This post is the second in our Summer Reading Group series discussing recent books on the current state of American democracy.
Richard Reeves. 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. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Press, 2017.
By Cabell Willis ‘16
Our summer book club continues to explore the social trends underlying the current climate of American democracy with a fresh look at the problem of inequality in Richard Reeves’ new book Dream Hoarders: How the Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in The Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What To Do About It. The book draws on and synthesizes insights from a wealth of contemporary and classic scholarship on inequality to challenge the prevailing assumption that the top “one percent” of the distribution is at fault for the highly unequal allocation of wealth and income in our society. Reeves instead faults the top quintile of the income distribution, contending that they are “hoarding” opportunities for their children, thus facilitating the perpetuation and reinforcement of wealth and privilege among those that already have it. As Reeves’ puts it in the early pages of his book,
“Class division becomes class stratification when these advantages—and thus status—endure across generations. In fact… upper-middle class status is passed down to the next generation more effectively than in the past and in the United States more than in other countries.” (Reeves, 18-19)
As a UK-born immigrant to the United States, Reeves was attracted to the American ideal of a classless society, but quickly discovered that class, while not formally conferred through hereditary titles, was more prevalent and self-perpetuating in American society than in other places around the world.
Reeves’ book exposes this ideal for what it is: a myth (in positive, not normative terms), or at least, an unrealized ideal. One of the best original expressions of the ideal of the classless society is Thomas Jefferson’s famous exaltation of the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. There are other historical sources of this ideal, which an intellectual historian would be better suited to explore elsewhere at length. Regardless of its origin, the ideal of equality rests at the foundation of the American experiment, drawing from and giving viability to the principles of individualism, meritocracy—working to earn one’s position in society—and the equality of opportunity for each individual to do so. The confounding paradox of American democracy, however, is that this ideal of equality has never been realized—in opportunities or in outcomes.
Meritocracy, too, deserves attention for its status as a mythical feature of American society—insofar as its realization depends upon the realization of an equality of opportunity that has never existed and may never exist. Yet Americans pride themselves and assign implicit class value to their peers based on their perceptions of merit: to be self-made in America is to embody the supposed realization of the ideal. Conversely, as philosopher Alain de Botton admonishes, in a society wherein the responsibility for one’s success and failure has shifted from the impersonal or supernatural forces of the universe to the actions of individual, those who do not achieve that success become society’s “losers”.
Success and Self-Conscious Smugness
As Reeves works to demonstrate, being self-made is a façade that obscures the circumstantial and contextual factors that contribute to our successes (especially the opportunities for enrichment that social class affords). Worrisomely, other recent studies suggest that the more successful people are, the more likely they are to see themselves as “self-made”, failing to recognize the opportunities that afforded their success, but also being less generous in their willingness to help others who lacked those same opportunities. The principle of individualism fuels this selfish tendency as inequality becomes exacerbated in an increasingly atomized society.
The well-to-do in society, regardless of political affiliation or ideological leanings, thus see themselves with a certain self-conscious smugness: They may be aware of the privilege that their success affords them while feeling simultaneously proud of it and guilty about it, but they remain in denial about the social costs of that success—both because they identify as “middle class”, and because the self-seclusion that their “opportunity hoarding” creates isolates them (and their children) from any real contact with those who suffer in the shadow of their success. Indeed, this seclusion has perhaps the most detrimental impact on democracy, insofar as it partitions society, accentuates partisan conflict, and undermines the common ground on which competing interests find compromise:
“When all our neighbors are like us, there is a danger that we end up living in a bubble. Economic sorting at the neighborhood level leads to social sorting in terms of schools, churches, and community groups. This means fewer interactions and social ties across social classes. A geography gap can become an empathy gap.”(Reeves, 106)
Questions of Agency and Interest
The balance of the solutions that Reeves proposes to close the burgeoning gap between the top twenty percent of the income distribution and everyone else focus, unsurprisingly, on the resources that go into the development of human capital before the age of 25—and the advantages that those in the top quintile have in securing and applying those resources to ensure their success. More pointedly, Reeves’ proposals focus on influencing attitudes and behaviors through public policy, starting with the problem of unplanned pregnancies and continuing with the need for increased parental involvement in early-childhood development, improvements to teacher quality and educational opportunity, and the elimination of nepotism and unfairness in access to internships. Yet these proposed solutions are based on some interesting assumptions about agency in the public sphere: namely, that the government can and should tap the scales for the sake of fairness.
Leaving arguments of the government’s normative role for more partisan ideological conversations, we may ask: can the government succeed in its efforts to these ends? Shaping attitudes and behavior is a tall order. There are cultural and institutional norms that run deep in the psyche of the upper-middle class that will be hard to alter. The reinforcement and perpetuation of privilege has become a path dependent phenomenon, and while institutional choices (such as zoning laws and tax subsidies) have clearly mattered in shaping this path, the weight of privilege also holds the balance of power, as Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson illustrate in their paper “Institutions as A Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth”: According to their causal model, the distribution of resources in a society determines de facto and de jure power, allowing those with that power to create the institutions that determine the distribution of resources. Most poignantly, perhaps: Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson point out that it is hard for those with power to act in a way that is contrary to their own interest. Thus, wealth and power become endogenous and self-perpetuating.
If there is a solution to the endogenous problem of wealth inequality in the United States, it is to illustrate to those with power that it is in the interest of the stability of society as a whole (and thus their own interest) to alleviate the strains of inequality. The dangers of failing to do so, history warns, are violent.
Reeves concludes his book with the controversial charge to the upper-middle class to “check our privilege”. He argues that we should do so for the sake of democratic principle—and for the American ideal of equality. We would ask citizens to act against their own self-interest—and the interest of their progeny in the name of this ideal. It doesn’t seem like a tall order; it may even seem a noble one. But while ideals may carry heavy weight in the breach of contemplation and the highbrow conversation of academic cocktail parties, they fall short in the dark, quiet hours of solitude when we are left to our own devices—and our primal instincts—to choose to act in ways contrary to our own self-interest.
Perhaps rather than principles, we need to appreciate the pragmatic value of Reeves’ proposition. Indeed, the value that equality of opportunity provides in a democratic society rests not in grandiose enlightenment principles of justice, but in its promise to mitigate conflict through institutionalized power sharing under the rule of law. Providing for the well-being of others—both relative and absolute—makes the world safer, and makes us all better off.
Questions for Discussion
- What are the strongest and most palatable of Reeves’ proposed solutions to the problems of opportunity hoarding, and what are the obstacles that they will face?
- Recognizing that attitudes of individualism and self-determination run as deep as the American identity of independence, what guarantee can (or should) there be that those who attain the top quintile of the wealth distribution will not create new “jigs” to shore up their own status and guarantee the success of their own children at the expense of others?
- I contend that Reeves misses an important opportunity to argue why inequality matters, and imply that this weakens the palatability of his argument among the very people to whom it must appeal. Does protecting stability through protection of the equality of opportunity offer a more convincing argument for sacrificing privilege than merely the principle of equality?
- Are you comfortable with the idea of “downward mobility” for your children—or even yourself—as Reeves puts it? (See pages 68-74.) Is there an alternatively “just” way to create equality of opportunity?
About the Author: Cabell Willis is a 2016 graduate of the M.A. program in Democracy and Governance. The views he expresses here are his and do not reflect those of Georgetown University, the Center for Democracy and Civil Society, or any other institution or organization.
 Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, “Institutions as A Fundamental Cause of Long Run Growth”, in Handbook of Economic Growth, vol. 1A, ed. Phillipe Aghion and Steven Durlaf (Elsevier B.V., 2005).