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The Political Parties and the Media Have Abandoned the Working “Middle Class”

Defining the “middle class” has devolved to a pundit parlor game, so let’s get real for a moment (if we dare): the “middle class” is no longer defined by the traditional metrics of income or job type (blue collar, white collar), but by an entirely different set of metrics:

1. Household indebtedness, i.e. how much of the income is devoted to debt service, and

2. How much of the household spending is funded by debt.

3. The ability of the household to set aside substantial savings / capital investment.

4. The security of the households’ employment.

5. The dependence of the household wealth on speculative asset bubbles inflated by central bank policies.

6. The percentage of the household income that is unearned, i.e. derived not from labor but from productive assets.

7. The exposure of the households’ employment to automation, AI or offshoring.

8. How much of the household income is government transfers: benefits, subsidies, etc.

After writing about the middle class and America’s class structure in depth for over a decade, it seems to me the actual, real-world class structure is something along these lines:

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The Middle Class Is Now The Muddle Class

The first use of the phrase The Muddle Class appears to be The rise of the muddle classes (Becky Pugh, telegraph.co.uk) in January 2007. The “muddle” described the complex nature of defining “the middle class,” which includes education, class origins, accents, and many other financial, social and cultural signifiers.

Comedian Jason Manford claimed to have coined the term in June 2013“I’ve invented a new term; ‘Muddle Class’. When you find yourself being working class AND middle class at the same time.”

I’m using the term to describe the economic class that has the social signifiers of middle class status but little to no ownership of meaningful capital or control of their own financial security. In other words, this class “muddles through” the erosion of their purchasing power and economic security, claiming the social status of “middle class” while their financial status is impoverished when compared to the security of previous generations of “middle class.”

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Misplaced Pride: Most of the “Middle Class” Is Actually Working Class

The conventional definition of working class is based on income and education:the working class household earns between $30,000 and $69,000 annually, and the highest education credential in the household is a two-year community college degree or trade certification.

The definition of the middle class is also based on on income and education, but adds financial security as a metric: the middle class household earns $80,000 or more, holds 4-year college diplomas or graduate degrees, owns a home, has a 401K retirement account and so on.

(My own definition is much more rigorous, as I reckon “middle class” today should have the same basic assets as the “middle class” held 40 years ago: What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013.)

But in some key ways, income and education are misleading metrics: the key attributes that actually define the working class are:

1. Stagnant incomes: incomes that over time barely keep up with real-world inflation or even lose purchasing power.

2. Income insecurity: wages, benefits and pensions are not as guaranteed as advertised.

3. Not enough ownership of financial capital to be meaningful. Financial capital excludes household items, vehicles, etc. Financial capital includes stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, ownership of a profitable business, equity in real estate, precious metals, bitcoin, etc.

By meaningful I mean enough to:

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The Accelerating Decay of the Middle Class

If we define middle class by the security of household income and what that income can buy rather than by an income level, what do we conclude? We have little choice but to conclude the middle class is decaying, both in the percentage of the workforce that qualifies as “middle class” according to traditional standards and in the quality of life of those who do qualify.

There’s a longstanding way to understand the middle class quality of life: it’s supposed to be superior to the indignities of being poor. If you’ve been poor (and I’ve been down to my last $100), even for short periods, you know the indignities and frictions of being poor (and by poor I don’t mean on welfare, I mean working poor, with unreliable incomes and low wages).

Being middle class meant being able to escape the hassles and indifferent services that await the poor. Fast-forward to today: what day-to-day tasks and interactions are easy and cost-free for the middle class? How many are nightmarish, complicated, frustrating, and costly?

Virtually all of them. Being “middle class” is no longer a buffer to the indignities and friction of a dysfunctional, costly status quo that only serves the wealthy with anything resembling what was once afforded the middle class.

No wonder what remains of the middle class is so anxious to qualify for “elite” airline miles programs and similar “special” service, because it approximates what every middle class person once expected as the norm.

In terms of the quality of life and of services, the bottom 95% is now poor. Can you really contest this, or is contesting a matter of hurt pride?

What qualifies as middle class? I’ve defined it by characteristics rather than income: starting with What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013), I’ve used 12 minimum standards of membership that were implicit characteristics of the conventional middle class a generation ago:

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What Killed the Middle Class?

What killed the middle class? The answer may well echo an Agatha Christie mystery: rather than there being one guilty party, it may be that each of the suspects participated in the demise of the middle class.

If you doubt the middle class has expired, please consider the evidence:

The Middle Class Is Shrinking Everywhere — In Chicago It’s Almost Gone

Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research

People tend to self-report viewing themselves as middle class, but by the standards of previous eras, they lack the basics of middle class prosperity. I laid out 12 core characteristics of classic middle class security in What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013).

By these standards, perhaps one-third of American households have the same security and assets as previous generations who identified themselves as middle class: Honey, I Shrunk the Middle Class: Perhaps 1/3 of Households Qualify (December 28, 2015).

The ten primary drivers of the erosion of the middle class are:

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“Yellow Vests” and the Downward Mobility of the Middle Class

The middle class, virtually by definition, is not prepared for downward mobility. A systemic, semi-permanent decline in the standard of living isn’t part of the implicit social contract that’s been internalized by the middle class virtually everywhere: living standards are only supposed to rise. Any decline is temporary.

