The Faux Middle Class

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.

7 thoughts on “The Faux Middle Class

  1. Well, ya know what? The generation my folks came from thought that working hard, owning a home, and being able to get one of your kids off to college qualified you as “middle class”. And God knows that my folks and millions of others from that generation had lived through a great depression and WW2, so to reach for and achieve the so-called “American Dream” clearly defined success, no matter what else you had to go through, including Jim Crow laws and segregation rampant here in the south, and de facto in the north. But still, they’d never, ever call their station in life a “fake” middle class, no matter how low on the cultural totem pole it may have been.

  2. That was true for a while, but not anymore. I’m thinking about a low-level clerk of about 20 who worked in my office building, she probably made $25K a year if she was lucky. I overheard her showing off the new Coach bag she bought herself – for $600!!! Now, on what planet did she need that? She watched too much TV and thought she deserved the same accessories as rich people. I think that’s what Lind means: people were led to believe they could live like doctors and lawyers on an office worker’s salaries.

  3. Yeah Suze, I can’t argue with that scenario. Sounds like my own 33 year old daughter (single with two kids) who, because of a BA degree, thinks she’s entitled and qualified to own a $500,000.00 house on the lake. “Ain’t gonna happen”, I told her!

  4. Dandy,

    That’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking about people who live a more affluent lifestyle than they can afford because of credit cards, and home equity loans and who handle their retirement savings in ways that are costly.

    The illusion he’s addressing has been shattered with the collapse of the housing bubble and banks unwillingness to lend, but our culture lacks a self-image to replace the one we were living large during the Bush years – an image that’s created and growing since the sixties. It just kind of morphed out of control during the first decade of the 21st century.

  5. Whoa, nellie, the stock thing and the trophy house thing are right on, but please gods, we need all the educated people in this country we can get. It’s not that we are overeducated, it’s that we allowed the overlords to send jobs overseas and we are overeducated for the drek that is left. But if we really were educated, we wouldn’t have allowed those jobs to be sent overseas in the first place. Remember the ‘giant sucking sound’ mentioned by Ross Perot? He was right about that, wasn’t he? I understood that at the time——and being in college helped me to understand that; working at a lumber mill or at a burger joint is not so hot for critical thinking training.

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