complicity to drive broad societal change is not a winning strategy.

It has nothing to do with guilt. It has to do with gratefulness, acknowledging the benefits of having even just a little bit more and wanting to expand the circle of people who get to share in those benefits.

We don't live in a black and white world of good guys (99%) and bad guys (1%), although I understand there is psychological comfort in thinking that way. It is possible that both the super wealthy elite and the $150k coder in San Francisco are "problems" if both are unwilling to make financial sacrifices for the benefit of those who are worse off.
posted by scantee at 5:15 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


And people who are, you know, gay. But #luxury
You know there are gay people in the Midwest, right?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:17 PM on July 28 [3 favorites]


That article can fuck right off about 529 savings accounts. I opened one of those with my mom's life insurance for my little brother (while we were both getting SNAP and social security benefits) and it helped pay for his first two years of college. Luckily I can cover the rest now because I've moved up tax bracket, but I don't see how a savings account for college is perpetuating the class divisions in America.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:17 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Relying on individual senses of guilt and complicity to drive broad societal change is not a winning strategy. It's a neo-liberal substitute for one.

If my income were in the top 1%, I would perhaps be able to hire a skywriter to fly around and give this message the broad distribution it warrants.

Unrelatedly, what's with the repeated use of "six-figure income/salary" in this thread? If you mean "~ USD 100 000", then say it; if you mean "~USD 500 000", then say that, because they are completely different animals.

There are important distinctions between "professional-class" and, say, "middle-class" economic experiences, that are of intense interest when understanding different people's experiences, difficulties, desires, motivations, etc. There's also a meaningful sense in which those groups have more in common, at an aggregate level, than the professional class has in common with the capitalist class. This is important to understand, too. I don't see why there is a necessary contradiction between "This highly-paid professional has a completely different set of personal economic concerns than this much-less-highly-paid middle class person." (obviously true) and "In general, the interests of professionals and those of middle-class people are more closely-related than either is to the interests of capital.", which is the vibe I am getting, perhaps wrongly, from some of the comments here.

The phrase "six-figure income", in its vagueness, elides the difference between "the professional class" and 1%ers (even though they intersect, if we're talking strictly in terms of income) and plays right into the shitty taboo about discussing income in a precise way, which is well-known to benefit the class that, in a useful sense, is more different from e.g. the working class, the middle class, and the professional class than any of those is from one another.

If you're talking about individual data points (which is important when they're humans), it's dangerous to use generalised/"statistical" language, like the language of class*. When you're talking about generalised/"statistical" notions (which is important, too), it's misleading to talk about individual data points. It's perhaps unfortunate that we sometimes use the same vocabulary (like "class") to talk about a complex individual identity that we use to talk about large-scale economic/power relations.

(*But maybe I only think this because my own class identification --- I and all my colleagues have PhDs, have a lot of autonomy at work, choose my own tasks, don't have set working hours, etc. -- isn't necessarily deducible from my salary -- the equivalent of around USD 50K.)
posted by busted_crayons at 5:38 PM on July 28 [8 favorites]


That article can fuck right off about 529 savings accounts. I opened one of those with my mom's life insurance for my little brother (while we were both getting SNAP and social security benefits) and it helped pay for his first two years of college. Luckily I can cover the rest now because I've moved up tax bracket, but I don't see how a savings account for college is perpetuating the class divisions in America.

Because your particular circumstance is not illustrative of how the accounts are used. They help people put aside post tax money to grow interest free. The contribution limit is "necessary qualified education expenses" which can be more than a hundred thousand dollars. There is no income test. This scheme is much more beneficial to someone who makes 350,000 a year and can afford to put aside 20,000 a year for their children's education starting at age 5 than someone making 50,000 a year who can put aside 1000 a year. The foregone taxes are paid by us all and they disproportionately help those who already have the means to pay for college as contrasted to something like means tested financial aid grants that are targeted at those who cannot without assistance.
posted by Pembquist at 6:13 PM on July 28 [12 favorites]


