“Who Is in the Middle?” Eduardo Porter

Olmstead_house "There is such a thing as a straightforward middle. The nation’s median household income last year was $50,233. Half of all households earned more and half earned less. Some economists would define the middle class as those who earn between 75 percent and 125 percent of that — say households making between $37,500 and $63,000.

Development economists sometimes define the middle class as those making more than the bottom fifth of the population but less than the top fifth. In this country, that would include households making between $20,291 and $100,000. Of course, there are places — New York comes to mind — where $150,000 a year does not buy many of the trappings of wealth.

The heavy use of the term seems to be more than an appeal to people’s wallets. “Middle class” has become less a position on the income scale than a state of being. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, a little more than half of Americans consider themselves middle class, including a third of those who make more than $150,000 per year. For many people, to be “middle class” is to work hard, to struggle to succeed, often against unfair forces. Forget the money."  Eduardo Porter


Porter’s essay is about the bourgeoisie, and who is in it.

"Forget the money" is the key phrase in the piece.  That is the essence of the thing. The whole argument about who is "middle class" in the US is altogether about the political and sociological "load" that attaches to the term.

Bourgeois Most Americans worship the idea of the Norman Rockwell life; solid houses of indeterminate age situated well back from curbside in a scene inspired by Frederick Olmstead’s conception of "life in a garden setting," the PTA, the school board, the two cars, the 2 1/2 children who do moderately well in school, public higher education available in the background, Social Security, Medicare, probably church or synagogue (now mosque as well?), a comfortable retirement.  These are the things that most Americans think of as their birthright, their patrimony.

"We" have aspirations not too high, not too low, not very political at all.  We are not really interested in government except as a vehicle for the delivery of the goods of the bourgeois life. 

The truly rich live in a different world, a world where striving for the means of a comfortable life is absent, and self indulgence is generally reflected in the conception of "life as art form."  No matter, the truly rich are still a small group in spite of endless yuppy striving.

America the bourgeois, from sea to shining sea.

Our friend Fortunato had become something that was not bourgeois.  He and all the other fortunatos become something not bourgeois in the process of following their metier.  Is that one of the disturbing things about the rough men who guard you while you sleep?" pl


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18 Responses to “Who Is in the Middle?” Eduardo Porter

  1. WOW! A paen to Jefferson’s yeoman small farmer, ruggedly independent, now updated by PL for today’s American scene. And could be added of course, no one gets sick that cannot become well, no accidental deaths of those young with promise, no bankruptcy, no divorce (wait isn’t that overtaken by events?), well-regarded by our colleagues and neighbors. Ah yes, we can dream but that is the real reality of American life, We are allowed to and that is our birthright.

  2. John Hammer says:

    Bull’s eye, I’m hit. For anyone looking to explore this theme further, I would recommend the film Ordinary People and the television series Mad Men.

  3. wcw says:

    Norman Rockwell’s ‘Four Freedoms’ brought in something like $150m in war bonds, back when that was real money. All gauzy myth, not one directly involves petit bourgeois striving.
    Forgetting the money (which I don’t like to do: ‘forget the money’ is what the top 2% tell the remaining 98%), that’s where you find the middle class: bought into fundamental ideals of fairness and opportunity, not of iphones and SUVs.

  4. David W. says:

    Well, I’m not sure if it is deliberate, Col, but you are unpacking a lot by tying the concept of the bourgeois to the American middle class. To be sure, it is the working definition held by most Americans, however, it is as limited a definition as what Americans know as mayonnaise.
    From Wikipedia:

    The bourgeoisie are members of the upper or merchant class, whose status or power comes from employment, education, and wealth…They are distinguished from those whose power comes from being born into an aristocratic family. The term petite bourgeoisie (also petty bourgeoisie) is used to describe the class below the bourgeoisie but above the proletariat (usually independent operators with a small number of employees)…
    The term, bourgeoisie, is widely used in many non-English speaking countries as an approximate equivalent of upper class…In common usage the term has pejorative connotations suggesting either undeserved wealth, or lifestyles, tastes, and opinions that lack the sophistication of the rich or the authenticity of the intellectual or the poor…In the United States, where social class affiliation lacks some of the structure and rules of many other nations, “bourgeoisie” is sometimes used to refer to those seen as being either upper class or upper middle class.

