Why middle-class rhetoric makes for great politics -- and terrible policy

Problem Number One with the emphasis on the middle class is simple: What about the poor? Most of us have no trouble with taking a little bit more—even a big bit more—from the rich to give to the poor. I certainly have none. Taking from the rich to give to the middle class is something else again. The term “middle class,” if it means anything at all, must mean there are people below the middle who qualify as “lower-class.” What justification is there for concerning yourself with the middle and ignoring the people at the bottom? Especially when people in the middle already receive most of the government dollars to begin with. (Think of Social Security and Medicare.)

Social Security is sometimes attacked on grounds of equity—why do we send checks every month to Warren Buffett rather than only to those in real need? The traditional answer, which you don’t hear a lot anymore, is that political support for Social Security depends on its being a universal program that everyone benefits from rather than a “welfare” program that benefits only those who need it. That is a weak argument. It says that the middle class, deserving or otherwise, must bribe both the undeserving poor and the undeserving rich in order to collect their checks.

Problem Number Two is that there aren’t enough rich people to provide windfalls of extra cash. There are about 123 million households in the U.S. Five thousand of them are worth $100 million or more. That’s wealth, not income. Now, that, I think we can agree, is rich. If you took a million from each of the rich households and divvied it up among the 24 million poor households, each of them would get only about $208.

Maybe the definition of “rich” is wrong.