Sunday, June 11, 2017

Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By RICHARD V. REEVES JUNE 10, 2017, New York Times [original article contains links]

image from article

[JB comment: Interesting article, which however seems to miss a key point: The American "class system" is far less rigid than the British one (true, the author does state that "here [in the US of A], class is quaint"). 

In the USA -- no matter your social background (I won't repeat the word "class," which really doesn't mean much to Americans, in contrast to the U.K. or continental Europe) no matter where you're from -- you can "make it" (and the myth does have a connection with America's weird [to some] reality) far more "easily" than in Britain, notwithstanding in which segment of society you happen to be born.

Indeed, we 'Merikans don't really care about socially-defining/discriminating accents (although a foreigner visiting the USA after opening her/his mouth in English will be asked "Where yau [you] from?"); accents being the topic with which this article begins. 

But then, of course, we New Worlders are less "verbal" than those lucky (should I be more proper and say "civilized"?) ones inhabiting -- rather than abandoning, as the author evidently has -- the land (I won't say homeland, out of respect for the linguistic genius of the Bard) of Shakespeare.]


When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes threaten my brother and me
with elocution lessons. It is no secret that how you talk matters a lot in a class-saturated
society like the United Kingdom. Peterborough, our increasingly diverse
hometown, was prosperous enough, but not upscale. Six in 10 of the city’s residents
voted for Brexit — a useful inverse poshness indicator. (In Thursday’s general
election, Peterborough returned a Labour MP for the first time since 2001.)

Our mother, from a rural working­-class background herself, wanted us to be
able to rise up the class ladder, unencumbered by the wrong accent. The elocution
lessons never materialized, but we did have to attend ballroom dancing lessons on
Saturday mornings. She didn’t want us to put a foot wrong there, either.
As it turned out, my brother and I did just fine, in no small part because of the
stable, loving, middle-­class home in which we were raised. Any lingering working-class
traces in my own accent were wiped away by three disinfectant years at Oxford.
My wife claims they resurface when I drink, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking
about — she’s American.

I always found the class consciousness of Britain depressing. It is one of the
reasons we brought our British­-born sons to America. Here, class is quaint,
something to observe in wonder through imported TV shows like “Downton Abbey”
or “The Crown.”

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class
than Britain, especially toward the top. [JB emphasis] The big difference is that most of the people
on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American
myth of meritocracy 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.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your
children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron
couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish
education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their
children to $30,000-­a-­year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that
they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine
operates with ruthless efficiency. In particular, the upper middle class is solidifying.
This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual
household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below.
Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion­-plus increase in pretax income since
1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to
the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

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.

Politicians and policy wonks worry about the persistence of poverty across
generations, but affluence is inherited more strongly. Most disturbing, we now know
how firmly class positions are being transmitted across generations. Most of the
children born into households in the top 20 percent will stay there or drop only as
far as the next quintile. As Gary Solon, one of the leading scholars of social mobility,
put it recently, “Rather than a poverty trap, there seems instead to be more
stickiness at the other end: a ‘wealth trap,’ if you will.”

There’s a kind of class double­-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle­-class
Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that
allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly
engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To
the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification
along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

The United States is the only nation in the world, for example, where it is easier
to get into college if one of your parents happened to go there. Oxford and
Cambridge ditched legacy preferences in the middle of the last century. The
existence of such an unfair hereditary practice in 21st-­century America is startling in
itself. But I have been more shocked by the way that even supposedly liberal
members of the upper middle class seem to have no qualms about benefiting from it.

The upper middle class is also doing lots right, not least when it comes to
creating a stable family environment and being engaged parents. These are
behaviors we want to spread, not stop. Nobody should feel bad for working hard to
raise their kids well.

Things turn ugly, however, when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in
its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant
example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in
enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools
typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-­middle-class
neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area
more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system
gives us a handout, through the mortgage­-interest deduction, to help us purchase
these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed
political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity
reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle
class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive
in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts.
The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike
in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative
and Labour governments by 2000).

Or look at 529 college savings plans, another boondoggle. These are tax­-exempt
vehicles for putting money aside for educational expenses. Thanks to legislation
signed by George W. Bush in 2001, any capital gains in these plans are free of all
federal taxes. Most states also allow savings up to a certain level to be deducted from
state income tax. Almost all the benefits of 529 plans go to upper-­middle­-class
families. But when President Obama proposed to end the federal tax break in 2015,
uproar ensued, and not just from Republicans. Liberal democrats representing
affluent districts killed the idea stone dead.

Progressive policies, whether on zoning or school admissions or tax reform, all
too often run into the wall of upper­-middle­-class opposition. Self­-interest is natural
enough. But the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just
want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic
society, they think they deserve them. The strong whiff of entitlement coming from
the top 20 percent has not been lost on everyone else.

I see now that English class consciousness has an important silver lining. At
least there we know that class is a real fact of social life. Posh Brits are more likely to
see that their position is at least in part the result of good fortune. For Americans to
solve the problem of their deepening class divisions, we will have to start by
admitting their existence and our complicity in maintaining them. We need to raise
our consciousness about class. And yes, I am looking at you.

Richard V. Reeves (@RichardvReeves) is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
and the author of the forthcoming book, “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper
Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to
Do About It.”

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