    This definition does not seem to square with the one in your commentary, as those middle-class markers are (or perhaps, were) attainable by the proletariat, and other non-upper class members. Imo, the group whom you refer to as ‘yuppies’ are in fact, the real bourgouisie. They are the ones who are shallowly striving to escape the trite situation you are describing by purchasing McMansions and Hummers, and sending their kids to ‘private academies.’ They differ from the aristocrats by the nature of this striving, which is uncultured and uncouth. (Aristocrats don’t live in McMansions or drive Hummers). According to statistics on our economy and the distribution of wealth, the US is largely a nation of the proletariat. Perhaps the status quo is being kept alive by the dream of becoming bourgeois?
    If anything, the bourgeoisie are responsible for the American hyper-economy, and the bubble, with their desire for conspicuous consumption. The only way I can read the line ‘America the bourgeois, from sea to shining sea,’ as making sense is if We The People are all working in service of Wall Street, and the sum of our aspirations are individual and materialistic. I don’t think that is intended, so I’ll choose to view this line as fine sarcasm.
    Regarding Fortunato, I think he is best described in light of your previous post on the Crusader orders. iirc, the Crusades were also seen as a way to positively channel the energies of the young French and British knights, to get them to fight a common adversary abroad rather than fight each other domestically. The commonality between now and then is this: men were called to service based on a higher ideal, and the ones who answered the call did/do so under a personal mixture of service, ambition, and desire for adventure. This is a time-honored path for men across the ages, as well as a method of social advancement for the proletariat. Each war is deemed in its time to be essential to the continued survival of the state, or ‘our way of life,’ a phrase which smacks of bourgeois pretension, and aristocratic manipulation. To me, the ‘rough men who guard you while you sleep’ are the Police, Firefighters and EMTs. Military adventurism in the far reaches of the globe is something different. Cui bono?

  5. Ormolov says:

    The conclusion of Porter’s essay:
    “The coded language also has real costs. One is that it displaces necessary words like poverty. These days, the candidates rarely talk about the poor, except when they are talking about the risk that people might drop out of the middle class.”
    This may be somewhat of a generational phenomenon. Those who were raised during the Cold War, with class struggle (even if the argument came from the Soviet enemy) a primary concern, and witnessed the rise of the mighty American middle class in the fifties, are still talking very much about its rise and fall.
    But for the younger set, the middle class is often as elusive as wealth. For those who have grown up in a unipolar world with little discussion of class, with real income falling for three decades, and a shrinking middle class, it makes as much sense to talk of union households or being raised (as I was) by a middle manager. These are endangered species.
    The rough men guarding us? “…more than two-thirds of the soldiers who have died during Operation Iraqi Freedom come from areas of the country poorer than national averages.”
    The middle class is now only one of many subsets, instead of the dominant institution. Only during an election will you hear so much about them. And after this financial crisis has left its mark, it will be far smaller.
    A healthy middle class is a wonderful thing, but as an aspirational goal it is about as realistic these days as Jefferson’s yeoman farmer.

  6. avedis says:

