March 13, 2021

FLASHBACK: REIHAN SALAM: The Upper Middle Class Is Ruining America — And I want it to stop.

You might be wondering why I’m so down on the upper middle class when they’re getting in the way of the tax hikes that will make big government even bigger. Doesn’t that mean that while liberals should be bothered by the power of the upper middle class, conservatives should cheer them on? Well, part of my objection is that upper-middle-income voters only oppose tax hikes on themselves. They are generally fine with raising taxes on people richer than themselves, including taxes on the investments that rich people make in new products, services, and businesses. I find that both annoyingly self-serving and destructive. The bigger reason, however, is that upper-middle-class people don’t just use their political muscle to keep their taxes low. They also use it to make life more expensive for everyone else.

Take a seemingly small example—occupational licensing. In North Carolina, teeth-whiteners without expensive dental degrees would like to be allowed to sell their services but are opposed by the state’s dentists, as Eduardo Porter noted in a recent New York Times column. Are the good dentists of North Carolina fighting the teeth-whiteners because they fear for the dental health of North Carolinians? It doesn’t look like it. A more plausible story is that dentists don’t want to compete with cut-rate practitioners, because restricting entry into the field allows them to charge higher prices. We often hear about how awesome it is that Uber is making taxi service cheaper and more accessible for ordinary consumers but how sad it is that they are making life harder for working-class drivers who drive traditional cabs. Notice that upper-middle-class credentialed professionals like dentists, lawyers, and doctors rarely get Uber’d to the same degree. Even when innovative services try to do things like, say, offer a free alternative to expensive insurance brokers, state and local governments will often step in to say, “Oh, no you don’t.” Want to offer a low-cost, high-quality education by, say, replacing expensive professors with Filipino instructors who teach calculus over streaming video? Sorry, pal, you first have to get approved by an accreditation body controlled … by the existing schools you’re trying to out-compete, which employ upper-middle-class people who don’t take any crap.

Or take immigration policy: Dean Baker of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research has called for increasing the number of doctors, dentists, and other professionals allowed into the U.S. while limiting the number of less-skilled people, like would-be retail clerks, custodians, and housekeepers. The reason is that high-skilled immigrants squeeze the wages of upper-middle-class professionals, who can afford to take a hit while lowering the cost of various services for poorer people by giving them the option of going to cheaper doctors and dentists. By contrast, bringing in retail clerks, custodians, and housekeepers makes life cheaper for the upper-middle-class professionals while squeezing the wages of working people, particularly immigrants who already live in the U.S. Want to guess how popular the idea of increasing the wages of nannies is with the upper-middle-class people who employ them? I’d love to know, but I’m sorry to report that upper-middle-class pollsters have yet to ask the question.

Yes, but I know the answer. Plus: “Even more egregious is the way that upper-middle-class NIMBY-ism pushes for strict land-use restrictions that drive working- and lower-middle-class people out of the country’s most desirable and productive cities.”

Also: “The upper middle class controls the media we consume. They run our big bureaucracies, our universities, and our hospitals. Their voices drown out those of other people at almost every turn.”

Still true.

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