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‘The elites are hoarding the American Dream’

Batya Ungar-Sargon on the establishment’s betrayal of the working classes.

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Topics Politics USA

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Whatever happened to the American Dream? Only a generation ago, millions of Americans still held to this vision of meritocracy. The US prided itself on being the land of opportunity, where the rigid class system of the old world could be overcome. But as Batya Ungar-Sargon lays out in her new book, Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Working Men and Women, the dream has collided with a new reality. An oligarchy has emerged, propping itself up by keeping the working classes down. The laptop class thrives, while hardworking Americans are increasingly struggling to get by.

Batya discussed all these issues and more on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from the conversation. Listen to the full thing here.

Brendan O’Neill: What has happened to meritocracy in America?

Batya Ungar-Sargon: What’s happened in the US is tragic. Americans still like to see ourselves as a classless society. We want to believe that we’re a nation that has abandoned the burdens of aristocracy. Part of how we left those burdens behind was by believing that the US should adopt a meritocratic drive. We pushed the idea that a person’s talents should raise them up as high as possible. But this drive for meritocracy has effectively calcified into an oligarchy of credentialism.

What I mean by this is that certain kinds of talents, such as being able to sit and study for a very long time, can pretty much guarantee you a successful life in America. But the talents that we need much more, like being able to drive a truck for 12 hours straight or care for the elderly, are treated as though they are worthless. The people who do these tasks – the working classes – are treated like they’re nothing.

Not only have many working-class jobs been shipped abroad, workers at home are also expected to compete with millions of illegal immigrants. At the same time, the American working class has suffered a huge downgrade in status, with the rise of a new knowledge-based economy.

The policies that led us to this point were not an accident. They were intentionally put in place by governing elites, giving rise to an oligarchy of the top 20 per cent. This elite controls more than 50 per cent of US GDP, but few of them do jobs that actually contribute to the survival of the US. I find that to be both horrifying and disgusting.

This elite group created an economy that transfers wealth from the working and middle classes to themselves. At the same time, and in an effort to mask this, the new oligarchy developed an unbelievable contempt for working Americans. This has created a feedback loop, where the elites believe that the average American is a racist, xenophobic threat to democracy. As a result, they no longer care that millions of good, working-class jobs are being shipped overseas. They don’t care that working Americans are being forced to battle migrants for the few jobs that are left.

O’Neill: Why don’t we hear more about this new oligarchy?

Ungar-Sargon: Many on the left, even mainstream Democrats, love to rail against billionaires. But this is a largely misguided obsession. In 1971, more than half of US GDP was held by middle-income earners. Today, as I mentioned before, more than half of it is instead controlled by the top 20 per cent. But the share of GDP that’s controlled by the billionaire class has only slightly increased between 1971 and today. The real upward transfer of wealth has gone to that elite 20 per cent. This is the group that has the most influence on government policy. They are very good at understanding their own economic interests.

Broadly speaking, I would say that the top 20 per cent are people who have a college degree and who work in the knowledge economy, in careers like IT and marketing. They will usually have multiple degrees and they’re often married to people who also have a college degree. We’re talking about people who make anywhere between $130,000 and $400,000 a year. People on dual incomes can easily clear $1million a year. There’s certainly a spectrum, but $130,000 comfortably gets you into that top 20 per cent. For context, the average national US salary today is just under $60,000.

A lot of young people who make over $130,000 are living in expensive cities like New York City, Washington, DC or Los Angeles, so many of them still can’t buy homes. As a result, these people will outright deny that they belong to some kind of elite. They will spin this narrative that millennials are the first generation to be poorer than their parents. That is true for everybody in America except for the college-educated elites. These people are making, on average, three per cent less than Generation X was at their age. And compared with that generation, they’re actually just as likely to be able to afford a home.

This generational narrative conveniently ignores that it is the working classes who are poorer than their parents. It is the working classes who are dying earlier, whose life expectancy is dropping, who have poorer health outcomes. If you have a college degree in America, you will make on average $1.2million more over the course of your career than a person without a degree. You will also live longer, you’ll be healthier and your life is insulated from the kinds of deaths of despair, crime and drug addiction that plague the bottom end of the working class.

Class is hard to talk about. But the divide has become undeniable. It’s also become so heritable that any of the factors mentioned above – such as not having a college degree – are bound to predict those other factors. America has become a caste-based society, where only the top 20 per cent can pass on wealth and success to their children. The elites are hoarding the American dream from everyone else.

Batya Ungar-Sargon was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Politics USA

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