There are important distinctions between "professional-class" and, say, "middle-class" economic experiences, that are of intense interest when understanding different people's experiences, difficulties, desires, motivations, etc.
They're also of interest when evaluating who benefits and doesn't benefit from specific policy proposals. This isn't just about identity and feelings. This is about the way that a lot of public policy in the US, including policies supported by people on the left side of the political spectrum, benefits the relatively wealthy.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:18 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Technically, I'd be in the top 20% in income in the US but I'm 50 and have also never had a vacation longer than 5 days. Never been to a resort. Never backpacked Europe. Never bought a new car, never owned a place, never been extravagant about anything other than education (and maybe computers 20 years ago.)

I paid off my student loans last year. Now I have to save for retirement (for the first time in my entire life I have emergency money set aside!)

Don't confuse income with wealth people.

Also I have to say the American middle class is far far richer than the middle class in other countries. BY A LOT.
posted by srboisvert at 6:37 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


In the last few years, we have edged into the "doing pretty ok" category, with a combined household income probably in the top 15 percent at a guess. But it takes us two incomes, no kids, and a fair degree of feeling precarious, to get close to the quality of life that my grandparents had on a one-income public sector salary.

It shouldn't take a high income (or two high incomes) to have basic security, be able to afford healthcare, have transportation, and have a decent roof over your head.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:43 PM on July 28 [6 favorites]


If you work full time then you should be able to live a dignified life.

Even if you don't work full time (or at all!) you should be able to live a dignified life. Human dignity shouldn't have to depend on one's ability to generate profit.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:03 PM on July 28 [28 favorites]


I've been closely reading Hannah Arendt's recent posthumous lecture on poverty and social change (okay, "revolution"), where she specifically argues about the relationships between dignity, poverty, necessary conditions for the different distinctions of liberation, emancipation and freedom, and also class struggle.

I'm recommending it now, because it was a pretty mind blowing experience to sit with the piece and I think she had a lot of insight into exactly this issue of social inequality.
posted by polymodus at 8:32 PM on July 28


you share the 3-months-to-fucked state that everyone else has.

I am nearly two years into the best paying job of my life, 20% higher than my next best-paying job, and I have finally struggled my way up to 1.5 months-to-fucked. I am there because my student loans got erased because the school I went to was convicted of fraud.

"Everyone else" does not have a 3-month safety net. A whole lot of people do not have a two week safety net: lose a job, don't find a new one next week, and they'll be couch-surfing or homeless until a month after they find a new job.

I will probably reconsider whether it's reasonable that people with six-figure incomes "don't feel rich" when I stop having friends with four-figure incomes.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:55 PM on July 28 [10 favorites]


Relying on individual senses of guilt and complicity to drive broad societal change is not a winning strategy. It's a neo-liberal substitute for one.

Amazing. Perhaps this is why some members of the left get so angry about people bringing up discrimination and privilege around race--being honest about our differences and the difficulties we face isn't progressive, it's neo-liberal.

I'm looking at the indignation and rage in this thread from people who have been asked to simply be honest with themselves and I feel like I'm seeing laid bare the sort of reactions that simmers beneath the surface in discussions about race--save for the fact that when you talk about race most "good liberals" won't be quite as explicit about their feelings.

Saying someone else has it worse and we need to take this into account when developing policy is not an attack on you. And the fact that it has been interpreted as such pretty much illustrates the point the author of the article was trying to make about American sensitivity regarding the issue of class.
posted by schroedinger at 8:57 PM on July 28 [15 favorites]


