Dream Hoarders

by Harry on December 4, 2017

If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Christmas gift for your upper middle class friends, whatever their politics, you could do worse than Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. I have to admit that, despite the fact that my poverty-researcher friends have been recommending Richard Reeves to me for a long while, I read it sooner than I might have otherwise because of this Observer piece, drawn from the book, which discusses one of the arguments in my and Swift’s book Family Values. I’ll be giving it to my recalcitrant (and definitely not liberal) father-in-law, along with The Color of Law.

Reeves isn’t interested in the 1%, but in the 20%. The starting point is Obama’s aborted plan in January 2015 to abolish 529 plans. For those of you who don’t use them, 529s are tax sheltered college funds. The funds grow tax free. They are a complicated enough instrument that (almost) no one outside the top 20% uses them and, like all tax-shelters and deductions, are more valuable the higher your tax rate. Ted Cruz inserted a provision to the Senate bill which expands 529s so that rich people can pay for elite private k-12 schools with tax-exempt savings. A particularly wicked feature is that anyone – grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends, etc – can contribute. So the more relatives with large amounts of disposable income you have, the more your college fund will grow, and the greater the cost to the taxpayer. In 2009 23% of households in the top quartile of the income distribution hold 529s, with an average balance of $32,000; just 2% of households in the bottom quartile had 529s, with an average balance of less than $1k. 529s are estimated to cost the federal government only about 5.8 billion in the next 5 years, but almost all of that will benefit families in the top quartile of the distribution (and those estimates do not account for the possibility that 529s will be useable for private k-12). And its not just that 529s effectively reduce the cost of college for affluent families but not for lower-income families: by increasing the higher education spending power of the affluent they, presumably, raise the price at the more selective end of higher education; thus rendering it less accessible to less affluent families.

Obama’s plan to abolish 529s, and replace them with a stronger and broader version of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for educational spending which is unavailable to families earning over $180k, was defeated not by Republicans, but by Democrats.

Chris Van Hollen called Nancy Pelosi, who was on a long haul flight with the President; by the time it landed, the plan had been abandoned. This wasn’t the 1% talking; it was the 20(ish)%; Let’s hope that they are both feeling like proper charlies right now.

Reeves doesn’t think we should ignore the 1% but that undue focus on the 1% takes the pressure off the rest of the roughly 20% who benefit most from America’s upside-down tax/benefit system. I’m not convinced that 20% is exactly the right number: highly selective education, for example, accounts for maybe 5% of the cohort, not 20% of it. But somewhere between 5% and 20% have their wagons hitched to highly inegalitarian features of the tax/benefit system.

The thesis is just this: that it is not (only) the 1% but the behavior of, and the policies that entrench the advantages of, the non-super-wealthy upper middle class that block social mobility in America. Among the behaviours: Annette Lareau style parenting; advocacy for our own children in public schools (at the expense of other children); fundraising for our children’s athletic teams or orchestras or choirs or schools; lobbying within the rare socio-economically integrated schools some of our kids attend to make sure our own children avoid the bad teachers; and purchasing homes in large lot-zoned neighbourhoods.

Among the policies: 529s; large lot zoning, the Mortgage Income Deduction, unpaid internships, legacy preferences and Z lists in selective colleges and universities (he doesn’t mention athletic preferences and scholarships, nor does he mention giving students credit for APs, which both reduces the price of college and, more significantly at larger, less wealthy, selective institutions gives more affluent students earlier and better access to high demand classes, and thus a better shot at on-time completion, by winning them earlier registration slots). [1][2] .

Most of our readers won’t be surprised by much of this: so, there’s a lot of inequality of opportunity, and the beneficiaries cling to their privileges by whatever means necessary. What did you expect? But Reeves details the phenomenon impressively, and makes a convincing argument that ordinary Americans, who would not self-identify as lefties, should be outraged by many of the features that sustain unequal opportunity, given the ideals they do hold. Hence the suitability as a gift for your not-already-lefty friends and relations.

Reeves offers measures that would improve things. None constitute fundamental reform; he operates entirely within the realm of the current political debate. They include: aggressive promotion of long-acting reversible contraceptives to reduce unwanted childbearing among young women; increased home visiting for young families,;(large) salary premiums to attract teachers and principals to high need schools; tax reform (but not this tax reform) removing give-aways to the rich; ending regressive tax subsidies (like 529s); revamping the student loan system so that repayment levels are income-contingent, and improving vocational education and apprenticeships for people who don’t go to college; prohibiting legacies admissions; ending exclusionary zoning; and requiring internships to be paid and covered by standard labor laws.

Most of these make a lot of sense (abolishing 529s, and ending tax subsidies for the affluent), though, as the 529 episode, and the fact that current tax proposals leave 529s intact, suggest, even these mild measures might be hard to achieve. It’s difficult for me to see how some others, such as ending unpaid internships, would make a big difference; and his comments about improving vocational education and apprenticeships are a bit handwavy – desirable, but hard even to devise policies that will make them happen (Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter? is, in part, a depressing account of how efforts and massive spending of successive UK governments on trying to revive apprenticeships and vocational education persistently failed in the absence of any real interest from business).

The reason it’s a nice passive-aggressive gift even for liberals is that he also tries to make his readers (whom he assumes are almost all in or from the 20%) feel very uneasy about their own behavior. It’s straightforwardly wrong for Harvard to prefer fencers to non-fencers (I’m not referring to people who build and mend fences); it’s wrong for selective liberal arts institutions to place so much emphasis on extra-curriculars, internships, etc, in admissions; and its wrong for the Federal government to support 529s.[3] But people who take advantage of these benefits are, by their actions, contributing, each in a small way, to social closure.

One disappointment is that he doesn’t give more guidance about exactly what to do individually, given with the unease that they ought to feel.[4] Should they not contribute to 529s? Not help their children with their homework? Not give their children piano lessons? Reeves quotes me and Swift to the effect that parents should not aim to give their children a competitive advantage relative to others and thinks we go too far. But he also quotes Charles Murray, with whose Coming Apart Reeves’s book has some parallels, as saying that “I am not suggesting that [upper-middle class families] should sacrifice their self interest” to which he responds “I am suggesting that we should, just a little”. But how, exactly, he doesn’t say.

One obvious way is that we should vote for and support policies, like abolishing 529s, that hurt us financially; and, when candidates that we otherwise feel bound to support make regressive proposals like making public college free lobbying for them to change their platforms. Another is by not complaining when, for example, a Mayor plans to build high density housing in upper-middle class cities and neighborhoods – and chiding our friends and neighbors when they do so. If your kids are going to be involved in fundraising, have them do it for worthy causes, rather than to pay for team uniforms or worse.[5] Holly Lawford-Smith argues in a paper called Off-Setting Class Privilege (open access pdf) that non-culpable beneficiaries of class privilege have (individual) moral obligations to offset that privilege. Most of the ‘offsets’ she mentions do not seem very costly to me; but one that clearly sometimes imposes costs on ones kids is the obligation to send them to a state school. In the US where, if you are affluent, it is easy to fulfill this requirement in a way that does not impose a cost on your kid, by moving to an affluent school district (or an affluent neighbourhood within a more modest district), this seems too undemanding. I’d have liked Reeves to try and make people feel guilty for sending their kids to private colleges. I’m not sure that it is wrong to send your kid to a private college, but I wanted him not just to make readers feel vaguely uneasy, but actively to guilt-trip them.[6]

Anyway, it’s an easy, fun (well, depressing, but fun) read; highly recommended!

[1] D1 Athletes, at least, tend to get even earlier registration slots, enabling them to arrange their academic schedules around fixed practice times; they also get free tutoring, special advising, and services like free printing; despite being more affluent than other students in their institution, on average. The academic benefit has to be weighed against the considerable academic cost of being an athlete.

[2] Many institutions, like mine, offset this effect (which benefits more affluent students, athletes being more affluent on average than the student body as a whole in any given institution) for some less affluent students, by giving students in opportunity programs early registration slots. But this by no means includes even all Pell-grant eligible students.

[3] I have mixed feelings about legacy preferences, rather to my surprise.

[4] We don’t provide guidance in our book either, so I am being much more unfair than any other reviewer making the same point would be.

[5] Most of my schooling was in working class or lower middle class schools; about 4 years in a fairly affluent school. At least once a year I was expected to be involved in some fundraising activity; always for either children with cognitive or physical disabilities, or children in the developing world. It would never have occurred to me, or any of my teachers, that it would be ok to fundraise for ourselves.

[6] Full disclosure; So far I’ve had one college kid, who’s attended public university, but was a [walk-on, so not recruited] D1 athlete who, unlike most athletes, actually did derive considerable academic benefit from the unfair registration advantage, because she rarely had to travel and was academically engaged.(Unlike many athletes, though, she derived no academic benefit from the unfair advising advantage, because she got unfair advising advantage instead from having a parent who is in, and studies, the business).

{ 192 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Ben 12.04.17 at 2:36 am

This is a great, don’t know if I’d come across this book otherwise and the Lawford-Smith paper looks interesting

One question

regressive proposals like making public college free

. . . buh? How is making public college free regressive?

2

Ben 12.04.17 at 2:39 am

I’m hopeful that unclosed tags help fight the class war too

3

some lurker 12.04.17 at 3:06 am

The 20% might stem from Dan Ariely’s paper of a few years back.

http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/norton%20ariely%20in%20press.pdf

It discusses the share of wealth held by each quintile…perhaps that’s a common framework.

4

Anarcissie 12.04.17 at 4:20 am

How is making public college free regressive?
There used to be more free public college than there is now. Regressive means ‘walking back’. In that sense, more free public college is regressive. We don’t know what ‘progressive’ means until we know which way one is progressing.

5

John Quiggin 12.04.17 at 6:16 am

I had a go at the “1 per cent” and “19 per cent” a while ago, and would strengthen my conclusions now. No group below the top 1 per cent has done better since the 1970s than they would have done if postwar growth rates had continued and been distributed evenly.

http://crookedtimber.org/2011/10/14/percentiles/

The points being raised by Reeves can be (and are) replicated to apply to people well below the top 20 per cent, such as beneficiaries of occupational licensing (on which more soon, I hope). It’s certainly true that there are rent seeking angles available to the 99 per cent, that people take advantage of the opportunities on offer to them, and that it would be good to do away with many of these angles, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the 1 per cent who have been the only consistent winners.

6

Sebastian H 12.04.17 at 6:28 am

“ Another is by not complaining when, for example, a Mayor plans to build high density housing in upper-middle class cities and neighborhoods – and chiding our friends and neighbors when they do so.”

Yes. The most progressive thing most people are likely to be able to do in their current lives is support high density housing in areas near them. If you claim to be progressive but always find a reason to oppose nearby large housing construction you are deceiving yourself. That even goes for people who claim to oppose the projects because they (never) have (enough) ‘affordable’ housing. (I’m looking at you Seattle, Berkley, and San Francisco).

7

bad Jim 12.04.17 at 7:39 am

I took two quarters of épeé at Berkeley, and did well because I was quick and very aggressive. I’m generally inclined to think that the economics courses I took around that time, offered to “mathematically sophisticated non-majors” had more influence on my subsequent career, but it’s hard to be sure.

8

JD 12.04.17 at 8:07 am

The tax-advantaged status of 529 Plans, like the tax-advantaged status of 401K’s make them much more valuable savings vehicles for the affluent.

It does not necessarily follow that we should (in the interest of equity) abolish them.

It is broadly agreed that (collectively) we should save more for retirement and invest more in the higher education of our youth. We can do that through higher payroll taxes (to pay for more generous Social Security benefits), through more generous funding of public Universities and through more generous student-aid programs (Pell Grants, etc.).

But we can (and, I would argue, should) encourage individual savings towards those goals. The lost tax revenue, due to the tax-advantaged status of 401Ks, is still small compared to what it would have cost to support those retirees through a national pension scheme (were that even politically possible).

Similarly, while greater public investment in higher education is highly desirable, it’s hard to see how net investment in higher education could possibly come out ahead if you tried to fund it by abolishing 529s.

By contrast, eliminating the Mortgage Interest Deduction, which advantages the top 20%, while achieving no worthwhile social policy goals, is a slam-dunk. And it will net the treasury more money, too. Go for it!

9

TM 12.04.17 at 8:41 am

“that it is not (only) the 1% but the behavior of … the non-super-wealthy upper middle class that block social mobility in America.”

I understand he is referring to economic behavior, not voting, but fact is that the US plutocratic system couldn’t survive without the political and electoral support of a large part of the middle and lower classes, including the so-called “White working class”. As JQ points out, the only real winners are the plutocratic elite at the very top yet enough Americans of all classes consistently vote for policies that benefit people richer than themselves. That has always been the weakness of focusing on the 1%.

10

Z 12.04.17 at 10:54 am

But somewhere between 5% and 20% have their wagons hitched to highly inegalitarian features of the tax/benefit system. The thesis is just this: that it is not (only) the 1% but the behavior of, and the policies that entrench the advantages of, the non-super-wealthy upper middle class that block social mobility in America.

Yes, yes, yes! Now, instead of endlessly rehashing this, I will be able to quote this post (or preferably the book). The “hitched wagons” metaphor is particularly important, because it is important to understand why part of John Quiggin’s does not in fact apply: those in the top 20% might very well not have made any gain, it is nevertheless true that their social status and especially their relative social status compared to the deciles below them depends highly on the 1% (or even the 0,1%): think a qualified accountant or junior analyst at a financial institution, or an assistant professor at an American private university whose costs is covered disproportionately by full-tuition students coming from very wealthy families.

John Quiggin @5 The points being raised by Reeves can be (and are) replicated to apply to people well below the top 20 per cent […] but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the 1 per cent who have been the only consistent winners.

Wait a minute, here. There is a narrow comparison one can make – for instance income and wealth a certain percentile actually has compared to the amount it would have if the distribution of wealth had kept the shape it had in the 70s – on the basis of which we may conclude that the 1% have been the only consistent winners. That is an important insight, but that is far from the whole story.

To begin with, even from a strictly economical point of view and even comparing the real society with an hypothetical one, there has been a geographical polarization, so that the top 5%/10% at large might have stagnated, but that might be because the top 5%/10% in the Appalachian region and the Rust Belt has disappeared while the top 5%/10% in Seattle and the Bay Area has thrived.

Secondly, people do not typically compare themselves with their hypothetical selves in an alternate history (maybe they should, but they typically don’t), they compare themselves with their contemporary. So even if the top 2%/20% in Seattle have economically stagnated just as much as the top 2%/20% in the suburbs of Cleveland or the middle 50% in Georgia or even the lowest 20% in the suburbs of Seattle, they might feel (and for good reasons) that they are doing much better and should do everything they can to maintain a hierarchical advantage.

Finally, and in my mind most significantly causally, economical inequalities are just part of the story, educative inequalities are at least as important. My household is just about in the top 30% in terms of income and wealth nationally, yet I consider myself significantly higher in the social hierarchy (and in particular well within the category targeted by Reeves) because our qualifications allow both my wife and I to easily increase our income if we ever need or want to and, more importantly, the educational advantages we can bring to our children give them a considerable advantage in the pursuit of the certifications they will require to enter the highly qualified workforce. That’s why the 529 sort is so perfect by the way.

The group targeted by Reeves is best characterized by being on top with respect to all three dimensions: affluent, highly-qualified professionals with higher education degrees in dynamic metro areas. These people (precisely me) currently benefit from the highly inegalitarian society we live in and will lose in relative if not absolute terms if it ever becomes more egalitarian. I say we do it anyway, but we should not kid ourselves.

11

ccc 12.04.17 at 11:14 am

Mike Konczal on Reeves: “Well-off “helicopter” parents are super annoying, but they didn’t create economic inequality. A new analysis takes the focus off the top 1 percent and ignores deeper structural problems.”
https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/8/30/16224112/reeves-hoarders-dream-economic-inequality-book-review

Shorter Matt Bruenig on Reeves re social mobility
http://mattbruenig.com/2017/04/24/take-other-kids-to-work-day-highlights-the-absurdity-of-social-mobility/

12

ccc 12.04.17 at 11:20 am

(continued) The end of Bruenig’s text gets to the core: “What this means is that the primary focus of those interested in a fair economy should not be chasing some social mobility pipe dream. Rather, it should be on cramming down the income and wealth differences between the classes.”

13

Chris Bertram 12.04.17 at 11:26 am

I’ve not read this book, but Lynsey Hanley in her recentish Respectable (highly highly recommended) has interesting things to say about the dynamic between (something like) the 20% and the rest of society. Roughly, iirc, that such people are possessed of an irrational anxiety about them and their kids falling into the abyss and that this leads them to underplay their own class privilege (after all, they aren’t the 1%) and to misperceive themselves as “ordinary people”.

14

Layman 12.04.17 at 12:25 pm

Most Americans below the top 20% could not accurately tell you what they paid in Federal income taxes. They know whether they got a refund or had to write a check last year, and it’s possible they know roughly how much the refund or check was. Thus any argument for regressive tax policies always finds an audience; they simply have no basis on which to determine if the policy treats them fairly with respect to the wealthy, or not. People who can save virtually nothing in a 401k – certainly never enough to retire on – will fight to keep them.

