College-educated professionals could doom progressive politics

If there were a real progressive movement in the U.S. it would side with producers against rentiers -- of all kinds

Topics: College, one percent, Professional, Democratic Party, The Left, Liberals, Progressivism, Editor's Picks, Minimum wage, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, rentiers, ,

College-educated professionals could doom progressive politicsElizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Stephan Savoia/Jessica Hill)

Will the professional class doom American progressivism? The very suggestion seems heretical. After all, college-educated professionals are an increasingly important part of the base of the progressive movement and the Democratic Party. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

Professionals are now the most Democratic and fastest-growing occupational group in the United States, and they are a huge chunk of the burgeoning white college graduate population. They gave Obama an estimated 68 percent of their vote in 2008. By the middle of this decade, professionals will account for around one in five American workers.

This trend is treated as something to be celebrated by most progressive activists, thinkers, commentators and politicians—most of whom happen to be members of the professional elite by birth or education. I beg to differ. Here are three reasons why the growing domination of the center-left by college-educated professionals in the U.S. and other Western democracies is bad on the whole for progressive politics.

You can’t create or sustain a decent welfare state without higher taxes on the professional class. If you want to expand Social Security, extend the ordinary duration of unemployment insurance benefits, and create new tax-and-transfer payment entitlements for family leave and long-term eldercare, you have to pay for these programs. And while you can pay for a more generous welfare state partly by means of higher taxes on the rich, the experience of European social democracies suggests that you also need to raise payroll taxes and/or consumption taxes on upper-middle-class professionals and maybe even on median-income workers.

But today’s Democratic Party panders to the taxophobia of the near-rich as much as today’s Republican Party panders to the tax-hating super-rich. In 2008 President Obama promised that he would not raise taxes on any American household making less than $250,000 a year — a number that Hillary Clinton first floated during the primary campaign. Obama repeated that pledge in 2012. Obama has also called for limiting tax expenditures like the home mortgage interest deduction and lifting the cap on Social Security payroll taxes … for households making more than $250,000.

According to the IRS, only 2 percent of American households make more than $250,000. In 2008 a household that made $250,000 earned five times more than the median U.S. household income. And yet progressives are supposed to consider this elite minority part of the “middle class.”

The new “Better Off Budget” of the Congressional Progressive Caucus purports to provide a bold progressive vision. But while it endorses some good ideas, like expanding Social Security, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, like Obama, pampers the upper middle class. The budget calls for returning to Clinton-era tax rates — but only for households making over $250,000. Even worse, it proposes to cut taxes on the near-rich, by creating a “new Hard Work Tax Credit for households earning less than $150,000.” This is the self-professed left, mind you. Why on earth are congressional “progressives” calling for even more tax credits for Americans in the top 2 percent?

The center-left’s outrage about income inequality and low taxation is curiously selective. Yes, most of the gains from recent economic growth have gone to the 1 percent, or even the 0.01 percent — but so what? Why not raise taxes on the 2 percent, as well as the 1 percent?

Professionals extract monopoly economic rents from the less wealthy majority. Progressives love to denounce monopolies that threaten mom-and-pop restaurants or microbreweries. Try to find a progressive activist denouncing the monopoly rents of the American professoriate, the American Bar Association, or the American Medical Association

Doctors, lawyers and professors tend to think of themselves as altruistic servants of the public good. At the same time, many insist on being compensated well enough to belong to the top few percentiles in income, rather than being paid like teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters. This contradiction generally does not bother professionals, but it should bother progressives.

The dirty secret of the American professional elites is credential rents. By restricting the supply of practitioners — you generally can’t be a tenured professor, a practicing lawyer or a doctor without the right degree — the guilds that the professions control artificially drive up the price of college education, legal services and physician services.

Often the people who are hurt the most by overpriced professional services in higher education and healthcare are the disproportionately nonwhite and disproportionately immigrant working poor. How, then, can rent-seeking, overcharging professionals be in the same center-left coalition with the working poor?

The answer is: subsidies!

