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
Richard V. Reeves
You would think, by now, that I’d have learned my lesson . Should I really be surprised when, upon close reading, an author turns out to be engaged in the great game of careerism?
Last July, in writing about a David Brooks column, I mentioned the book pictured nearby, promising to get to it. Well, I have and I’m not sure anyone else has to. I’ll tip my hat to the NPR-centric promotional campaign, it caught my attention. I just don’t think much of the payoff.
Richard V. Reeves is a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution where he focuses on economics and family issues. Brookings, as our author and anyone paying attention will tell you, is a liberal think tank. Here’s where my problems start. In my ongoing love affair with thinking I foolishly took a term of art at face value. What goes on at Brookings may pass for thinking, but it’s not what I think thinking is.
On the basis of this volume I’d have to say Brookings is more a policy shop, by which I mean they take political positions and make the case for them. That they do so under a pseudo-academic guise is why I’m irked. That approach walks right up to the line of intellectual dishonesty. The existence of corresponding conservative institutions merely underscores the fact that Brookings plays the inside elite game of DC.
Mr. Reeves–not to be confused with engineer turned journalist Richard Reeves whom I have been reading since the early 1980s–is an immigrant from Great Britain who has taken US citizenship. Prior to his emigration he worked as strategy director for the Deputy Prime Minster. So his perspective has been shaped by walking the corridors of power.
Just what is he here to tell us? It’s all there in the subtitle. This is a work of description, admonition and prescription. It’s enough, if you’ll pardon the expression, to get my Irish up. Reeves has the unfortunate tendency of the convert to be more evangelical about his choice than those born to the faith. And if you’ve been paying attention to these posts you’ve by now recognized that I view these United States as an act of faith.
Here’s the argument set out in a single sentence paragraph early on: “There is one good reason why many Americans may feel as if the upper middle class is leaving everyone else behind: They are.” (p. 3)
To be fair, Reeves tells us he’s a member in good standing of this group. Which is why he understands the importance of what he has discerned and why it’s imperative that he convince us–the sort of people who listen to NPR and buy books like his (or at least take them out of the library)–that we must act to redress this problem. Otherwise, our very souls are at risk.
I’m overstating just a little. One element of Reeves’ style is to share anecdotes about members of our class, including himself–the use of the word ‘our’ is particularly unsubtle–and end by stating that the actors, generally folks described as liberals, knew their actions were “morally wrong.”
The first time I encountered that statement was on page 15. If I wasn’t already on the road to dismay that would have put me there. It’s a feature of modern scholarship that morality plays no role. We can debate whether it should or not another time. Here, it’s a given that people want to live moral lives and that they agree upon a base morality.
I’m not certain that agreement exists–it’s what we’ve been disagreeing about for forty or fifty years now. Reeves barely acknowledges that. Instead he treads already plowed ground. In a nutshell, he argues that the upper middle class–in his formulation the upper 20% of the income distribution–has created, or acquiesced in the creation of, structural barriers that preserve their position.
In particular he singles out three prime examples: legacy admissions at highly selective universities and colleges, exclusionary zoning and internships. He demonstrates that the current practices in each area benefit the people already there.
On a positive note, Reeves is not above skewering progressives and plutocrats alike. My favorite anecdote had Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, petitioning for a waiver so his daughter could take an internship. His successor, Bill de Blasio, decried such behaviors during his campaign–and then requested similar waivers for his own children. Hypocrisy, like illness and death, plays no favorites.
Reeves has thought about how to redress such problems. Specifics aside, here’s everything you need to know about the best way to lower these locally controlled barriers: “This is when it becomes necessary for more distant political institutions, including state and federal government, to intervene in the pursuit of these social welfare goals.” (p. 106)
In fact, this has been done before–and better–without the gentle scolding and polite insistence that something must be done. For example, assortative mating. Reeves–like other folks striving for the authority of science–uses this term to talk about what social scientists call endogamy.
The only thing new here is Reeves playing Roget. David Brooks tackled this more memorably–and with the trademark grinning humor that bothers his critics; he calls his approach comic sociology–when he described the weddings pages of The Sunday New York Times in Bobos in Paradise. That was back in 2000 when Brooks had repatriated from…Great Britain. Hmmm.
Or how about this building barriers to protect you and yours thing? That’s a new discovery, right? It’s certainly received a lot of attention since Donald Trump was elected President. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who read Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s 1989 book on the same subject.
Reeves hardly holds his own against Ehrenreich. There’s a good reason, though. Ehrenreich present formidable challenges. Holder of a PhD in cellular immunology and an avowed Marxist, she has the scientific chops and moral framework (I’m not asking you to agree with it, just to acknowledge that it exists) Reeves can only dream of. Where Reeves enjoins Ehrenreich thunders.
There’s more including Reeves’ seeming ignorance of theories of social capital which is what he is really complaining about. He dismisses Piketty, the current star of inequality studies, on economics grounds. I suspect he didn’t pursue the denser volumes in the Frenchman’s bibliography. Pauvre rosbif, his intellectual meal is wanting.
Which brings me back to the business of think tanks. I’d presumed that when marque names from journalism and government moved to them that it was to do deeper, more meaningful work. I’m rethinking that now. At a minimum there’ s some recreating the work of others.
That, too, is not a new phenomenon. However, it was more understandable fifty or more years ago when geographic separation led to simultaneous development of similar, yet differently named, social theories. Come to think of it, it was happening 300 years ago in mathematics, too.
I just don’t know how a product such as this book is meant to impact policy, even if I accept it as new. It’s clearly not scholarship although it bears some of the trappings. What it reminds me of is an undergraduate honors thesis at a college that allows for them. Lots of footnotes (although, strikingly, no bibliography), some new charts and graphs, a set of recommendations.
More important, it’s sloppy work. Repeatedly Reeves references the communities the upper middle class wants to live in for their schools. It’s a nice thought but currently the communities of choice for upper middle class (and aspiring UMC) people lie in urban enclaves not renowned for great public schools: among them Brooklyn, Manhattan and Chicago. It takes a generation to affect change in such lumbering bureaucracies and so private school is all but a de facto requirement of such a real estate choice and one that public policy can’t really touch.
How about simple fact checking? On page 112, discussing legacy admissions, he references “ …Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school in Andover, New Hampshire.” Well, no. Phillips Academy is located in Andover, Massachusetts. Phillips Exeter, in fact, is located in New Hampshire, but in Exeter as the name implies. And let’s not forget that Andover, NH is home to the Proctor Academy.
I know it seems like a nit, but if you don’t sweat the details why should I believe you on the larger issues?
I don’t want to pooh pooh what’s a very real problem. I think these issues lie, in part, perhaps large part, behind the election of Donald Trump. But I don’t see these prescriptions–or more intrusive government programs–engendering what is after all a moral mission–to change people’s relations to their fellow citizens.
That’s a job for qualified personnel, not think tank employees.