Unstacking the deck

Nick Cassella

August 15, 2017

When I called my Dad to tell him I had less than $100 in my bank account, he was understandably frustrated. Here he was subsidizing his son’s second internship in Washington DC — an unpaid one at that. He never had to intern in the 1980s. He spent his summers working in the back of kitchens, graduated from college and then got a middle-class job. He most likely anticipated that I would follow a similar order. Rinse and repeat.

He told me to get a second job, but I was already working 9 to 5 and anyway, I told him, no one hires somebody who is in town for a month. Sensing a tinge of disappointment and a considerable amount of annoyance over the phone, I added, believe me, Dad, these internships are required to get ahead in today’s world. Ultimately, he trusted my instincts and, because he wanted his son to succeed, deposited $1,000 into my account.

In other words, I have privilege coming out of my eyeballs.

Actions like my father’s are a clear example of what Richard Reeves calls “opportunity hoarding” in his newest book, Dream Hoarders. Opportunity hoarding is defined as actions taken by upper middle class parents that aim to attain “valuable, finite opportunities” for their children “by unfair means”: unpaid internships, legacy preferences at universities, exclusionary zoning laws and schooling, and more. The author argues that these hoarding actions perpetuate income inequality that acts as a “wealth trap” — where Americans with wealthy parents never truly have to worry about falling down the economic ladder. In other words, we have our butts covered.

We Americans might like to think we live in an economy where hard work dictates success, but, Dream Hoarders emphatically replies, we’re deluding ourselves. We are living in a “hereditary meritocracy,” in a society where the lower rungs see an insurmountable climb to the top of the economic ladder.

What’s novel about the book’s thesis is that unlike Thomas Piketty or Occupy Wall Street, Reeves does not spend his time critiquing “a small number of people, mostly business executives, who make huge amounts of money.” According to Reeves, our unequal era should forget this political trope and analyze the data — and the data’s clear: the “Great Divide” in opportunity and wealth lies between the top quintile of America and the rest of the nation. Even when you exclude the top 1 percent, the subsequent 19 percent still hold more than half of the nation’s wealth. It is then the top 20 percent of Americans (households making $112,000 or more), not just the top 1 percent, who are “pulling away from the rest of society.”

By scapegoating the top 1 percent, the upper middle class has been able to “convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America.” Dream Hoarders implores its wealthy readers to acknowledge their advantages, reflect, and see that they are, in fact, the beneficiaries of the current system. And if the upper echelons of society really are “serious about narrowing the gap between ‘the rich’ and everybody else,” then they need to accept a “broader conception of what it means to be rich.”

Here’s the problem: even if those in the top 20 percent recognize that their “opportunity hoarding” distorts the marketplace, parents will always want their kids to do well. And why shouldn’t they? Doing the best for your children is a basic human instinct that cannot and should not be legislated away. Reeves agrees. It’s neither practical nor right for the government to interfere and prevent upper middle class parents from doing all they can for their kids. Reeves even admits that “much of what the upper middle class does [for their children] ought to be emulated” by the bottom 80%, but also remains sensitive to the reality that lower-income individuals aren’t often given the means to “emulate.”

So upper middle class parents should keep doing the best for their children. Get tutors for English and purchase the best SAT online courses, of course, Reeves says. Be aware, though, that these actions, like my internship experience, distort competition. They are blatantly uncompetitive and unfair and act as incredibly effective ways of perpetuating family status and wealth.

Reeves’ solution to the unfair and non-meritocratic society is not anti-market at all, which will disappoint those readers hoping for a more radical response to capitalism. He instead believes we should ameliorate our inequality problem by equalizing “opportunities for developing merit.” Some of the policies he advocates are convincing, like improving access to birth control (which can allow young women to stay in school), but others are frustratingly parochial, like addressing legacy preferences at university. Is alleviating this unfair practice really one of the few best ways to equalize America? Clearly not. Yet Reeves obsesses over rich kids getting spots in Ivy League schools, instead of addressing far bigger contributors to inequality, like unequal access to health care — a focus that seems oddly subjective. Honest solutions demand objectivity.

Brilliantly, once Reeves gets the reader to admit that yes, we have a terribly big gap between the top 20 percent and the rest, he reminds us of a stubborn fact you might not have considered: If you really want a fairer society where rags-to-riches stories aren’t just Hollywood tropes, then that necessitates a riches-to-rags tale for some. What comes up must come down. That’s tough to stomach for a lot of wealthy parents, especially when there is such a large drop off between the haves and the have-nots.

So as inequality widens, there is more and more reason for those who benefit from the system to perpetuate it. Like quicksand, we have sunk into an ever-more-stratified society, where “the incentives of the upper middle class to keep themselves, and their children, up at the top have strengthened.” This analysis by Reeves is a wonderful piece of social imagination and unveils a strikingly obvious, yet ugly, reality.

Another telling insight from this book came from Reeves’ perspective on the rather lean nature of the American welfare system. He speculates that as inequality has worsened since the 1970s, the upper classes haven’t needed to worry as much about the welfare state. They believe their children will never need these government services, so they have little to no incentive to give their tax money away (yes, Americans really are that self-interested). From this view, inequality nourishes inequality.

While not the only explanation for the poverty of our welfare system, this way of looking at government services should challenge upper middle class Americans. Are you likely to support a policy if you know you or your loved ones will not be the ones benefitting? If yes, are you willing to give your money away to make that policy a reality?

Harkening back to my DC internship, if I could have applied for food stamps or some sort of “unpaid internship grant” — I would have. While some would envision this as a waste of government spending, consider that if I went to the government instead of my Dad for financial aid, at least the former option would also be available to someone else. Such a “welfare” system would even the playing field, so that unpaid internships could be contested based on skills and genuine competition, not race or economic background. If the American government really desires economic mobility and free market competition, then it should be pouring time and resources into policies that nullify opportunity hoarding.

The questions Dream Hoarders provokes are its greatest strength. This book will will provide for one hell of a dinner-table conversation. The core argument is an insightful piece of political analysis laced with discomfort. As a result, upper middle class Americans may resist fully endorsing Dream Hoarders’ arguments. Nobody wants to think they didn’t earn their prosperity — it’s hard to admit that “success” in your life can be more accurately traced back to the luck of birth, rather than any special gumption.

The time for abdicating responsibility has passed, though. The election of Donald Trump should serve as a stern reminder of what can happen when the rich operate in their own realities and don’t appreciate the pain, suffering, and frustration of those around them. Dream Hoarders beseeches its readers to ditch the arrogant detachment from the rest of society and appreciate that the one percent cannot shoulder all of the blame for inequality. That responsibility should fall on the shoulders of all the beneficiaries of the current system. And if we’re being honest, that includes us.

Books in this review:
  • Dream Hoarders
    by Richard Reeves
    Brookings Institution Press
    June 13, 2017
    240 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

A human that almost exclusively reads non-fiction and has a particular fondness for political theory.

Follow Nick Cassella on Twitter: @Nick_Cassella

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