Michael Lind says it pretty well:
For a generation, most Americans have been told by left, right and center that they would be failures if they ended their educations with high school, worked hard, saved cash for emergencies and bought modest homes they could afford. They have been told that to succeed in life they need to ape the lifestyles of the upper middle class that provides most of America’s politicians, pundits and scholars.
The result has been an experiment in social engineering that has gone horribly wrong: the creation of a faux mass upper middle class. Millions of Americans who by objective standards belong to the working class or lower middle class have persuaded themselves that they are part of the professional-investor elite, because they have worthless degrees from diploma mills, negligible amounts invested in stocks, and suburban trophy houses they cannot afford. For the college graduates at Starbucks working to pay off student loans for degrees that they will never use, as for the millions of Americans who are now “underwater,” owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, the American dream has turned into a nightmare.
But many have profited from the peddling of the dream of the mass upper middle class. The claim that everyone should go to college served the interests of the educational-industrial complex, from K-12 to the universities, that now serves as an important constituency of the Democratic Party. (Along with Wall Street investment banks, universities provided Barack Obama with his largest campaign donations.) And the claim that everyone needs to pour money into the stock market, to be managed by banks and brokers who fleece their clients, served the interests of the financial-industrial complex that has replaced real-economy businesses as the dominant force in the Republican Party. Both the educators and the brokers have successfully lobbied Congress to subsidize their bloated industries, swelling them even further, by means of tax breaks for student loans and personal retirement savings. The big losers have been the millions of working Americans whom many Democrats and Republicans alike have persuaded, against their interests, to indulge champagne tastes on beer budgets.
The alternative to the mass upper-middle-class fantasy peddled by Republicans and New Democrats is a return to the older New Deal liberal approach, based on high wages and adequate social insurance. Working Americans should not need to go into debt to obtain college diplomas, in order to share more of the gains of national economic growth in the form of higher wages. And there would be less pressure on working Americans to gamble with their money in the stock market, if Social Security, like public pensions in the rest of the world, replaced a higher percentage of pre-retirement income than the 30-40 percent it replaces today.
An America with a college-educated professional class majority was always a fantasy. So was an America with a majority of affluent day traders. The America we need is one in which all Americans are paid a living wage and guaranteed a comfortable retirement — even if they didn’t go to a university and don’t own stocks and bonds.