We professionals will continue to use our guild-monopoly power to gouge the consumers of professional services, so that we can maintain our membership in the few percent. But being progressive, we care about the poor — we really, sincerely do! That’s why we won’t object, if the government taxes those richer than us in the 1 percent to subsidize the poor, so they can afford the high prices our monopoly professional guilds maintain for our benefit. The poor get more access to professional services; we few percent professionals get to keep exploiting our monopoly-based market power; and the 1 percent super-rich get the bill for the subsidies. What’s not to like?

As a political formula to align the interests of near-rich professionals with working-poor voters, subsidizing the purchase by the poor and middle class of overpriced professional services may be clever. But it’s hardly progressive. Progressives are right to go after greed and rent-seeking in the financial industry and corporate boards. Why not go after greed and rent-seeking among professors, lawyers and doctors, too?

In my experience, much of the professional class is not very interested in working Americans. In principle, professional-class progressives are against poverty and support economic justice. But on the list of issues that excite college-educated progressives, the bread-and-butter issues that dominated Farmer-Labor Progressivism and New Deal liberalism are often low priorities, compared to saving the planet from global warming or freedom from NSA surveillance.

This is not a caricature. I base my observation (admittedly a personal one) on a quarter-century of experience in journalism and the nonprofit sector. If you want to fill an auditorium at a think tank, magazine office or other venue, hold a panel on one or more of the non-economic issues I just mentioned and the seats will fill up quickly with enthusiastic, affluent, mostly white upper-middle-class progressives. If you want to hold a panel on the minimum wage or workplace tyranny, expect to have a lot of empty seats. To avoid embarrassment, you might reserve a smaller room.

The recent wave of protests by low-wage fast-food workers confirms my point. Their concerns had been neglected for years by upper-middle-class progressives more concerned with inspiring world-saving crusades than trench warfare against McDonald’s. Only when the workers took matters in their own hands did most of the center-left credentialed class start paying attention (perhaps temporarily).

During the Progressive Era and the New Deal era that succeeded it, idealistic professional-class reformers were only one element of a coalition they were forced to share with the representatives of farmers and blue-collar workers — groups that made up a majority of the workforce in the mid-20th century. Take away the farmer-labor wing of the center-left, and you are left with upper-middle-class do-gooders like Woodrow Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt. A progressivism based among college-educated professionals is going to be much more elitist, and perhaps much less egalitarian and effective, than one dominated by union leaders, urban bosses and agrarian politics. True, nonwhite and low-income Americans are important in the Democratic electorate — but they are grossly underrepresented in the organized center-left.

If there were a real progressive movement in the U.S., its attitude toward the professional class would be more skeptical than celebratory. In order to fund a decent-size welfare state, genuine progressives would demand higher taxes on Americans making more than $100,000 — or maybe more than $50,000 or even $30,000. Why not? Polls show that Americans are willing to pay somewhat higher taxes as long as they get better benefits like expansions of Social Security or Medicare. The pressure to exempt professional households that make between $100,000 and $250,000 a year is not coming from Middle America.

Genuine progressives would side with producers, of all kinds, against rentiers, of all kinds — including credential-rentiers like the members of professional monopoly guilds. If software can replace pricey lawyers, if moderately paid instructors can replace highly paid professors, if skilled nurses were allowed to do some of the things that only M.D.s now do at a fraction of the salary, the working-class majority would benefit immensely.

The proletarianization of the professional class should be welcomed and encouraged by the progressive movement. Already independent physicians are being replaced by doctors who are salaried employees of hospitals. Let prole lawyers work for legal services corporations and prole professors work for educational service companies. Unable to set their own incomes by means of guilds, many downwardly mobile professionals might belatedly discover the benefits of unions and legislation protecting workers against exploitation by managers and investors.

The bad news, then, is that the self-serving minority of credentialed professionals, rather than the majority of wage earners, is increasingly important in setting the agenda of the center-left. The good news is that the contradiction between progressive reform and the self-interest of the professional elite may come to an end as technology and economic reorganization eliminate the professions altogether.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...