    Col. Lang, I agree entirely with the selected article and your accompanying commentary.
    “The Middle” is a state of mind and is only correlated somewhat with household financial status.
    I have only recently – through my current employment (put my degree to use to supplement the thoroughbred business) – come into extensive contact with true members of the middle. This is in one of those dreary corporate cubicle lands. I am dismayed by what I have learned about this demographic.
    I have difficulty understanding how they can live the lives they do; especially the men.
    They are obsessed with playing it safe, not rocking the boat, raising their children in an accident and generally adversity free environment, conformity, moderate financial success with an emphasis on stability and physical security and comfort.
    They seem to eschew any real challenges – mental, physical or spiritual – and they teach their children to do the same.
    I have had coworkers question – even chastize – me for “allowing” both of my children to be in the service (“what kind of good parent would allow his children to go through all that and be exposed to the danger?”). They think it is crazy that I have a loaded gun in the house; not safety locked and all that other stuff that renders a weapon useless in a time of need. They think it is crazy that I drink Bourbon and break race horses. I think it is crazy they don’t.
    In short, as far as I can see, the middle are sheep. They don’t want their world rocked. They don’t want to think; don’t want to know. The answer might be disturbing and it would take courage to do something about it.
    If the middle is the real America – or a big part of it – what we need in Washington is a good shepard.

  7. Paul says:

    Given the debt (present and future) hanging on the backs of the working public, would it not be appropriate to label them as the great American proletariat?
    Adding to the misery of personal indebtedness, jobs have been off-shored and the government has borrowed obscene sums of money for a war of choice. Taxpayers are now bailing out the banking system.
    Sooner or later those same ordinary citizens will have to pay dearly in taxes. Where else will money come from, Larry Kudlow’s capital schemes?
    Our friend Fortunado had a dangerous job, but he did not have the money worries common to too many families.
    Let’s hear it for “trickle down”?

  8. Twit says:

    To complete the lexicon, I assume the ‘truly rich’ are in essence the ‘aristocracy,’ and therefore that the ‘yuppy striving’ you mention simply adoption by the bourgeoisie of aristocratic values?
    If that’s right, then class in America is really in five parts:
    1. The aristocracy (i.e. the truly rich who focus on maintaining their own image and prestige in the eyes of their peers over and above policy or principles. ).
    2. The bourgeois aristocracy (i.e. the ‘well-off’ and/or those ‘putting on airs’ to seem so who focus on aspirational activities)
    3. The real bourgeois (i.e. the Norman Rockwell version you described)
    4. The proletariat (i.e. the Fortunatos)
    5. The poor (i.e. those who must concern themselves with survival, not success).
    If this is about right, then we have three huge problems in our society.
    First, ABSOLUTE poverty simply should not morally exist in a society as rich as ours. No one should struggle to SURVIVE in the United States. Our infant mortality rate is now below Poland and Slovenia (http://www.webmd.com/news/20081015/infant-mortality-us-ranks-29th). This is an immoral situation. Period.
    Second, in American democracy, wealth may be concentrated in the hands of relatively few, but power should be distributed to the many. However, most of our elected representatives are aristocrats or bourgeois aristocrats, and have thus come to value the petty court politics of the upper classes. I predict the inevitably image and emotion driven Obama presidency will be just as good for the upper classes as President Bush has been. And unfortunately I think a growing number of real bourgeois in this country have been convinced that this is what they should strive for too, even if they were raised on the principles of hard work and meritocracy.
    Third, the proles like Fortunato will get angry, but they will have no power unless they take it, because they’re roughness will exclude them from the parlor games. This is bad simply because its undemocratic to exclude people from power because they have different views or priorities, and – given that many of them sacrificed so much in the current wars – this could even be radicalizing and destablizing.
    Also, just two closing observations: In my daily life, I’m about as far from a Marxist as one could get, but we shouldn’t be scared of using class-language. As the Colonel showed, it can be very useful in explaining these things.
    Also, I think this points out a basic contradiction – or dare I say ‘lie’ – in Obama’s campaign. He is campaigning for CHANGE, but actually the people most in support of him actually fear change most of all – i.e. they fear that the Bush catastrophe will change their socio-economic status for the worse, and they want Obama to protect the bourgeois lifestyle they have come to expect.

  9. Fred says:

    This reminds me of a lecture by an economist at the University of Florida’s MBA program stating that in 1991 the average starting salary for a graduate with a BA in Economics from UF recieved an average starting salary of over $140,000. That rather shocked me as I DID graduate from UF in ’91 with a BA in economics, along with 5 others. Of course our classmate was a first round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers…..
    As Mark Twain once said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics…. It helps to remember the math when one bandies about terms like average, mean, median, etc..’