“We want bread yes, and we want roses to.” If you have bread and are advocating roses for yourself when your peers do not have bread, you are doing it wrong. The sense of insecurity may be the same yes, the day to day is not. From a Canadian context until every member of my country has access to clean drinking water and equal access to health care (indigenous people don’t always get equal access in Canada) my frustrations with my income and living situation can wait. Sure I would like fewer student loans, sure my living situation sucks, and I am fed, sheltered and educated. (also have some access to health care because I live in Canada) It is the case that American insecurity is much higher than it is for me, and that is even more extreme for the poor. I am enraged by the behaviour of the North American 1%, I do think that conversations around student debt, job security, wealth distribution are extremely important and I have empathy for the struggles of the upper middle class. I can not see the way to lift myself up if I do not start with the population that fares the worst, I have bread and no roses, and I am not willing to claim I deserve roses until everyone has bread. I figure if I put my energy towards the issues for the poorest of my country, it will benefit me, maybe not my bank account but my sense of value and security. Make life better for the bottom 10% and some of the 80-99% worries will start to evaporate. Make life better for the 80-99% and very few of the problems of the bottom 10% will evaporate. If everyone has bread before you start demanding roses it is easier to all work together for both.
posted by phyllite at 10:29 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


I wish more of this thread was about the harms of upper-middle-class darling policies like exclusionary zoning, the mortgage-interest deduction, and other policies that end up "pulling up the ladders" behind the medium-wealthy in the very places with the best amenities and most economic opportunity (whether that's by well-intended accident or by design)... instead of about who counts as rich.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:58 PM on July 28 [23 favorites]


As a member of the meritocracy I'd say one thing we do well is convince ourselves we need to keep working really hard and can't stop. There's a prolonged education period. And then we do indeed put in long hours at work. For 20 years money is going into retirement, mortgages, student loans, kid's college funds and so on keeps us from feeling wealthy. If you're relatively young you can honestly not realize how much you really have for quite a while, even though the money you're saving or putting into discretionary expenditures (like living in a nice area!) is far above the median gross income for most of America.

Take Bay Area housing, where I live, for example. It's historically lucrative. We feel oppressed because so much of our income goes into our housing, but once we've bought a place we are basically getting tax subsidies to make a really profitable long term investment. The way it's set up, though, we feel this is a burden.

Obviously we are not the same as the 1% or 0.1%. In terms of policy I think that the difference that the rulemakers are going to protect us as a class, whereas for the very rich they might well protect you as an individual. But it's nothing like median wage earner, either.

FWIW I think I'd probably draw the line for "us" as the top 10% or so. I'd also distinguish by age. If you're in the top quintile in your twenties or early-to-mid thirties, you're doing really well and the material world is very likely to break in your favor. If you're in your fifties when you reach that point I don't think it means as much.

Yeah...I mean...do people think that convincing "people with healthy six-figure incomes" that they're "in the same economic boat" as the 1% will actually result in leftist gains?

Quite possibly.

Wealthy people not recognizing they are wealthy hurts works against progressive politics, probably on net but definitely in some specific ways. Two examples: First, thinking they are part of the working classes means they are prone to evaluate a policy's "fairness" on how it helps them. Second, they may believe the paths open to them (work hard, get a good education) is generally available to, and a good strategy for, everyone--in which case the intuition is that a service employee complaining about low wages or capricious scheduling is not to address the issue but basically to advise them to be wealthier (ie, go to college and work their social network to get an information economy job.)

Fixing intuitions like this would be a big help. It lets people advocate self-interest and think it's public interest. Maybe being more aware that they are part of the wealthy class would move people to be even more blatantly grasping on policy, but I don't think so.
posted by mark k at 1:24 AM on July 29 [8 favorites]


I wish more of this thread was about the harms of upper-middle-class darling policies [...] instead of about who counts as rich.

Unfortunately that was 100% baked into the framing.
posted by suddenly, and without warning, at 5:44 AM on July 29


Two examples: First, thinking they are part of the working classes means they are prone to evaluate a policy's "fairness" on how it helps them.