15

bob mcmanus 12.04.17 at 12:42 pm

AMZ Review of Dumenil & Levy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism 2013

The basic story goes like this: following the Great Depression of 1930 a strong social political alliance emerged between the management class and “popular classes” (this popular class includes blue and white collar workers, including quasi-management, clerical, and professional, which cannot be reduced to the traditional “working-class”). In the 1970s there was a severe profitability crisis, the legislative and institutional response to this crisis caused a fracture between management and popular classes, and a re-alliance between management and capitalist classes (which includes ownership and financial classes).

There is according to some, a useful division into four “classes”: roughly owners, salary class, wage class, and poor. The salary class will attempt to justify their advantages with sympathy and help for the poor (marginals, minorities, lumpen), and gain a working majority, at the expense of the wage class. Also see: petite bourgeoisie, Bosworth and Reich on their role in fascism, and Chris Hedges and Thomas Frank on liberal professionals.

16

TM 12.04.17 at 1:00 pm

Thanks for the refs ccc. Here’s another one: https://newrepublic.com/article/144182/wrong-way-fight-inequality

These reviews have convinced me that the book is apolitical and moralizing and its focus on the privilege of well-off professionals all too easily distracts from the class warfare waged by the plutocracy (*). Now that the US has a government by the plutocracy and for the plutocracy, moral appeals to the upper middle class are a bizarre substitute for political change.

(*) This clearly played a role in the election campaign, when Clinton, who wasn’t born into privilege at all, became the poster child of the “elite” while the billionaire candidate who was born a plutocrat, who literally uses gilded toilet appliances, and who is now close to his goal of looting the US treasury of trillions of dollars, could get away with posing as a populist.

17

bianca steele 12.04.17 at 1:12 pm

The idea that kids not graduating on time, because the university doesn’t offer required classes large enough or frequent enough to ensure they do, has become normal and expected in the last thirty years, is shocking to me.

18

M Caswell 12.04.17 at 1:50 pm

“she got unfair advising advantage instead from having a parent who is in, and studies, the business”

Do you really think this was unfair? I don’t get what notion of fairness is at work in this judgment, unless it’s ‘any enjoyment of a good not available to everyone is unfair.’ But that seems a wildly implausible conception of fairness to me.

19

bob mcmanus 12.04.17 at 4:04 pm

from the class warfare waged by the plutocracy

The plutocracy, as the 0.01%, cannot and does not wage class warfare at all, or by itself. They always, and only, like Frick can hire part of the lower three classes to repress another part. I don’t know if it is really useful to differentiate a “left” and “right” plutocracy, but under the billionaires it is essential and sufficient to analyze the shifting coalitions and organizations which usually will have “progressive” and “reactionary” factions vying for ascendancy.

Clinton and Trump each had supporters in the lower three classes. The lowest class, besides the desperate and dependent poor, also has bohemian, criminal and underachieving intellectual components analyzed among others by Robert Darnton for pre-revolutionary France and Koschorke (Dublin Review “Literarily Hitler”) recently for 1920s Germany.

Two current players would be Breitbart on the right and Jacobin on the Left. Others would be confronters (BLM) and organizers (Non-profits, churches) in Afro-American or Latino communities. How are they financed, who manages them, what is their audience. Always analyze from bottom up as much as possible.

20

bob mcmanus 12.04.17 at 4:21 pm

The rule of thumb is that under capitalist domination, like almost always, both the right and left factions of the salaried class will attempt to use the ever growing numbers of the impoverished class as a weapon against the wage class, the only other autonomous and self-organizing class besides capital, shrinking and disorganizing that wage class and driving them down into the dependency class. The common weapons of both factions will be cross-class identity rhetoric, including technocracy and meritocracy.

21

novakant 12.04.17 at 5:09 pm

I have to agree with Ben @1:

What on earth is ‘regressive’ about making college education free?

It should be free and it can be free, cf. eg Germany etc.

And if you really want social social mobility, you need to abolish private education altogether, or at least greatly reduce its societal impact so that the country’s elite is educated by the state, e.g. France.

It’s strange that this should even be controversial on CT.

22

Chris "merian" W. 12.04.17 at 5:14 pm

“But Reeves details the phenomenon impressively, and makes a convincing argument that ordinary Americans, who would not self-identify as lefties, should be outraged by many of the features that sustain unequal opportunity, given the ideals they do hold.”

Or maybe it could lower the barrier to actually self-identify as lefties. I came from a conservative family, too, and at least in the story I tell (about) myself it’s this type of argument that pulled me over to the left.

I’m hearing similar overtones to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s points about desegregation of (K-12, US) schools that’s not going to happen as long as white (and in nearly all her examples, middle class to upper middle class) parents keep voting and advocating strictly tied to a maximization of their own advantage, even in the face of policies blatantly constructed to prevent mixing of children between neighborhoods. (She, of course, is a journalist, not an academic researcher.) And I agree. Doing what’s right over pursuing one’s self-interest (individually or as a perceived class) should be an ethical norm on the left.

23

Chris "merian" W. 12.04.17 at 5:27 pm

M Caswell, #1: “Do you really think this was unfair? I don’t get what notion of fairness is at work in this judgment, unless it’s ‘any enjoyment of a good not available to everyone is unfair.’ But that seems a wildly implausible conception of fairness to me.”

It sounds like a perfectly fine conception of fairness to me. Your objection is a fine illustration that completely eliminating unfairness by policy is an unrealistic goal. A musician’s child will grow up with a much better chance to become successful in this field, an academic’s child will absorb valuable lessons about the habitus of a working scientist over the dinner table, and the kid of a craftsman or subsistence hunter might learn skills at home that are hard to learn for anyone growing up with two office-job parents in a peri-urban apartment.

Most advantages are at least partially unfair, even the ones that just arise from living in a community (ie, even if Henry’s kid had fewer/no material advantages about their peers, the parents/family would still be around – and can’t easily be given up; there’s a psychological value to intimacy and privacy and growing up in a loving family structure). What we can do with policy is to spread more advantages where fewer (and particularly, few of the type of advantage that has high value in the wider society) exist. I’d also agree with an ethos that favors giving up advantages, and when the argument arises that it would be too disruptive, to take a hard look.

24

L2P 12.04.17 at 5:31 pm

This is a fantastic book for figuring out more equitable policies for 1963. For 2017, though? This is a bunch of pointless analysis.

Let’s just look at college opportunities. Right now, UCLA, Virginia and Berkeley let in as many Freshman as basically every other “Elite” university combined. Go ahead, quibble with the math if you want. Maybe it’s a thousand less? Maybe two? But we’re in the ballpark.

Those three public universities ALREADY do basically what this book prescribes. The UCs in particular focus largely on grades and test scores. You can quibble about how “scores oriented” they are, but again you know we’re in the ballpark. Unless you want to talk about letting in 5 fencers in a class of 9,000, or the small percentage let in on “other qualities” (and largely are focused on letting lower SES kids in?) Maybe you do, but I’m going to bet no.

And that’s had zero affect on inequality, largely because the college education itself has almost zero effect on inequality. Hoarding the gate to $100,000/year jobs just doesn’t matter. That’s a rounding error in the great flood of money to the top .1 percent. It’s like giving a guy some bactine after both his legs are cut off. Better than nothing, I guess, but not really getting at the problem.

I also don’t see the point of trying to get the top 20% to see themselves as allied to the top .1%…

25

engels 12.04.17 at 7:47 pm

Reeves doesn’t think we should ignore the 1% but that undue focus on the 1% takes the pressure off the rest of the roughly 20% who benefit most from America’s upside-down tax/benefit system.

Also worth bearing in mind: the American 20% are well within the 1% globally

26

ccc 12.04.17 at 7:57 pm

re: M Caswell #18 and Chris #23:
Yes unfair, since the undeservedly advantaged individual is more likely to get a higher position in the social hierarchy. It may be impossible and undesirable to *directly* remove all such unfair advantage, since too family invasive. But the unfairness can be *indirectly* compensated by policy (tax and transfer, public health care, curb high CEO payments, …) that counter the unequal *outcomes* in money, health, longevity and more that currently flow from the hierarchy of social positions.

27

Trader Joe 12.04.17 at 8:06 pm

While its true that the 529 is a nice tax advantage enjoyed by those wealthy enough to fund them – I think there’s a better way to look at how that figures into overall college costs and who pays them.

Quite often the sort of family that funds their childrens education using 529s is not getting any grants or loans or other benefits from the college – they pay 100% of the full rack rate published by the university. If, say, this is $30,000 per year x 4 (obviously there are a range of costs) they pay a full $120,000. Say by chance they were really good investors and funded as much as half of the 120,000 on investment gains – there is maximum maybe a $24,000 benefit to the family on the full cost of the education (60k gains at 40% effective tax rate). Most people will not experience anywhere near that high a gain rate.

By contrast – most colleges gleefully advertise that a high proportion of their students get outright grants, discounted loans and other benefits which quite likely add up to at least that figure over the course of 4 years.

I’m not interested in denying anyone any education they can achieve and complete – but lets not act like its only the 20% gaming they system – they have their game in the 529s, but there are plenty of others to go around.

28

Chris Stephens 12.04.17 at 9:07 pm

Re: why making college education free might be regressive: why shouldn’t the wealthy pay more for college? Wouldn’t it be more progressive to have the cost burden to shifted to the wealthy? It should be free for the poor, of course – that’s progressive.

29

Plarry 12.04.17 at 9:30 pm

I’m with JD@8: I don’t get the point of this OP. The Obama proposal to abolish 529’s was insane. You can’t go around campaigning on all you’ve done to make higher education more accessible (e.g., increased Pell grants, student loan reform, student aid), and then at the same time abolish a popular program that’s accomplishing a social good in line with your political values and costing a relatively small amount of money because only the affluent are using it. That’s a sure way to alienate the affluent part of your base (Politics 101). If it’s too complicated for the 80% to use, then simplify it, and the 20% will buy into that.

30

Omega Centauri 12.04.17 at 9:45 pm

I happen to find this sort of argumnetation, often heard from the left as moralizing and demeaning. I could do my usual thing, and just skulk off into a corner and keep quiet, but I think that does a dis-service to the left. Its not that there isn’t ant merit in the argument, its how its attitude will in many cases create a counterproductive reaction in the target audience. In short it’s moderately successful people (1:20) percenters, being told they don’t deserve what they got, because they had some class-advantages. This particularly grates on white males. So we end up with the phenomena that many people have developed a huge amount of disdain for liberals, and of the liberal project.

I think it also comes close to making an argument that the world particularly the socio-economic world is a zero-sum game, so that providing any help to someone with better than average prospects already does more harm than good, as it disadvantages those who didn’t get that advantage. At least when/where I grew up, the development of deep expertise among some
fraction of the public was considered to strongly contribute towards the improvement of mankind. Now, I guess that viewpoint has become unfashionable. In any case having parents who were college educated, and strongly pro-education, as well as having just enough knowhow to for instance get their kids reading before the age when the public schools started that task. And they new enough math so the kids could get a big legup there too. And of course I did the same thing for my kids. So in our families, everyone ended up somewhere in the STEM or medical fields, and easily within the top 20 percent. But, the primary message we get from portions of the left, is that this was profoundly unfair/immoral, because we unfairly took places in the hierarchy that displaced others of mostly lower SES. But, in our way of seeing things, the extra help we recieved -or gave our kids, increased the net societal expertise in these areas.

In any case, my plea, is that we have to be very careful in how we are percieved. Far too many in America have come to a strongly anti-liberal attitude. So strong in fact that they would vote for a known child-molester over a liberal. We have a lot or perceptual ground to make up.

31

M Caswell 12.04.17 at 11:27 pm

‘What we can do with policy is to spread more advantages where fewer exist’

I’m all for that. But giving your kid advice on where to apply and enroll doesn’t prevent anyone else from getting that advice, as well. We should make quality college advising widely available. But it seems perverse to say that until it is universal, any such advice is unfair. If the possession of a less-than-universal good is always unfair, how could we even get started expanding access to such goods?

I think the commitment to social mobility and the human-capitalization of every good thing in life (neither of which I think are particularly ‘left’) is working the mischief here.

32

engels 12.05.17 at 12:20 am

Wouldn’t it be more progressive to have the cost burden to shifted to the wealthy?

If you mean ‘it’s available to everyone and the wealthy pay’ then yes, and the way to do that is taxation. If you mean ‘it’s available to the wealthy, who pay for it’ then no, that’s regressive, if you believe HE confers some net average benefit.

33

Dr. Hilarius 12.05.17 at 12:25 am

Omega Centauri has voiced my response. People vote in their self interest (or at least for perceived self interest). Shaming people for having some measure of material success, particularly when they feel that success to be unstable and under threat, is not a winning electoral strategy.

34

Faustusnotes 12.05.17 at 12:41 am

But omega Centauri, this world is zero sum. If the best jobs go to kids who did internships then those kids who can’t afford to live alone and work unpaid don’t get the job. There are only so many places in top state schools, and if rich kids get them because their parents can buy into the area then poor kids miss out. Sure the real solution would be an infinite number of places but with the plutocracy behaving as it is that’s impossible. Also if the top 20% learn they’re being unfair, and realise the only way to be fairer is to change the system, then we may see real change – at least electorally.

I made this point in a previous thread but got sneered at for suggesting the bottom 20% might see professors – in the top 20% – as their class enemy. Insert the same discomfort manifesting again here.

35

Z 12.05.17 at 12:52 am

Omega Centauri @30 But, the primary message we get from portions of the left, is that this was profoundly unfair/immoral, because we unfairly took places in the hierarchy that displaced others of mostly lower SES. But, in our way of seeing things, the extra help we recieved -or gave our kids, increased the net societal expertise in these areas.

I’m not going to dispute your assertion that this is the message you are getting, you know better. But let me suggest an alternate message.

The dispositions you got from your parents and that you passed on to your kids gave you and them objective qualifications that justify (at least on utilitarian grounds) you and them being higher in the specific hierarchy associated with these qualifications; meaning in plain language, you enjoyed discussing science with your kids, they developed an interest in it and learned a lot from you, that helped them became talented scientists. So far so good, that is the contrast you made in your comment that I highlighted and not many people would dispute that all this improved the social good, I think. But note this important fact: in the actual context of our current society, you and them being very high in this specific hierarchy of scientists (say) probably translated as you being very high with respect to many other hierarchies, starting with economical ones. That is neither obviously an improvement of the total social good nor an obviously justified implication.

You were more apt at learning medicine than your neighbor, it is better that you became a doctor and that he became a fast-food worker than the converse, granted, but that doesn’t mean that you should earn 20 times as much as money as he does. So if indeed you earn 20 times his wages, and if your wages have steadily risen above the growth rate of the general economy while his have stagnated or even gone downward, then there is probably something people placed high in many hierarchies like you are doing to people placed below that is unfair, or at least hardly justifiable solely on the basis of your superior qualifications. Again, that something is not the fact that you reached a high point in the specific hierarchy you were specifically qualified for, so if indeed you are criticized along this line I think it is an unfair criticism, but something is probably happening nonetheless. And if you notice that people below hate people like you so much they are prepared to vote for an incoherent, racist, con man if they notice that upsets you, then it seems to me that they too suspect that something is happening (I’m not necessarily thinking about Trump here, rather about someone like Marine Le Pen).

You can sleep soundly if you became a successful engineer because you were good at engineering and highly motivated to work in engineering, but I believe it is your moral duty to examine what this something might be nevertheless (and mine, as the last three generations of my family exactly ressemble yours).

36

engels 12.05.17 at 1:01 am

in short it’s moderately successful people (1:20) percenters, being told they don’t deserve what they got

They are moderately successful but they are, by global standards, exceptionally well-paid (making more than $90K / yr if this is accurate) so no, they don’t

37

engels 12.05.17 at 1:01 am

38

engels 12.05.17 at 2:11 am

People vote in their self interest

Population of earth: 7.6 billion
20%*population of US: 66 million

You’re outvoted.

39

ph 12.05.17 at 2:42 am

Perhaps too little is actually ‘done’ during the six years students spend in junior and senior high school. The bias favoring high incomes and higher education is understandable, if climbing the career ladder and maximizing social mobility are the principal (only?) goals in life. The world is not zero sum. Wealth does not guarantee happiness, while poverty makes happiness more difficult.

Many people around the globe live happy, contented lives without ever attending a western-style university. Perhaps people in first-world economies should be afforded the same opportunity without any significant loss of status.

40

Omega Centauri 12.05.17 at 2:56 am

Sure in the short term admissions to a given school are capped, so at least in terms of credentials its a zero sum game. But ultimately the value of those credentials is determined by what those students actually can accomplish in the real world (to the extent that employers are trying to maximize the value of their enterprises). What I’m saying, is that getting the best training, which starts in infancy btw, increases the capability of the global human enterprise. If everything was a zero-sum game, and the development of knowledge didn’t matter, how did world GDP per person increase by a couple orders of magnitude over the last few centuries?
So the goal for making things more fair, should be to spread these advantages down the SES ladder. Not to blame those who took advantage of the opportunities provided to them.

41

TM 12.05.17 at 7:26 am

Engels: try this http://www.worldwealthcalculator.org
Middle class Americans are in the global 2%. Try asking them to stand back for the 98%.

42

PGD 12.05.17 at 10:29 am

Yes, let’s go to the American middle class and tell them we won’t be satisfied until their wages are equalized with a typical worker in China or India, because inequality is bad. Talk about a moralistic, hair shirt politics! They’d be absolutely right to reject you.

