In upscale precincts of New Jersey, high school graduation looks more like a debutante ball. Maybe all the families living in the district have entries in Who's Who and the Social Register.
That's getting Laura "11-D" McKenna wondering about the propriety of it all.
It’s a nice night for the kids, but that’s a lot of money. And the time that went into constructing these sets could have been spent in a much more productive way. Right here in the same town, there are hundreds of special ed kids who could some reading tutoring. Twenty minutes from here, there are kids in Newark who need a whole lot of help.Not far away, Matt "Dean Dad" Reed's oldest is a year from graduation.
The advantages we’re giving our kids - lots of books, frequent discussion of politics and current events, a good school district, a stable home - will make it likelier that they’ll do well economically. The advantages accrue over time. That amounts, at some level, to the kind of hoarding that Lowrey/Reeves describe. That’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s real.How structural? Back to 11-D.
The issue is structural, as are the solutions. I don’t apologize for giving my kids lots of books, or for putting them in situations likely to help them thrive. As a parent, I consider that part of my job. They’re great kids -- I’m biased, but still -- and I want them to be able to develop into the best versions of themselves that they can. In my perfect world, every kid would get that chance. The ethical obligation here is to use politics to pay it forward.
Jonah is going off to college with private school sophistication. He and his classmates look years older than his peers in other towns. They hold themselves straight. They have no body fat or zits. They look adults in the eye and ask the right questions. They feel comfortable in a tux. Jonah knows how to order food in fancy restaurants and joins his friends at their million dollar shore houses. He is utterly comfortable in those settings. Those skills will serve him well in the future, so, as a mom, I’m happy. But when I put on my social justice hat, I feel ill.Yes, it's ultimately about the cultural capital. To Quartz's Dan Kopf, the investment in the right school districts and the association with like-minded neighbors is a new form of conspicuous consumption.
This is privilege. It’s not so much the education. Jonah’s education has been hit or miss. . . . So the kids here end up with a better education than kids in other public schools, but it’s not solely because of the quality of the schools. What they really gain from this town and living in this rich people’s bubble are soft skills that later translate into posh jobs in the city.
The fact that the aspirational class works, and that most of their income is based on the skills they have gained from high levels of education has made “social, environmental, and cultural awareness” the most valuable sources of social capital, [sociologist Elizabeth] Currid-Halkett argues.Yes, if it's possible to make relatively cheap cars look like the more expensive marques, one hoary form of status display goes away. But passing wealth down in the form of mansions or a string of polo ponies dissipates the fortune. Passing down the life-management skills, at a time when the intellectual Zeitgeist is all about deconstructing the bourgeois institutions, on the other hand, confers evolutionary advantages.
So instead of spending money on consumer products, Currid-Halkett finds that the rich increasingly focus their spending on “nonvisible, highly expensive goods and services” that allow them to have time to gain that social capital and foster it in their children. Such goods and services include child care, gardeners, and, most importantly, education. She refers to this type of spending as “inconspicuous consumption.”
And while it may be funny to joke about their yoga pants and affinity for kale, the rise of the “aspirational class” may have very real consequences. Perhaps most disturbing is Currid-Halkett’s conclusion that these consumption trends may exacerbate inequality. Increased spending by wealthy parents on education and health for their children, for example, may deepen class divides and limit opportunities for poorer kids.Indeed. The $160K that goes into converting a graduation party into a Willie Wonka themed debutante ball (complete with a post-party in the municipal pool) looks like old school conspicuous consumption, but it's in the kids learning the proper handshakes and the golf etiquette and the rest that they're better equipped to perform in job interviews and close the deal and all the rest. You could put that $160K into a Newark dropout factory or a St. Paul high school, and, up against the cult of authenticity and the fear of disproportionate suspension, it would be as nothing.
But the conventional wisdom still relies on calling on the well-off to pay more taxes. The Atlantic's Annie Lowrey picks up on the latest from Brookings's Richard Reeves. Same nostrums, different guilt trip.
The book traces the way that the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires. Still, their wage and investment increases have proven sizable. They dominate the country’s top colleges, sequester themselves in wealthy neighborhoods with excellent public schools and public services, and enjoy healthy bodies and long lives. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that—an exaggeration, not a fiction.”Put another way, it's the constraints imposed by Wise Experts that hold the Poor and Striving down.
They then pass those advantages onto their children, with parents placing a “glass floor” under their kids. They ensure they grow up in nice zip codes, provide social connections that make a difference when entering the labor force, help with internships, aid with tuition and home-buying, and schmooze with college admissions officers. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder: legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.
Legacy admissions? Those thick envelopes from the Ivies matter more to the extent that the land-grants and mid-majors and community colleges put being inclusive or offering access or whatever ahead of upping their academic efforts.
Preferential tax treatment? Shall we have a serious conversation about tax simplification, or is it better to have a complex tax code that can be exploited by rent-seekers?
College savings plans? Likewise, with the further effect that it conceals in complexity a regressive transfer that was present in the days of more generous state subsidies for their public universities, but that transfer at least offered the possibility of a striving kid from less-prosperous circumstances being able to matriculate, and make tuition, fees, room, and board on a commissary job during the academic year and a summer factory or warehouse job.
Occupational licensing? Whenever the government creates a cartel, it generates rents that it dissipates somehow. You'd think Mr Reeves, who used to be with The Washington Monthly, might have more to say about that. I did. "A rollback of occupational licensing in the right places well might help the prospects of young people rendered unemployable by government schools and the minimum wage. There is still work to do."
Restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals? Among people who would be appalled by somebody saying anything nice about Our President? The horror, the horror!
But for all of Mr Reeves's experience studying and writing about policy things, he's left with nothing more than throwing more money at poverty, and calling on the currently prosperous to sacrifice.
Expanding opportunity and improving fairness would require the upper-middle class to vote for higher taxes, to let others move in, and to share in the wealth. Prying Harvard admission letters and the mortgage interest deductions out of the hands of bureaucrats in Bethesda, sales executives in Minnetonka, and lawyers in Louisville is not going to be easy.Nor will it work. Think first of policies to inculcate the habits of the middle class among the residents of the poorer quarters: then perhaps money might be more productively thrown at poverty.