Human Events Blog

The end of the middle class

One of the most irksome qualities of our current political discourse is to phrase everything in terms of how it benefits or harms the “middle class.”  It’s a universal and bipartisan tendency.  Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are equally likely to pitch their policies as a boon to the middle class.

This political classification is almost completely divorced from logical economic analysis.  There is no firm definition of where middle class income begins and ends.  Broadly speaking, it just means “everyone who isn’t filthy rich” or “everyone who knows what it’s like to struggle.”  The struggles of those who have worked hard and taken incredible risks to build successful enterprises don’t count, of course.  That would introduce a fourth dimension of time to a flat, simplistic model of Evil Rich Guys, Deserving Poor, and the Sainted Middle Class between them.

The “middle class” must remain malleable to preserve its political utility.  It’s a politician’s secret code for telling you he really understands your life, while sharing your resentment and envy of everyone who is Not-Middle-Class.  One of the media’s previous attempts to cook up a “gaffe” narrative for Mitt Romney came when he ventured the same broad, and essentially meaningless, definition for the upper boundary of the middle class that Barack Obama uses: individuals who make less than $200,000 per year, or married couples who make less than $250,000.  George Stephanopolous of ABC News omitted the word “less” when relaying these remarks from Romney… leading to a brief, painfully silly frenzy among liberal bloggers convinced that the Republican candidate just said he thinks the middle class extends from $200k to $250k of income.

But even this vague bipartisan pseudo-consensus that $200k or less gets you into the “middle class” is ridiculous.  What does a lawyer pulling down $160,000 a year have in common with a retail-store manager earning $35k in Georgia?  Actually, the notion that even people who make roughly the same amount of money have homogenous interests is rather foolish, but a necessary building block for the one-size-fits-all centralized State.

Controlling the definition of the middle class is an important political game.  That’s one reason Romney’s “47 percent” remarks from a May fundraiser have provoked such political bloodlust among Democrats.  The “middle class,” as currently discussed, must contain at least 60 or 70 percent of the American population, so in the thinking of these Democrats, Romney just called a sizable chunk of the Sainted Middle Class parasites.  The entire middle class can therefore be urged to feel resentment, and vote to re-elect the guy who saddled them with $6 trillion in debt and permanent double-digit unemployment.

But consider this: if the concept of a “middle class” is to have any validity, no matter what vague income boundaries are drawn to contain it, it must include independence.  The middle class is not – cannot be – filled with wards of the State, explicitly dependent upon either government benefits or management for crucial components of their livelihood.  That’s not just a question of taxes paid versus welfare benefits received.  It includes centralized control and regulation as well.

The great project of the Left is the subjugation of the middle class, removing the sense of independence that makes it possible for this uniquely dangerous combination of income levels, investment portfolios, and voting muscle to define the limits of the State.  The middle class must be taught to think of itself as poor, relying upon the State for not only sustenance, but protection from the predatory upper classes, and even the pitfalls of daily life.  It must not view itself as investors and entrepreneurs, whose growing fortunes are tied to the general economic health of the nation.  Its thoughts must be preoccupied with what the government gives and ensures, not with what is taken and forbidden.

That’s why government-run health care has long been the ultimate political prize for the Left.  A truly independent middle class all but vanishes once the State controls a medical system that only the wealthiest people can escape from.  Every attempt to limit the State will then be presented as an attack on the medical system.  If you hate the way Big Government acolytes portray even the most modest spending cuts as ruthless efforts to yank cops and teachers from streets and classrooms, so that greedy rich guys can get another tax cut, just wait until the same people are telling you that efforts to slow the growth of government will compromise your medical care and kill you.

Socialized medicine isn’t the only indicator of middle class decline.  Look at it this way: the Census Bureau says that about 46 million Americans live in “poverty,” but that term is very broadly defined.  Most of those people have decent housing, plenty of food, cable TV, and other amenities generally associated with the middle-class lifestyle.  It’s something of an art form to break the numbers down further and determine how many people are living in conditions that most average Americans would define as “impoverished.”  An extensive analysis of the poor conducted by the Heritage Foundation in 2011, using Census data, suggested that perhaps 20 or 25 percent of the commonly cited 46 million poor people in America suffered serious material deprivation.

But over 47 million of us now receive food stamps, and the number has grown explosively over the past few years.  Median family income is declining, while poverty is on the rise.  Grinding long-term unemployment will only exacerbate these trends, as more people fall completely off the jobs radar screen and become functionally “unemployable.”  The middle class is shrinking, and it has nothing to do with greedy rich people who want tax cuts.

You are not middle class if you cannot vote against the State.  At the point where your vote can essentially be taken for granted, your membership in the “middle class” has been revoked, and those who tell you otherwise are merely flattering your vanity.  How should America prefer to define the aspirations of the “middle class?”  Is it filled with people who barely manage to avoid poverty… or people who aspire to become wealthy?  Are the ranks of the middle class dominated by those who dream of success… or those who must be rescued from failure?

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