This is the best I've ever understood why people think it's politically important to lump, say, top 10% incomes in with the 'rich' -- I seriously wasn't getting this argument exactly before. I'm still not dead sure I agree completely, but this is valid.
posted by LizardBreath at 6:59 AM on July 29 [5 favorites]


(this is possibly the most important discussion I've followed this year. It seems to cut to the core of what's happened to the economy, how most people are experiencing it, and the biases and misperceptions all over that make it so hard to get people to work together for change. I am still digesting all this. Please carry on, and thanks)
posted by Artful Codger at 8:25 AM on July 29 [3 favorites]


Thanks for not pointing out that I said "interest free" when I meant tax free. I'm a little worried about what this kind of slip means for my future. One area of class clash this brings up in my mind is long term care and medicaid. It is very common to try to pass on money to your family while still qualifying for medicaid as medicare does not pay for nursing care such as you need when you get Alzheimer's. I feel like I have been on both sides of the moral argument about this but reflecting on it now I think I am more supportive of using the law to avoid giving whatever you own to the state in order to get long term care. I can see why this would be offensive to some people and might seem like a personal policy that is exactly dream hoarding however I don't think that is correct and I think it is an example of a kind of trap/race to the bottom thinking that is in the end self destructive. I worry that the draw bridge benefits that you start getting above some level of income/wealth begin to argue against, (falsely, as impostors,) universal benefits that would make everyone more secure.
posted by Pembquist at 8:31 AM on July 29


The issue of insecurity is hugely relevant to the kind of argument the author's making, but not I think in the way it often gets deployed - "I don't feel secure even though my household income is in the top 1/5/20%, and therefore my interests align with the precariat more than with the elite."

In a way - yes, sure, you are broadly more likely to vote for and support universal services/legislation that will benefit everyone if you feel like that's the only way to get a safety net that'll work for you too. But in another way, if the top 10/20/40% feel insecure, they - we! - are even more likely to drive the kind of inequality the OP is talking about. We are (in general, collectively, as a species) motivated to hoard and hang on to what we feel is both necessary and in increasingly short supply. We are less likely to pay attention to wider disadvantage in society when we're worried about our own next rent or mortgage payment, or the next bill that might bankrupt us. (Again: in general. I'm sure you care! I like to think I do, too. But overall, as a species, this tendency exists.)

To give a couple of examples from the British class system that the author is more favourable about than I am:

- housing. We have a housing crisis due to a huge number of factors interplaying over a long time period. This means that if you're like e.g. my parents and bought a house pre-property boom, you're now sitting on an asset that has increased massively in value. It also means that housing, where prices are still rising, is still a relatively secure place to invest your money. So who's investing their money in housing? Sometimes it's the Russian and Saudi multi-millionaires, gobbling up property in London to sit empty. But very often, it's people who are not the super-rich but are nevertheless in a relatively fortunate place due to their own housing situation, and who are worried about a) their own financial precariousness in the future and b) how their children are going to manage. So we have a thriving buy-to-let market, driven mostly not by the super-rich but by amateur landlords who want a non-impoverished retirement and a way to get their children a step up on the housing ladder.

The effect of this is that the housing crisis is getting worse and worse. Renting - renting from these investors - gets more and more expensive. Buying becomes less and less affordable, because the kind of homes you would be buying are being bought up by the BTL landlords, so you're stuck renting. And these landlords are not the Saudi princes and the Russian oligarchs. They're people who are maybe in the top 20%, 30% wealth-wise. They are worried about their financial future, and their children's future. They don't want billions - they just want security for their futures. But in getting that security, they are disadvantaging those below them on the ladder.

So if BTL landlords aren't the super-rich, are they lobbying for a fairer housing system for everyone? Well, no. They might like the idea in theory - many of them do! - but in practice, they're loudly lobbying against anything which would achieve that by making BTL a less profitable business, because that would take away from their own security and this is a matter of real and immediate concern to them in an increasingly economically precarious situation. They don't see this as disadvantaging the poor, of course - they see this as protecting their own interests. And this is why it's really important to recognise and point out that their interests, and the interests of those who can't afford houses, are not the same.

- further vs. higher education. (As a rough distinction, higher education is degree-level qualifications - BA, BSc, postgraduate, etc. Further education is vocational.) Both these sectors have suffered a lot since 2008, with student debt increasing and students being increasingly priced out. But further education has suffered worse - and this suffering has been a lot less visible. And higher education tends to serve better-off people, while further education tends to serve the more disadvantaged.

