Monday, September 16, 2019

The Super Rich Problem

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It has become trendy within the past few years to blame all of the country's problems on the "super rich," roughly defined (by me) as those making more than a couple million dollars per year. And yet, while I would agree that they are in large part responsible for today's lack of social mobility, worsening income inequality, and more, I would argue that blaming them for everything risks misdirecting from another problem. 

What am I referring to? The apathy of the so-called "upper-middle class." Personally, I would define this as individuals making around $100,000 a year, or families making a combined income upwards of $200,000 a year (depending on where you live of course, adjust the numbers upwards if you are living somewhere like San Francisco).

While it is true that these people don't have as much power and influence individually as the super rich, I think that, as a collective, they pretty much shape the direction of politics in the United States via their combined purchasing power and influence over those of us who are less fortunate than they are.

And I think the problem here is that this class of folks too often uses the "super rich" as a scapegoat to excuse their own political inaction. They take the stance that, because they aren't Jeff Bezos, they aren't going to affect change to the same extent. This results in them bowing out of the political game, choosing to sit on the sidelines rather than to take steps to ensure that society moves forward. 

This is a problem. Why? Well, think of the kinds of people who often make enough money to enter the "upper-middle class." These are tenured professors, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, scientists, researchers of all stripes. In other words, these are people who command respect and have considerable influence over their subordinates, and thus, if they wanted to, could do a lot to fight for people who don't benefit from the current system as much as they do.

But I don't see that happening, at least, not to the extent that it should be happening. The many problems facing this country aren't going to be solved by waiting for millionaires to do something about it. They're going to be solved by normal people actively working to keep the country afloat on a daily basis. But if those people decide not to take action, then nothing is ever going to change.

Let's use the example of skyrocketing tuition rates. Is that something that the super rich can solve? Maybe if we tax them enough (which we should be doing anyways). But, realistically speaking, this is a problem that the upper-middle class could have solved years ago if they wanted to. It would have required a sacrifice on their part, i.e. fewer salary increases, reduction of administrative bloat, and a freeze on non-education related spending intended only to increase revenue (newer gyms, stadiums, entertainment facilities, etc.). Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

Too often I see the existence of the super rich being used as an excuse to put zero effort into affecting positive change. Should we be taxing Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet far more than we are? Yes. Should the existence of a billionaire class that doesn't pay their fair share into improving society prevent us from trying to create positive change? No.

The counter argument to all of this is probably something similar to the following: maybe the upper-middle class does try to create positive change, but are prevented from doing so by internal conflict. In other words, too many in the upper-middle class identify with more conservative political ideologies, which naturally tends towards caring less about the general welfare of society and more about ensuring that individuals have the most "freedom" to make their own lives better.

While that is likely part of the problem, I've noticed that apathy towards the lower and middle classes is common even among those members of the upper-middle class who identify as liberal or progressive. It's this sense of apathy that keeps taxes on the super rich low, tuition rates high, and health insurance inaccessible.

I'll end with this: those of you who are in the upper-middle class have so much more power and influence than you think. If all of you organized and started to try and change society for the better tomorrow, it'd be a tremendous first step in achieving the kind of change everyone would benefit from. If we don't start solving the many problems plaguing society now, there may no longer be an upper-middle class for my generation to stagger into in the years to come. And that's something that should concern everyone, because we're the ones who will be tasked with keeping everything running smoothly in the decades to come. 

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About The Author

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to and the Davis Humanities Institute.