Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Is There Any Point In Talking About What You Don't Have?

slate |  One of the nice things about Occupy Wall Street was that it provided a tidy shorthand to describe the problem of income inequality at a moment when the world didn’t really have one. Today, it’s a cliche: the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. But at the time, that brief phrase awakened many people to the idea that America’s riches were distributed more unevenly than they thought, and that an increasingly outrageous share was being concentrated at the very top. The winners in this story were corporate executives, business owners, and highly paid professionals—especially bankers. The losers were just about everybody else. Like all shorthand, this tale was a bit oversimplified. But in the wake of a financial crisis brought on by the greed and recklessness of those 1 percenters, it felt apt. 

Back then, the people who took issue with framing America’s economy as a tug of war between the ultrarich and the rest of us generally fell into two camps. They were either inequality skeptics, who insisted unconvincingly that research showing the rise of the 1 percent was flawed, or inequality apologists, who argued that letting some people get exorbitantly wealthy was good for the economy, since it rewarded hustle and entrepreneurship (basically, Paul Ryan during his peak makers-vs.-takers period). 

Lately, though, a few writers have tried to play down the idea of the 1 percent for a different reason: They say it’s making us miss the real story of class and inequality in America. Last year, a Brookings Institution scholar named Richard Reeves published a book titled Dream Hoarders, in which he argues that America’s upper-middle class is rigging the economy in its own favor. Our national focus on the very rich, he suggests, is blinding us to the reality of how well-off soccer moms and dads in places like Arlington, Virginia, are killing the American dream for everyone but their own kids. “Too often, the rhetoric of inequality points to a ‘top 1 percent’ problem, as if the ‘bottom’ 99 percent is in a similarly dire situation,” he writes. “This obsession with the upper class allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.”\

Reeves’ book received a brief burst of national attention after David Brooks used it as a launching point for a weird and widely pilloried New York Times column, in which he recounted a story about seeing his friend get flustered by the selection of Italian cold cuts at a sandwich shop. (He assumed this was because she only had a high school education, since you apparently need a philosophy degree to be familiar with soppressata.) But this week, the Atlantic published a long feature more or less rehashing most of Dream Hoarders’ arguments. In “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” writer Matthew Stewart argues that aside from a small sliver of true plutocrats who can actually afford to buy an election or two, the top 10 percent of wealthiest Americans are all essentially part of the same highly educated and privileged group—the “meritocratic class”—which has “mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” 

Reeves and Stewart are both attempting to give us a new shorthand for who is ruining the economy. Instead of the 1 percent, they would like us to talk about the dream hoarders, or the 9.9 percent. But in the end, both authors fail by lumping together large groups of Americans who haven’t really benefited equally from our winner-take-all economy. As a result, their stories about how the country has changed, and who has gained, just don’t track.