Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves

Hardcover, 240 pages Pub June 13th 2017 by Brookings Institution Press ISBN13: 9780815729129

At first Reeves’ argument, that the upper middle class should voluntarily give up their advantaged place in society, sounds virtuous if a little unlikely. But gradually, listening to his arguments in this slim book of charts, graphs, and statistics, we remember what we don’t like about America: how our segregated neighborhoods bear little resemblance to what we see on the news every night. We sense a dislocation so strong we know it could come back to bite us, or more importantly, our children. Using beneficial social and tax structures to advantage our children and perpetuate class division may ultimately work to their detriment, and is certainly skewing the competitiveness of a large proportion of our working class, and therefore our nation as a whole.

First, Reeves posits that real advancement for most people in our society is predicated on access to knowledge and information, i.e., “knowledge is power.” Right away we realize that access to information has never been equally distributed in this country, and that many of us have considered attainment of an IV-league education for ourselves and our children the highest goal. Virtuous in itself, one could say. But, Reeves points out, who is actually able to attend the IV-league is skewed by a few factors which can ultimately taint the achievement: access is unequal and not as competitive as touted. One reason is inequality in preparing for admission, and another is legacy admissions for relatives of graduates.

Reeves suggests we protest legacy admissions until they are denounced publicly as discriminatory like they were in a strongly class-based society like Britain in the middle of the last century. Inherited admissions clearly work for the benefit of the landed class alone, and are therefore something which perpetuates inequality. For greater equality of opportunity, one has to look at lower schools, and who has access to the best schools.

The best schools often go along with the best neighborhoods, the most nourishing family environments, opportunities for exposure to both nature and culture, music, art, etc.…and these are circumscribed, Reeves tells us, by zoning restrictions disallowing multi-family dwellings, low(er)-income high(er)-rises in desirable suburbs.

I had a harder time reconciling this argument of his. In the United States, despite laws forbidding discrimination in real estate, there was demonstrable race-based discrimination in real estate throughout the twentieth century. Races were segregated beyond what would occur naturally—that is, races seeking to live with others of their culture. The idea is to allow access to desirable suburbs with good schools, nature, etc. If we stop discrimination on the basis of race, that will take care of some of the problem. Then, if we can add low(er)-income high(er)-rise buildings without changing the essential benefit of desirable suburbs (leafy, green, quiet, beautiful), I’m all for it. Let’s do it everywhere.

For those that cannot escape poor schools in the inner-city, Reeves suggests we offer our best teachers the hardest jobs: teaching in low-income neighborhoods downtown. These excellent teachers would be offered the best salaries. I have no objection to this, but I fear it will not produce the outpouring of talent that Reeves is anticipating. Teaching is a profession, and we have learned anything about professions, it is that money is not always the strongest motivator. At the margins, a certain amount of money can induce some individuals to take on difficult jobs, but the inducements must quickly become exponential after a certain level of difficulty, saying nothing about the kinds of returns one would be expected to produce annually. But big challenges can be an inducement and the money will help make sense of it. It’s absolutely worth trying. Let’s do it everywhere.

Among other things that would flatten the playing field is to eliminate our most beloved tax breaks which, Reeves explains, are in effect subsidies for the wealthiest among us: College savings 529 tax havens, and the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Eliminating these two loopholes would add hundred of billions to government coffers, while disadvantaging those in the upper 20% income bracket very little indeed while flattening the playing field for the rest of us.

Lastly, Reeves suggests that internships during college are often distributed not on merit, but on the basis of class, familiarity, or favored status. Since jobs to which many of us aspire are often awarded on the basis of experience, internships, which deliver a certain level of confidence to applicants, can be extremely useful in bridging the gap from childhood to adulthood within the target job area. While favored distribution of internships seemed somewhat trivial to me and other critics Reeves mentions, he counters with “If it is trivial, you won’t mind then if we eliminate/outlaw it.” So be it. All “merit” all the time, if we can be reasonably expected to perfect that little measure.

It is not going to surprise me when liberals discover status and wealth do not necessarily translate into greater life satisfaction or happiness and therefore decide to voluntarily give up certain advantages that perpetuate their inherently unequal class ranking for the greater benefit of the society in which they live. It is conservatives in the ranks of the well-to-do that may hold back progress. According to Nancy MacLean’s new book called Democracy in Chains, which paid some attention to the basis of far right conservative thinking, the wealthy feel they deserve their wealth, even if it is inherited, or even if it is made on the backs of exploited labor. It may be more difficult to get past this barrier to change.

On the basis of the statistics Reeves shares about the stickiness of class status among the top 20% of income earners, he writes persuasively about different individual things we can do to alleviate huge class disparities in opportunity. Reeves addresses the experience of J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy) explicitly in the book, and indirectly in the first of the short video links given below. It is difficult and uncomfortable to move up the ladder but people with exceptional skills are not going to be discriminated against: “The labor market is not a snob.”

Below, please find two very short videos in which Reeves simply and easily explains the concepts in his book.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Legacy admissions are "White people's Affirmative Action." Val reported he'd had a child at long last and shortly after was contacted and Lela got a letter *at age 3* hoping she'd consider applying to Yale like her father. :-( Considerably more unjust than any arguments against "regular" Affirmative Action, IMHO. Good he notes about teachers - a huge problem of "local control" is that the worst schools get the newest teachers, where kids need the best teachers (yes!) who move to the better salaried schools as soon as they have a couple years under their belts. It's a consequence of not having socialized education (e.g., national teacher salaries, with or without merit pay schemes.)

  2. I would add we need to level school funding on a national scale, too, to ensure the country does not continue to essentially write off 20 or 30 percent of our young people. And by leveling, I mean raise it up, not lower it. It does a brilliant, talented teen little good to get rid of legacy admissions and base acceptance to college on "merit" (however defined) alone if they went to a school that didn't prepare them to go to a top college, let alone a middling one.