How the Upper Middle Class Is Really Doing

Is it more similar to the top 1 percent or the working class?

Have upper-middle-class Americans been winners in the modern economy — or victims? That question has been the subject of a debate recently among economists, writers and others.

On one side are people who argue that the bourgeois professional class — essentially, households with incomes in the low-to-mid six figures but without major wealth — is not so different from the middle class and poor. All of these groups are grappling with slow-growing incomes, high medical costs, student debt and so on.

The only real winners in today’s economy are at the very top, according to this side of the debate. When Bernie Sanders talks about “the greed of billionaires” or Thomas Piketty writes about capital accumulation, they are making a version of this case.

.. “What do the upper middle class care most about in my district? They want a pluralistic America that is engaged with the world and embraces technology and future industries. What they don’t want is a backlash to diversity, a backlash to globalization, a backlash to technology.”

The upper middle class doesn’t deserve the blame for our economic problems. But it doesn’t deserve much government help, either.

The Cowardly Face of Authoritarianism

But in a cult of personality, truth is replaced by belief, and we believe what the leader wishes us to believe. The face replaces the mind.

.. The transition from democracy to personality cult begins with a leader who is willing to lie all the time, in order to discredit the truth as such. The transition is complete when people can no longer distinguish between truth and feeling.

.. Cults of personality make us feel rather than think. In particular, they make us feel that the first question of politics is “Who are we, and who are they?” rather than “What is the world like, and what can we do about it?” Once we accept that politics is about “us and them,” we feel like we know who “we” are, since we feel that we know who “they” are. In fact, we know nothing, since we have accepted fear and anxiety — animal emotions — as the basis of politics. We have been played.

.. The authoritarians of today tell medium-size lies. These refer only superficially to experiences; they draw us deep into a cave of emotion. If we believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Africa (an American lie with Russian support), or that Hillary Clinton is a pedophile pimp (a Russian lie with American support), we are not actually thinking; we are giving way to sexual and physical fear.

.. These medium-size lies are not quite the big lies of the totalitarians, although Mr. Orban’s attacks on George Soros as the leader of a Jewish conspiracy come rather close. They are, however, big enough that they help to disable the factual world. Once we accept these lies, we open ourselves up to believing a whole raft of other untruths, or at least suspect that there are other, vaster conspiracies.

.. We imagine that we make choices as we sit in front of our computers, but the choices are, in fact, framed for us by algorithms that learn what will keep us online. Our online activity teaches machines that the most effective stimuli are negative: fear and anxiety.

.. As social media becomes political instruction, we prime ourselves for politicians who reproduce the same binary: What makes us afraid and what makes us feel secure? Who are they and who are we?

.. The empty heterosexual posturing, the shirtless photo ops, the misogyny and indifference to the female experience, the anti-gay campaigns, are designed to hide one basic fact: A cult of personality is sterile. It cannot reproduce itself. The cult of personality is the worship of something temporary. It is thus confusion and, at bottom, cowardice: The leader cannot contemplate the fact that he will die and be replaced, and citizens abet the illusion by forgetting that they share responsibility for the future.

The cult of personality blunts the ability to keep a country going. When we accept a cult of personality, we are not only yielding our right to choose leaders but also dulling the skills and weakening the institutions that would allow us to do so in the future. As we move away from democracy, we forget its purpose: to give us all a future. A cult of personality says that one person is always right; so after his death comes chaos.

Democracy says that we all make mistakes, but that we get a chance, every so often, to correct ourselves. Democracy is the courageous way to have a country. A cult of personality is a cowardly way of destroying one.


Ask HN: What are your predictions for the next 10 years for our daily lives?

Overfishing is a regulatory, not technical, problem.Though I do think many of the hardest problems today are regulatory (climate, health, digital political advertising), not necessarily technical.

I disagree. Regulations and technology go hand-in-hand. Often the technology comes first and regulations try to keep up.

.. what skills/traits allow a person to make such predictions with high accuracy?One thing is that I think you need a pretty wide set of priors–breadth. Stuff like history, anthropology, economics, the history of art. Lots of knowledge about human behavior, politics, culture, stuff like how emotions guide behavior, etc.

When I look at a typical STEM education, we deliberately don’t prioritize this stuff. We know lots of things about how electrons behave and which sorts of functions grow the fastest and how cellular mitosis works. Not as much about why empires fall, the role of greed in political revolutions, or the changing role of women over the last 500 years. I think this puts HNers (I think STEM people are probably overrepresented here) at a significant disadvantage at making these kinds of broad predictions.

The thing we do have going for us is our ability to understand the course technology is going to take: what’s possible, what will and won’t work, and why.

I also wonder whether the people you’re around influence your ability to predict what’s next. On one hand, it’s a well-established fact in social science that many social trends, at least in the US (things like marriage and divorce rates, educational trends, changing attitudes around dating, purchasing behaviors), start in the upper-middle classes, as they have the numbers (population) to make real differences in buying habits, politics, etc., whereas the rich have more money but much smaller population. On the other hand, the lower classes in the US vastly outnumber what I’d consider a typical HN reader. Something like 70% of US adults don’t even have a bachelor’s degree, and the US median income for an individual is around $40K. Keep that in mind as you think about this stuff.

.. One of the things I find most striking when watching old movies is the general attitude of people toward tech.

If you look at movies from the 70s and 80s, conspicuous display of tech was common. Look at stereo systems of the time, and how people treated mobile phones (they were huge and conspicuously displayed). This partially echoes the “machine age” [1] of the early 20th century, a a time when tech was seen as “modern” and a force for progress.

Whereas these days, we want things to be light, invisible, and out of the way. That’s a major change in attitude.

I actually feel we might see fewer “screens” in the next few years if the combination of voice and AI becomes powerful enough that most things can be done by voice or thought. I think more and more decision-making (things like which plane to book/flight to take/etc) will be made by automated systems that know our preferences and we’ll be picking from fewer and fewer menus. Sort of like a human assistant, but available to the masses and more accurate. Google’s Duplex is a big step in this direction. The key is ceding more decision-making authority to software.

In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if we all just have earphones, either over-the-ear, or implanted in our heads, in 15 years. The broader theme is that I think we’ll want things to be invisible rather than visible.

I also think you’re right that the rich will want less of this stuff. There’s already a huge socioeconomic difference in how people use tech. Look at how a rich family eats in the US today vs. a poor family. Rich families put their phones away, poor families spend the entire dinner posting stuff on Snap. Just walk into a burger king vs. a fine dining restaurant to see that trend in action.

Eleven Reasons To Be Excited About The Future of Technology

In the year 1820, a person could expect to live less than 35 years, 94% of the global population lived in extreme poverty, and less that 20% of the population was literate. Today, human life expectancy is over 70 years, less that 10% of the global population lives in extreme poverty, and over 80% of people are literate. These improvements are due mainly to advances in technology, beginning in the industrial age and continuing today in the information age.

There are many exciting new technologies that will continue to transform the world and improve human welfare. Here are eleven of them.

  1. Self-Driving Cars
  2. Clean Energy
  3. Virtual and Augmented Reality
  4. Drones and Flying Cars
  5. Artificial Intelligence
  6. Pocket Supercomputers for Everyone
  7. Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains
  8. High-Quality Online Education
  9. Better Food through Science
  10. Computerized Medicine
  11. A New Space Age