If Mr. Murray is right, however, the next generation of educated professionals will consist almost entirely of the sons and daughters of other educated professionals. Members of the upper class send their children to better schools, coach them in ways of success, and know how to game college admissions. Members of the lower class have little access to such advantages. Although critics have faulted details of Murray’s argument, it is hard to deny his larger point: It is bad to have such sharply diverging classes.
So what do we do about it? Murray hopes for a civic Great Awakening in which upper-class members come out of their bubble. They would teach their children the value of physical labor and military service (the provinces, generally, of the less affluent), become more active in religious congregations, and take part in the life of their communities at a more serious level than attending charity events. Arguing that the affluent usually live out the virtues of devotion to work and family, Murray writes: “A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.” Murray’s suggestions are idealistic and not very specific, but they could be the starting point for a valuable discussion in the presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, the candidates are not taking the issue head-on. The president has talked about tax fairness and the middle class, but the data show that the tax system has little to do with the class problem.
Notwithstanding anecdotes about billionaires who pay lower rates than their secretaries, the system is progressive. The top 20 percent of earners actually pay a higher rate than those who make less, and they account for about two-thirds of all federal tax revenue. At the other end of the economic scale, many Americans pay no income tax at all.
Republicans like to talk about lower taxes as a spur to growth, but a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some boats sink. The trend toward greater income inequality continued throughout the last decade, even as the Bush tax cuts were taking effect.