Downward mobility is the key context in the gilets jaunes “yellow vest” movement in France. Taxes and prices rise inexorably while wages/pensions stagnate. The only possible outcome of this structural asymmetry is a decline in the standard of living.

This structural decline in the standard of living of the middle class is complex.One of the definitive identifying characteristics of the middle class is that is supposed to be largely immune to the insecurity and precariousness that characterize much of the working class.

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How Many Households Qualify as Middle Class?

What does it take to be middle class nowadays? Defining the middle class is a parlor game, with most of the punditry referring to income brackets as the defining factor.

People tend to self-report that they belong to the middle class based on income, but income is not the key metric: 12 other factors are more telling measures of middle class membership than income.

In Why the Middle Class Is Doomed (April 17, 2012) I listed five minimum threshold characteristics of membership in the middle class:

1. Meaningful healthcare insurance (i.e. not phantom insurance with $5,000 deductibles, etc.) and life insurance.

2. Significant equity (25%-50%) in a home or equivalent real estate

3. Income/expenses that enable the household to save at least 6% of its income

4. Significant retirement funds: 401Ks, IRAs, etc.

5. The ability to service all debt and expenses over the medium-term if one of the primary household wage-earners lose their job

I then added a taken-for-granted sixth:

6. Reliable vehicles for each wage-earner

Author Chris Sullins suggested adding these additional thresholds:

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Want Widespread Prosperity? Radically Lower Costs

It’s easy to go down the wormhole of complexity when it comes to figuring out why our economy is stagnating for the bottom 80% of households. But it’s actually not that complicated: the primary driver of stagnation, decline of small business start-ups, etc. is costs are skyrocketing to the point of unaffordability.

As I have pointed out many times, history is unambiguous regarding the economic foundations of widespread prosperity: the core ingredients are:

1. Low inflation, a.k.a. stable, sound money

2. Social mobility (a meritocracy that enables achievers and entrepreneurs to climb out of impoverished beginnings)

3. Relatively free trade in products, currencies, ideas and innovations

4. A state (government) that competently manages tax collection, maintains roadways and harbors, secures borders and trade routes, etc.

Simply put, When costs are cheap and trade is abundant, prosperity is widely distributed. Once costs rise, trade declines and living standards stagnate. Poverty and unrest rise.

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Stagnation Nation: Middle Class Wealth Is Locked Up in Housing and Retirement Funds

One of my points in Why Governments Will Not Ban Bitcoin was to highlight how few families had the financial wherewithal to invest in bitcoin or an alternative hedge such as precious metals.

The limitation on middle class wealth isn’t just the total net worth of each family; it’s also how their wealth is allocated: the vast majority of most middle class family wealth is locked up in the family home or retirement funds.

This chart provides key insights into the differences between middle class and upper-class wealth. The majority of the wealth held by the bottom 90% of households is in the family home, i.e. the principal residence. Other major assets held include life insurance policies, pension accounts and deposits (savings).

What characterizes the family home, insurance policies and pension/retirement accounts? The wealth is largely locked up in these asset classes.

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Mao and the Middle Class: What’s the Source of Political Power?

The decline of middle class wealth and income is not just an economic trend–it translates directly to a decline in political power. Chairman Mao famously noted that “Political power grows out of the barrel of gun,”, but this is only true in specific circumstances, for reasons elucidated by author Edward Luttwak in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.

Luttwak delineated the difference between force and power. Force is what grows out of a barrel of a gun: the ability to coerce people to obey commands.

Force is expensive and labor-intensive. If you want to prohibit people from using alternative currencies or making black market trades, for example, you have to literally follow every individual, as black market transactions can occur virtually anywhere by pre-arrangement.

Forcing people not to horde scarce goods is another example.

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What’s Killing the Middle Class? (Part 1)

We all know the middle class that actually owns capital and wields political influence is shrinking. As I noted last week in Redefining the Middle Class: It Isn’t What You Earn and Owe, It’s What You Own That Generates Income, defining the middle class by household income alone is a misleading metric, as it leaves out the critical factors of debt and ownership of productive assets.

A household may have an income of $150,000 and appear well-off by that metric, but if they are mired in debt and own virtually no productive assets or wealth that can be passed on to future generations, they aren’t middle class–they’re well-paid proletariats.

So what’s killing the middle class? If you read the dozens of articles on the decline of the middle class in the mainstream (corporate) media, you soon discover there’s a short list of the usual suspects:

1. Globalization / outsourcing

2. Technological changes / automation

3. “Winner take all” asymmetry in rewards for specialized skills

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The Elites Have Destroyed the Status Quo’s Ability to Self-Correct

For any system to endure, it must maintain a built-in capacity to self-correct: that is, it must generate accurate informational feedback about dangerous asymmetries and auto-correct with behavioral feedback.

This is true of ecosystems and enterprises as well as political/social systems.

Human systems can lose the ability to self-correct in three basic ways.

1. The information feedback is no longer accurate because self-serving interests manipulate the data to maintain whatever narrative/data-flow supports their power, wealth and income.

2. Self-serving interests limit any behavioral feedback that threatens their power, wealth and income.

3. Those in positions of responsibility who are tasked with managing behavioral feedback are no longer accountable, so the needed behavioral feedback fails.

Self-serving interests committed to protecting their power, wealth and income have destroyed our economic-political system’s ability to self-correct. There are many examples of these three dynamics; here are a few.

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