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Durable Inequality in the United States

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I’ve been buried in work and travel. Indeed, I just returned from a trip to China that included Guangzhou, Shenzen,  Zhuhai, and Beijing. So I don’t know if any of my collaborators have blogged on Richard Reeves’ essay, “The Dream Hoarders: How America’s Top 20 Percent Perpetuates Inequality,” promoting his new book The themes will be familiar to longtime LGM readers. The upper classes use their social capital—their networks—and cultural capital—such as their knowledge of class codes and of the college admission process—to lock in advantages for their children in the form of internships, educational achievement, and the like. They also create social safety nets for their kids via intergenerational transfers of economic capital. The children of the upper classes can afford to fail. They can finance consumption beyond their income level, including the purchase of houses and other assets.

And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.  However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.

The term “opportunity hoarding” entered into scholarly usage via my late advisor, Charles Tilly. I was relieved to find out that Reeves credits him in the book, because he hasn’t done so in the promotional essays that I’ve seen so far. He does not cite Pierre Bourdieu, even though much of his argument—as I implied above—also sounds like Boourdieu’s own analysis of how classes use cultural and social resources to maintain their position.

In the main, Reeves is correct. The system is rigged in favor of the upper classes, with the lower upper classes—thinking of themselves as “upper middle class”—carrying much of the water for the higher reaches of the income distribution. But the lower upper class is reluctant, when push comes to shove, to concede their perquisites. And why should they? Despite their carefully cultivated advantages, it won’t take much for their families to slide out of the upper classes. They carry debt to maintain these advantages. But most of them can service this debt, so they don’t see any advantage in blowing up a system that has, over the decades, replaced transfer payments with credit and, in consequence, shifted risk downwards. Indeed, many in the lower upper class now see the financial sector as the best way to climb the class system, so why burn that bridge?

What Reeves wants, it seems, is for the lower upper class to develop some consciousness.

The problem is that many of these efforts are likely to run into the solid wall of upper middle-class resistance, even those that simply require a slightly higher tax bill. A change of heart is needed: a recognition of privilege among the upper middle class, the ability to hold up a mirror. Some of us in the upper middle class already feel a degree of cognitive dissonance about the advantages we pile up for our own kids, compared to the truncated opportunities we know exist for others. We want our children to do well, but also want to live in a fairer society. My friend and colleague E. J. Dionne put it to me this way: “I spend my weekdays decrying the problem of inequality, but then I spend my evenings and weekends adding to it.”

We are all guilty, on some level, of taking actions on our children’s behalf that conferred an unfair advantage. If more of us start to feel Dionne’s cognitive dissonance, some political space might open up for reforms. The big question is then whether we are willing to make some modest sacrifices in order to expand opportunities for others or whether, deep down, we would rather pull up the ladder.

The danger here—and you can already see this in online reaction—is that Reeves comes across as blaming the “upper middle class,” when, in fact, he’s trying to break the mythology that holds together a political economy of exclusion. Yet, the white voters most part of the system that he describes—relatively wealthy and educated—may already be drifting toward the Democratic party and, concurrently, more receptive to these kinds of arguments. So, I ask, what do we do? His book appears to contain far-reaching proposals, but my sense is that there are much more fundamental structural features of our political economy—particularly involving credit, debt, and transfers—that help explain both the demand and supply of “upper middle class” opportunity hoarding.

Finally, the book does appear to discuss race, but I should stress that Tilly is particularly concerned with categories that form the basis of durable inequality, and race—as well as gender—is pretty important here.

Image by RoyBoy. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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