The truth is that reform of the economic systems that benefits the top one-tenth of one percent, or one percent, can produce gains for both average people in China and India and average people here. (And the top 20% are average people or close to it — over 60% of the U.S. population will have a household income over $100K at some period during their peak earnings years). People who try to sell you on screwing the American middle class as a necessity for being morally virtuous are not selling good politics in any way, shape, or form.

43

TM 12.05.17 at 10:37 am

And re 38, engels: you too are outvoted. All of us lucky enough to have been born into affluent countries, a forteriori with the right skin color and gender, are globally part of a tiny privileged elite. What political consequences are you gonna draw from that insight?

What bothers me about the argument of the Reeves book is its focus on educated people as somehow the bad guys. There is no question that the college saving tax benefit is regressive but so is, by definition, *any* tax benefit (and there is an easy remedy: raise the tax rates and redistribute the proceeds). It is inexplicable for me why the 529 system, among all the injustices in that tax system, merits so much special attention, as opposed to say tax breaks for the company helicopter.

Let’s be clear that most educated people aren’t wealthy but people with education are over-represented among the wealthy, unsurprisingly in a system in which access to education is a class marker. The line of argument that blames the educated, academics and professionals is easy to exploit by the plutocratic fascists who thrive on anti-intellectual, anti-academic resentment.

44

Fake Dave 12.05.17 at 10:57 am

I find myself wondering how many here commenters belong to the 20%. The linked article (and apparently the whole book) was certainly written as if that was the only audience. I may get to the top quintile someday (my parents are right around the lower edge), but the only 20%ers my age (late twenties) are the extraordinarily privileged, talented, or lucky.

It’s strange that no one has mentioned how age plays into these class rankings. I’m obviously not “lower class” just because I’m a broke Millennial — people understand that it takes time start a career and build up assets and I think people do tend to overstate how static the class boundaries really are. How many of the 1% and 20% are nearing the end of their working lives or already retired? How many of them are young people just thinking about starting families?

Part of the reason it seems like everyone thinks they’re “middle class” is because, even if you make half a million a year, there was likely a time when you were a renter counting the days til payday and hoping your car didn’t break down first. Those experiences are not all equal though. Many struggling young people (myself included) have more prosperous relatives they can lean on for support when times get tough or the runs out. Others… just keep struggling. I was privileged enough to spend the better part of a decade as a full-time student and do unpaid and “paid” internships that will likely pay dividends down the line because I could count on my family for support. I was able to climb a couple rungs of the social ladder that I would never have made it up if I didn’t have people who could catch me when I lost my grip. I called that support. Another word is patronage.

I think this also helps explain the relationship between the 1% and the 20%. If you’re in the lower four fifths of the socioeconomic spectrum, you don’t meet a lot of rich people, unless maybe you watch their kids or clean their pool, but the plutocrats and aristocrats obviously have to have families, friends, and colleagues. Those fellow travelers can’t all be other old financiers and “society” people and the children of the 1% can’t all grow up to be uber-rich either. There’s not enough money to go around. So that’s where the 20% comes in (or especially the 5%). They’re the teachers at the elite schools, the junior partners at the elite firms, the small donors at the fundraisers, the money men, middle men, and middle managers. Many of them come from money, others expect to get their some day. Most are comfortable enough not to complain too loudly and well-trained enough not to ask how much the truly rich make or envy them when they learn the answer.

45

Layman 12.05.17 at 11:37 am

Plarry: “…abolish a popular program that’s accomplishing a social good in line with your political values and costing a relatively small amount of money because only the affluent are using it. “

I’m afraid I don’t get this objection at all. It isn’t that only the affluent are using it, it is that, as a practical matter, only the affluent _can_ use it. It is a government program directed at the affluent. It’s no different than cutting the top marginal tax rate, or maintaining a lower rate for capital gains, or increasing the exemption for estate taxes. Why not a tax incentive for keeping an in-home nanny/governess? Sure, only the affluent can take advantage of it, but it would be accomplishing a social good of better child care, health and education!

46

Layman 12.05.17 at 11:42 am

Chris Stephens: “Re: why making college education free might be regressive: why shouldn’t the wealthy pay more for college? Wouldn’t it be more progressive to have the cost burden to shifted to the wealthy? It should be free for the poor, of course – that’s progressive.”

If college education is free, the wealthy _do_ pay. They pay for everyone. I’ve seen estimates that free college for everyone would cost something on the order of $80 billion. Tweak the top marginal tax rate and the capital gains rate enough to fund college for everyone. How would that be regressive?

47

ccc 12.05.17 at 12:02 pm

M Caswell #31: “If the possession of a less-than-universal good is always unfair, how could we even get started expanding access to such goods?”

My #26 answers that preemptively. Distinguish between direct and indirect action in response to an unfairness.

48

ccc 12.05.17 at 12:11 pm

Omega Centauri #40: “So the goal for making things more fair, should be to spread these advantages down the SES ladder. Not to blame those who took advantage of the opportunities provided to them.”

You make the same mistake as M Caswell above. The fact that something is unfair doesn’t entail that blame must be expressed in response. The fitting response in this case is instead to, as you write, strive to spread the advantages down the ladder and, as you don’t write, at counter the flow of unequal outcomes that currently flow from the hierarchy of social positions, at least until the advantages are evenly spread.

Shorter: the persistent fact of unequal opportunities is a reason to enact policy for more equal outcomes.

49

engels 12.05.17 at 12:47 pm

All of us lucky enough to have been born into affluent countries, a forteriori with the right skin color and gender, are globally part of a tiny privileged elite.

Nah. Lots of ppl in advanced industrial countries aren’t particularly well-off, regardless of race and gender (look at property-ownership, life expectancy or self-reported happiness…) If you’re making $100K/yr you are though.

50

Marc 12.05.17 at 1:17 pm

There is a productive way to make this argument and a deeply unproductive way.
Asking people to advocate for more school funding – so that the band has uniforms – is positive. Asking people not to participate, en masse, simply ensures that there are no local extracurricular activities. Or their local kids (as a group) don’t get to go on a field trip. More simply, asking people to provide more for other groups is far more likely to succeed than telling them not to try and do what they think is right for their own kids.

You can get a lot of support for progressive taxation coupled with solid social benefits.
If you set them up in ways that are perceived as “unfair”, on the other hand, you get absolutely nowhere.

This is why I disagree in the strongest possible terms with Harry on free college tuition – of course it benefits students who are richer than average. But it also provides an avenue for social mobility for some poor students – and you can pay for it with progressive taxation that is *taken* from families who are richer than average. The “we know better” system of charging high tuition and then giving scholarships to the poor ends up making college impossibly expensive for the middle, and saddling upper-middle class kids with a ton of debt when they’re young. It’s wretched social policy, and it has a very similar logic to what we’re seeing in the book.

51

engels 12.05.17 at 1:19 pm

Try asking them to stand back for the 98%.

I have no intention of asking them that (nukes kinda scare me)

52

Yan 12.05.17 at 2:16 pm

Lovely to see a supposedly left leaning blog devolve into what are equivalents of Republican trickle down economics apply to global inequality.

I suppose that the disproportionate amount of outrage over what seems a relatively modest (if practically trivial) claim–the 20% have an unfair advantage in social mobility and might do well to consider trying to moderate reduce those advantages–is a pretty good sign that the offended 20%ers are right: this is, in some ways, strategically bad politics–it will anger rather than persuade.

Or rather, it’s bad politics *if* the future of politics consists in convincing and politically mobilizing 20%ers. If, on the other hand, the future of politics consists in convincing and mobilizing both the 1st world’s 80% and the global 80%–well, that’s another story, indeed, pissing off self-righteous, virtuous, hardworking 20%ers might be good strategy then. Perhaps recent political events could give us some clues about who the hairshirts are here?

53

bianca steele 12.05.17 at 2:17 pm

These reviews have convinced me that the book is apolitical and moralizing

It sometimes seems to me that an enormous amount of moral and political discussion in the US is conducted in the context of telling young people, often college students, that their parents’ way of life is immoral. Preaching to people that their way of life is immoral is a tried and true tradition, of course, though concentrating this on young people and framing it as a matter of political organization–and, I often suspect, with little real expectation that the preaching will last more then a decade, or less–seems relatively new. The dwindling of a market for books like this to non-academics also helps keep the focus on whether the universities are uncongenial to the kinds of people who become college professors. In that context, the book seems pretty ordinary.

It seems to me that most of Reeves’ empirical arguments, that I have seen, are: not strong. That 25% of families in the top 25% have 529s doesn’t mean only families in the top 20% make real use of 529s. Elsewhere I saw that he took the median income of the top 20% and proceeded to argue as if the entire 20% had that income. Possibly these are quibbles and don’t affect the real argument. But in comments here and elsewhere it seems to me people are thinking of a lifestyle requiring a 5% income, an education guaranteeing at best a 25% income, and a level of class stratification that isn’t real.

54

bianca steele 12.05.17 at 2:47 pm

I also think engels is right wrt provision of HE. I’m surprised that so much of the discussion seems premised on leaving a market structure unchanged–people can get the education they can afford in a “free” market– with a little help for the worst off.

It is interesting that the “worst off” has expanded to include what seems to be the middle two quartiles, along with an apparent assumption that while college and maybe graduate degrees are necessary, mobility is not expected or desired. The purpose is not to make people able to educate their own children on their own dime, but something else.

55

Cian 12.05.17 at 3:05 pm

Reading this thread makes me think that maybe the solution is just to liquidate the bourgeois.

Joking…kind of.

If you’re a member of the 20% (and I would guess most of the people on this thread are, or will be by their 30s) you have access to enormously better schools. Your kids will never be homeless, and will not experience the stress that comes with knowing that your parents are barely scraping by. They will go to the same school for long periods of time, rather than constantly moving as their parents are kicked out of yet another place by the landlord.

Your kids will have healthcare. They will get enough food. Teachers will make assumptions that your kids are smarter than they are simply because you have the right accent and the right ‘look’. Your kids are less likely to be bullied.

You will be able to help them navigate the confusing and predatory world of college. When at college you will provide them financial and emotional support – unlike the poorer kids who will be forced to work (thus damaging their grades and taking longer to graduate, and increasing the risk of drop out), and provide emotional support to their less stable families.

You’re not a member of the 20% because you’re better. You’re a member of it because you were lucky.

56

Cian 12.05.17 at 3:11 pm

The idea that the poor in the US are a member of a global elite seems cruel. Visit the corridor of shame in South Carolina, or the rural and border regions of Texas. Go to the South Bronx. Or maybe some of the more remote rural towns in the US. Or how about West Virginia.

Even without adjusting for purchasing parity their incomes are often very low indeed. Third world low. They often don’t have access to healthcare. Their schools are sub-standard and if not at third world levels, not far from it. In some communities they don’t have access to running water. Access to housing can be intermittent.

The ignorance among the bourgeois in the US on how bad and pervasive poverty is in the US really pisses me off. Particularly when it’s combined with moral tales about things they could do differently, or the David Brooks bullshit about character.

57

engels 12.05.17 at 3:29 pm

The ignorance among the bourgeois in the US on how bad and pervasive poverty is in the US really pisses me off.

it’s bad politics *if* the future of politics consists in convincing and politically mobilizing 20%ers. If, on the other hand, the future of politics consists in convincing and mobilizing both the 1st world’s 80% and the global 80%–well, that’s another story

Well said

58

Trader Joe 12.05.17 at 4:27 pm

Omega Centari and a few others have touched on it – maybe it should be said more bluntly. What’s the point of helping kids get good educations if the response of the “liberals” is to then crap on them for utilizing tax breaks so they can help their own kids get good educations.

Somewhat like others above, myself and my siblings are the first generation of our family to achieve college degrees. In my own case my parents worked and saved – I worked and saved – so I could go to the best possible college my grades and test scores would allow. Those collective efforts resulted in a degree and earnings that are high enough to fund 529s for my own childrens education.

Why is it liberally “wrong” that a parent wants their children to have the same opportunity? Should I not use 529s? How would that change anything. Should I make them wash dishes, bus tables and dig holes on a hot day to pay their own way (as
I did)?

Maybe I’ve missed the point – why is education “good” when its poor kids getting it for free and suddenly “class priveledge” when its a wealthier kid probably paying full price using a tax advantaged account ….seems like the education is just the kick toy – what’s actually not liked is when the wealthier kid gets the Goldman Sachs job and the poor kid gets Starbux despite the same degree and there’s no way getting rid of 529s solves that.

59

Doug K 12.05.17 at 4:40 pm

interesting point,
“Most of my schooling was in working class or lower middle class schools; about 4 years in a fairly affluent school. At least once a year I was expected to be involved in some fundraising activity; always for either children with cognitive or physical disabilities, or children in the developing world. It would never have occurred to me, or any of my teachers, that it would be ok to fundraise for ourselves.”

I went to a Christian Brothers school where the fundraising was entirely for militant Catholic purposes, then to a humanist school as the poorest family in the school, where the fundraising went entirely toward schools in the developing world. In our case that was the Paradise Bend school across the river from us. South Africa has a way of making inequality visible, though it did not seem to help much to cure it.

The fundraising we have to do for my kid’s schools in an extremely affluent county always struck me as peculiar. One aspect is the kids are getting opportunities which are expensive – instruments for a school orchestra, football equipment, etc. The other is that the schools are underfunded due to the Republican leanings of the affluent, who fear taxes as the devil.

I too fail to understand how free public college is regressive ? as that candidate proposed, a financial transaction tax would cover most of the costs, and that tax would affect only the wealthy who can afford it.

As TraderJoe notes – we have 529s but we also pay the full cost of college, about $40k a year (tuition, board and lodging, books) at the state university. The FAFSA calculator says that paying over half your annual income in college fees is normal and expected. We discussed getting divorced, as that could enormously reduce the cost of college for our family, but decided not to play that game.

60

SamChevre 12.05.17 at 5:39 pm

I’ve found the “Dream Hoarders” arguments fairly convincing, but I think one of the most critical ways in which dream hoarding happens is ignored.

What’s the key metric on which the 50th percentile has fallen relative to the 80th in the last 50 years? As far as I can tell, it’s in stability–especially family stability. And a key way that the top 20% have contributed to that is by saying you can buy your way out of instability, but you can’t discriminate your way out. If it takes an income of $150,000 to live in your neighborhood and go to your schools, there won’t be many single custodial parents in your neighborhood, or many children with unstable family structures in your schools. But if you have a household income of $50,000, you used to be able to get that kind of neighborhood and school by requiring something in addition to money: now you can’t.

61

Whirrlaway 12.05.17 at 5:41 pm

Advocating for your own children is a genetic imperative enforced by evolutionary math. It is true that culture is in large degree capable of overriding genetic determinism, but it can’t be done by “legal” social structure that is constructed and maintained self-consciously. What you are going to need is a new sense of -self- that identifies with -community- rather than -ego-. Humans are demonstrated capable of such, but in the wild it historically leads to racism and territorial hegemony/expansion.

In the world of today industrialist culture, which demands interchangeable units, has ground family and neighborhood community to flinders. If parents aren’t paying attention to who their children’s teachers are, whoever will be?? Wherever are the grandparents?? That’s the problem, and it points the way to go clearly, seems to me.

… note, Paul’s franchised string of assemblies worked as a practical matter because he created a cultural environment outside the Roman mercantile environment where people were more inclined to trust each other than average because they shared a sense of selfhood “in Christ”*. Also inclined to feed the poor as a means of evangelizing and from a general deprecation of monetary value. You don’t think that’s a good model, say why. Too bad though, ever since Constantine and Nicea that aspect of the way has often been crushed out by the aforementioned non-negotiable demand for Uniformity, hence the Evangelicals.

* https://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-about-our-identity-in-christ/

62

Cian 12.05.17 at 5:53 pm

That 25% of families in the top 25% have 529s doesn’t mean only families in the top 20% make real use of 529s.

1) Most families in the US struggle to save because they do not have enough money. Putting significant sums into a 529 is simply not realistic.
2) The more tax you pay, the greater the benefit from a 529. Therefore by definition 529s are a larger subsidy for the wealthy.

63

Cian 12.05.17 at 5:59 pm

I don’t see any justification for the current higher education system in the US. It only looks good if you compare it to something like healthcare.

1) It is grotesquely expensive.
2) It’s very inefficient.
3) It’s exploitative (both of students and of the majority of employees).

A good start would be to remove ‘Public’ universities from the market and to make access free.

64

TM 12.05.17 at 7:24 pm

Cian 56: If that is a response to my 43, let me clarify. Yes, there is misery in the US, not just relative but absolute poverty. But women and people of color are far disproportionately affected. (Even rural schools in white areas tend to be far better than minority schools.) That white male citizens of affluent countries are generally privileged in terms of living standards and opportunity compared to most of humanity is a fact. I know because although I come from a poor rural family (accent and all), by sheer luck of the birth lottery I had access to first world health care and excellent education, not to mention clean water and electricity, advantages and opportunities that most humans still lack. If we are not capable of that level of self-reflection, we are not worth much as leftists.

Cian 55: I would guess that most commenters here are not that affluent; most are academics and there are few well-paid jobs for academics. But anybody curious, do consult the percentile calculator https://dqydj.com/household-income-percentile-calculator-2016/.

Layman 45: As I pointed out, *any* tax benefit is by definition regressive. It doesn’t follow that all tax benefits are equally unjust and unjustifiable. More to the point, if tax rates were high enough generally and tax breaks the exception not the rule, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It isn’t perverse that tax payers who save for education are favored compared to other tax-payers. What *is* perverse is that the wealthier a tax-payer is, the more opportunities they are given to avoid paying taxes.

