Dan Popp
Myth of the middle class
By Dan Popp
July 27, 2009

Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures. — Theodore Roosevelt

There is no "middle class" in America. It's not because George W. Bush killed it. There has never been a middle class in America.

There may be countries where a person is born into a socioeconomic class, and forced remain in it until he dies. But not this country — at least, not yet. Economist Thomas Sowell writes in his landmark book, The Vision of the Anointed,

    Studies that follow particular individuals over time have shown that most Americans do not remain in one income bracket for life, or even for as long as a decade. Both the top 20 percent who are often called "the rich" and the bottom 20 percent who are called "the poor" represent a constantly changing set of individuals. A study of income tax returns showed that more than four-fifths of the individuals in the bottom 20 percent of those who filed income tax returns in 1979 were no longer there by 1988. Slightly more had reached the top bracket by 1988 than remained at the bottom. For one thing, individuals were nine years older at the end of nine years, and may well have accumulated experience, skills, seniority, or promotions during that time. Other studies show similar patterns of mobility....

Demagogues often talk about "the rich," "the poor," and "the middle class" as if these were static groups of people. As Sowell points out, they're not. Investor's Business Daily carried an article about a year ago criticizing then-candidate Obama's class warfare rhetoric.

    Take those megarich he vilifies — the top hundredth of a percent. According to a recent Treasury study, three-fourths of them in 1996 fell out of the group by 2005.

    Meanwhile, more than half of those in the bottom income group in 1996 moved to a higher income group by 2005, with more than 5% leapfrogging to the richest quintile.

    (It's no fluke: The same high degree of income mobility is seen in prior comparable periods, as well.)

    Some poor moved up through personal effort, while many rode an expanding economy. Real median incomes of all taxpayers rose 24%, but the poor registered the biggest gains of all.

Failure to see individuals in the statistics can lead to all sorts of false conclusions. A woman studying to be a doctor, with negative personal wealth because of her student loans, is statistically "poor." Within a relatively short time (unless Donkeycare drives her out of the profession) she will be statistically "rich." It's the same person. The only thing that changed was time.

Playwright David Mamet wrote in his Village Voice article, Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,

    Do I speak as a member of the "privileged class"? If you will — but classes in the United States are mobile, not static, which is the Marxist view. That is: Immigrants came and continue to come here penniless and can (and do) become rich; the nerd makes a trillion dollars; the single mother, penniless and ignorant of English, sends her two sons to college (my grandmother). On the other hand, the rich and the children of the rich can go belly-up; the hegemony of the railroads is appropriated by the airlines, that of the networks by the Internet; and the individual may and probably will change status more than once within his lifetime.

Ninety percent of Americans consider themselves "middle class." Clearly this is a state of mind more than a state of existence.

This myth of the middle class paradoxically coexists with another great Liberal myth: that of the "widening gap between the rich and the poor."

Note that this sounds a lot like, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," but it is very different. If we could somehow double everyone's income overnight, we would have doubled the gap between the rich and the poor, even though every poor person would be twice as well off! Clearly this gap should cause neither guilt, nor cries for new social programs.

When someone uses the term, "middle class," I wonder whether he's uninformed, or just using familiar shorthand for "middle-income." It could also be that he's bought the Marxist myth that all of human existence is a class struggle; that the rich are rich purely because they oppress everyone else; and that what we need is someone in Washington who will "fight for the average Joe (and/or Jane)."

If Joe and Jane ever want to be above average, they're using government to fight against themselves.

Click here to discuss this article.

© Dan Popp


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