Richard V. Reeves is an educated, white cis-male who works at the Brookings Institution. Naturally, he wants to check his privilege. He’s gone the extra mile in fact, writing a whole book on the topic for the benefit of his fellow elites. The title alone is practically a sermon: Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.
Not sure whether you qualify as a “dream hoarder”? Play the game to find out. You’ll be presented with two ladders, two pig-tailed children, and instructions to “help your own child without hurting the chances of someone else’s child.” Spoiler alert: you can’t. The game is programmed with two outcomes. Choose the hard road of principled meritocracy, and your kid falls out of the top quintile. Boost her up the ladder, and watch some other unhappy urchin slide into miserable mediocrity. Dream hoarder!
It’s a gimmick, but it’s surprisingly effective at summarizing the book’s entire message. What’ll it be, privileged people? Downward mobility for your own bright-eyed youngsters, or the death of the American Dream?
David Brooks stirred up a firestorm over this book with his recent column suggesting that dream hoarding is achieved more through soft cultural barriers than through prejudicial policy. Brooks illustrates his point with an anecdote in which he takes a friend “with only a high school degree” to a tony sandwich shop, then becomes embarrassed when he realizes that she doesn’t even understand the menu. (They end up eating Mexican.) The column enraged liberals (who emphasized that structural inequalities are the real barriers to class mobility), as well as populists from both left and right (who scoffed at the patronizing suggestion that people without college degrees can’t figure out how to order a sandwich). In some ways, the whole episode provided a fine illustration of how difficult it is even to talk about differences in class.
Ironically though, Brooks’s column was not seriously in tension with the ethos of Dream Hoarders (though the former sparked outrage, and the latter has been very well received). Reeves largely seems to agree with Brooks that class mobility is first and foremost a social issue, not a policy problem. The policy segments of the book are sparse, and not in any way groundbreaking. We already knew that America has been coming apart. It’s no surprise that a liberal like Reeves would favor still more contraceptives and social workers, more wealth redistribution, and more funding for public schools. There are some worthwhile tidbits on zoning laws and perverse tax incentives, which allow the wealthy to luxuriate in cavernous McMansions while their maids and gardeners commute. The analysis on these points is superficial, though, because the policy is thoroughly subsidiary to the book’s real goal: convicting prosperous Americans of the sin of becoming a class.
Born in Britain, Reeves is a naturalized American citizen with a deep ideological aversion to class distinction. In his eyes, equal opportunity is America’s “national religion,” so he denounces our emerging class divide as a pernicious heresy. Equal opportunity requires “an open society with healthy circulation of elites,” but that’s not what we’re seeing in America today as nature, nurture, and networking all align to propel upper-middle-class kids into the same social world as their upper-middle-class parents. This tune is familiar to our former Brit, who didn’t cross the Atlantic just to join ranks with another nation’s aristocrats. He glosses over the policy so he can cast his evil eye on the true transmitters of class consciousness: parents.
Families are clearly the major barrier to Reeves’s desired class churn. Conception is life’s most important lottery. If your progenitors are married, educated, and securely employed, chances are good that they will supply you with the stability and resources you need to become a capable adult. If they’re bobbing on the high seas of economic change and cultural decline, you too are likely to find yourself in that maelstrom. It’s a maddening problem for a committed meritocrat, since there’s no easy fix for family. In fact though, there are two ways to increase relative class mobility. We can help the poor to rise. Or, elites can volunteer to fall.
Reeves’s appeal is disarmingly earnest. Is it clear, though, that his religion is really the nation’s? This native-born American doesn’t recall ever committing to the equal-opportunity credo. Tailoring our public policy to make up for vast disparities of nature and nurture sounds suspiciously utopian, and at the same time insufferably snobby. It’s fair to assume that most people desire safety and stability, but do we all want to be tossed onto two-dimensional ladders, teased with the tiny possibility that we might be able to reproduce the exalted lifestyle of a Brookings Institution fellow? Meanwhile, are we certain it’s a good idea to launch a public shame campaign against parents who, as Reeves himself acknowledges, are burning the candle at both ends in order to cultivate a new generation of highly educated and ambitious young workers?
To his credit, Reeves doesn’t actually ask advantaged parents to neglect or sabotage their children. More moderately, he suggests that we curb “noncompetitive” practices that prevent the less advantaged from competing fairly. That sounds reasonable, until we pause to reflect that “noncompetitive” social practices would plausibly include parenting itself, as well as friendship, community formation, institution building, and any number of other “friendly” human behaviors that disrupt the dog-eat-dog individualism of perfect meritocracy. Clearly we don’t want all of these practices abolished.
To establish a meaningful position, Reeves needs to distinguish these practices from inappropriate noncompetitive behaviors. Unfortunately, this prerequisite seems to elude him. For all his angst over class consciousness, Reeves actually has very little concrete advice for the ethically affluent parent. His fevered crusade for equal opportunity mostly ends up winnowing down into a rant against elite internships and university legacy admissions, though even he halfheartedly admits that these issues are insignificant enough to be largely symbolic.
The truth is, elite parenting does have significant shortcomings. Relentlessly groomed for a “cognitive-elite” workforce, our upper-middle-class youngsters have proven themselves to be tech-savvy, brainy, and reasonably hard-working. But they’re also shallow, emotionally fragile, and distressingly illiberal. Their careful cultivation has turned them into hothouse flowers, estranged from anything outside the idiosyncratic world of the “creative class.” This is a serious problem, but it’s not one we can fix by perfecting the mechanisms of meritocracy. Indeed, the “level playing field” can easily become a blunt instrument for the illiberal. If fair play is your obsession, you’ll be especially motivated to pressure others into approving your preferred rulebook.
In all likelihood, Reeves’s message will be politely pondered and quickly forgotten by his peers. What if it isn’t, though? Reeves himself seems to take for granted that the parental-promotional instinct is basically indestructible, and that elites will always be willing to raise highly educated workers on their own time and dime. It’s interesting how easily liberal social theorists fall into these kinds of assumptions, which sometimes turn out to be dangerously incorrect.
A few decades ago, Malthusian lifeboat fanatics assured us that we should all have fewer babies, lest the planet become overpopulated. Trendy psychologists in the ’70s and ’80s opined that it was fine, and possibly even virtuous, for adults to prioritize their own romantic interests over conventional marriage-family norms. “Sounds reasonable to me,” said millions of American adults. Experience suggests that people will often swallow some ludicrously flimsy reasoning, if the moral of the story is, “Relax, and schedule some more ‘me time.’”
What if Reeves actually succeeded in throwing high-intensive parenting into ill repute? If the upper-middle class were to give up on involved parenting, Reeves might well get the downward (relative) mobility that he hopes to see from the upper-middle class, at the price of downward absolute mobility for the whole population. Would that be worth it? Reeves might think so, but I suspect most of his compatriots would disagree.
Reeves certainly cuts a righteous figure, as a naturalized citizen with a zealous attachment to the American Dream. Are we obliged, though, to provide a comfortable haven for every egalitarian ideologue who rebels against received pronunciation? (Immigration hawks, I’ll wait for your ruling on that.) As a nation of 350 million, Americans may need to consider that the happiest, freest, and most prosperous future available to us might not be the most egalitarian. Is that heresy? If so, then God save the Queen.
Dreams should not be hoarded. They inevitably will be, though, if we socialize everyone to chase after the same things. If elites want to help more Americans thrive, they may need to look beyond the ladder.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.