Economist: The Rich Stay Rich, the Middle Class Get Thriftier

In his new book, Tyler Cowen says we should get used to downward mobility. Some of us already have.

Silly me.

My career went into a ditch at the start of the Great Recession when I traded a good job and a comfortable income writing newsletters for software users for a layoff notice and 99 weeks of unemployment compensation. Those 99 weeks managed to last even longer than that, thanks to part-time and freelance work, followed by a return to my craft full time, but at a greatly reduced income. I’d been laboring (or not, as it were) under the impression that I was part of that unfortunate cohort of mid-career professionals whose assets became liabilities.

Now I find out that I’m actually a harbinger of a trend: The return of the Bobo, only this time with the script flipped.

The first “bourgeois bohemians,” affectionately profiled by class member David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise, were the children of affluence who nonetheless clung to their countercultural sensibilities even as they took up residence in places like Brooks’ native Wayne. Whole Foods Market exists for people like these.

The new specimens that economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University describes in his new book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, are the inverse: They have bourgeois sensibilities but bohemian budgets. They’d shop Whole Foods if they thought they could afford it, but they settle for Bottom Dollar instead.

This is how Cowen described them to National Public Radio:

“Imagine a very large bohemian class of the sort that, say, lives in parts of Brooklyn. … It will be culturally upper or upper-middle class, but there will be the income of lower-middle class. They may have lives that are quite happy and rewarding, but they may not have a lot of savings. There will be a certain fragility to this existence.”

Replace “Brooklyn” with “Germantown” in the sentence above and you have me, more or less. Those preppy Brooks Brothers threads I like? Off-price outlet. Travel to DC or New York? I head to 30th Street Station—and catch the Megabuses along with all the Eurotrash and the sorority sisters who play cards at the tables on the lower deck. The furniture in my apartment’s from IKEA—but then again, isn’t yours, too? (Maybe yours isn’t secondhand.)

I suspect there are others like me up this way and in other outlying neighborhoods in this city. Priced out of the center, they live in the parts of town they can afford. You might find them in the bars at happy hour, but on a Saturday night, they might do their drinking at home before going out clubbing. Their clothes shopping may resemble what Macklemore describes in “Thrift Shop.” But you wouldn’t know this just by looking at them.

So Cowen may have a point. I can’t say my life right now’s that bad at all: I’ve found a place I can afford and live comfortably enough. I just don’t have those granite countertops and stainless steel appliances I write about every Sunday in my kitchen. Those go to the one percent—or the 15 percent, in Cowen’s future.

Cowen argues that because of shifts in the economy brought about by technology, we will just have to get used to this. Computers have made it easier for those at the top to rise higher and accumulate more—and those whose jobs either don’t complement them or could be done by them instead will find themselves falling, not rising, in this new meritocracy.

Well, computers can’t write, can they? Here’s Cowen: “Software is also encroaching upon journalism. One experiment found that the intelligent mechanized analysis of Narrative Science, a start-up from Illinois, can do a passable job of taking statistics and writing up descriptions of sporting events, company financial reports and macroeconomic data. These programs won’t soon be at the frontier of creative journalism, but they may soon be generating a lot of run-of-the-mill news for purposes of search and storage. They also may take away some jobs: Should the local newspaper really send a reporter down to that minor league baseball game?”

So someday my Chromebook will be eating my lunch, too. If I weren’t so happy, I’d be depressed right now.

There’s something unlovely about Cowen’s argument, and it cuts against the grain of the narrative of the American Dream to boot. In times past, those who found themselves losing out to the powerful acted to rebalance the scales: They formed unions, marched in the streets, passed laws to rein in the tendency of wealth and power to accumulate at the top. Today? The Occupiers devolved into parodies of themselves while the rest of us just worked a little harder and borrowed some more.

Will we new Bobos move to reclaim that middle-class high ground? So far, I’m not sanguine about this. The kids whose job prospects once out of college have been lousy seem to have internalized Cowen or moved back in with their parents. But this chapter in our history is still being written, and not everyone agrees that Cowen’s future is inevitable.