Long, long ago I remember studying history and reading about all of the important changes associated with the rise of the middle-class in Europe: trade, widespread literacy, banking, expanded political participation, redistribution of wealth and reduction in the seemingly limitless power and untouchable status of the nobility. This concept of a strong middle-class blossomed into a credo (some say myth) of national identity in the United States.
Opinion: Haves and Have Yachts
Having just returned from England, I realized that our definition of middle-class differs somewhat from theirs. In the U.S., the vast majority of the population self-identifies as being middle class. In the U.K., that label is attached to professionals and successful merchants, not just anybody. Here, I suppose we would call them “upper-middle class,” but it definitely doesn’t include the blue-collar, white-collar and full-time service workers that we in this country consider part of the middle.
This has prompted a discussion across the pond of what is being called the gap between the “haves and have-yachts.” The rich are not all equal. According to an article in the London Times at the end of last year, a rift is opening up among wealthy Britons between the merely-rich and the super-rich. Stories of excesses like long waiting lists for luxury goods and fashionable cars and small fortunes being spent entertaining and vacations are common. With such competition, the merely-rich feel jealous about the super-rich who are pushing up the price of traditional wealth assets – school fees, real estate and household help. Many blame this situation on the policies of the government saying that the super-rich, by finding ways to avoid paying taxes, are consuming without contributing to the overall well-being of society.
Probably the most apparent problem is the hyper-inflated housing market. The steady injection of money by the very well-off into the housing market keeps all prices rising. The cost of cheaper houses follows the market upwards, and makes it almost impossible for many to buy a home or afford decent rentals.
Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from the boom, and many who are far removed from this class struggle between the haves and the have-yachts are nevertheless affected by it. The gap between the rich and poor is growing ever wider. Despite huge wealth, many children live in poverty. Health inequalities are expanding. Life expectancy varies greatly between the richest and poorest. Moreover, as mentioned previously, there is the housing situation.
So how does all of this apply to us here in Uptown? Well, first of all, the situation and sentiments of the upper-middle class here seem to be very similar to those found among comfortable Britons. Second, the effects of this are trickling down and rippling (sounds like a sort of twisted version of the Reaganomics of 25 years ago) here as well. Many of us in the neighborhoods of Uptown are proud of our liberal voting records and the attention we to progressive issues. But progressive politics isn’t just about ecology and carbon footprints, it’s about social justice too.
Big changes are going to have to occur soon and fast if cities (and the world in general) are going survive and thrive in the future.
Economic growth, development and consumption (no matter how green and responsible it tries to be) shouldn’t be what define a city (or a country, or the world for that matter). We also need to rethink the way we judge wealth. We are asking for trouble if we don’t consider the health and quality of life of all of our citizens. It is possible to create a better today and perhaps a better tomorrow, but we need new approaches to make sure we do it right.
We truly have more than any time in history, especially the have crowd who have turned into the have too much crowd (not to mention the have WAY too much crowd), but we need to allocate our resources more wisely. I don’t have the answers. In fact, I’m wishing I had the bucks to take longer and more luxurious vacations. I know we won’t get there by voting with our hearts while spending our money on more and more stuff. It’s not really about whether you have a yacht, or are buying an even bigger boat… It’s more about reconsidering what people really need, such as decent housing, healthcare, quality education, a cleaner environment (especially our water) and enough to eat, and making sure that everyone has access to that much.
Scott Schiefelbein is senior editor of Uptown Neighborhood News.