65

Pavel A 12.05.17 at 10:01 pm

“One disappointment is that he doesn’t give more guidance about exactly what to do individually.”

Build automated guillotines.

66

Laura 12.05.17 at 11:20 pm

67

bianca steele 12.06.17 at 2:30 am

Cian @ 62

That most people can’t put lots of money into a 529, again, says nothing about who can put some money into it, or how important they believe it to be. Telling people the 80th percentile is very important, and should it turn out that people at the 68th percentile also use 529s, telling the that (1) their contribution is a rounding error as far as the important people are concerned, and (2) the implications are the same no matter whether the line is at 65 or at 95, may not be, as Yan put it, good politics.

68

engels 12.06.17 at 6:36 am

“All of us lucky enough to have been born into affluent countries, a forteriori with the right skin color and gender, are globally part of a tiny privileged elite.” (TM 12.05.17 at 10:37 am)

“Yes, there is misery in the US, not just relative but absolute poverty. But women and people of color are far disproportionately affected.” (TM 12.05.17 at 7:24 pm)

What a difference a day makes

69

TM 12.06.17 at 9:19 am

engels 68: Point taken. I should have been clearer. My argument stands however. You started the global comparison game and I pointed out where it leads if you are consistent.

Cian 63: The US education system is horrible. But Reeves’ moralizing and politically ineffective prescriptions will do nothing to reform an unjust system. That’s why he is being criticized.

Some people here seem to project a call to the barricades into Reeves’ book, which judging from the reviews I have read is truly bizarre. But if anybody really thinks that the class enemy are moderately successful academics who after years of racking up college debt and scraping by on precarious TA-ships, adjunct positions, post docs and so on land their first permanent job at a provincial college in their 30s and some time in their 40s perhaps reach a household income of 120k: the plutocrats are laughing about your guillotine rhetoric. Your plutocratic fascist regime (you in the US), supported by much of your romanticized white working class, thrives on anti-intellectual, anti-academic resentment. That is exactly the cover that allows them to loot the country so efficiently.

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Layman 12.06.17 at 11:18 am

bianca steele: “Telling people the 80th percentile is very important, and should it turn out that people at the 68th percentile also use 529s, telling the that (1) their contribution is a rounding error as far as the important people are concerned, and (2) the implications are the same no matter whether the line is at 65 or at 95, may not be, as Yan put it, good politics.”

Whether it is good politics or not depends on what else you tell them. The 68th percentile is a household income of $90,000, and carries a federal income tax obligation of something like $15,600 per year. As long as whatever you do offsets the value they’re currently getting from 529s – if any at all! – why would they object?

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Layman 12.06.17 at 11:24 am

Sorry, meant to add: And if it is truly the case that only a handful of people below the 80th percentile make any meaningful use of 529s at all, then why would it be bad politics to eliminate 529s? Sounds like a very small constituency outside of the top 20%, if any constituency at all

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harry b 12.06.17 at 12:13 pm

I haven’t responded to anything because today is the first day that I’ve been able to access the site (CT was blocked from the wifi connection I’ve had the last 2 days).

On free college – -I occasionally promise to write a post on this, and maybe I should actually do it. I feel that I have argued it out with engels in numerous threads… One point though is this: however you raise the money to pay for free college there are other things you could do with that money — eg, spending it on early childhood education and k-8 education which is universally used and the quality of which is much worse for lower income than for more affluent children (which is, in turn, one of the reasons that making college free is regressive, it being a benefit that is only genuinely accessible for those for whom schooling has worked out reasonably well).

TM — the 10-15-20% isn’t just academics. It includes all sorts of professionals — physicians, accountants, some nurses and teachers, engineers — some farmers, business owners (large, medium, and small). I thought I made it clear that the book is not a call to the barricades! It exposes the way that people who are already relatively well off protect advantage for their kids, thereby harming others.

Those who feel moralized. Well, Reeves isn’t standing for office, is he? Its true — nobody wants their dodgy behavior pointed out to them, which is why politicians don’t do it.
“In any case, my plea, is that we have to be very careful in how we are percieved. Far too many in America have come to a strongly anti-liberal attitude. So strong in fact that they would vote for a known child-molester over a liberal. We have a lot or perceptual ground to make up.”

Maybe being a bit less fierce about protecting tax advantages that target us and opposing high density housing that might lower our property values and allow lower income kids entry to our schools, making sure that when we raise money for schools much or at least some of it goes to a general fund that is redistributed to schools with children who are more needy than ours, would help a little bit?

On 529s. I don’t have the book to hand, but nearly all the benefit of the 529s is within the 20%. And this almost certainly raises the price of going to selective institutions, thus harming access to poorer children. Very few colleges provide substantial grant aid to lower income kids, in fact, and over the past 25 years need-based aid has been reduced and merit-based aid (‘meritorious’ essentially means ‘unneedy’) has increased (because of collective action problems that colleges are, by law, not allowed to solve). At somewhere like Madison or UCLA more affluent out-of-state students are, indeed, paying for (on average) less affluent in-state students. But don’t overestimate the extent to which your kids are paying for others (if they are going to a private college, or one of your own state’s public colleges, they are probably not subsidizing other kids much). You are probably not paying the ‘full cost of college”. And the premium attached to a college degree has actually increased.

Yes, 529s are better than the MID. Not all tax benefits are equally bad and unjust: some tax benefits are all things considered good! But, all things considered, 529s are bad.

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Fake Dave 12.06.17 at 12:15 pm

I also feel like the throwaway comment about free public universities being “regressive” needs to be addressed. I heard that argument a lot last year — mostly from liberals trying to dismiss the Sanders campaign — and I can’t even begin to make sense of it. People said Trump’s kids would get free college and that’s horrible, but, well, is it? I’m pretty sure the .1% don’t go to state schools anyway, but even if they did, so what? If higher education is a right, of course it should be a right for everyone.

On a sociological note, I haven’t seen many young people or members of the lower class complaining about “free college” per se. Some people thought the proposal was unrealistic or had a kneejerk aversion to big government, but that’s not really the same as opposing universal access to higher education in principle. I see that argument the most from well-heeled and well-educated types who have internalized the idea that “college isn’t for everyone” (the job market begs to differ, by the way), and seem to assume that college demographics wouldn’t actually change that much and it would end up being a huge subsidy for the rich kids. I don’t think that’s accurate, but I’d love to see someone back that insinuation up with real data.

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Collin Street 12.06.17 at 12:39 pm

But 529s are shitty policy: better to tax the money away and give it back in “free” college allocated by talent rather than wealth. That way the education will go to those who can use it best.

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bianca steele 12.06.17 at 1:01 pm

. . . close to 10 percent of 529 accounts are held by households with incomes under $50,000, and 70 percent of the accounts belong to households with less than $150,000 in income. . . .

. . ., the typical 529 account will cover one year of college with a little left over.

https://www.cnbc.com/2015/01/28/529-plans-the-real-users-and-what-they-sock-away.html

But a priori families over $150k get overwhelmingly more benefit, and it’s only sensible that middle class families should help poor kids by attending public universities that by definition charge lower tuition and would be better able to help students who need more help if there were large numbers of valedictorians in their midst.

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engels 12.06.17 at 1:10 pm

however you raise the money to pay for free college there are other things you could do with that money — eg, spending it on early childhood education and k-8 education

…or bombing more of the Middle East back into the Stone Age
http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/21/news/economy/war-costs-afghanistan/index.html

You started the global comparison game and I pointed out where it leads if you are consistent.

It doesn’t lead where you said it does—viewing propertlyless poor in the West as part of an ‘elite’.

Your plutocratic fascist regime (you in the US), supported by much of your romanticized white working class, thrives on anti-intellectual, anti-academic resentment.

It’s almost as if they resent the existence of a quasi-caste which despises them, ignores their suffering abs tells them they’re privileged if they complain

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bianca steele 12.06.17 at 1:12 pm

Also, as someone whose child attends a school that has a large number of low income students and immigrants, and at the high end is probably around the 80th percentile mark, I don’t see how limiting the ability of the more affluent parents to fund-raise helps anyone any more than faffing about over these high-level questions addresses the actual problems our principal has.

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TM 12.06.17 at 1:36 pm

Layman and harry: “Why would it be bad politics to eliminate 529s”

I’m not opposed to abolishing them (and harry I’m not in the business of “protecting tax advantages” in any shape), but I think they have in this debate gotten far more attention than they deserve and that in itself is bad politics. It’s bad politics to scandalize a relatively small education tax benefit while the carried interest tax loophole is hardly talked about any more, while the plutocrats have almost reached their goal of extracting trillions more in obscene tax breaks, while millions Americans are poised to lose their access to health care and Medicare is on the chopping block, while the looting of federal lands by ranchers and miners is intensified, while the CFPB is being dismantled, the EPA, financial regulations, labor regulation, anything that protects the majority of Americans from the depredations of the 0.1% is under assault. Sorry folks, this is not an academic debate, this is the kind of distraction that gives the ruling class cover to loot the country so efficiently. And harry, if you believe that your heartfelt “mea culpa I’m a selfish academic unfairly supporting my children’s college education” will change anybody’s anti-liberal attitude, I don’t know what to say honestly.

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TM 12.06.17 at 1:38 pm

Dear engels 74, your cute projections make my case. You have never been in actual daily life contact with the people whose voice you are assuming have you?

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Harry 12.06.17 at 1:46 pm

“…or bombing more of the Middle East back into the Stone Age”
If I thought making college free would improve American foreign policy, I’d change my mind about it.

“Sorry folks, this is not an academic debate, this is the kind of distraction that gives the ruling class cover to loot the country so efficiently. “

Or maybe the collusion of the X% in that looting plays some sort of enabling role.

“it’s only sensible that middle class families should help poor kids by attending public universities that by definition charge lower tuition and would be better able to help students who need more help if there were large numbers of valedictorians in their midst”

I agree with this. But don’t think that public flagships are where poor kids are. They’re in regional comprehensive public colleges.

Do the people who object to moralizing about these issues also refrain from participating in boycotts, and object to being told they should drive less, offset carbon emissions, etc?

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Layman 12.06.17 at 2:04 pm

TM: “but I think they have in this debate gotten far more attention than they deserve and that in itself is bad politics. It’s bad politics to scandalize a relatively small education tax benefit while the carried interest tax loophole is hardly talked about any more, while the plutocrats have almost reached their goal of extracting trillions more in obscene tax breaks, while millions Americans are poised to lose their access to health care and Medicare is on the chopping block, while the looting of federal lands by ranchers and miners is intensified, while the CFPB is being dismantled, the EPA, financial regulations, labor regulation, anything that protects the majority of Americans from the depredations of the 0.1% is under assault.”

This strikes me as little more than concern trolling. I’d bet good money that you can’t find a single politician on the left who complains about 529s but does not complain about the carried interest tax loophole, the current GOP tax bill, the GOP’s obvious desire and intent to cut Medicare and Medicaid, GOP efforts to gut the ACA, the looting of federal lands, and so on. As for this particular conversation, among a handful of people about a narrowly focused question – if that is what you mean – then the objection is frankly silly. Over to you.

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engels 12.06.17 at 2:20 pm

If I thought making college free would improve American foreign policy, I’d change my mind about it.

If I thought it precluded funding primary schools better so would I

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engels 12.06.17 at 3:34 pm

Dear engels 74, your cute projections make my case. You have never been in actual daily life contact with the people whose voice you are assuming have you

Every day

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Cian 12.06.17 at 3:44 pm

Bianca: If you can only put a little money into a 529 then the fees will eat up any tax benefit you might get (and probably more than that). Like 401Ks they are a terrible program for people in lower tax brackets who don’t have a lot of savings. Wallstreet make out like bandits though, so there’s that.

As someone else said – it would be far better to put that money into lowering the cost of public education, with a focus on non-flagship colleges.

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NickS 12.06.17 at 3:54 pm

The 68th percentile is a household income of $90,000, and carries a federal income tax obligation of something like $15,600 per year. As long as whatever you do offsets the value they’re currently getting from 529s – if any at all! – why would they object?

Because in many circumstances people do not behave as if money is fungible.

[Like TM, I’m not defending 529s, but the “social meaning of money” is an important part of the politics of the question.]

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Cian 12.06.17 at 3:54 pm

Universal benefits are good politics. Anyone who hasn’t realized that by this point should maybe rethink their priors.

Fees and debt are a huge problem for working and lower middle class students. It increases drop out rates, and gives them a huge disadvantage after graduation (or worse if they fail to graduate). Fear of debt also makes working class students less likely to go to college. And that’s ignoring the predatory nature of college debt in this country.

On top of that in the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of jobs for which at least a 2 year degree is a requisite. Want to be data entry clerk in a hospital – that needs a degree. Without a college degree your adult life is severely curtailed, but the gatekeeper for most people are unimaginable levels of debt at a time in their lives where most people are very bad at handling debt.

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TM 12.06.17 at 3:55 pm

Harry, I don’t think that’s any sort of answer to my objections and I also haven’t seen you address any of the criticisms voiced by Konczal, Bruenig and Cohen referenced above (and perhaps others that haven’t been referenced yet). Sure you are under no obligation to address those but we might get a more fruitful debate if you did. After all you recommended the book highly.

The question of the “enabling role” I already touched on back @9. Of course the plutocracy couldn’t do anything if the 99% or at least the 80% or even 51% were united against them. But broad segments of the US population do act as enablers of plutocratic government, for reasons that the left still doesn’t fully understand. If we want to address this issue and develop a political counter-strategy, we certainly need to look beyond the 1% but then why stop at the 20%?

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Harry 12.06.17 at 4:03 pm

” If I thought it precluded funding primary schools better so would I”

It doesn’t preclude it. But in actual politics in the US in the foreseeable future, higher ed and k-12 will continue to compete for funds, and will continue to do so even if dramatically more funds were made available by high levels of taxation on corporations and the rich. Schools that low-income kids attend are very far from being saturated with funds (despite what some conservatives like to say).

Primary school, unlike college, really is a universal benefit. Attacking 529s may be bad politics. Do the people who say that complain about Democrats in red states who defend abortion (like Jones who, if he were pro-life, or even just much more reticent about abortion, would be in with a slightly better chance)? Fine if so.

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Cian 12.06.17 at 4:15 pm

If you have two people in your household making a total of $120,000 then you’re in the top 20% (most families have two people working – if only one of you is working then that’s a luxury most families don’t have). For individuals I think it is around $85,000. If your complaint is that you’re struggling with that income then imagine how the other 80% are doing? Imagine how your complaints would sound to them?

2.5% of US households have an income of $2,000. That’s 5.5 dollars a day. Or the equivalent of living on 30 cents a day in India. Using PPP conversions about 5% of US households live on a dollar a day. 10% live on two dollars a day (about $12,500 for a household). 1.6 million in the US do not have indoor plumbing. Even in cities not everyone has piped water. And while almost everyone has access to power, the ability to pay for it is not universally distributed.

The GDP per worker in the US is $113,000 btw, which does indicate quite how skewed the US distribution of wealth is.

TM: I come from a poor rural family (accent and all), by sheer luck of the birth lottery I had access to first world health care and excellent education

You realize that most poor rural people today do not have access to either of these things, right? And that plenty of poor urban people also don’t.

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bianca steele 12.06.17 at 4:21 pm

I don’t object to moralizing. I haven’t seen anyone object to moralizing. What kind of person would?

I think there is a severe problem of audience with a book like Reeve’s. There’s nothing wrong with telling people who have more than they need that they should help people who don’t have enough! There’s maybe a tiny bit wrong with being a little fuzzy with the facts in order to make a persuasive point clearly, but for some audiences and some purposes, OK. But that is quite different from claiming that the one book *everybody* needs to seriously grapple with is this one.

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engels 12.06.17 at 4:57 pm

College is a universal benefit because everyone benefits from an educated society. The problem was never students attending for free, it was and is high-earning graduates (and non-graduates) not being taxed enough. ‘Actual politics’ is in ferment and socialist approach to HE isn’t in conflict with a socialist approach to compulsory schooling.

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Harry 12.06.17 at 5:24 pm

“Sure you are under no obligation to address those but we might get a more fruitful debate if you did”

Yes, I apologise for that. As I said above, for 48 hours after posting this I couldn’t get at the site at all (staying with a relative whose wifi blocked it until… well, until something happened that unblocked it). So I have tried to catch up, but find it very hard once a thread is already long to engage with it. For what its worth, now I’ve read it I don’t think Bruenig is interested in engaging with Reeves at all, and most of what Konczal says is indirectly responded to well by others in this thread.

Its just generally a mistake to think that when someone is talking about X, which is bad, they do not recognise that Y is also bad, or even that Y is more bad than X. Similarly, Reeves supports all sorts of boring standard policies that most people here would support and doesn’t think that that changes in personal behavior are enough to make a fundamental difference. But changes in behavior can make things a bit better for some people.

And, I thought I made clear (but maybe I didn’t) that I disagree with Reeves that equality of opportunity and social mobility matter (much). I don’t need to agree with everything (or even a lot) in a book to think it is good, and to recommend it highly.

Bianca — he’s not fuzzy with the facts. Maybe I should have provided more detail of what’s in the book. He does have figures about who saves what in 529s and, as I said, almost the entire benefit goes to the affluent. Partly for reasons cian gives, partly because of the progressive structure of the income tax, mainly because the families of kids in the top 20% have enormously more disposable (thus saveable) income than families below that.

