[Note: This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis. DLH]
How the middle class hoards wealth and opportunity for itself
American society is dominated by an elite 20% that ruthlessly protects its own interests
By Richard Reeves
Jul 15 2017
When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes threaten my brother and me with electrocution. Well, that’s not quite right. In fact, the threat was of lessons in elocution, but we – wittily, we thought – renamed them.
Growing up in a very ordinary town just north of London and attending a very ordinary high school, one of our several linguistic atrocities was failing to pronounce the “t” in certain words. My mother, who was raised in rural north Wales and left school at 16, did not want us to find doors closed in a class-sensitive society simply because we didn’t speak what is still called “the Queen’s English”. I will never forget the look on her face when I managed to say the word computer with neither a “p” nor a “t”.
Still, the lessons never materialised. Any lingering working-class traces in my own accent were wiped away by three disinfectant years at Oxford University. (My wife claims the adolescent accent resurfaces when I drink, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about – she’s American.) We also had to learn how to waltz. My mother didn’t want us to put a foot wrong there either.
In fact, we did just fine, in no small part because of the stable, loving home in which we were raised. But I have always been acutely sensitive to class distinctions and their role in perpetuating inequality. In fact, one of the reasons I came to the United States was to escape the cramped feeling of living in a nation still so dominated by class. I knew enough not to think I was moving to a socially mobile utopia: I’d read some of the research. It has nonetheless come as something of a shock to discover that, in some important respects, the American class system is functioning more ruthlessly than the British one I escaped.
In the upper-middle-class America I now inhabit, I witness extraordinary efforts by parents to secure an elite future status for their children: tutors, coaches and weekend lessons in everything from French to fencing. But I have never heard any of my peers try to change the way their children speak. Perhaps this is simply because they know they are surrounded by other upper-middle-class kids, so there is nothing to worry about. Perhaps it is a regional thing.
But I think there is a better explanation. Americans tend to think their children will be judged by their accomplishments rather than their accents. Class position is earned, rather than simply expressed. The way to secure a higher status in a market meritocracy is by acquiring lots of “merit” and ensuring that our kids do, too. “What one’s parents are like is entirely a matter of luck,” points out the philosopher Adam Swift. But he adds: “What one’s children are like is not.” Children raised in upper-middle-class families do well in life. As a result, there is a lot of intergenerational “stickiness” at the top of the American income distribution – more, in fact, than at the bottom – with upper-middle-class status passed from one generation to the next.
Drawing class distinctions feels almost un-American. The nation’s self-image is of a classless society, one in which every individual is of equal moral worth, regardless of his or her economic status. This has been how the world sees the United States, too. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century that Americans were “seen to be more equal in fortune and intelligence – more equally strong, in other words – than they were in any other country, or were at any other time in recorded history”. So different to the countries of old Europe, still weighed down by the legacies of feudalism.
British politicians have often felt the need to urge the creation of a “classless” society, looking to America for inspiration as, what historian David Cannadine once called it, “the pioneering and prototypical classless society”. European progressives have long looked enviously at social relations in the New World. George Orwell noted the lack of “servile tradition” in America; the German socialist Werner Sombart noticed that “the bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes’, which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown”.