Tuesday, May 16, 2006

How Safe is the Upper Middle Class?

by Tom Bozzo

Participants in the Ad-Hoc Book Club really should put Dean Baker's The Conservative Nanny State on their reading lists. It's only 100 pages or so, very readable, and free in the sense of being distributed at zero price under a creative commons attribution license.

A theme of Baker's that reappears in TCNS is that the plutocrats that provide the conservative movement with the bulk of its funding are abetted by a much larger group of upper-income professionals who benefit enough from policies that redistribute income upwards to sign on. In variations of the argument, conservative policies are described by Baker as favoring the working well-to-do at the expense of working stiffs.

As a framing device for his story, 'there are no free marketers when your job is being creatively destroyed' is highly effective, particularly as some categories of free-market advocates actually are highly insulated from market competition — either in tenured academic jobs or in think tanks generously funded by rich righties for the purpose of ideology production. Elsewhere, as Pietra Rivoli describes (in other Club reading with which I'm taking a break from the Hugo best novel nominees) the real story of global business is as much one of circumvention of markets as anything.

Otherwise, I think Baker's story works better as an epiphenomenon of conservative policies, almost (but not quite) to the point of being an unintended consequence. Granted, the working well-to-do provide quite a bit of political cover for things like tax policy, though as this graph shows, that's as much a matter of money delusion — some lower and middle-income earners see the low-six-figure incomes (in 2006 dollars) of the working well-to-do who show some (if not the primary) benefit of the tax cuts as being more attainable than they really are — as the number of swingable voters in the group.

Even as the upper middle class sees some benefit from upward redistribution of income as a group, many constitutent elements are not obviously favored. The professoriate's tenure is hardly sacred to conservative policymakers — indeed, as Bérubé notes, tenure is an Official Straw Man in the conservative analysis of the problems with higher ed. The disfavor of certain legal specialties (i.e., those darn trial lawyers; as Baker puts it, some contracts are better than others in the conservative analysis) is long-standing. Physicians are highly paid on average, but if health care corporations figure out some institutional technology to take some granite out of the countertops of the median doctor, is it likely that conservative politicians will stand in the way? And let's not even get statred with consultants and people in financial intermediation jobs — at first, presumably, the former will tell the bosses of the latter that bigger bonuses can be taken home by increased computerization of certain tasks.

To be certain, the privileges of the working well-to-do won't go away overnight. But to assume that corporatism holds our positions sacred in any way is to be unprepared for future rude shocks.

(More to come.)
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