Tag Archives: Middle Class

How to Revive the American Dream: The Reeves Solution

My latest article on Impakter, here is the beginning:

HOW TO REVIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM: A CLASS DISPUTE

Book ReviewThe Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It by Richard V. Reeves published by Brookings Institution Press, June 2017

Take the top 20 percent of the American population and remove from it the One Percent, the ultra-rich. What do you get? A new class, roughly the “top” of the middle class, that is changing the way America consumes, thinks, and votes.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument made by several highly respected social scientists, starting with Tyler Cowen, who was the first out with his book, The Complacent Class in February 2017. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller, he is a respected economist with a popular blog. Next out in May was Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s excellent, Veblen-inspired The Sum of Small things (reviewed on Impakter), followed in June by two more notable books, Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders  and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism – though the latter has a broader scope, analyzing not just the upper middle class, but the whole system.

When it comes to describing this new class, details are different in each book, but what is remarkable is that all four authors are of one voice to condemn this new class.

For Edward Luce, an Oxford-educated journalist, this new class is “tone deaf” to the demands of the rest of the middle class, particularly the “white trash” left behind by globalization.  For Tyler Cowen, it is “complacent” and static, ensconced in self-contentment, unaware of a coming revolution. For Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, it is “pernicious” in wanting (and achieving) self-perpetuation. Richard Reeves agrees with her and views it as incredibly self-centered, “leaving everyone else in the dust”.

I’d like to spend some time here reviewing Reeves’ book because it is the most propositional of the lot, suggesting how, with some simple political measures, the “American Dream”, now badly damaged, could be restored and made to work for the whole of society.

American Dream PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR – ADRIAN

The Social Impact of Income Inequality

The centerpiece of Reeves’ argument is this:

“Postsecondary education in particular has become an “inequality machine.” As more ordinary people have earned college degrees, upper middle-class families have simply upped the ante. Postgraduate qualifications are now the key to maintaining upper middle-class status. The upper middle class gains most of its status not by exploiting others but by exploiting its own skills.”

He sees this process as resulting in class stratification. The danger is that it “may blunt market dynamism by reducing the upward flow of talent and leaving human capital underutilized among the less fortunate.”

To read the rest, click here. I hope you enjoy the review, let me know how you like it, this is a book I highly recommend, well written, highly readable and with an important message!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book review, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

A New Class is Born

Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…

Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)

Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?

These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:

IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM

As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.

Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.

Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)

It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.

This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.

The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).

This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.

Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.

In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”

It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.

I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.

 IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA

Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.


To find out more, read the rest on Impakter, click here.

Comments Off on A New Class is Born

Filed under Book review, Economics, politics