People campaigning for more investment and fewer cuts in higher education are not typically doing it because they're in the super-rich. (The super-rich mostly aren't worried by rising tuition fees, that's nothing to them.) They are doing it out of genuinely good intentions. They don't want their kids or their students or the young people in their communities to run up huge amounts of debts. They don't want poor and disadvantaged young people to be priced out altogether. So they campaign and agitate for that, and this gets political and media attention.

Meanwhile, further education gets cut and cut and cut. Sometimes this is to the degree where higher education is funded directly at the expense of further education - "we will cut X from this budget, and give it to that one." Sometimes it's less direct than that, but the net result is still that cuts to post-16 education are falling disproportionately on FE, not HE. And this is largely not even visible to many of the people who feel strongly about HE costs. What do you know about SVQ 2 in Hairdressing? Your kids are studying biochemistry! (Or they will be, if you can afford to get them to university - you're worried about their debts, you're worried about helping them through university, but your household finances are worse, your wages are flatlining, you're worried, you might make more than 85% of the population but you certainly don't feel rich...)

(and this is also why class is important, not just income. Class means other kinds of capital too. Further education is quietly notorious in politics for getting wholesale rearranged by every incoming government and individual minister, because a) it's less visible nationally and politically so as a politician you need to do something big with it to leave your stamp, and b) as a politician you are much more likely to come from and be surrounded by people from classes who don't need or use or know much about FE, so you are insulated from both knowledge about it and - often - immediate blowback if/when you mess it up, and c) unless you massively mess it up you're pretty much safe from media attention, for the same reason that your fellow politicians aren't looking too closely at FE either. Class matters.)

Again: this isn't about malice. This isn't about individuals. This isn't about the upper middle classes, or anyone in them, being The Enemy. This isn't about making people feel 'guilty'. This is about recognising systems that drive and fuel inequality, and recognising how that inequality is damaging to our broader societies.
posted by Catseye at 10:13 AM on July 29 [26 favorites]


There are poor and middle class people living in these coordinates too. I live in NYC, and 6 figure earners that I know feel broke, even though they own apartments, send their kids to private schools (or live in an expensive neighborhood with good public schools), pay for lots of enrichment activities for their kids, take nice vacations, etc. Just because you (general you) live in an expensive area and your lifestyle makes it hard to save doesn't mean you're not rich.

It's a bit like regressive tax, right? Two people can be genuinely financially insecure, but for one person that means three weeks of Top Ramen until payday and for the other it means bringing your lunch to work a few times a week.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:50 AM on July 29 [4 favorites]


It's pretty clear to me the inflection point that jumped me out of being part of the underclass to being part of the financial elite: getting a scholarship to the Webb Schools, a private boarding school for the various scions of the West. Once I was there I enjoyed all the privileges of the elite, despite the fact that when I went home, I was literally living in a trailer park. My school opened doors I would not have otherwise had open to me, and gave me a network I am still benefiting from today, 30 years on. This isn't to say that I think I was doomed had I not gone where I did, or that there weren't opportunities for me to fail once I had that door opened to me. But I do think access to an elite institution led to further access I might not otherwise have had.

As an example of this, I'll note that when I applied to the University of Chicago, I was on the bubble for acceptance -- what finally tipped it was that the Dean of Admissions called our college counselor and asked her point blank whether he should admit me. My school's college counselor was at the time acknowledged as one of the top ten college counselors in the country, someone who knew all the admissions people at every elite college and who all the admissions people knew. So the fact that the Dean of Admissions thought to call my counselor because of that sort of personal connection and influence she had was a benefit I seriously doubt that I would have gotten if I was just some kid at a public high school.

(My counselor said he should let me in, by the way. And that particular Dean, who I later got to know reasonably well, recounted the discussion to me not long before I graduated.)

