New senator Elizabeth Warren was asked by a Boston reporter the other day, “when you mention ‘middle class,’ what numbers are we talking about, in terms of income level?” The next Senate supposed financial-industry wonk first asserted, “It’s not a numbers issue. I know you’d expect a very wonky answer for me, you know, about the percentiles.” While it’s certainly true that class in America (though much less so than in Europe) manifests itself in ways other than income numbers, actually, yes, defining the middle class is mostly a numbers issue, and probably one that involves percentiles.
Warren then goes off on a completely unrelated tangent, saying, “When we strengthen education, when we make it possible for kids to go to college, then we strengthen America’s middle class, and that doesn’t need a dollar figure.” This is a problematic statement: If we offer more subsidies to all Americans of any income level who’d like to attend college, and to the colleges themselves (as Warren would surely like, rather than means-testing college loans and savings programs or spending less on university compensation), then that is actually unlikely to “strengthen America’s middle class” — the benefits will accrue mostly to the upper-income Americans who already win most of the slots to America’s pricey private universities and flagship state schools, and to the upper-middle-class Americans who staff them, ossifying, not eroding, America’s inequality. There are plenty of ways to strengthen America’s education system to help the poor and the middle class — but it involves acknowledging who doesn’t need or deserve help (and they happen to include many of Warren’s key donors and constituents).
If you want to play class warfare, as Warren does, you also need to have the courage to talk about who’s in what class, and how your policies will help or harm them.
Wait a minute. I’ll do it the other way. How about somebody who’s taught school for ten years, and takes off a year to go to graduate school, and has an income of only $4,000 in the year that she’s not teaching? Would you say that she’s fallen out of the middle class? I wouldn’t. It’s a whole lot of characteristics that define the middle class.
Yes, Senator Warren, there are, and plenty of them can be used to bulldoze your less-than-clever statistical cavils: Income smoothed over multiple years, household net worth, one’s education level, or average lifetime earnings from one’s chosen occupation. No one doubts that someone’s low income in one year spent in graduate school doesn’t really change her status in the American economy. The Fox reporter correctly tells her that her answer “sounds a little like a dodge.”
There are legitimate problems with the schizophrenic way in which Americans define the middle class — in recent years, politicians discussing tax matters have typically defined the middle class as Americans making less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year, a number which places such a household in the 97th percentile or so. There are good reasons, perhaps, to have less discussion of “class” when it comes to taxes and other government policy, so perhaps we don’t need to resolve these inconsistencies — that’s, however, no explanation for a politician whose speeches use “middle class” like Homer did “wine-dark sea.”
The problem with Senator Warren is that she is not, contrary to many people’s expectations, honest or wonkish enough to explain that the American “middle class” contains multitudes, admit that the liberal project will involve higher taxes on many of them, or that the logical corollary of class warfare is means-testing that will properly deprive some of the “middle class” of government benefits because they are, in fact, well-off. The new senator who supposedly ran proudly on “the issues” often distorts or doesn’t understand them — maybe she should learn to dodge them.