The wrong cure for a real crisis
THE CRISIS OF THE MIDDLECLASS CONSTITUTION: WHY ECONOMIC INEQUALITY THREATENS OUR REPUBLIC By Ganesh Sitaraman Knopf, $28, 423 pages
One of the problems with a book titled “The Crisis of the MiddleOClass
Constitution” is that, more than two centuries after ratification of that document, we still have no real consensus on exactly what is meant by the term “middle class.” Today, almost all of the people living and working in a luxury Manhattan condo — from the billionaire in the penthouse to the general manager in the business office, the receptionist in the lobby, the doorman at the entrance and the maintenance man in the basement — would probably describe themselves as “middle class.” Of course, each would have a different idea of what “middle class” meant; about the only universal qualifications they might agree on would be that being middle class means staying out of jail, off of welfare and on the job. In other words, being a law-abiding, productive member of society with no means test involved.
The big tent concept of the American middle class has served us well. It has also attracted wave after wave of positively motivated immigrants seeking a better life. For them, becoming an American didn’t mean changing passports; it meant starting life anew in a better place than the one they came from, not because they believed in some vague fantasy of economic equality, but because they believed in something very real and very attainable: economic opportunity. By and large, they found it.
The Constitution that defined our country was, indeed, “middle class” in the sense that it staunchly upheld basic, individual rights for all Americans. The people who created it tended to be wealthier and better educated than most of their fellow citizens, but the educational and economic “inequality” of the founders was not a problem. Far from it: It meant that the Constitution was produced by some of the most talented, productive members of society, whether self-made men like Alexander Hamilton or landed gentry like James Madison. This has always been a source of great annoyance to economically blinkered social theorists, an elitist class in their own right, who would like to use the power of the state — once it falls into their hands — to redistribute wealth according to their own notions of what each of us is entitled to.
If you are obsessed with other people’s money, and if you believe that you know what is good for the masses — and that the masses don’t know what’s good for themselves — then Ganesh Sitaraman is your man. Mr. Sitaraman, also known as “Elizabeth Warren’s Brain” having served as the junior Massachusetts senator’s long-time policy guru, writes very well about very bad ideas. He begins with a half-truth: “The number one threat to American constitutional government today is the collapse of the middle class,” and ends with a flawed conclusion bolstered by a misapplied quote:
“Today, with economic inequality rising, the middle class collapsing, and power increasingly concentrated in the hands of economic elites ... [t] he central question we must ask is one John Adams raised more than two hundred years ago. Is there ‘such a rage for Profit and Commerce’ that we no longer have ‘public Virtue enough to support a Republic’?”
To the extent that the vast, amorphous American middle class is “collapsing” today, it is not due to the abuses or excesses of the super-rich, distasteful and grotesque they may be. It is largely due to the steady erosion of values and institutions that nurture a healthy middle class. Much of this erosion is the direct result of government policies crafted and imposed by the ideological forebears of Mr. Sitaraman and Sen. Warren such as a “progressive,” politically correct system of public primary and secondary education that fails to give many of its students minimal skills or teach basic civics, and “progressive” social policies and permissiveness that have resulted in declining marriage rates and skyrocketing illegitimacy rates, to cite but two of many factors.
Between 1970 and 2015 alone, the number of babies born to single mothers jumped from 11 percent to 40 percent, kids who will start life locked out of the “middle class” benefit of a two-parent upbringing, and often destined for public school systems that will train them for failure by grade 12.
The middle class crisis — to us and to constitutional government — is all too real. Mr. Sitaraman’s “solution” of confiscating other people’s money and limiting their right to free expression — is considerably less so.