Cure-alls and Remedies

The Middle Class is Losing the Race for Second Place

I think about inequality a lot. But I also think about the middle class a lot, which isn’t quite the same thing. Generally, my sympathies lie with the “least advantaged” or “subaltern,” but I also feel the pull of the American cultural commitment to the middle class.

There can be little doubt that we are seeing a dissolution of the middle class, and this often seems a tragedy. Indeed, my favorite financial guru, Elizabeth Warren, put it like this:

“A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.”

And yet, data going back to 1970 indicates that more people are failing to remain in the middle class due to wealth than due to poverty:

the entire reason the middle class has “shrunk” is that more households today have incomes that put them above middle class. That’s right, the share of households with income that puts them in the middle class or higher was 76 percent in 1970 and 75 percent in 2010—two figures that are statistically indistinguishable. For that matter, I am not discovering fire here; Third Way made the same point in early 2007 (page 7).

As Third Way put it in 2007:

The bottom line is that the middle class is shrinking but not because the bottom is dropping out; it is because more people are better off.

Now, let’s be clear: the two middle quintiles of income will always be populated by 40% of the population, so in some sense there will always be a “middle.” But increasingly this group will not be a class.

Alan Kreuger defines the middle class “as having a household income at least half of median income but no more than 1.5 times the median.” And the incomes statistics suggest that it is increasingly difficult to tread water this close to the median income: either you sink below it, or you rocket above it. But compared to 1970, more people are rocketing above it than sinking below it. (As Warren points out, this is largely a matter of women in the workforce: a couple with two incomes is too rich for the middle-class, and couples and single folks with only one income are too poor for it.)

Many different kinds of inequality compete for our attention when we discuss the politics of fairness. For instance, as Tyler Cowen has pointed out, the difference between the top 1% and the rest of the top quintile is largely what has driven the growing inequality over the last thirty years:

the share of pre-tax income earned by the richest 1 percent of earners has increased from about 8 percent in 1974 to more than 18 percent in 2007. Furthermore, the richest 0.01 percent (the 15,000 or so richest families) had a share of less than 1 percent in 1974 but more than 6 percent of national income in 2007. As noted, those figures are from pre-tax income, so don’t look to the George W. Bush tax cuts to explain the pattern. Furthermore, these gains have been sustained and have evolved over many years, rather than coming in one or two small bursts between 1974 and today.

But this inequality is distinct from the inequality that has afflicted the bottom 50% of the income spectrum:

At the same time, wage growth for the median earner has slowed since 1973. But that slower wage growth has afflicted large numbers of Americans, and it is conceptually distinct from the higher relative share of top income earners. For instance, if you take the 1979–2005 period, the average incomes of the bottom fifth of households increased only 6 percent while the incomes of the middle quintile rose by 21 percent. That’s a widening of the spread of incomes, but it’s not so drastic compared to the explosive gains at the very top.

And even this may conceal accounting effects and the inequality that emerges as the US population ages and some among us become better educated. It is at least plausible that there has been no meaningful growth in the inequality of the 99% at all:

Attacking the problem from a different angle, other economists are challenging whether there is much growth in inequality at all below the super-rich. For instance, real incomes are measured using a common price index, yet poorer people are more likely to shop at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, which have seen big price drops over the past twenty years. Once we take this behavior into account, it is unclear whether the real income gaps between the poor and middle class have been widening much at all. Robert J. Gordon, an economist from Northwestern University who is hardly known as a right-wing apologist, wrote in a recent paper that “there was no increase of inequality after 1993 in the bottom 99 percent of the population”, and that whatever overall change there was “can be entirely explained by the behavior of income in the top 1 percent.”

What we see, then, is a world where the rich have gotten much richer and the poor and median incomes have been relatively stagnant.

I agree with Cowen that the first trend is largely driven by financial engineering (“going short on volatility” and expecting a bailout when those bets don’t pay off) that appears to be negative-sum: the very richest get richer not through work but through arbitrage and winner-take-all approaches to the markets, and they do so by putting the brakes on the rest of the economy. In other words, the problem is financial capitalism, and it requires a response rooted specifically in managing the banking, insurance, and real estate sectors of the economy. (This is the so-called FIRE economy.)

But what about the second non-trend? The largely stable infra-99% inequalities somehow disguise the “dissolution of the middle class.” Or do they?

Game theorists like to joke about the “race for second place”: if the winner realizes she’s winning, she has to slow down, which creates a weird disequilibrilizing competition. In decision-theory, this is called “satisficing” and it is opposed to “maximizing.”

Tyler Cowen refers to people who satisfice on income as “threshold earners,” a group that I certainly belong to:

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.

There is plenty of evidence that the richest quintile is full of people who have enough and are unwilling to work any harder to get more. Consider exhortations to “chill” that are quite popular among the upper-middle class.

abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.

These are folks who were competing for second place, and, having rocketed out of the middle class, have chosen to take more time off. This behavior certainly expands the income inequality between the richest 1% and the rest of the top quintile. But should it bother us?

Now, we all satisfice, i.e. chill, all the time: even the serial entrepreneur satisfices on non-monetary goods: she has a “good enough” marriage, a “good enough” exercise routine, etc. But we’re not proud of this in the same way that so many Americans are proud about being middle class. We don’t all brag about how we get away with giving our spouse “just enough” attention or how we’re “phoning it in until retirement.” Why not? Because we belong to a culture that doesn’t value income-as-such. But when you’re poor, money does buy a measure of happiness, so why do we take such joy in making less simply because we don’t need it? Resources in excess of need can always be given to those who need them more, either through voluntary charity or state-run cash transfers (i.e. taxing and spending.) To my mind, the reality of satisficing is largely selfish.

I suspect these little exhortations to “chill” are not in fact designed to change anyone’s behavior. Rather they’re a kind of self-congratulation. “Look at me! I’m rich and I don’t work very hard!” Last time I checked, the word for self-congratulatory idle rich folks? “Parasites.” In that sense, “medium chill” is just another way of saying “I got mine.”

Congrats! You won the genetic, educational, and financial market lotteries! You bought low and sold high! To say that the middle class is “losing the race for second place” is to point out that, despite their efforts to “chill” they just can’t help getting ahead. The problem is privilege, and structural inequality, and a changing global economy.

That’s why I tend to think that we ought not to worry so much about losing the race for second place through the enrichment of the middle class. We should focus on the poor, many of whom don’t even figure in national inequality numbers because they don’t live in this country: they belong to the “Bottom Billion” who live outside the US on less than $1 a day PPP.

Now, the strongest argument in favor of a domestic middle class (and a massively reduced upper class) is Elizabeth Anderson’s argument for “relational equality,” sometimes also called “democratic equality.” If we prioritize political participation over a more general account of capabilities, then we might worry less about the material well-being of the poorest and more about their capacity to participate as equals in the self-governance of our democracy. But I’ll save that for another day.

5 Responses to “The Middle Class is Losing the Race for Second Place”

  1. Drake

    Nothing substantive to add, just a 'thanks' for the interesting – as ever – read.

  2. What is the belief you hold that is most likely to be wrong? | anotherpanacea

    […] The Unimportance of the Middle-Class: I tend to worry less about the middle-class than the least-advantaged, which leads me to worry more about the unemployed than the employed, and more about those without a college degree than those who have credentials. But there are lots of good arguments in political theory for a vibrant middle-class, not the least of which is Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.” So I may very well be wrong. […]


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