Usually when we see right-wing commentary on the upper-middle-class (“NPR/limousine/Whole Foods liberals,” “boho bougies,” or take your pick of other trendy labels), it’s a fake populist attack on their “cultural elite” tastes like brown mustard or wind-surfing, to divert attention from genuine populist attacks on the super-rich. So I guess it’s a sort of man-bites-dog story when Nick Gillespie of Reason (“To the Barricades, Brooklyn Yuppies,” The Daily Beast, Feb. 6) rallies to their defense.
The object of Gillespie’s ire is an article by Reihan Salam at Slate (“The upper middle class is ruining all that is great about America,” Jan. 30; Salam, ironically, is another right-winger from National Review). Salam’s view of them isn’t flattering:
Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group.
Although billionaires like the Koch Brothers are far more often vilified by the Left,
the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs… of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands. So the upper middle class often uses its political muscle to foil the fondest wishes of egalitarian liberals.
As an example, Salam mentions Obama’s proposal to tax 529 college savings (which go to only 3% of the population and mainly benefit households over $100,000) as income and use the proceeds to fund a credit for tuition expenses of the lower and middle-class. Within days, deluged by angry phone calls from her upper-middle-class liberal constituency, Nancy Pelosi — the “Marxist” that Breitbart and FreeRepublic readers love to hate — persuaded Obama to drop the plan.
Gillespie strawmans Salam’s critique as a call for redistributionist class war against the upper-middle class, complete with tax hikes. In fact he limits discussion of Salam’s article almost entirely to the tax issue, and mischaracterizes even that (failing to note, in regard to 529, that Obama was proposing to eliminate a targeted tax break for the well-to-do to fund tax relief for the poor). And bear in mind it’s the upper-middle class that most strenuously objects to efforts to close economically distorting loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction in order to lower tax rates as a whole.
His characterization of the attack as a jacquerie, or Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks, says more about Gillespie’s sense of entitlement than Salam’s actual arguments. And naturally, he can’t resist wallowing in a vertiable ocean of “grandson of poor immigrants makes good” humblebrags. As if moving from a class that gets screwed over to one that screws over everybody below it is some exemplar of the American Dream.
But in his misconstruction and his resort to bathos, Gillespie studiously ignores the main focus of Salam’s critique of upper-middles — for their hypocrisy: “upper-middle-income voters only oppose tax hikes on themselves.” What’s more, a major part of their income, as Salam points out, comes from government interventions that benefit them at the expense of the poor and lower-middle class. In particular, they fight like cornered rabid badgers against any attempt to weaken their professional licensing regimes, as well as engaging in full-blown NIMBYism in defense of zoning laws and aesthetic ordinances that protect their precious “property values.”
I’d take both of those points a lot further than Salam does.
Upper-middle class liberals are some of the most hypocritical people on earth. I encountered one of the tribe first-hand on Twitter when I made a negative comment about Paul Krugman making hundreds of thousands of dollars for a nebulous “advisory” position at some university think tank on income inequality (!), that apparently involved little more than lending his name to their letterhead. In response, some Twitter #UniteBlue damfool squealed like a stuck pig and informed me that good, “progressive” people like Krugman weren’t “the 1% I should be attacking.” I get similar responses to negative comments on Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees for gatherings of Wall Street bankers (!) or her former seat on the Walmart board.
Actually, the upper-middle class is very much the 1% I should be attacking — not instead of billionaire rentiers, but in addition to them.
First of all, if you look at their occupational categories, they’re mainly either in legally cartelized professions and/or occupy administrative positions in the corporate state or in state-cartelized industry. Even if they’re in independent practice, they perform functions that are in artificially high demand because of government-mandated professsionalization and “expert” hegemony over every aspect of life.
They’re the upper part of, as Joe Bageant put it, the “20-25% of its population” the Empire
needs… at the very most to administrate and perpetuate itself — through lawyers, insurance managers, financial managers, college teachers, media managers, scientists, bureaucrats, managers of all types and many other professions and semi-professions.
A disproportionate part of this upper-middle class has, as its main function, processing “captive clienteles” (Edgar Friedenberg’s word) of human raw material in the school-to-corporate-HR-department or school-to-prison pipeline, hospitals, universities and the like. They suck up a rapidly growing portion of total employee compensation in giant monopoly corporations that are so large and top-heavy mainly because of a state-cartelized economy. And another huge part of this class belongs to the professional licensing cartels to which ordinary people are forced to alienate control over a growing part of their lives. They are, almost entirely, the overseers of Empire, occupying positions and serving functions that would not exist absent the system of corporate-state power that exists today.
And the institutions they belong to for the most part need far more of them than in the past because of a culture of high overhead and bureaucratic featherbedding encouraged by state-fostered cartels.
This class has been exploding since the ’70s, both in numbers and in the income of its top ranks, at the expense of those below them. As Thomas Piketty notes in Capital, the top 1% used to be dominated by rentiers drawing income from their investments and property. Now you have to go to the top tenth of a percent to find those people. The rest of the top one percent are the highest stratum of salaried managers. The salaries of top management have risen from fifty times or so the average production worker’s wage to several hundred times. Back in the ’90s David Gordon (Fat and Mean: The Myth of Management Downsizing) pointed out that, contrary to public perception, the total share of employee compensation going to managerial and supervisory workers had risen from about a quarter to around 40% since the ’70s. By my math, that means that simply restoring the numbers and compensation of managers to their 1970s level would make possible a 25% increase in production worker compensation, leaving total employee compensation flat.
The main downsizing in personnel has come from actual production workers. In universities, this means administrators (and their salaries) replicating like kudzu while three quarters of teaching positions are filled by adjunct McProfessors making the equivalent of minimum wage. In hospitals — the industry where I work — it means nurse-to-patient ratios being lowered to criminally negligent levels and deliberately putting patient lives at risk, with the savings in wages going to fund increased management compensation on something very close to a one-to-one basis.
It’s interesting that Gillespie mentions gentrification as a source of envy for the upper-middle class’s haters. And well it might be. Local governments are basically a showcase property of the real estate industry, which means they’re looking for anything and everything to drive up “property values” — and rents — by getting outside people with lots of money to bid on land. That results in a sort of Golden Triangle of local governments, state-cartelized and -subsidized industry, and that industry’s well-paid overseers, like we see with Silicon Valley employees driving the gentrification of Oakland and driving out the old population.
In short, the upper-middle class is largely a privileged, overpaid creature of the state, and to see a self-proclaimed libertarian whining about criticism of it is just pathetic.