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bianca steele 12.06.17 at 5:31 pm

Harry,

See my comment @43. Sorry, you aren’t going to convince me Reeves isn’t sloppy with the facts, with statistical arguments, and so on. He clearly is. He also gets much more mileage than he ought to out of differences between the class system he grew up with and his personal observation (which he doesn’t seem to be able to characterize accurately in an American context). I don’t think his goal is to generate a total picture of US society, with a reliable reference to how education and so forth works. And that’s just what he doesn’t do.

It’s endlessly amusing to see leftists complain in one breath that we all hate the “20%” here, and in the other assume without thought that the only reason a government program might offer a benefit is as a tax dodge. But not amusing enough.

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bianca steele 12.06.17 at 5:54 pm

Cian @ 89

Have you read Reeves? Are you seriously arguing that a family with three teenage kids, where both parents grew up in blue-collar households, and the wife just went back to work five years ago (because her own mother works fulltime and can’t provide free childcare), and each parent earns $60,000/year, is one of the “upper class” families Reeves describes in such detail?

Or is the book so good that you don’t even need to read it in order to make the same arguments Reeves is “really” making?

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Z 12.06.17 at 5:56 pm

I admit I think the moralizing angle is unhelpful, because I don’t see the problem as one of being right or wrong, or nice or mean and more generally I don’t think looking at the political world as a morality play is the best way to approach systemic social problems.

I see the problem as one of a system where mutually reinforcing inequalities are snowballing and dividing the society in increasingly separate bubbles. So I don’t think that wealthy, educated parents who send their kids to the magnet school which just happens to be in their neighborhood and who lobby for better teaching practices there and fundraise for an indoor swimming pool are bad, and I don’t think I want to actively guilt-trip them I just want them to realize that 20 miles away, there is a decaying public school which just happens to be near housing projects which has been looking for a math teacher for a year now and more specifically, I want them to understand that the existence of this decaying school and the fact it is so bad actively benefits their children and that this fact explains a good deal of why nobody in a position of power fixed it yet.

I want them to recognize that they are not prepared to envision their own children living the life of the lower-middle class or below as it exists now (because who would?) and to recognize that this choice of theirs (totally understandable) has a clear correlate: either they deliberately choose to continue business as usual, and so they deliberately inflict this choice they would never make on people below them (in which case I consider them my political opponents) or they support a radical improvement of the social conditions of the lower middle class.

And if your reaction to that is “sure, let’s ensure that talent is recognized everywhere it is, let’s make sure that everybody has an equal chance to rise to the top, let’s improve continued training”, well, I think you have missed the point.

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Cian 12.06.17 at 5:56 pm

TM: If you have a household income of 120K in the US you have an income greater than 80% of the US population. You are well off. By definition you are part of the upper middle class. Your ability to save significant sums of money is a luxury most people in the US do not have. You are defending privileges that only the elite can really use. The politics of this are terrible.

But if anybody really thinks that the class enemy are moderately successful academics who after years of racking up college debt and scraping by on precarious TA-ships, adjunct positions, post docs and so on land their first permanent job at a provincial college in their 30s and some time in their 40s perhaps reach a household income of 120k: the plutocrats are laughing about your guillotine rhetoric.

Class enemy was a bemused response to the rather lame defenses of privilege. If you’re in the bottom end of the 20% you’re not necessarily the problem, but arguably you’re benefitting. What you do with that information is up to you. Denial is certainly an option.

Yes academics are more precarious than most, though that life of precarious TA-ships and adjunct positions was still no different to that faced by many many Americans.

Your plutocratic fascist regime (you in the US), supported by much of your romanticized white working class, thrives on anti-intellectual, anti-academic resentment. That is exactly the cover that allows them to loot the country so efficiently.

It’s hard to get good figures on who exactly belongs to the white working class (education is typically used, which is a terrible proxy). If you go by income then most white working class people didn’t vote. So it seems safe to assume that most white working class people didn’t support either candidate. Two thirds of Trump’s supporters were in the top 50% of the income distribution.

And you’re the one that brought up race. I was talking about poverty. But since you brought it up. 17.5 million white people in the US live below the official (and way too low) poverty rate of $20K. Contrast that with 8.7 million black people and 11.2 million hispanics. Yes poverty is distributed unfairly, but A LOT of white people live in terrible poverty (household income of $20,000). Their anger seems perfectly legitimate to me.

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Cian 12.06.17 at 5:58 pm

College is a universal benefit because everyone benefits from an educated society. The problem was never students attending for free, it was and is high-earning graduates (and non-graduates) not being taxed enough.

This. Why should a teacher grapple with large college debts? Or a social worker. Or a nurse?

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Harry 12.06.17 at 6:26 pm

“‘The problem was never students attending for free, it was and is high-earning graduates (and non-graduates) not being taxed enough.’

This. Why should a teacher grapple with large college debts? Or a social worker. Or a nurse?”

There’s no reason why anyone should grapple with large debts. There’s a lot of space between making college free, and charging everyone the full cost. In the US, the more affluent your background, the more the government subsidizes college for you (roughly). This wouldn’t go away if we made college (or even public college) free. Need based grants — not only for tuition but for maintenance — and income-contingent loans are quite consistent with college not being free (for everyone).

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Harry 12.06.17 at 6:35 pm

I agree with everything Z says at 95.

bianca:
“He also gets much more mileage than he ought to out of differences between the class system he grew up with and his personal observation (which he doesn’t seem to be able to characterize accurately in an American context). I don’t think his goal is to generate a total picture of US society, with a reliable reference to how education and so forth works.”

I actually found the references to his britishness a bit grating. I also don’t share the admiration for the American Dream, or an ideal of equal opportunity. I agree his goal isn’t to generate a total picture, but it is to focus in on one part of the picture. We’re not going to agree about whether he’s being sloppy. There were lots of places where I thought other facts/stats were more salient, or where I would have added a page of additional information, but that’s why my books don’t sell as well as his, and certainly I don’t think anything intellectually dishonest is going on. As I say I don’t have access to my copy (for another week) so I can’t give detail…

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Layman 12.06.17 at 7:55 pm

I also endorse Z @ 95, with only this exception: That if you want that affluent family to realize all those things, you’re going to have to do something to make them realize them; and it strikes me that almost anything along those lines that might have the effect you want is indistinguishable from guilt tripping. Well, there are some other things you could do that are not guilt tripping them – take away all money, or force their kids to go to the shitty school, etc – but they make guilt tripping seem like the nice way to go.

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Omega Centauri 12.06.17 at 8:13 pm

It seems to me bizzare to be arguing about 529’s, when at least in the US the rightwingers are taking every penny of tax increase they can foist onto the 98% in order to give large breaks to the 2% (and especially the .2%). So if we did eliminate 529’s, the incremental benefit wouldn’t go to the lower 80%, but to the 1%. Thats what’s happening in Washington right now.

And other targets are pretty much anything liberals support: graduate education, renewable energy tax breaks of all kinds, and on and on.
So here we are arguing about one of the few breaks that those in the 5-50% can take advantage of.

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Trader Joe 12.06.17 at 8:15 pm

From H @98 ” In the US, the more affluent your background, the more the government subsidizes college for you (roughly). “

Harry can you unpack what you mean by this because it runs highly contrary to the experience I’ve seen…..let me explain my version:

My child attends an in-state university which, in round numbers is $30,000 per year. We are fortunate to have a good income and I’ve saved using 529 plans….we get no grant, no aid, nothing ever (I waste an hour of my life every year filling in a FAFSA as its a pre-requisite for getting merit scholarships should one be earned). I have no expectation of getting any aid nor do I feel I deserve it…so this isn’t a complaint, I’d rather someone else get it….but I can’t pay more than 100% of the full published cost.

As I illustrated in my own comment @27….maybe I will get $24,000 of tax break over the course of 4 years and that’s only if I had actually saved every dollar of the $120k in a 529 (which I didn’t)….that would still only be a 20% savings against the total cost and I can’t really see how it would have been any greater if my income had been say double what it is….only lower if I hadn’t saved as much. Had I not saved using that vehicle, I’d have still paid 100% of the published rate and gotten zero benefit of any kind.

Conversely, many of my child’s friends at the same university, receive a range of aid packages including variously loans, grants, work/study etc. Again, I’m glad they all get this, it would be great if it could be more, but they are getting this because their families have lower incomes (speculating most are in the $75-100k range) and if the sample is at all representative, the net cost of their tuitions will be far lower than $96,000 net I expect to ultimately pay.

Inevitably they will pay some interest on the loan portion, and maybe that’s what you mean, but then your argument is a financing argument, not a cost of tuition argument.

I definitely respect Cian or Raven’s point that there is a difference in carrying debt vs. not and various other qualitative experiences (uncertainty, housing etc.) – but that isn’t what you seem to be saying at 98, which is why I’m trying to understand what you mean.

Can you help with what you mean? I’m truly puzzled by this line of thinking as it doesn’t match experience….thanks.

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Matt 12.06.17 at 8:28 pm

Do the people who object to moralizing about these issues also refrain from participating in boycotts, and object to being told they should drive less, offset carbon emissions, etc?

I get a violent case of the eyerolls if somebody is seriously proposing to address a collective action problem with appeals to the individual. Has individual-urging to reduce carbon emissions or driving (without attendant legislation) ever produced an improvement visible in national statistics? Historically, we addressed pollution with legislation. It worked. Building a coalition of individuals to support new legislation to address GHG emissions or automobile dependency is a good idea. Individually urging people to make lifestyle changes is not an effective plan of action.

It’s sort of a liberal twin to the conservative trope that if you are poor you should personally improve yourself until you have a high-wage job. It can be hard to tell if the person offering such advice does so unaware of the fact that it can’t drive large scale change, or in smug confidence that it can’t drive large scale change, so that one’s inferiors are unlikely to rise above.

I personally have a low carbon footprint, so I can win these status games against most challengers, but it’s not due to personal virtue. I strictly limit meat consumption for non-environmental reasons. I live in a place where I don’t need to drive and where 90%+ of electricity comes from non-combustion sources. People unlucky enough to live where the electricity grid supply comes mostly from coal will never be able to individual-lifestyle-change their way down to my level, and I’d never tell them they need to try to.

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engels 12.06.17 at 8:48 pm

I also don’t think morality is the most helpful prism through which to view politics but if you adopt it it’s clear anyone who enjoys the kinds incomes we are discussing is morally bad as an individual for the simple reason that they could very easily relieve much immediate human suffering and death by giving it away, but choose not to.

105

Anders 12.06.17 at 8:49 pm

Slightly OT but how are people defining upper middle vs middle class in the US? I’m struck that no one even raises this – is it so obvious? Is there a standard definitional approach for sociologists based on income percentiles?

All the odder as the distinction in the UK seems very unstraightforward to me; or perhaps the CT community has a simple way of making this distinction in the UK too…

106

engels 12.06.17 at 8:59 pm

(Btw I should probably say I’ve never Reeves but from what I’ve heard I’m not really a fan, just agree that the rot at the top of American society goes a long way beyond big capital.)

107

Layman 12.06.17 at 9:44 pm

Anders: “Slightly OT but how are people defining upper middle vs middle class in the US?”

This is a thorny problem. As we’ve been unable to solve it any other way, we’re just eliminating the middle class entirely. I’m reasonably sure the UK has adopted the same solution.

108

Harry 12.06.17 at 10:31 pm

‘ the rot at the top of American society goes a long way beyond big capital’

Yes, that captures exactly my thought. And ignoring this is a recipe for failure, if what we want is to seriously improve things for the many. ( Corbyn’s — well, Shelley’s — formulation, is much more analytically accurate and politically well-oriented).

109

Mario 12.06.17 at 10:32 pm

it’s clear anyone who enjoys the kinds incomes we are discussing is morally bad as an individual for the simple reason that they could very easily relieve much immediate human suffering and death by giving it away, but choose not to.

Is that so easy? I can see how someone would gladly pay more taxes (e.g. Warren Buffet) but wouldn’t just throw cash out of a window in a slum. Sure, you could create a charity or a foundation to “finance projects” but that’s often enough a way to cause more problems (like how donated clothing helped ruin Africa’s clothing industry) and cement the arrangement whereby the state has no responsibility for a lot of things.

What is needed is more poor people having the opportunity of becoming rich people (ask around, that idea is quite popular among the lower classes). Then you can tax them properly while they enjoy the luxury, and finance things like a beefy social net. ‘Giving money away’ actually keeps such a system from emerging.

110

Omega Centauri 12.06.17 at 10:40 pm

middle v upper-middle?
Also it would be wrong to base it on income alone. I have two kids starting computer careers in silicon valley and SF. Their salaries would make the upper-class by any national statistic. But, the housing realities being what they are, short of moving into a trailer-park where trailers are three feet apart*, they won’t be able to afford a house/condo. So they will be living with high rents for crappy and insecure housing. Clearly the same income in a semi-rural area they would be able to live like kings, but it the highly gentrified areas its a different story.

*I was looking on Zillow, and such places can be found in silicon valley, a block or two away from multi-million dollar houses.

111

M Caswell 12.06.17 at 11:23 pm

“I want them to understand that the existence of this decaying school… actively benefits their children”

Is this true? Do districts with no magnet programs provide better education overall?

112

engels 12.06.17 at 11:36 pm

Is that so easy?

If you just gave £10K/yr to Oxfam it would definitely save lives; if you thought about it you could doubtless do better.

113

engels 12.06.17 at 11:48 pm

(Must admit I’ve never before encountered anyone who held there was no way they could give money to the poor and be reasonably confident they weren’t making things worse: that’s a new level of narcissistic self-deception.)

114

Main Street Muse 12.07.17 at 1:34 am

I honestly don’t know ANYONE in the “middle class” who is “hoarding wealth.” I grew up in an affluent suburb and now raise my children in a high-poverty county in the South. I think most pundits and writer are completely out of touch with the realities of today’s economy.

Upper middle class is indeed a different story re: career coaches for 8th graders, etc. And the accent does indeed matter.

What’s really needed to get the poor on track to middle class… jobs that pay living wages. And mentors that show young people such jobs exist.

Do they exist?

115

Layman 12.07.17 at 1:37 am

Mario: “What is needed is more poor people having the opportunity of becoming rich people…”

Sounds good, but what’s the end game? Do all poor people become rich people, or not? If not, and we’ll still have lots of poor people, then opportunity wasn’t really the answer to poverty, was it?

116

Collin Street 12.07.17 at 2:06 am

Amusingly enough: “my money won’t help” and “bootstraps!” explicitly contradict each other on the reality of systemic problems and barriets: if it’s straightforward for people to get themselves out of poverty then ipso-facto it must be easy to help them.

All right-wing activists etc etc.

117

engels 12.07.17 at 2:36 am

The top 20 percent of households actually own a whopping 90 percent of the stuff in America — 90 slices of pie! That’s exactly 4½ slices per person, nearly triple their “ideal” share according to Norton and Ariely’s survey respondents. Their average net worth? $3 million. That leaves just 10 percent of the pie for the remaining 80 percent of the populace. …
https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/

118

Joe 12.07.17 at 2:39 am

1. How is free college regressive? Matt Bruenig lays out the effect on wealth inequality with typical concision: http://mattbruenig.com/2015/05/19/wealth-inequality-and-student-debt/

2. Why not just raise top marginal tax rates? In case people haven’t noticed, upper-middle class people hate paying for stuff and will go mental if you raise taxes AND close the loopholes open to them, including tax deductions for virtuous things like education. Usage fees are a thing and have their place, even in market socialism. One thing they can do is push back on the positional arms race of rich people piling up multiple degrees. Higher ed is a *quasi*-public good. It has positive externalities, but totally unlike, e.g., healthcare, individuals reap huge, differentiated benefits from consuming it.

3. What poor person complains about free college? Among poor students, perhaps ones who hear other students talk about their relaxing summer travel (which would come from money freed up by not paying tuition) while poor students are often left to scrape by since they return to be just regular undeserving poor people. I’m not talking about envy, I’m talking about the palpable feeling that you are second-class and maybe don’t deserve to be where you are.

4. On top of all that, as Bruenig points out, why is subsidizing students such a priority that there is no call for a truly universal active labor market / income floor that includes non-students? https://medium.com/@MattBruenig/the-college-debate-is-as-incoherent-as-ever-d8a0db0e8bd8

As someone who was poor, went to university, and has seen lots of people I know who didn’t be immiserated, the woolly thinking around this issue makes smoke shoot out my ears. IMO you can never have enough clearly argued pieces posted about this, and I hope Harry will write one. In particular, it might be good to start thinking about how we on the left can move beyond the sad vision of society where our go-to solution to everything is to mine the very richest few via income tax (which, perversely, assumes we will always have them as a class). We need a society based on cooperation, and that includes contributing.

119

Joe 12.07.17 at 2:43 am

Just to clarify point#2: What I’m saying is, for some reason rich people to some extent are willing to pay tuition in a way that they aren’t willing to pay taxes. Why, in the current state of things, shut down an effective source of state revenue?

120

b9n10nt 12.07.17 at 7:05 am

Unorganized thoughts:

But Z @ 95 is guilt tripping: “Look, no offense, but you can either choose social democracy and sacrifice 2 of your 3 vacations a year and new kitchen and attend the same ugly schools, hospitals, and common spaces as your poorer relatives or you can go get yours and spend your life cosplaying Lord & Manor in the Age of Mass Production and let em all rot”. How’s that not guilt tripping?

