In Defense of the Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor

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In response to this recent item, plus this and similar previous posts, two readers empathize, sort of, with the put-upon University of Chicago law professor.

First, from a reader an an east coast big city, defending the "policy" part of the law professor's original post:

>>I am a partner at a law firm who makes far less than 250k, but a good salary nonetheless. People need to realize that a tax hike on those making more than 250k will ultimately be borne by those (like myself) making less than 250k. The equity partners (and other business owners) are going to take home "x" amount of money, no matter what. They are still going to have the same private school and mortgage payments to make. In order to take home "x" dollars at the end of the year, they are going to have give smaller bonuses and smaller raises. Maybe that file clerk doesn't get hired, maybe the associate's bump is put off, who knows, but at the end of the day, those making less than 250k will feel the brunt of the tax increase.

This is a fairly simple concept to grasp for those working in small businesses (there are about 20 lawyers here), but likely applies in larger private sector operations as well. It's disingenuous to posit only those making above 250k will be impacted by a tax increase at that level; people in the private sector will feel that tax increase at all levels. My problem is that those opposing the +250k tax hike can't seem to articulate the facts of life I briefly outlined above.<<

Drolly, the reader asks that I not use his or her real name: "My parents will be heartbroken to find out I make less than 250k. Ah, the pressures of being Jewish." The nice thing about the "Ah..." sentence is that it could also work if it ended with "an Ivy League grad," "Asian-American," "voted Most Likely to Succeed," "an Indian-American with a computer science degree," "a Rhodes scholar," "a McKinsey alumnus," etc.

Another  reader writes in quasi-solidarity:

>>Perhaps it might be worthwhile to take the (whining) Professor Henderson at his word. It is hard to get by, as a professional member of the upper-middle class, in America today.

It has been a bad 20 years for the middle class, and it is starting to turn into a bad 10 years for the professional upper middle class. (and by professional I mean someone who gets their job by virtue of their degree).

A huge chunk of expenses, in a dual-income professional household,is paying back student loans.

Another huge chunk is paying for private school for children, and saving for college to pay for the same. Let's be honest: in this market it is hard to get into a Ivy League college from a public school. Possible but difficult. And it isn't fun/easy getting into a top-tier graduate school either.

And you career chances, as a professional, are much more dismal as a graduate of local state U vs. Harvard.

Health care costs are bad for both middle class and upper-middle class families. Housing costs are also bad.

But the increasing costs of education -- both secondary (primary school also in dense urban areas with lots of competition) and college -- make life very difficult for members of professions that require graduate training to thrive (law, education, medicine). Counter that with making 250K a year with a bachelors degree.

Yes, 40 years ago doctors drove Buicks, not BMWs. And their children went to the local public school and maybe a top-tier state school. But my point is the skyrocketing costs of education -- and the stratification of private education, are driving upper-middle professional families broke. And type-A Ivy League types might be the worse off as a result of the expenses.

Does that justify whining: no. Does it let some Randian idiot at UoC off the hook: no. But it should give everyone pause that this depression is driving some very successful people into the hole.<<

For the record, I don't agree with the assertions and assumptions in this second note about the crucial, lasting importance of private-school education, or of fancy-college pedigree, but that's for another time. (Or, it's in this 1985 article mentioned yesterday -- which has a number of OCR typos left over from its being scanned into our archives from our pre-digital paper era. We'll try to clean them up.)

Reader messages from a different perspective shortly. Plus, other topics.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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