  10. Patrick Lang says:

    I really think the non-marxist, non-economic “markers” are more important in this
    “middle class” thing. In other words, values. pl

  11. Jkat says:

    lol.. the “rough man” who guards me in my sleep is still .. me ..
    CWO4 USMC [ret]

  12. Curious says:

    I have to agree to that too. The accounting system is what screws us all.
    imagine a situation where:
    1. robotic house builder. The cost of building a house is so low. Suddenly it only cost $50K to own what it now cost $100K. (This happened during the WWII, btw. except with modern prefab manufacturing techniques)
    2. new clean electricity. This time instead of the plentiful generated by few large utility companies, everybody can generate their own electricity for low cost. The benefit? consumer is insulated from inflationary energy cost.
    3. Imagine a super hightech farming. Robotic-electric. And it doesn’t take a skilled labor to do mass farming. (again, like post WWI, when modern farming techniques were introduce and bring down the cost of living significantly)
    4. healthcare. Application of full modern biotechnology and away from current industry model. Everybody has access to cheap medicine and good health advice.
    5. lowering cost of transportation. Imagine a new way to drive your car. instead of bunch of idiot honking SUVs. It’s a combination of electric/hybrid cars for short distance and comfy public transportation for longer distant.
    6. imagine city so comfortable for walking around. It’s practically european city. (we transformed city design for automobile in the 60’s. we can do it again for next transportation mode)
    7. imagine instead of spending $700B on useless war based on lies. The money is being used to build the tallest buildings in the world, free schooling, better city design… (hey what do you think Dubai is doing?)
    The problem is not money or technology. It’s the idiots in charge. They want to maintain status quo. (you wouldn’t like your industry rendered irrelevant overnight either.)
    …again, the problem is the idiots in charge. Incompetent, limited, and clueless.
    They’ll build electronic surveillance fascist plutocrat regime if they can get away with it.

  13. rjj says:

    Curious, who owns the infrastructure? Who administers it? What does that administration look like. What do six billion people do in your technorobotopia? Terry Gilliam has already imagined it; he gave it the title Brazil?

  14. Duncan Kinder says:

    Middle class – schmiddle crass. If this country goes under, it would be for lack of imagination more than anything else.
    In the meantime, regarding the military, we should consider Shakespeare’s Crispen Day soliloquy in Henry V:

    If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
    To do our country loss; and if to live,
    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
    By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
    Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
    It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
    Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
    But if it be a sin to covet honour,
    I am the most offending soul alive.
    No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
    God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
    As one man more methinks would share from me
    For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
    Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
    That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
    Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
    And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
    We would not die in that man’s company
    That fears his fellowship to die with us.
    This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
    He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
    And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
    And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
    But he’ll remember, with advantages,
    What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
    Familiar in his mouth as household words-
    Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
    Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
    Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
    This story shall the good man teach his son;
    And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be remembered-
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

    as well as Mozart’s aria in The Marriage of Figaro:

    No more, you amorous butterfly,
    Will you go fluttering round by night and day,
    Disturbing the peace of every maid,
    You pocket Narcissus, you Adonis of love.
    No more will you have those fine feathers,
    That light and dashing cap,
    Those curls, those airs and graces,
    That roseate womanish colour.
    You’ll be among warriors, by Bacchus!
    Long moustaches, knapsack tightly on,
    Musket on your shoulder, sabre at your side,
    Head erect and bold of visage,
    A great helmet or a head?dress,
    Lots of honour, little money,
    And instead of the fandango,
    Marching through the mud.
    Over mountains, through valleys,
    In snow and days of listless heat,
    To the sound of blunderbusses,
    Shells and cannons,
    Whose shots make your ears sing
    On every note.
    Cherubino, on to victory,
    On to military glory!

    Between these two lies the truth.

