That's Rich

Ezra complains that $200,000 a year in gross income is not middle class:

[…] the fact that even a family making $200,000 can’t live a lifestyle free from all prudence does not make them middle class. Rather, it’s just a reflection of the extraordinary wealth that’s concentrated into a few hands in this country, and the degree to which inequality has mixed with economic segregation to produce a wildly skewed vision of what constitutes the economic norm. One has to wonder, though, how a media that thinks $200,000 is “middle class” could possibly do a serious job of reporting on a country where the median household income is around $60,000.

But the same basic criticism — that 200K is ‘rich’ — fosters a different line of argument, too, namely, that rich ain’t what it used to be. I’ll begin with the cheeky but effective argument that a gross income of $200,000 is particularly not what it used to be after a run in with the 50% tax bracket. But the main point I’d like to raise is that ‘extraordinary wealth’ as Ezra defines it has become more necessary for increasing, not decreasing, numbers of Americans who want their children to succeed in the nationwide (indeed global) competition for jobs and resources. A family that wants to have four children, have them well-educated, and have them raised by a stay-at-home parent does not have to be imprudent to fail to do this with $200,000 gross — especially if the single breadwinner in the household has just started making that kind of money, and still has a large amount of debt from the many years in which he or she struggled to become successful.

A major culprit here appears, to me, to be our educational system. College and law school are now places where the cost of a premium education is basically pegged to earning power of a student that immediately enlists in the officer class of the corporate corps upon graduation. Not all top-shop schools are sitting on vast endowments, though many are. Yet what will inspire legions of America’s best-socialized to work rotten jobs for great compensation, if not a debt burden that makes that compensation necessary to maintain their social class — to say nothing of remaining solvent?

The United States is trying all but consciously to create a society in which there are no elites who are not ‘rich’, and in which a maximum number of the ‘rich’ carry a maximum amount of debt. One of the best ways to achieve this fugly situation is to push all four of incomes, consumer spending, credit, and taxation into the red zone. I see where Ezra is coming from, and where he suspects we have to begin to break the cycle of perversity that blights the American political economy, but I’m convinced that the only way we can do it is to allow people to amass enough wealth to emancipate themselves from the debt regime that makes us the kept pets of an unsustainable and frivolous financial scheme. And that in turn requires that we not soak ‘the rich’. It also requires that we trust people who keep the money they make not to blow it on disposable luxury goods. The moral weight of what I’m arguing now shifts into view.