On The Middle Class and Its Lack of Utility
I think the current economic crisis has exposed how useless the American conception of "middle class" has become. Now we British, it is true, take the gradiations of class much more seriously than anyone else, although it's interesting how little definitions of class crop up these days either in conversation or print in Great Britain. I think that's in part a function of how divorced the super-rich have become from the other strata, and how irrelevant the British aristocracy has become.
In America, on the other hand, the middle class stretches to include everyone on the socio-economic ladder between the Eddie Murphy character and the two old rich dudes in Trading Places. Neither lower class or working class has much application in the US, with more culturally laden terms such as "blue collar" or "redneck" taking precedence. A lot of this has to do with race and class being so interlinked (anyone who says they're using the word "ghetto" pejoratively but with no racial connotations, is lying)
This super-elastic definition of the middle class only really suits politicians, especially those who like to pitch policies most properly targeted at the upper middle class to a constituency that might more properly be described as working class but desires to join the upper middle. It's rather telling that the politicians' own spin-doctors tend to focus on smaller sub-categories, or pat labels such as "soccer Mom" or "Nascar Troglodyte" and so forth. I mean, I'm not asking for the labels that the UK's ONS uses, just that the US learns to talk about class in a way that prevents Joe Biden from ending up as "middle class Czar".
Take Joe The Plumber (please). Joe was making maybe $40,000 a year, but because he aspired to buy a $250,000 business, he convinced himself that a tax plan designed to tax people with incomes of more than $250,000 was going to leave him worse off. I don't want that man anywhere near my grouting.
This all came back to me when reading the recent profile of Chuck Schumer in the Atlantic. Schumer, about whom I was briefly unkind a while back (I'm sure he's over it), has a notion of what the middle class is that hews much closer to the rich end than the Joe the Plumber end.
There's one very good reason for this: Schumer lives in Park Slope, where you can be much richer than lower middle class and still not feel that rich at all. The obsessions with children's education, the consumer-oriented initiatives, the idea that upward mobility comes through less tangible means. Still, I'm not saying that these are not middle-class concerns, just that Schumer will probably use the cover of the broad middle class definition to implement policies that are priorities to only a sub-sector of this.
It's the clearest indication yet, better than speculating on the economic inclinations of Obama's treasury team, that what emerges from the new administration will be a concern for the people that need to be bribed, rather than those that should be bribed. That might sound a tad class envious, but I'm feeling very tenuous right now.