Dec 7, 2010

Tax cuts and the "middle class"

The political blogosphere today is abuzz with analyses of President Obama's tax deal with the Republicans. There are a lot of people out there who can analyze the meaning of this deal for progressives much better than I can (Ezra Klein, first of all, and Matt Yglesias, David Dayen at firedoglake, David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo**).

But I will say this: I am fascinated by the broadness of the category "middle class" in American politics. Here we are debating about "tax cuts for the middle class," as opposed to "tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," when what we really mean are "tax cuts for 98% of Americans" and "tax cuts for 2% of Americans." How did 98% of Americans become "middle class?"

One answer, as Lizabeth Cohen argues in A Consumer's Republic, is that since World War II America has had an economy and polity based on mass consumption of mass-produced goods (and entertainment). If someone in the 30th percentile of income buys their clothes from the same store as someone in the 80th percentile, and watches the same movies, and eats the same food, economic distinctions are minimized in favor of cultural similarity.

But it's much deeper than that, I think. I'm not in the mood or the location at the moment to whip out all my books, but it reminds me of how, during the 19th century, everyone from struggling western farmers to huge southern plantation- and slave-owners claimed to be carrying the mantle of Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideal, in which the ideal republican citizen was an independent landowner and producer. I don't want to make overly facile analogies here, so I'll just say that I think the pretension that nearly all Americans, from the almost-poorest to the just-short-of-wealthiest, are "middle class" has a long history.

More importantly today, it has significant political ramifications: if everyone from a single mom earning $20,000 a year to a junior law associate making $200,000 a year is "middle class," we give ourselves an excuse to give the $200,000-makers more than they need in government services and fiscal policy, and to give the $20,000-makers far, far less.

** I am painfully aware that all of the people I just named are men, and I think all are white men. I'm sad to say that I'm having a bit of a hard time finding bloggers who aren't in those categories. Suggestions?

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