Here in the States (probably the same elsewhere), the irony that I used to perceive is that it was the upper middle class reactionaries who had the…conscientiousness…to be defensive about their class privilege (“if it wasn’t for the liberal politicians, the teacher unions, the enviromental-wacko’s and the loony left” said with bitterness or dead-heart aloofness) whereas the upper middle class liberals were only vaguely, apassionately, paternalistically political and didn’t even have the self-awareness to be defensive.

…There’s rot at all layers of class, from all directions: let’s not pretend like the social fabric isn’t being pulled apart from multiple directions. It’s simply the wealthy who are naturally in a position to be financially opportunistic about the rendering. But it’s also finding a political majority to confront the wealthy that gives us the best hope for repairing the damage, and getting back on track to building sustainable, egalitarian communities.

…In the states, fighting absolute poverty is a misdirection (as a focal point of politics). The focus should be on disempowering the rich and the Lord and Manor middle class cosplayers while building social democracy. But egalitarianism isn’t about material well-being; that’s just a means. Equality is about dignity and power. Schools hospitals courts and parks matter more than income. Communities matter even more.

…Technocratic progressivism can’t do the politics. We must have an inspired vision for the Levelling. That means ritual and unseriousness as a public spectacle. A new spiritual expression. Absent calamity, society can’t change without a lower- and middle class vanguard changing their identity: same thing a surviving alcoholic or born-again goes through.

…Environmental calamity, nuclear war, tyranny, pandemic. Each of these could happen and almost any one or more seems likely to arise before too long. But taking ourselves seriously on the way down would be an almost equivalent tragedy. What if we were arguing about 529’s the whole time?

121

Collin Street 12.07.17 at 8:26 am

Actually, tell a lie, there is a situation where “it’s easy for people to get themselves out of poverty” and “it’s impossible for me to help people out of poverty” can both be true, and that’s if you’re a moron.

122

engels 12.07.17 at 9:02 am

individuals reap huge, differentiated benefits from consuming it

That is itself a contingent feature if American (and to lesser extent British) society, and one that has got a lot worse in Britain since the charging model Harry and others used it to advocate for was implemented

123

engels 12.07.17 at 9:14 am

it might be good to start thinking about how we on the left can move beyond the sad vision of society where our go-to solution to everything is to mine the very richest few via income tax (which, perversely, assumes we will always have them as a class).

I’ve got one: it begins with ‘ex-‘ and ends with ‘propriation’

124

engels 12.07.17 at 9:36 am

Amusingly enough: “my money won’t help” and “bootstraps!” explicitly contradict each other on the reality of systemic problems and barriets

Right

125

Layman 12.07.17 at 10:46 am

Joe: “Why not just raise top marginal tax rates? In case people haven’t noticed, upper-middle class people hate paying for stuff and will go mental if you raise taxes AND close the loopholes open to them, including tax deductions for virtuous things like education.”

1) The top marginal tax rate kicks in for individuals on earnings above $418,401, and for households on earnings above $470,701. These are not upper middle class people.

2) A household income above $470,701 means you’re in the top 1% of all households. Again, these are not upper middle class people. They are, in fact, the 1%.

3) Of course they don’t like paying for things. The question is, why should that matter?

126

Z 12.07.17 at 10:53 am

Layman and b9n10t anything [doing what] you want is indistinguishable from guilt tripping and How’s that not guilt tripping?

The way I see it, there is a difference between “X is wrong and makes you a bad person” (e.g X=tax evasion) and “X is individually perfectly fine and desirable but in the current social context participates in the snowballing inequalities.” Omega Centauri may have bought a computer to his kids when they were young. Maybe he talked with them about algorithms from time to time, maybe suggested a book on programming. They went to a good school, worked hard, wen to a good college, worked even harder, got excellent marks in computer science. They naturally look for a job and naturally end up in one of the most dynamic place in the world for talented computer science graduates. They make a ton of money but still barely can afford a place and thus would probably not look so favorably at a huge tax increase on their income aimed at improving schools, especially since they and literally everyone they know went to good schools (well the computers at the school down the street are a bit old, but nothing some fundraising among parents won’t fixed). Did they do anything wrong? Do I want them to feel guilty? No. I don’t think so. They aren’t actively deciding to tear apart the society. It’s just that in the current system, they participate in the tearing apart.

So I’m not overtly concerned about how they feel about their personal decisions (indeed, that would be hypocritical on my part). I do want them to realize the tearing apart and how the fantastic inequalities of our society are propping them and pushing other people down, think hard about they could remedy this problem at a systemic level and organize politically accordingly. Or think hard about it, decide they like it that way (it’s a free world) and be prepared to be opposed. But I admit that my patience with slogans like “equality of opportunities”, “excellence in training” or even “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” has diminished quite dramatically these last 15 years.

And by the way, I subscribe to b9n10t’s paragraph “let’s not pretend like the social fabric isn’t being pulled apart from multiple directions… But it’s also finding a political majority to confront the wealthy that gives us the best hope for repairing the damage, and getting back on track to building sustainable, egalitarian communities.”

127

Keith 12.07.17 at 10:58 am

engels is right at 122. It is blindingly apparent that moving away from collective provision paid for by progressive taxation increases inequality and reduces social mobility simultaneously. The supposed trade off is a fraud. Also Education should not be treated as an undertaking justified by merely economic gain either of the individual or community, it has other values which are not reducible to monetary units. We at least in the UK understood this, or did for thirty years after the war. Before reaction descended on the land.

128

harry b 12.07.17 at 11:08 am

122 — sure, but it has nothing to do with the introduction of fees — just that inequality has gotten worse, and education has become more salient to one’s prospects. If you know analyses that suggest otherwise I’d love to see them.

129

Mario 12.07.17 at 11:12 am

Since it seems to have been misread (whether on purpose or not) the point is not “my money won’t help”, but “my money can actually harm”. If you go to third world countries and give begging sick children money, you are actually causing a lot harm. Similar things apply to giving money to Oxfam.

Another example: suppose I was a rich man living in a town with a ramshackle public school. I can fix that! Shell out some money and have the thing fixed. Good, eh? Almost invariably the result is that the budget for the school sinks further, that the expectation now is that private citizens have to pay for keeping the school in order, that decent schools are now a function of having, or not having, rich people living in town that do such things (i.e. luck). It also makes the school and the children dependent on my, the rich man’s, generosity (and whim), instead of understanding that keeping the school functioning is the damn duty of the society. Etc, etc. My money solves this school’s problems at the expense of causing further erosion of society.

Giving money away “just like that” is in fact narcistic: it makes you feel good while actually causing harm.

Why is it so hard to understand that actions have consequences? More generally, why this insistence in denying moral ambiguities?

130

TM 12.07.17 at 11:20 am

engels: “The top 20 percent of households actually own a whopping 90 percent of the stuff in America … Their average net worth? $3 million.”

Average net worth is high on the list of most misleading statistics ever. Even within the top 20%, most of the wealth is concentrated at the top. If you don’t understand that, you won’t even remotely grasp the extent of American inequality.

The net worth at the 80th percentile is a half million. A $3 million net worth corresponds to the 96th percentile!
https://dqydj.com/net-worth-percentile-calculator-united-states/

Putting the 80th in the same basket as the 95th or 99th percentile doesn’t make sense. They are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different. Far more than 20% of Americans make $120k household income at some time in their lives. These are not members of a permanent “upper class”; as I pointed out, many of them have experienced precarious life stages. I don’t say that to “complain” on behalf of high income Americans, dear cian. I do think you have to get the facts straight. You have to pay attention to life stage effects. When you compare all households, you include student and other young single households who normally have low incomes (and low or negative net worth) and retireee households. A late career two earner academic or professional household supporting dependants, often in a place where cost of living is high, making $120k and with $500k in the bank, is not upper class in any meaningful sense. They still should in my view pay higher tax rates than they do now. But if you try making them the poster family of American class privilege, you are seriously astray.

131

Layman 12.07.17 at 12:26 pm

Z @ 126 “I do want them to realize the tearing apart and how the fantastic inequalities of our society are propping them and pushing other people down, think hard about they could remedy this problem at a systemic level and organize politically accordingly.“

Yes, but how will you accomplish that without something that looks like guilt tripping? If you want them to realize the inequality, you have to somehow bring it to their attention. You could e.g. run advertisements showcasing the misery, but that’s basically guilt tripping. You could take them on tours to visit the unequal, but that’s guilt tripping. Anything you do to introduce them to the problem will look like guilt tripping, because what you’re after is to engage their empathy so as to create in them a sense of obligation, and that’s guilt tripping.

132

Pavel A 12.07.17 at 2:02 pm

“Environmental calamity, nuclear war, tyranny, pandemic. Each of these could happen and almost any one or more seems likely to arise before too long. But taking ourselves seriously on the way down would be an almost equivalent tragedy. What if we were arguing about 529’s the whole time?”

This, I think, is the real issue with modern intellectuals (see pretty much all comments above). Adjusting, or arguing about adjusting, a few small social programs is not anywhere close to being remotely useful. Each of these potential threats require significant and sweeping social, political and economic changes or we all die (albeit at different rates). Climate change is coming faster and more assuredly than winter in GoT. Imagine currently systems of social support a few years out under the strain of automation-fuelled unemployment, mass-scale migration and food shortages.

Either we choose some form of full-scale socialism or it’s a long, dreamless sleep for our species.

133

Cian 12.07.17 at 2:25 pm

1) Equality of opportunity is an impossibility and we need stop pretending otherwise. Even in very egalitarian countries, social mobility rates are quite low. Parents who have a lot of social and intellectual capital are able to give their kids advantages that are simply not available to poorer kids. There are things that can be done to reduce this, and we should certainly do those things, but we should stop pretending that meritocracy is a possibility and structuring our society on that assumption.

2) The poor are always with us. Not everyone can be lawyers and computer programmers. Progressive/socialist politics should focus on making sure that cashiers and cleaners can have decent lives. That they can get healthcare. That they can get stable and good housing. Where they don’t spend 2-3 hours of their lives travelling to their job. Where they don’t spend every waking minute hustling so that they don’t run out of money. That their kids can go to schools where even if they end up as a cleaner, they can still have culturally/socially meaningful lives.

3) Poor and middle class kids should have the best opportunities that we can provide as a society, without punishing them for failing to meet lofty targets. Which includes college, but also includes schools that properly prepare them for college (so they don’t spend an extra year studying stuff that should have been taught to them at high school). Nobody should be forced to endure years of debt in their 20s for simply going to college, unless we’re prepared to radically transform US life so that college is not a pre-requisite for a middle class life.

4) US life, particularly family life, is horrifically expensive because this society has been structured so that rents flow to the 1% (or more accurately 0.1%). It’s got so bad that you have to be significantly into the top 20% (I think possibly the top 10%) before you’re actually doing better than you would be in a more equal society. Monopolies are everywhere. Things like college and healthcare have been structured so that they maximize profit, rather than serve public goals (education/healthcare) and by international standards are insanely expensive. The goal should be to remove as many public goods from the market as possible (healthcare, education, public transport, internet and utilities). This will both reduce the economic power of the 1% (and their wealth), while simultaneously making life better for everyone else.

5) The US college system is inefficient and expensive, and part of the solution is to fix that. I am very skeptical that it can be fixed if we stick to the current ‘market’ based system of college. Also it’s good politics. A majority of the young go to college (even if a lot drop out due to financial problems, or not being properly prepared by their high schools), and debt is a big issue for them. Addressing this will help build a loyal progressive coalition that can solve a lot of other problems.

6) The idea that progressive political change can happen without doing things that inconvenience, or harm, the top 25% is a fantasy. The idea that a progressive coalition needs them is also a fantasy. Currently the wealthier half have a disproportionate influence for a number of reasons, not least of which is lamentable levels of voting. This is one reason why the US is so skewed to the interests of the wealthy. Changing that means building a coalition that is built on the working and lower middle class. Universal benefits are certainly one way of broadening the appeal of such a coalition, but benefits that mostly benefit the upper echelons are just bad politics. Nobody in the bottom half is going to vote for you because of a savings tax break.

134

Cian 12.07.17 at 2:36 pm

When I advocate for free college there are some things that go with this. First of all I only care about access to public colleges. I don’t think a dime of public money (including subsidized loans) should go to private colleges (I’m ignoring research which is it’s own thing). Given that the 1% send their kids to fancy private colleges, I think that takes care of that particular problem.

Secondly, I think the US education system is quite broken and this has an affect on college. Kids from poorer backgrounds are not properly prepared for college and so waste time and money doing remedial education when they get there. The solution to this is obviously to deal with the inequities of schools, in particular funding and educational standards. That’s a very tough problem obviously.

Thirdly the US college system seems pretty inefficent (for example the way in which courses are chosen, graduation requirements, etc). All of my younger colleagues seem to have spent longer at college than they should have because they missed a course because it wasn’t on offer, or didn’t have enough credits, or they weren’t the wrong credits. None of them are very happy about it either. And all of them ended up doing courses they had little interest in, or with little relevance to them, just because it was the only way they could graduate. And my god the stadiums, the sports, the facilities, the campus cops, the goddam climbing walls? Are these really necessary in a public university?

135

Cian 12.07.17 at 2:40 pm

That is itself a contingent feature if American (and to lesser extent British) society, and one that has got a lot worse in Britain since the charging model Harry and others used it to advocate for was implemented

I vaguely remember that there was decent evidence that when the fees were raised so dramatically it discouraged poorer students, or students who would have been the first from their family to go.

136

b9n10nt 12.07.17 at 2:55 pm

Z @ 126:

I think the members of the upper middle class that can hear what you’re saying without miscomprehension or defensiveness are…by now on the left. But it’s a message that needs to be heard nonetheless.

I myself would appeal more to self-interest than social conscience. Talk about hedonic treadmills, talk about spirituality (the 4 noble truths; eye of the needle; The Perennial Philosophy).

Better yet to organize the 80%, though.

137

novakant 12.07.17 at 3:33 pm

hmm, “giving money to the poor” is not a really plan to solve the myriad of problems causing and caused by poverty, inequality and underdevelopment, is it?

If we’re serious about the problem, we gotta do a little bit better than that.

138

Alan White 12.07.17 at 3:34 pm

engels @117–I was just about to post that article here–thanks.

Everyone should have a look at that piece. Wow.

139

engels 12.07.17 at 4:38 pm

If you’re thinking in terms of inter-generational opportunity-hoarding I don’t know why you’d think educational pathways becoming increasingly inflected by parental resources and educational outcomes becoming more salient for career advancement were unrelated processes.

140

TM 12.07.17 at 5:10 pm

I observe with some disappointment that nobody has addressed my main objection: that Reeves’ line of argument lends itself to anti-intellectual resentment. Sure, academics and intellectuals are no better people, they can be just as selfish as anybody else. And sure they contribute toward the perpetuation of an unjust system, just like everybody else. We don’t need to discuss that. But the behaviors that Reeves complains about – basically, education-affine people wishing to secure good educations for their own children – are not in themselves blame-worthy and more importantly they are a consequence, not a cause of the systemic injustice that should be addressed. (*) If I’m right about that, then it’s hard to see what positive effect could come from disparaging people for valuing education.

(*) Responding to Harry’s question at 80: moral appeals can sometimes be useful as part of a broader political strategy but never substitute for it; individual virtue won’t save the world, only a high enough price on carbon can. Boycotts are usually more about PR than about the economic effect. What could be the point of boycotting one’s own children?

141

Sebastian H 12.07.17 at 7:28 pm

We shouldn’t be against moralizing. We should be against poorly thought out moralizing. Don’t attack them on wanting to take care of their kids by helping local schools. We want that. And even if we didn’t, attacking parental care is stupid.

Moralize in another direction—one where the laudable goal gone potentially wrong (paternal caring) isn’t so strong.

Something like “don’t we think the country would be better if other mother’s children were better educated?”

142

J-D 12.07.17 at 8:50 pm

1. Slogans along the general lines of ‘Stop injustice!’ and ‘Make things fairer!’ have significant potential political appeal.

2. They even have potential appeal to some of the people who (wittingly or unwittingly) are beneficiaries (directly or indirectly) of injustice/unfairness.

3. If you are using political slogans along those lines, it is neither advantageous nor necessary to put effort into getting beneficiaries of injustice and unfairness to understand how they are beneficiaries. If they come to that realisation by themselves and decide to keep supporting justice/fairness, well and good; if they come to that realisation by themselves and decide not to support justice/fairness as a result, that’s unfortunate; but why press the point?

143

Matt 12.07.17 at 10:58 pm

Average net worth is high on the list of most misleading statistics ever. Even within the top 20%, most of the wealth is concentrated at the top. If you don’t understand that, you won’t even remotely grasp the extent of American inequality.

The article engels linked actually does make that clear. According to it, the top 20% of the American population own 90% of the wealth in America; the top 10% own 79% of America’s wealth. The second-from-the-top decile of Americans has an 11% share of American wealth, almost exactly proportionate to their American population share.

144

engels 12.07.17 at 11:04 pm

Don’t moralise, organise.

145

engels 12.07.17 at 11:06 pm

TM your entire comment #130 is a parade of straw men.

146

engels 12.07.17 at 11:12 pm

(PS. I don’t write the Washington Post, if their journalism upsets you take it up with them.)

147

Layman 12.08.17 at 1:19 am

TM: “Putting the 80th in the same basket as the 95th or 99th percentile doesn’t make sense. They are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different.”