I think my own kid is pretty great and also pretty talented and has lots of potential to do good things, but I'm not under the impression that she won't benefit from the various personal and professional networks I have, and neither is she -- in no small part because she and I have talked about those networks and how they can potentially benefit her. She's also aware that "meritocracy" is in many ways nonsense, because we live in a small rural town and she can see the level of impact financial wherewithal has on the lives of the kids she went to school with, and what their future might be. She's aware the extent to which the cards are stacked in her favor.
posted by jscalzi at 12:53 PM on July 29 [13 favorites]


I wish more of this thread was about the harms of upper-middle-class darling policies like exclusionary zoning, the mortgage-interest deduction, and other policies that end up "pulling up the ladders" behind the medium-wealthy in the very places with the best amenities and most economic opportunity (whether that's by well-intended accident or by design)... instead of about who counts as rich.

Again: this isn't about malice. This isn't about individuals. This isn't about the upper middle classes, or anyone in them, being The Enemy. This isn't about making people feel 'guilty'. This is about recognising systems that drive and fuel inequality, and recognising how that inequality is damaging to our broader societies.

Yes, yes, yes. The real question is - what policies does the upper middle class support which are regressive, and what can be done to convince them to support other policies? Or to use that knowledge to mobilize the middle and lower classes against those policies. Or - etc.

I'm looking at the indignation and rage in this thread from people who have been asked to simply be honest with themselves

Isn't that the point of the comment you're responding to, though? That as a political strategy "asking people simply to be honest with themselves" only takes you so far? (Not that there's anything wrong with trying to get people to talk about it here - this is a discussion forum, not a political platform.)
posted by atoxyl at 4:09 PM on July 29 [6 favorites]


I think that reads a little self-contradictory I guess I'm saying that this angle

asked to simply be honest with themselves

is a legit discussion and I'm not trying to accuse the people having it of sabotaging solidarity or whatever. But I am more interested in this:

I wish more of this thread was about the harms of upper-middle-class darling policies
posted by atoxyl at 4:22 PM on July 29 [4 favorites]


Yes, yes, yes. The real question is - what policies does the upper middle class support which are regressive, and what can be done to convince them to support other policies? Or to use that knowledge to mobilize the middle and lower classes against those policies. Or - etc.

Exactly. Like the mortgage interest deduction. It does some really good work but it's the most regressive thing I've seen since moving to this country and it's a political third rail to screw with it. Our deduction last year was something like $10K. I don't know exactly because a CPA does my fucked up two country taxes but that's ridiculously obscene. We don't need that.

A far more equitable way of increasing home ownership in the lower and working class is some hybrid model of social housing and shared equity and do it all through withholding. You have a job? Your rent is paid and you don't see it. You have a house that you're constantly building equity in. You sell your house and you give X% to the government. You lose your job? The government lets you keep your house but you don't gain any equity in the mean time. Since the government only holds equity and not a debt you can hand it down to your kids, your kids can live in it, whatever, the government just gets their share back when you sell the house.

But nah, let's just keep giving lawyers $20K back on their million dollar mansions every year.
posted by Talez at 4:26 PM on July 29 [7 favorites]


Two examples: First, thinking they are part of the working classes means they are prone to evaluate a policy's "fairness" on how it helps them.

Yes, this is a thing that explicitly happens in political debates. I remember there was some clueless Republican who complained that there was no need to raise the minimum wage, because "working a fast food job was something teenagers did in the Summer." So, by his logic, why did we need to worry so much about whether teenagers were making more money? This dumb *&(&*! only ever understood fast food restaurants as places to teach your kid a lesson, I guess.

This was, obviously, regressive (and kinda disgusting) on two levels: one, there are many, many working families relying on fast food employment; and, two, this guy obviously never even has to go inside a fast food restaurant! Any time I go in a McDonald's, the employees skew middle-aged to even elderly!

Just last year, our family slid into the bottom of the fourth quintile. So, we're at about the 60% level of American median incomes, I guess. In my childhood, I spent different brief periods in the 0% part, and at various points of my professional career bounced around between 40-50% of American median income level. Honestly, in my experience, being at 60% is way more secure than even being at 40%. I think if you move around between the income levels, you might be more understanding of why people are chafing at people making over (even well-over) six figures wanting to practically plead they have it rough. (I do agree that the top 0.01% should be the first focus of financial reform).
posted by Slothrop at 7:12 PM on July 29 [6 favorites]


Just last year, our family slid into the bottom of the fourth quintile. So, we're at about the 60% level of American median incomes, I guess.