  15. Curious says:

    Curious, who owns the infrastructure? Who administers it? What does that administration look like. What do six billion people do in your technorobotopia? Terry Gilliam has already imagined it; he gave it the title Brazil?
    Posted by: rjj | 03 November 2008 at 06:30 AM
    it’s not utopia. most of those are large scale project that happens in various other country. of course nobody has put them all together in one place and pound it hard. That would take a revolution.
    but my point: all those are not futuristic scheme. All of them are already implemented piece meal.
    Sure as heck costing less than Iraq war or bailing out wall street idiots.

  16. Curious says:

    Kaching… ya’ll
    everybody better start thinking how to raise millionaire babies. We just add $500B to national debt.
    By the end of his administration, Bush will top national debt to nearly $12T. (hope the chinese will keep lending us money)
    The U.S. Treasury more than tripled its planned debt sales for this quarter to help finance a 2009 budget deficit that bond dealers advising the department estimate may swell to almost $1 trillion.
    Borrowing needs are expected to rise to $550 billion in the three months to Dec. 31, compared with the $142 billion predicted in July, the Treasury said in a statement in Washington. That follows a $530 billion record in the July-September quarter.

  17. different clue says:

    If I understand this post correctly, it is about the habits of life and belief, culture, and perception which come from living in a house and yard like this; among many other people who live in houses and yards more or less similar. The Bourgeois lifeway could be adopted by a broad band of people from the lower middle
    class to the upper middle class. A real small house with a real small yard around it is still a real house with a real yard around it.
    I grew up in such a house
    in such a neighborhood. Dad was a botanist so he had the knowledge to plant interesting trees in interesting groups and make interesting gardens. The leachwater from our septic tank resurfaced in the back yard and made some nice little swampy ground with frogs and stuff. We kids could see different birds pass through and insects emerge and disappear with the seasons. The june bugs by early June, the big green
    beetles in a 3-week-span later in summer, etc. One day Dad brought inside a black widow spider in a jar and told us what it was, and
    said: “we have these in every weeper hole and under every upside down flower pot, so you kids be careful.” (Years later he told me that he once caught 25 or so of them and brought
    them in to the local entomologist, who was very impressed to see so many at one time). And the top of the ridge we lived on the side of had extensive deep heavy woods where I often went and walked.
    So I still aspire to have
    my very own Real House with my very own Real Yard around it “some day.” I look at the house & yard in the picture and see the potential. If the back yard
    is as big as the front yard, serious gardening can grow huge amounts of food there. The driveway can be lined with fruit and nut trees to capture all the sunlight wasted by shining on the driveway itself. A scientific composting toilet could be put into the
    house so the family could turn all its “used food” into garden-compost. Big rainwater capture-tanks could be set up to harvest all the roofwater from rain and/or snow. There is someone doing this and describing the project ongoing at a site called Suburban Renewal Project.
    The house could be retro-insulated and a big picture window or three installed in
    the West or West and South sides of the house for maximum solar-heat capture in winter.
    In short, the Bourgeois Dream can still survive for many if those many are willing to adapt their dream
    to circumstances of creeping
    poverty. The Dream will become a neo-Peasant semi-Subsistence Dream. Having your own house and yard will
    mean freedom to grow your own food and harvest your own roofwater. Eventually the carping opposition of the petty Hitlers from your Homeowner’s Association will
    have to be beaten down. And
    it will be, when enough Bourgewannabe’s get hungry enough. And a crucial part of the dream would have to involve enough paid work to be able to pay the bills that only money can pay (taxes, mortgage, etc.) But
    there will be less money and
    more subsistence, more barter, etc. The Dream will
    center around personal-domicile Right of Possession
    to as much Food and Water as
    one is able to grow with one’s own personal neopeasant-survival domicile. The role and presence of recreational things and stuff will recede.

  18. James Coyle says:

    Thich Nhat Hanh was being cute in that quote you posted, but he is, in fact, from central Vietnam, born in Hue.

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