The Middle Class Is Mostly Invisible to the Elite

This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"Jim asks a good, and hard, question: given our politics and culture today, do we collectively value a strong middle class enough to do much about the long-term forces arrayed against it?  In an abstract way, the idea of a broad middle class seems important to most Americans' sense of this country. And one message of my article and my book is that we can mitigate the forces that are hollowing the middle class--although we'll need to undertake a wide array of actions to do that.

But will most people be willing to accept personal sacrifices--higher taxes, for instance, or lower benefits in old age--in order to meaningfully increase the nation's investment in infrastructure (which in addition to its other benefits could create many good jobs to replace those lost in manufacturing or residential construction), or to subsidize the wages struggling young adults who lack higher education? I'm skeptical.

The rise of the meritocracy has been celebrated in the U.S., and in most ways it should be.  But as social critics from Christopher Lasch to David Brooks have noted, it has also created a class of professionals and elites who seem to feel less social obligation to other Americans than in the past.  Precisely because today's elite views itself as self-made, it seems to feel less community spirit and less responsibility to help those who've fallen behind.  

I think that sense of detachment has been reinforced by the continuing segregation of Americans by class--not just at the neighborhood level, but regionally--and by the tendency of America's meritocratic winners to uproot themselves from the communities of their birth and congregate together in a handful of places.  Here in the professional communities of Washington, D.C., it's not really clear from one's daily life that most Americans are struggling; the same is true, I think, in Manhattan and Boston and San Francisco and all the other power cities and creative enclaves into which the best educated Americans have streamed over the past two decades.

The increasingly single-minded focus on a college education as the only path to a secure and prosperous life--which Maria has already noted--strikes me as a particularly pernicious aspect of America's meritocratic culture, one that automatically excludes a majority of Americans.  Even among young adults, only about 30 percent of the population has a four-year college degree, and that percentage has only been growing by about one percentage point every four years.  We definitely need to ensure widespread access to a good education, including college education.  But a bachelor's degree simply cannot be the answer to the problems of middle class--the math just doesn't work. 

So overall, I'm not confident that our culture--and particularly the culture in which the affluent swim--is deeply committed to a strong middle class.  It's not so much that today's elite thinks poorly of those who lack the IQ or childhood advantages to prosper in the modern economy; by and large, I fear that many elites just don't think about them much at all.

All that said, one thing that a great majority of Americans does reliably get behind is the idea of innovation and scientific advance. Breakthrough innovations and the faster growth they generate would not eliminate the array of forces squeezing the non-professional middle class, but they could help counteract them.  (The 1990s showed us that when we're innovating fast enough and growing quickly enough, just about everyone benefits to one extent or another.)  Breakthrough innovations have been sparse in the past decade, and Tyler's recent writings have raised the disturbing possibility that they may remain sparse for the foreseeable future.  But I'd strongly support a big, ambitious national push toward faster innovation, and I think there are a number of promising ideas for increasing our rate of breakthroughs--some (though not all) of these ideas are expensive, but I think the nation could get behind such a campaign, and it's the kind of thing that could move the dial.