I'm about 1.08% of the American Median income (51,000) and have three kids at home. I was going to complain about feeling like I'm scraping by, but your post has shamed me into (relative) silence.
----

Jonathan Ive drives a Bentley, and you have American startup Lords who wear hoodies, yet are worth a fortune. I'm not sure what this means.
posted by craniac at 8:55 PM on July 29


I think many lefty sociologists would argue that the class that was once called professional-managerial is now solidly ensconced in the working class/proletariat, whether or not everyone involved chooses to believe it. That analysis is where Occupy gets its 99% v. 1% rhetoric, and I don't think they're wrong.

However, I also fully understand that it is INFURIATING when people making $100K act like there is no material difference between their lives and the lives of people making $30K -- i.e., what the author is talking about when he discusses zoning and college savings plans and tax reform. It is possible to be both oppressed and complicit in oppression. And I would argue that true class consciousness demands an understanding of this, because otherwise you DO end up in a place where the upper middle class is voting in favor of mortgage-interest deductions and creating wealth inequality. Being part of the 99% requires solidarity, not selfishness, and the fact that the middle class/upper middle class often conflate the two is both problematic and utterly predictable (i.e., false class consciousness).

IMO the solution is not the author's proposal of promoting class guilt and thereby deepening divides within the working class but rather a more sophisticated political analysis where privilege is wielded in solidarity with and for the good of the class as a whole (including an intersectional analysis of how race, gender, sexuality, disability, citizenship, etc. fit into the landscape).
posted by Ragini at 12:50 AM on July 30 [7 favorites]


craniac - I was going to complain about feeling like I'm scraping by, but your post has shamed me into (relative) silence.

It looks like I goofed or didn't explain clearly. Our household income is either at the top of the third (middle) quintile or at the very, very bottom of the fourth quintile. The upper limit of the third quintile is $72k, according to this chart. Having also spent some time as a working adult near the bottom of the second quintile, which has a lower limit $22k, and significant time in the exact middle, at the mean of the third quintile, is what informed my opinion. If you're making something like $51k with three kids, then you absolutely could be scraping by. Having also spent some time in life with wild medical bills, I agree with those who say that a six figure salary does not totally insulate one from financial ruin because of our unequal, totally-private medical system in the US.

I imagine this conversation is largely over, but I think the upper middle class "axiom" that one has to buy an expensive house to have access to abstractly "good" schools is a huge driver of both inequality (in the form of underfunded urban schools) and financial precarity (in the form of upper-middle class people clustering so tightly together that they create artificial bubbles in real estate markets).
posted by Slothrop at 5:51 AM on July 30 [5 favorites]


I think the upper middle class "axiom" that one has to buy an expensive house to have access to abstractly "good" schools is a huge driver of [...] financial precarity (in the form of upper-middle class people clustering so tightly together that they create artificial bubbles in real estate markets).

This is a dynamic I've not thought about / seen discussed before --- intuitively it makes sense but I wonder if there's any way to empirically validate it.
posted by PMdixon at 6:03 AM on July 31


I'm still digesting. Thanks to all commentators, especialy the "well-off" who were brave enough to comment. I don't completely buy that the upper-middle class is quite as precarious as the rungs below it; the well-off have many discretionary purchases they could forego, and more options and opportunity if they have to seek other employment.

But I accept that even the upper middle class is currently somewhat precarious, because we were on the lower fringes of that. For a number of reasons, we were able to live "below" our means, rather than getting all the trappings of success, and as a consequence we have savings, no debt, and are able to weather setbacks like periods of unemployment, like I'm currently going through.

So, if everyone from the poorest through to the upper middle class are claiming that their economic position is precarious, and it's more than just an emotion... that's a big problem. It suggests a big fail somewhere in the current US economic fundamentals. I'm also concerned that in the future, there simply won't be enough meaningful jobs that pay a decent living.