You keep yammering about this, but aren’t you just saying that the line has to be drawn somewhere else? Then what?

148

John Quiggin 12.08.17 at 6:26 am

I haven’t followed the discussion closely, but reading the original post, it’s striking that Reeves’ discussion of post-school education seems to be focused entirely on access to elite (private and public flagship) universities, with the alternative being vocational education and apprenticeships. This seems to miss the huge issue of inadequate funding for second-tier state universities and community colleges.

Relatedly, while there’s lots of discussion of regressive tax concessions, he doesn’t seem to say anything about actually increasing taxes on upper income earners (however you define them)

Maybe these things are in his book, but missing from Harry’s summary and from other references to Reeves that I’ve read. In their absence, it does seem like an exercise in guilt-tripping.

149

TM 12.08.17 at 8:29 am

Cian 133 and 134: Good comments, fully agreed.

engels 146: It is misleading to report averages when explaining a highly unequal distribution. That is a truism every introductory statistics lesson tries to convey with the bonmot “Bill Gates walks into a bar and everyone inside becomes a millionaire”. So, you quoted a misleading statistic and I provided the necessary context. Btw since when has WP journalism been your standard of good commentary? Also observe the debate dynamics at work. I quoted engels in full, called the statement misleading and provided a detailed criticism. engels: “parade of strawmen” and “upsets you”. I know it’s futile to point this out but, dear engels, this is not good debating culture.

Matt 143: “The second-from-the-top decile of Americans has an 11% share of American wealth, almost exactly proportionate to their American population share.” If engels could expropriate all US wealth and redistribute it evenly, those in the 9th decile wouldn’t even be among the losers. By that standard, they don’t have more than they deserve. That is how unequal US society really is! Why then put the 9th decile in the same basket as the top 1%?

Layman 147: “aren’t you just saying that the line has to be drawn somewhere else” Depends on the purpose. I would say at least the top 30% in the US should pay higher taxes. Of course the increase should be sharply progressive. But that hasn’t even been the issue in this debate. This has been about the wisdom of shaming the top 20% and declaring them the class enemy because they help their children do their homework, or something along these lines. And I think that’s a dumb concept and if I haven’t by now made it clear to you why I think so (e.g. 16, 43, 78, 140), I guess I have failed.

150

ph 12.08.17 at 9:20 am

148@ Thank you, I agree. The low-return on some 4-year college degrees raises real question on how much debt students can fairly be expected to accept. The case of the dishwasher at Yale fighting to save his union job revealed that he had a degree in communications and the debt that goes with it. It is possible, of course, that he might not have got the job washing dishes at Yale without his degree in communications.

However, having worked as dishwasher myself, at sixteen, I can’t see any particular need to pay banks the interest on 120k, or a ‘university/community college’ just so I can get a union dishwasher job. People do go into work directly from high school and lead happy, contented lives. The only people I know from high school who became millionaires did so without college degrees. Preaching that ‘we’re all better off if we all go to university’ is fine, as long as somebody else is paying for it. Asking graduate students, for example, to take on huge amounts of debt so that they can become wage slaves for their more fortunate tenured betters, seems pretty close to a scam. The other discussion has people describing a three, or four, course teaching load per semester. The adjuncts I know teach between 14-20 courses per term to live a more, or less normal life. Suffice to say there’s little time left to do good research.

Improving k-12 and two-year vocational colleges makes far more sense to me.

151

TM 12.08.17 at 9:35 am

Layman 147: Nevertheless I’ll try to address the “where to draw the line” question from another angle. I have already pointed out (9, 87) that support for the class system isn’t limited to those at the top who profit from it. It’s far more widespread, otherwise it would have collapsed long ago. So “drawing the line” between those who are agents and profiteers of the system and those who are victims at some arbitrary percentile is highly problematic as analysis. Is it at least good politics? OWS has tried and failed to mobilize Americans against the 1%. Why would mobilizing against the top 20% be more successful? The only reason that I can think of is a bad reason, namely the anti-intellectual angle I talked about already.

From a class analysis point of view, the line has always been drawn between labor and capital income. Now the argument seems to be that the rentier class includes professionals because their income is a form of rent from capital, the capital being education. I think that’s both terrible analysis and terrible politics. To me the enemy remains the plutocracy and those who support it, whatever their income.

152

Layman 12.08.17 at 11:39 am

TM @ 151, ‘seems to be’ does a lot of work for you in that analysis, and your recapitulation of what you think ‘this debate’ is about in 149 is equally suspect. I’ve already addressed your (our similar) comments about ‘shaming’, so I’ll wait for you to suggest some mechanism of communicating the issue that can’t be dismissed as ‘shaming’ the plutocrats or their supporters. I can’t think of one. Further, I can’t grasp the fine distinction between others saying we should ‘take money’ from the 20% to fund things and you saying we should raise taxes on the top 30%, unless the latter is just an endorsement of the former strangely couched as an objection. I also can’t grasp the point of working to show that you can’t lump the second decile or even nine tenths of the top decile with the one percent if you’re proposing to redistribute more from the top three deciles anyway.

So, taking your prescription, we’ll raise taxes on the top 30%, and seek to drive a wedge between those who make a fortune from capital and those who merely make a fortune from being a professional – never mind that nearly every business executive plutocrat is a ‘professional’, or that most of them make their fortunes by looting the public companies they manage rather than from owning any ‘capital’ – and from those who don’t make any fortune at all but foolishly support the policies of those who do, and we’ll somehow do that without doing anything that could be described as ‘shaming’ anyone. I look forward to it!

Odd that you’ve proven so many people wrong here, but that your policy prescription – stripped of the pejorative you apply when others propose it – amounts to the same thing: Let’s take more from the haves and use it for the benefit of the have-nots.

153

J-D 12.08.17 at 11:52 am

Mario
The observation that actions have consequences is correct: one example is that the action of posting a comment full of rubbish can sometimes have the consequence that another commenter points out what rubbish you’re posting.

The most intriguing detail in your comment is the use of the expression ‘almost invariably’. I would so much love to know what was going through your mind when you chose to include that particular phrase in your comment. If you had examined one hundred cases in which a rich man paid out of his own pocket to fix his local public school, and you’d found that a particular kind of result followed in ninety-seven of those cases, I think you’d be justified in saying that was ‘almost invariably’ what happened. I don’t believe you have examined one hundred such cases, though. I doubt you’ve even examined one. More likely the whole story is fabricated out of whole cloth.

Likewise your suggestion that ‘Similar things apply to giving to Oxfam’. Giving money to Oxfam might be expected to have similar consequence to giving money to child beggars in the street if Oxfam took cash donations and distributed them directly to child beggars in the street; but the idea that Oxfam does something like that can only be another fabrication.

The story from Slate is not fabricated out of whole cloth; but on its own terms (I can’t stress that enough) it doesn’t stand up. The article tells me that there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of children who are held in slavery by gangs who compel them to beg in the streets (that’s not me saying that, it’s the article saying that). The article also tells me that if people in the street don’t give money to those begging children, they are liable to tortured or killed by the gangs (again, that’s not me saying that, it’s the article saying that). If the article is correct about these things, then one of the consequences (I agree, actions have consequences) if everybody stops giving money to children begging in the street is that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of children are likely to be tortured to death. The article also vaguely and indirectly suggests that if everybody stops giving money to children begging in the street there is some prospect that this boycott will bring about some unspecified systemic change which may result in undetermined improvements in the lives of other children. It doesn’t appear a sufficiently convincing hope to justify the torture and the deaths. Of course, that’s only if everybody stops. If just a few people stop giving money to children begging in the street, the likely consequence, if the article is right, is some increase in the likelihood of some children suffering increased abuse, with no prospect of any benefit to anybody. Reading that article, the conclusion which appears to me to be justified by its factual assertions is the exact reverse of the writer’s conclusion: not that giving money to children begging in the street does more harm than good, but rather that it does more good than harm. As it happens, the only people who have begged money from me in the street have been adults, but I think after reading that article the likelihood that I will give them money in the future has probably been increased.

Also, any faith I might have in your judgement of what are likely to be the consequences of actions has been reduced.

154

engels 12.08.17 at 12:12 pm

engels 146: It is misleading to report averages when explaining a highly unequal distribution. That is a truism every introductory statistics lesson tries to convey

From the article:

These figures, staggering as they are, mask a lot of the variation in the top 20 percent. Let’s run those numbers again, breaking out some of the richest households separately. There’s the top 1 percent, gobbling up an astonishing 40 slices of American pie. The next 4 percent split 27 slices between them, while the next 5 percent take another 12 slices (a little over two slices per person). The bottom 10 percent of the top 20 percent get, on average, one slice of pie each. But don’t feel too bad for them: Their net worth is, on average, about $740,800.

It’s almost as if… you just assume people are stupid and waste everyone’s time telling them stuff they already know!

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engels 12.08.17 at 1:01 pm

If engels could expropriate all US wealth and redistribute it evenly, those in the 9th decile wouldn’t even be among the losers. By that standard, they don’t have more than they deserve. That is how unequal US society really is!

👏🏿Capitalism👏🏿is👏🏿a👏🏿global👏🏿system👏🏿

156

bianca steele 12.08.17 at 1:21 pm

John Q.:

In his talk with the AEI, Reeves advocates higher taxes on the top 20%, calling “we are the 99%” a reprehensible exercise in blaming the rich.

J-D:

I can get behind “fairness is good!” without spending $20 and 40+ hours on reading, much less advertising, a book that promotes “truthiness” and asks working parents making $60K/yr to get on board with “many if not most of us will be in the 1% at some time in our lives.”

157

alfredlordbleep 12.08.17 at 2:11 pm

TM @149 responding to Engels @146 (Bill Gates line)

Of course—
If there’s enough bandwidth for pictures, there’s enough for histograms to better show distributions. If it’s television and a thousand or a few thousand data points are the issue, nowadays wonderful HDTV has the capability. . . Come election nights all sorts of graphics are on display.

Otherwise, not so much.

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Z 12.08.17 at 2:14 pm

Layman @131 what you’re after is to engage their empathy so as to create in them a sense of obligation, and that’s guilt tripping.

When I see my toddler cry because he hurt himself, I feel an urge to help him, but I don’t fell guilt that I did not hurt myself, so I do believe that what empathy and compassion are different emotions than guilt. But let’s forget emotions.

but how will you accomplish that without something that looks like guilt tripping?

By appealing to their enlightened self-interest. If they don’t stop pulling, the fabric of our society will tear apart, and with it will go democracy. Many people like democracy, understand that it is valuable, and recognize if only dimly that it is the only way we have to solve some of our most pressing collective problems. Americans and British already had a taste of what happens in a post-democratic advanced countries. Others might not want to follow in their steps.

TM @140 the behaviors that Reeves complains about– basically, education-affine people wishing to secure good educations for their own children –

By now, you must realize that this is not the basic line. The basic line is that a segment of the society promotes inegalitarian social arrangements or prevents more egalitarian ones because they know the considerable advantages provided by their education and the education they can bestow on their children ensure that they will end up on the right side of the inegalitarian divide. I don’t know how to make it clearer: I have a personal and direct advantage at a rotten public system of education, because I know fully well that in such a system, if anybody comes on top, it will be my kids. Now maybe you think that the fact that everybody in the top 20% has been at least unconsciously (and usually very consciously) aware of that fact and the fact that the system of public education has been increasingly rotten (in many countries) are unrelated, but I find it a remarkable coincidence.

If I’m right about that, then it’s hard to see what positive effect could come from disparaging people for valuing education.

Once again, the language of blame, ” we unfairly took places in the hierarchy”, “disparaging” “crapping on” that you and a couple of other commenters have used is unhelpful. Notice by the way that, in this thread at least, there has been much more instances of people saying “stop blaming [insert whomever] and telling them they are bad people” than cases of people saying “I blame [insert whomever] and they are bad people.” This already should tell you something.

Now to address what you call your main objection

I observe with some disappointment that nobody has addressed my main objection: that Reeves’ line of argument lends itself to anti-intellectual resentment.

Nobody suggests devaluing education. Nobody suggest disparaging education. The problem is not education, and only someone who willfully wants to ignore the inequality problem would think it is. I hope you can understand that.

Consider the following two systems. In system 1, there is a hierarchy in education and those on top earn on average twice the income of those at the bottom and both enjoy comparable opportunities of employment with comparable stability. In system 2, there is a hierarchy in education and those on top earn on average ten times the income of those at the bottom, enjoy great opportunity to change employment and have near absolute security of employment whereas those at the bottom are at the mercy of sudden unemployment, in which case their social existence is more or less destroyed. Nobody is asking the top achievers in system 2 to stop valuing education.

What some of us are asking of them is 1) to stop going about as if educative hierarchies in such a system were meaningful or carried some intrinsic value of fairness while it is painfully obvious that anyone who has grown up in a family at the top has a statistically unsurpassable advantage other one who has grown un in family at the bottom (so no more meritocratic fairy tales, no more talks of equality of opportunities) and 2) to start supporting policies that would move the society closer to system 1 instead of opposing them (and if you don’t think they by and large oppose them, if only by letting the inertia of social forces push others slightly down and them slightly up, I suggest you pay closer attention).

159

Z 12.08.17 at 2:21 pm

Oh and b9n10t I think the members of the upper middle class that can hear what you’re saying without miscomprehension or defensiveness are…by now on the left.

In a system broadly structured around a left/right axis, I agree that a majority of such people would find themselves left of the middle point. That would almost be the definition of the middle point. But if the system is structured around three poles, as I believed it is and increasingly so, then no. Some Clinton or Macron supporters can be won, but aren’t yet. Or so I hope at least. Otherwise we are doomed.

160

Z 12.08.17 at 2:48 pm

Harry, apologies for the triple posts, but if I may ask ” Corbyn’s — well, Shelley’s — formulation, is much more analytically accurate and politically well-oriented”

What is Shelley’s formulation?

161

Whirrlaway 12.08.17 at 4:25 pm

Sebastian H: Something like “don’t we think the country would be better if other mother’s children were better educated?”

That would be precisely the central point at the core of functional democracy that is on the rocks. Out here in the woods a few years ago we voted not to have our own county health department because the state has a mandate, which of course is underfunded. “We have no strong personal interests in the incidence of TB in the Walmart.” I think the psychological problem is that the county is neither left to itself nor adequately provided for. Personally, I’m putting my chips such as they are on providing adequately for K12 ed.

162

bianca steele 12.08.17 at 4:57 pm

To say something (a little) more positive:

I think Reeves makes clearer why a book like “Paying for the Party,” which I thought was very good, nevertheless made me feel the authors didn’t always have a solid handle on where their subjects stood in the relative distribution of incomes, within the university they studied or in the country at large. They often suggested that the overwhelming majority of students at a public flagship university come from backgrounds that would put them in the top 5% of the population. This really can’t be. But if they believe those backgrounds are available to the top 20%, it makes more sense. (Now, it’s possible that in the state they studied, the top 20% really is able to provide the kinds of connections they say those kids had. I don’t think this is the case in the parts of the country Reeves is talking about.)

And if we can really, in the United States, provide the educations Reeves describes to a whole fifth of the population, that is really pretty good! But we can’t. Harry’s observation in the OP that a family in the top 20% can easily provide a top-notch education to their kids by moving to what’s called a “superzip” requires that there be enough of those zip codes to house 20% of the population. And there aren’t. (It’s interesting that the assumption that there are, which Reeves again can be seen to make clear, might suggest to some that a parent who seems reasonably comfortable who doesn’t move to a better school district doesn’t care about education.)

Also, I’d be interested in seeing a post looking at “Get Out” in terms of the violinist problem!

163

b9n10nt 12.08.17 at 7:44 pm

Cian @ 133:

Yes to all this, but also a significant departure:

It’s not just that the poor and middle class should have access to decent healthcare, housing, education, etc… It’s that we should all have the same access to these. Let’s look at the (U.S.) cliche: “programs for the poor are poor programs” and expand on the idea. On a pragamatic political level: when elites are using many of the same social services as everyone else (education, healthcare, the courts, democratic voice, information technology, parks and nature, whatamIleavingout, …) these services will be preserved and improved collectively. Otherwise the commons withers, privelege and stratification intensify…and the center can not hold.

On an ideal/utopian level: when individual aspirations and accomplishments are grounded in collective well-being, we can begin to see what it means to have a society in which the inherent value of being a human is practiced and realized ; we become an end rather than a means to an end.

Of course, those who sacrifice to become surgeons or scientists or entrepreneurs should have access to a basket of status-goods denied to those of us who make fewer sacrifices for public welfare. But there must also be a baseline. And not a purely economic baseline, but a baseline of social equality in which the dignity of each and all is practiced. Literally the same hospitals, lawyers, and schools for the wealthiest and the poorest.

We should be convinced that such world is possible. Justice is possible. Robert Reich, for instance, saying in _Saving Capitalism_ that “what everyone wants is upward mobility” (a purely individualistic political economy that is echoed in a few comments on this thread) is a wrong and increasingly dangerous illusion. We know that relative wealth is as pertinent a factor to our social identity as absolute wealth, more so as material scarcity recedes into human memory.

Yes, people speak about wanting upward mobility for themselves and their children. But they don’t have the language yet for what they truly desire. The vast majority are, absolutely, living like the wealthiest elites of our recent past, and yet anxiety and depression, or just bitterness (right-wing populism) proliferate.

“Decent” won’t do; “equal” is the standard.

