Congratulations. You've made the cover of Newsweek: "Is a new elite of highly paid, high-tech strivers pulling away from the rest of America?" Welcome to the "overclass," America's latest social problem.
The Bionomics Institute has given you a copy of the Reason editorial I wrote on the subject(October 1995), so I don't want to simply repeat it. Instead, I want to put the overclass debate in a broader political-intellectual context and give you some of the arguments behind it.
As those of you who heard me last year may remember, I believe that the traditional left-right political spectrum is increasingly unsatisfactory at explaining today's political alliances. Instead, it is much more useful to think of a spectrum divided between proponents of stasis and proponents of dynamism, between people who want to stop, reverse, or plan the social and economic future and people who embrace an open-ended, unpredictable future created by individual choices. (I'm currently working on a book developing this theme called The Future and Its Enemies, which will be published by The Free Press in 1998.)
One small example: Nothing expresses the conventional left-right dichotomy more than Crossfire. And the first Crossfire of this year was devoted to the future: not the future of the new Republican Congress, or of Bill Clinton's political career, or of any particular policy, but the future in general. And the show turned into a love-in between Pat Buchanan on the right and Jeremy Rifkin on the left.
Both were convinced that the future is bleak and that soon the only jobs left in the economy will be for brainiacs. Both wanted vigorous government action to restore what they perceived as the economic stability of past eras. Buchanan and Rifkin were both taken aback by their newfound alliance. They kept saying things like, "You sound like a Pat Buchanan column" and "I find myself...agreeing with Pat..., which gives me alarm." I wasn't a bit surprised, however. I've been using Buchanan and Rifkin for years to illustrate the static end of the spectrum. Indeed, they are among the purest representatives of one camp within that grouping: what I call Reactionaries, people who want to reverse change and restore the real or imagined past.
There is another important camp of Statics--which I call Technocrats. These are people who want to manage the future, to plan it from the top down--people who dislike open-endedness and unpredictability, people who would be profoundly uncomfortable with the ideas represented by this conference. Ira Magaziner and Ross Perot are, in different ways, Technocrats; it's no accident that both like to dictate not only how the government should run things but how other people's businesses should work.
The most important Technocrats in our political history are the people who coined the term, the turn-of-the-century Progressives who used engineering rhetoric and engineering models to argue that government experts should regulate our society and economy to ensure "efficiency" and equity. Many engineering-minded Progressives believed that diversity was inefficient and wasteful, that central planning would conserve resources. They were not for the most part socialists--they didn't want government to own the means of production--but they definitely believed in top-down direction.
Technocrats, by design, pick winners, establish standards. They impose a single set of values on the future. As Progressive founding father Herbert Croly wrote: "In becoming responsible for the subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose, the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth." And wealth distribution is only part of the picture. The Progressives also sought, for instance, to plan the nation's ethnic distribution, implementing for the first time an elaborate system of immigration quotas.
To get back to the official subject of my talk: What's interesting about the attack on the so-called overclass is that it unites both groups of Statics, both the Reactionaries and the Technocrats, in a single campaign against economic dynamism: a revolt against the growing number of affluent, well-educated Americans.
First some numbers, by way of background: As David Frum pointed out in a New York Times op-ed on the subject, the proportion of American households earning less than $25,000 in real dollars hasn't budged for two decades; it stays around 40 percent. But the middle class has been shrinking. Between 1980 and 1993 the proportion of households earning between $25,000 and $50,000 dropped from 50.7 percent to 47.1 percent. Where have the middle-class people gone? Not into poverty. Instead, the middle class is shrinking because more people are making more money than ever before in our history, because the economy is more open to talent. Frum writes: "Just as the American economy pulled its most talented people out of poverty in the 1950's, it pulled the ablest of its middle class into affluence in the 1980's."
This happy news has not escaped the attention of our ever-busy statis-pushing social critics. For about the last five years, a number of influential intellectuals, ranging from Robert Reich to Charles Murray, have been on a campaign to get America worried about knowledge workers. (In my editorial, I give a list of books in which this case is made; several of them quote lavishly from each other, which gives you some idea how social critics spread their ideas.) The knowledge workers we're supposed to worry about include not just high-tech types but, even more prominently, lawyers, professors, and journalists. In fact, the people making the critiques, with the possible exception of Reich, are so immersed in their own political-intellectual world that they really didn't think much about the "technology elite" until Wired came along and rubbed their faces in it. If you read the Newsweek article, you'll find that most of the time it seems to be talking about the Washington wonkocracy.
So...If you don't like economic dynamism, the so-called overclass makes an excellent target. Among Reactionary Statics, some critics such as the late Christopher Lasch have long extolled the virtues of traditional blue-collar neighborhoods, with their animus against mobility, learning, and cosmopolitanism. Lasch, quoting another writer on the famous ethnic neighborhood in Boston, speaks fondly of the "Charlestown ethic of getting by" as opposed to "the American imperative to get ahead." He says, "The people of Charlestown, deserted by the migration of more ambitious neighbors to the suburbs, had renounced`opportunity, advancement, adventure' for the `reassurance of community, solidarity, and camaraderie.'" So should we all, Lasch suggests. The Reactionary attack on knowledge workers is simply a subset of the broader attack by critics such as Lasch on commerce and science, which they see as disrupting traditional ways of life.
Most of the overclass critics are, however, Technocrats who, like Croly, believe they know the proper income distribution and would like to do something to impose it. That something is often vague. Some writers, such as Michael Lind, look favorably on high taxes (particularly a wealth tax), trade protectionism, and immigration restrictions. Others, such as Robert Reich, believe more government training and education programs are the answer. And everyone except maybe Charles Murray would like a mandatory national service program, which would neatly confiscate several years of everyone's life, essentially taxing human capital (and human capital formation).
What exactly these Technocratic critics are worried about is somewhat unclear and varies from person to person.
Sometimes, for instance, they seem to be worried that the overclass is too open, sometimes that it isn't open enough, and sometimes that it's open now but will somehow close up in the future. For instance, Michael Lind, who coined the term "overclass" in his book The Next American Nation, is a big critic of university admissions policies that favor alumni children. He rightly considers these "legacy" admissions anti-merit quotas, though he doesn't note that they've been steadily eroding over the past few decades--which one reason the fluid non-hereditary national "class" he's so concerned about has arisen. It's hard to simultaneously denounce both "legacy" admissions and meritocracy. But Lind manages.