How do we reduce this precariousness, and how do we plan or restructure for the future?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:42 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


P.S., I didn't see anyone bring up Proposition 13 in California but I think it is another good example of regressive policy that is sadly untouchable because of how much it benefits the upper-middle-class (more specifically, the white upper-middle-class, because of the legacy of redlining etc).
posted by en forme de poire at 7:39 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]


For a number of reasons, we were able to live "below" our means, rather than getting all the trappings of succes

But anyone can do that.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:50 AM on August 1


But anyone can do that.

It's a lot easier the further from the bottom you are. Even if in both cases you are paying 40% of your salary for housing, say, a lot more is left from a $10,000 monthly salary than from a $3,000 salary. And a lot of costs are relatively fixed and don't scale much with income, like a person's phone bill -- those are going to be a large percentage of a low income, but an insignificant fraction of a large income, making it easier for the higher income to have the surplus that allows for "living below your means."
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 AM on August 1 [7 favorites]


Yes, that's what I meant. I read the original comment as a way of explaining why other higher-income households might not be as secure, as if other higher-income earners didn't have the same "reasons" to be able to do it.

And while I obviously understand how a serious illness could wipe out even very comfortable households, it's still a false equivalence, because not only does that go for poorer people, poor people don't always have the means for even basic preventative health care, and it would take a whole lot less then a catastrophic illness to wipe someone out. (And fwiw, I'm not an "eat the rich" person.)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:07 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


P.S., I didn't see anyone bring up Proposition 13 in California but I think it is another good example of regressive policy that is sadly untouchable because of how much it benefits the upper-middle-class (more specifically, the white upper-middle-class, because of the legacy of redlining etc).
Another one is that most universities are steadily shifting financial aid away from need-based awards and towards merit-based awards, which disproportionately go to students from better-off families. There are some structural reasons for that: ACT and SAT scores correlate highly with family income, and well-off kids are better able to afford resume-padding activities. At a lot of schools, there's also a trend towards targeting financial aid towards students who are more likely to make admissions decisions based on their financial aid package, and those students tend to be from wealthier families. That's counterintuitive, but true: a lot of low-income students apply to a single school and take whatever financial aid package they're offered, while kids from the top 20% are likely to apply to many schools and then weigh various factors when deciding where to attend, including financial aid. Universities know this, so they know that targeting financial aid at well-off kids improves their yield, which is a factor in the all-important rankings.

This shift in financial aid policies, along with the diminishing purchasing power of Pell Grants, is making it really tough for low-income students to afford college. But you won't hear about it in the press, for a couple of reasons. One of them is that reporting on higher ed disproportionately focuses on elite colleges, and elite institutions are bucking this trend. Harvard has really great need-blind financial aid, but most students don't go to Harvard. Most students go to public institutions or less-elite private ones, which are shifting financial aid away from need and towards merit. But I also think that it's ignored because Americans don't talk about class very well, so we tend to talk about the college debt crisis as a problem that equally affects everyone but the mega-rich, when there are actually some other dynamics at work.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:12 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


I imagine this conversation is largely over, but I think the upper middle class "axiom" that one has to buy an expensive house to have access to abstractly "good" schools is a huge driver of both inequality (in the form of underfunded urban schools) and financial precarity (in the form of upper-middle class people clustering so tightly together that they create artificial bubbles in real estate markets).

This (and the other education-related ones) are good examples because they do fit with the sub-or-not-sub-text of upper-middle-class liberals being hypocritical. A number of housing/development policies probably do too. Prop 13 might to an extent, but in my experience growing up among such people (and as someone who has not recently been inclined to reflexively defend their approach to politics) I think there's a divide between those who at least believe in paying taxes and those who don't. I definitely "knew" Prop 13 was bad pretty early in life. But when it comes to more personal decisions related to education pretty much everybody seems to look out for their own kids first.
posted by atoxyl at 11:25 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


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