164

engels 12.08.17 at 8:48 pm

What is Shelley’s formulation?

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/distress/masque.htm

165

Cian 12.08.17 at 9:02 pm

@163 – Well yeah obviously I believe in universal services. That’s why I think college should be funded by the state.

166

Cian 12.08.17 at 9:10 pm

Bianca – generally if you’re in the top 20% you have access to pretty decent schools. They may not be the best schools, but they’re more than adequate. There are a range of mechanisms by which different states and cities do this. In a lot of places it’s solely by lottery. Schools are funded locally, so wealthier areas have more resources from property taxes. On top of that wealthier areas have better access to donations. And as the icing on the cake – wealthier kids are cheaper to educate.

In cities this can be harder. So the way that cities have organized this is that the better schools require more from the parents. At a minimum you have to apply, which usually means navigating a reasonably complicated system that takes time and cultural resources. Some schools have further barriers – maybe they make kids submit essays. In other regions those schools don’t have buses, making them unavailable to poorer kids. The system is brilliant as it seems fair, invokes ideas of ‘choice’ and ‘meritocracy’, while actually enforcing the status quo.

Also to be clear, when we’re talking about bad schools. We’re not talking about schools that only offer one language, or fail to score high on (meaningless) tests. We’re talking about schools that are (literally) falling apart, where core parts of the curriculum are barely taught and where kids are essentially warehoused. Where only the test is taught.

167

Layman 12.08.17 at 9:49 pm

Z: “By appealing to their enlightened self-interest. If they don’t stop pulling, the fabric of our society will tear apart, and with it will go democracy. Many people like democracy, understand that it is valuable, and recognize if only dimly that it is the only way we have to solve some of our most pressing collective problems.”

I’m whole-heartedly in agreement with this, if skeptical about how far into the ranks of the pullers it can reach. Some people are pulling because they believe – perhaps rightly – that they’re insulated from any consequences of our society tearing apart.

Back to the emotions, if you’re one of those parents who don’t pay any attention to your kids, and don’t react when they hurt themselves, maybe don’t even notice when they hurt themselves, I think it will take a good deal of pressure to change your behavior, and that pressure will look a lot like shaming. I’ll grant that some people don’t need that, but those people aren’t the problem.

168

bianca steele 12.09.17 at 12:07 am

Cian,

I assume when we’re talking about failing schools, we’re talking at least about schools that are Level 3 in NCLB assessments. My town (actually we just voted to change to a city charter*) has more than one of these. The schools are not falling apart physically, special ed and ESOL students get more or less what they need, and a reasonable proportion go to college, even top-ranked colleges. Some of the kids get free lunch and some never turn in any homework, but they aren’t visibly destitute. Some are homeless, and I’m not sure you could tell by looking at them.

*which is interesting in the context of concern about focusing on our kids, because we also changed to a school board elected by district–previously all members were at-large and came from the sections of town known for being most affluent
–similarly with the legislative body, poorer sections were underrepresented–and some of the existing members argued that the system was better than the new one because it rewarded their unselfish desire to do good for the whole town, where the representative system would reward selfishness and conflict.

169

harry b 12.09.17 at 12:23 am

Shelley: its the final line of The Masque of Anarchy:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few

Corbyn took his main slogan from a 200 year old poem.

Sorry about not responding to anything else, I’ve been away from the internet. Will try to respond t some things in the morning.

170

J-D 12.09.17 at 12:35 am

bianca steele

J-D:

I can get behind “fairness is good!” without spending $20 and 40+ hours on reading, much less advertising, a book that promotes “truthiness” and asks working parents making $60K/yr to get on board with “many if not most of us will be in the 1% at some time in our lives.”

Sure, me too. I have not bought or read the book (I am a Foreignanian, so the specifics discussed in the book and in many of the comments here are not directly relevant to me), nor did I make any reference to it. I’m not sure whether you think you were disagreeing with me about something. Maybe I didn’t make my position sufficiently clear.

171

engels 12.09.17 at 12:44 am

When I see my toddler cry because he hurt himself, I feel an urge to help him, but I don’t fell guilt that I did not hurt myself, so I do believe that what empathy and compassion are different emotions than guilt. But let’s forget emotions.

If the reason he hurt himself was because he didn’t have any shoes and you had half a dozen pairs perhaps you should.

Notice by the way that, in this thread at least, there has been much more instances of people saying “stop blaming [insert whomever] and telling them they are bad people” than cases of people saying “I blame [insert whomever] and they are bad people.”

I blame the American petty bourgeoisie and declare they are bad people.

172

bianca steele 12.09.17 at 12:58 am

Addendum: we don’t have neighborhood schools. The only way we could get all kids sorted into the closest school would be if they all needed/preferred the services and programs available at that school, and since few schools are located in the most densely populated areas, that wouldn’t really work either.

173

engels 12.09.17 at 1:15 am

Of course, those who sacrifice to become surgeons or scientists or entrepreneurs should have access to a basket of status-goods denied to those of us who make fewer sacrifices for public welfare.

What ‘sacrifices’ do they make that people working long hours in exhausting, hazardous and/or unpleasant low-paid jobs don’t?

174

engels 12.09.17 at 1:28 am

(As someone who got a good degree in a STEM subject from a respected university I can testify it was a hell of a lot easier and more fun than working minimum wage jobs for four years—I know because I did that during the holidays…)

175

engels 12.09.17 at 1:42 am

Seems like there’s an interesting dovetail between Harry’s bafflement as to how tuition fees could lead to greater wage premiums for credentials and b9n10nt‘s rationalisations of income inequality on the basis of the ‘sacrifices’ professionals make to qualify…

176

b9n10nt 12.09.17 at 5:23 pm

engels:

I think many people work harder and under more stressful conditions and do more socially-useful work than others: emergency room doctors vs. real estate agents, first-responder cops vs. retail managers, emergency response social workers vs. physical therapists. These are professions in which workers are regularly traumatized (“secondary” or “vicarious” trauma) and yet must/should be doing high-level cognitive work all the while. Along another axis of difficulty (namely, risk): entrepreneurs and scientists risk investments of time, effort, and money. Their business could fail or their research could become irrelevant or flawed. Others pursue careers in stable beaurocracies or less-demanding task or do work that is inherently rewarding (artists, artisans, performers) regardless of outcome. Society should definitely have differential rewards (nicer house, fancier clothes, food, etc…) commensurate with these sacrifices that are made for socially-critical work.

Again, such inequalities in status-goods would only be just in a society in which two other “baskets” of goods and services* were shared equally by all (e.g. education, healthcare, law, voting/lobbying, parks/nature) or provided at a baseline (e.g. housing, nutrition, leisure time, income).

*Cian at 165: please note I am emphasizing this distinction! Wealthy individuals should be sanctioned for seeking better healthcare, or legal representation, or political influence than the poorest in society.

177

engels 12.09.17 at 9:14 pm

FT: Students fear they are being milked for cash by UK universities

178

engels 12.09.17 at 11:15 pm

B9 I think you’ll find that hypothetical problem is a long way from the real world. I think I’ve read that the job categories who are under the chronic stress on average are low-paid workers and the unemployed.

179

engels 12.09.17 at 11:18 pm

Anyway I don’t think there should be a financial reward for studying hard (as I said, I don’t think there should be a cost either).

180

J-D 12.09.17 at 11:32 pm

Layman
The extent of any psychological pressure and possible emotional stress required to get people to support systemic change is significantly less then than the extent of the psychological pressure and possible emotional stress required to get people to change their individual behaviour patterns. If you want to get me to change the way I treat my child, you are going to have to give me reason to think that there are flaws in the way I treat her now, and it makes sense for you to expect that I won’t like it; if you want to get me to support change to the way the system treats children, you am going to have to give me reason to think that there are flaws in the way the system treats children now, but I am much less likely to take that personally in the same way.

181

Collin Street 12.10.17 at 12:48 am

Occupations that are stressed are those that are exploited by shitty arsehole management. This corrolates with low wages, but the causation is backwards: people get low wages because underpaying people is a way you can abuse them.

182

Collin Street 12.10.17 at 12:52 am

Ultimately that pretty much explains all our shitty social structures: why does X happen, because it provides opportunity for some people to abuse others. And… that’s basically the heart of the conservative project right there, innit, I need to trap people so they can’t run away if I abuse them, I need to disable all bar one power structure, the one I controll.

183

b9n10nt 12.10.17 at 2:54 am

Engels @ 178 (& Collin Street)

Yes, the stress that is a result of unequal power (which today dwarfs the social hardship created by first-responders and risk-takers) can be addressed through egalitarian reform/revolution. But some social production is inherently more traumatizing or risky even in an egalitarian society. If this is acknowledged, and if there are equally-distributed goods and services, and baseline-distributed goods and services, then status-goods distributed by scarcity become an enhancement of social justice, not a detractor of it.

184

engels 12.10.17 at 4:44 pm

185

Cian 12.10.17 at 5:38 pm

Wages, once you account for resources, are driven by power and status. I suppose that b9n10nt’s utopia might be possible with some kind of AI carrying out social planning on a vast scale. But I think I’d rather focus on more attainable problems such as overthrowing the current social order and replacing it with something democratic and egalitarian (all ironies are intended).

186

harry b 12.10.17 at 6:04 pm

“Seems like there’s an interesting dovetail between Harry’s bafflement as to how tuition fees could lead to greater wage premiums for credentials and b9n10nt‘s rationalisations of income inequality on the basis of the ‘sacrifices’ professionals make to qualify”

I’m baffled why you think I’m baffled. Of course I see how they could. I just see no evidence that they have (in the uk over the past 19 years or, actually, in the US for that matter)

187

Harry 12.10.17 at 6:20 pm

I missed this:

“If you’re thinking in terms of inter-generational opportunity-hoarding I don’t know why you’d think educational pathways becoming increasingly inflected by parental resources and educational outcomes becoming more salient for career advancement were unrelated processes.”

Thing is… if we’re looking at the past 40 years post-secondary has become LESS inflected by parental resources, because it has expanded and become much more widely available, even to people whose parents can’t afford to live near a ‘good’ school. The big expansion occurred in the 90s, but it has continued even past the crash, and seems to have been pretty much unaffected by fee increases. Of course, there must be a limit to that, and of course if loans were undischargeable (as they more or less are in the US) that would make a difference. But loan debt is effectively a tax on having participated in higher ed. (A clue here is that most children whose parents could easily pay nevertheless take loans because it is more rational than paying). Its very easy to explain the change in the premium by appeal to increases in inequality (partly caused by technological changes, partly by deliberate tax policy) in the economy.

188

Jerry Vinokurov 12.10.17 at 9:23 pm

On the recommendation of the OP, I read through the Reeves book, and found it… underwhelming. If the purpose of the book is to catalogue some policies that the upper quintile (of which, full disclosure, I’m a member) uses to “hoard opportunity,” in his inelegant phrasing, then I guess the book has some utility. But if the purpose is to actually explain why and how the structural conditions of this hoarding come about and can be corrected, then there’s nothing of use in there whatsoever. Of course we’ve known for a long time that many “good liberals” will eagerly support such things as racially discriminatory schooling so long as it goes by another name and stands to affect them personally; same with exclusionary zoning and so on.

There are certainly abuses outlined in this book that should be corrected, but pretty much everything Reeves recommends is ludicrously unambitious and won’t do anything but affect the problem of inequality at the margins (except maybe eliminating the HMID). Take his suggestion that we should eliminate 529 plans; ok, sure, let’s do that, but who benefits the most from those plans? It’s not “the top quintile,” so much as “the top quintile of the top quintile,” and even then, these are already people who have the means to pay for college in other ways. Eliminating 529s on their own won’t do anything for the vast majority of Americans who don’t have college savings plans, nor will it in any way reduce the determination of the top quintile to send their kids to college. It’s a marginal policy at the very best.

Likewise, eliminating legacy admissions, while obviously correct, is not a solution to anything at all. It would affect the relative odds of perhaps 1% of all college applicants, most of whom are choosing between schools of relatively equal and high prestige anyway. It should still be done as a matter of fairness, but we’re fooling ourselves if we imagine that this is going to make any difference in college accessibility.

Basically the problems that Reeves outlines are real but his solutions are so modest that they’re barely solutions at all; they’re just going to aggravate the people that they’re targetting, which would be fine if they would also achieve something, but they won’t. By focusing on “the top quintile” instead of the people who have the most meaningful influence on how policy is made in this country (the 1%, or more accurately, the 0.1%), Reeves is lumping professionals who have to live in the world that the billionaires make with the billionaires themselves.

Most of the ills that Reeves identifies would not exist in a country with a strong welfare state, and yet bizarrely, he calls free college (a thing that literally used to exist in the United States until right-wingers dismantled it) a “boondoggle” and Harry is apparently only too ready to join him there. The benefit of universal programs is that they build their own constituency, but apparently Harry and Reeves both think that we should soak the 20% at the point of entry and build a Byzantine system to then somehow redistribute the opportunity downwards. The last 40 years, at least, have demonstrated that this doesn’t really work, as it then turns subsidized college into a benefit “for the poor” rather than for everyone, and reduces the incentives to defend these programs when attacked. It also ignores the fact that even if I can afford college for my child, it’s surely better for me to amortize this cost over my lifetime as a taxpayer rather than incur it all at once. For example, I have to send my son to day care, which is expensive; I’d much rather pay out that amount in smaller chunks over several decades and provide free-at-point-of-service day care not just for my son but for everyone else too, rather than eat the fiscal shock all at once.

Cian up above in comment 133 is entirely correct and I want to echo everything they say. It baffles me that we’re still discussing this small-bore stuff as a serious solution to national problems. Even if some of it should be done out of simple fairness, many of these policies are barely relevant to the lives most people lead. If we want a more egalitarian society, we’re not going to get there because we tweaked some provision of the tax code; we’re going to get there because we’ll have engineered a massive wealth transfer from the top to the bottom.

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b9n10nt 12.10.17 at 9:48 pm

Cian: suppose that b9n10nt’s utopia might be possible with some kind of AI carrying out social planning on a vast scale.

Why would such meticulous social planning be necessary, more-so than already occurs?

“Basket 1” goods (equally provisioned) wouldn’t need AI: hospitals, schools, legal services (imagine a lottery system assigning you legal services per specialty) could be regulated to ensure that each institution serves all citizens equally. Something like voting infrastructure would be a model: (excepting poll station density & timing, gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral college, lobbying, fundraising, and advertising) the specific act of voting is institutionalized in such a way that rich and poor alike have the same vote. The rich don’t have separate voting technology with different ballots carrying a different weight. Why couldn’t law, healthcare, or education be organized and regulated similarly?

“Basket 2” goods (baseline provisioned) wouldn’t need AI: we already know how to run a welfare state.

“Basket 3” goods (status- or incentive-provisioned) could allow a regulated market to function with steeply progressive taxation to dampen any excessive inequality. No AI needed there.

Perhaps I’m missing something (& also this is a slight thread derailment, I concede), but why would different-in-kind meticulous social planning be necessary?

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Z 12.10.17 at 9:52 pm

Harry Thing is… if we’re looking at the past 40 years post-secondary has become LESS inflected by parental resources, because it has expanded and become much more widely available

To me, that is a crucial empirical question, perhaps the crucial one. If indeed post-secondary expands and become universal, as did primary and secondary education before, then the insulating effect of an essentially different level of education and the specific formative experiences its acquiring entailed (which perhaps coincidentally is synchronized with the period in life where close social circles are stabilized) will eventually be overcome by the universalization of the experience. If however a threshold of 20% to 30% of a generation achieving complete post-secondary education becomes an enduring feature of advanced western democracies, or if a higher proportion gets a post-secondary degree but a strict hierarchy of such degrees sharply divides them, and if consequently for the first time in the history of mass politics educative forces tend to separate citizens rather than to unite them, then a deep rethinking of democracy and of political thinking is in order as our standard mode of thinking about these was shaped in an age with completely different dynamics.

BTW, Harry and engels, thanks for the explanation about Shelley. I knew the poem but could not imagine that it was this Shelley that was referred to when talking about Corbyn’s formulation.

Layman Some people are pulling because they believe – perhaps rightly – that they’re insulated from any consequences of our society tearing apart.

Some people surely do. Still I think that people actually don’t know much about how other people live and devise their political preferences according to what they know, so according to their own experience mostly. When I’m feeling optimistic, I think that if they knew, they would understand, and that political organization can make them know.

engels I blame the American petty bourgeoisie and declare they are bad people.

Oh, sure, I didn’t forget about you. That’s why I did not write that nobody made such accusations.

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Paul Davis 12.10.17 at 11:09 pm

I don’t have the time or frame of mind to make a genuinely useful comment. But I do want to thank many of the participants here, along with Reeves and Harry as OP for the lengthy discussion that has led to some of the best fundamental (re)statements of the progressive goal (*) that I’ve read in a while. It is really inspiring.

(*) yes, I’m aware that talking about this in the singular is a risk. Nevertheless, some of the comments here really justify it, in the best possible way.

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engels 12.10.17 at 11:45 pm

Harry, from the point of view of relative positions that more people are going to university is irrelevant. The important question is the neatness of fit between the percentage that do go and their place in the academic hierarchy and and their parents’ positions. My impression is that is becoming more not less deterministic. (Since fees only came in recently we’re taking about the last decade, not the last four decades.)

I didn’t forget about you. That’s why I did not write that nobody made such accusations

Thanks—I guess.

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