STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with the History of Our Time. At this unsettled and unsettling moment, we're asking what big trends are driving our history.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Presidential adviser Michael Anton talked of rising nationalism, Irish leader Mary Robinson of the threat to global institutions, Francis Fukuyama of the threat to liberal democracy. Historian Jill Lepore quoted Alexander Hamilton.
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JILL LEPORE: He says it has fallen to the people of the United States to answer the great question of human history, which is are people capable of writing a constitution in which they can live justly and fairly by reason? Or are we all fated inevitably to be ruled by force and accident?
MARTIN: Our next guest has studied the way Americans wrestle with that question.
INSKEEP: And he says a hidden force is shaping our politics. Actually, it's hidden in plain sight. Scholar Richard Reeves wrote a book called "Dream Hoarders."
What are dream hoarders? Who are they?
RICHARD V. REEVES: They are members of the American upper middle class who through various ways are rigging the market - the housing market, the college market - are essentially hoarding the American dream.
INSKEEP: Now, you didn't say middle class, you said upper middle ideas. And who do you mean?
REEVES: I did because, well, one of the things you learn as you become an American, as I have, is that everyone's middle class.
INSKEEP: At least nearly all of us think so, whether we're far upscale or far down. When Reeves says upper middle class, he means a smaller group, the top 20 percent or so of Americans, those with six-figure incomes and above.
Remember all those political slogans about the 1 percent? Well, to Reeves, it's actually the 20 percent who dominate the best schools, live in the best located homes and pass on the best futures to their kids.
REEVES: The things that bother me and that have startled me as a new American and someone who comes from a class-bound society like the U.K. are the opportunity hoarding mechanisms such as zoning our neighborhoods in a way that ensure our house prices go up. We protect our own neighborhoods. We hoard housing wealth.
We also monopolize selective and elite higher education. And then we hand out internships and work opportunities on the basis of the social networks, so people we know in the neighborhood or meet on the tennis courts and so on. And so to that we are kind of hoarding those things that should be more widely available.
INSKEEP: OK. You come from a country with princes and princesses and dukes and duchesses and knights, and you said you were surprised by how class bound the United States is. What are you talking about?
REEVES: Yeah. You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I sort of miss the class consciousness of my old country which I grew up hating. The reason I miss it is because at least we're aware of it. It seems to me that in the U.S., you have a class system that operates every bit as ruthlessly as the British class system but under the veneer of classless meritocracy. So there isn't even a self-awareness.
INSKEEP: You have a heavily packed sentence here that I wrote down. We are using the tax system to help richer people buy bigger houses near the best schools. What do you mean by that?
REEVES: The tax breaks, the tax incentives that are available to people to buy houses in the U.S. are unnecessarily tilted. It's very controversial. Something like $70 billion go on mortgage interest deductions and the deductions for local property taxes.
What that does is it means that we're not increasing housing ownership in terms of breadth, we're increasing it in terms of depth. We're actually encouraging people who already have plenty of wealth to just double down on that by buying a more expensive...
INSKEEP: Buy an even bigger house.
REEVES: ...Buy an even bigger house.
INSKEEP: Which you can sell later for even more.
REEVES: And you'll get an even bigger tax incentive from doing so. And so the cycle turns. And so the whole system is almost designed to seal off the upper middle class from everybody else.
INSKEEP: Have we touched the main reasons that you say the system is rigged, housing and education?
REEVES: Housing, education and then entry into work - the workplace. So we see that from one survey of colleges, just 3 in 5 graduating college students have done an internship. But the way those internships are handed out are very, very far from meritocratic. So to the extent that they're valuable opportunities, that is yet another way in which we rig the system.
INSKEEP: Where did this system come from? Did somebody invent it?
REEVES: Many of the mechanisms actually have racist roots. So the zoning laws, quite often they had racist origins, but they now work for class.
INSKEEP: Oh, saying, for example, everybody has to have a 1-acre home lot gets lower class apartments out of your neighborhood, for example.
REEVES: Absolutely, keeps them out, yes. Legacy preferences, which are one of the ways that college admissions are rigged. Legacy preferences are genuinely extraordinary in the literal sense.
INSKEEP: Meaning if your mother went or your father went, you can go.
REEVES: Yeah. And they're literally extraordinary in the sense that no other country in the world does that. Unthinkable in the land of my birth that...
INSKEEP: Unthinkable in Britain, really?
REEVES: Unthinkable, disappeared half a century ago if not more ago. They're unthinkable everywhere, Steve, except the United States of America. There were actually an attempt by elite colleges to keep Jewish students out.
And so what you see is the sort of mechanisms that were evolved for different reasons. Now they interweave with each other to create a deeply unequal society.
INSKEEP: So to what extent are the trends you describe driving the history we're living right now?
REEVES: I have come to believe that the dangerous separation of the American upper middle class from the rest of society is a huge problem for politics because there's a sense of a bubble. There's a sense of people who are kind of making out pretty well from current trends and who are increasingly separate occupationally, residentially, educationally and economically from the rest of society.
They are also disproportionately powerful. And the fact that they are not only separate from the rest of society but unaware of the degree to which the system works in their favor strikes me as one of the most dangerous political facts of our time.
INSKEEP: Is this trend why Donald Trump became president of the United States?
REEVES: I do think the - to the extent that there was a kind of anger that lay behind Trump's support and anger at a certain class, I think it's pretty clear that that anger was at us. It was at the upper middle class.
And I'm not legitimizing that anger at all, but I am pointing out that to some extent the system is in fact rigged in our favor. And unless we're willing to admit that and do something about it, then to some extent people are right to be angry at us.
INSKEEP: Have you ended up at dinner with upper middle class friends and started talking about this?
REEVES: Yes. And I discovered that the idea that some people should be downwardly mobile in order to allow other people to be upwardly mobile is a deeply unpopular one around upper middle class dinner tables...
REEVES: ...Especially when you start sort of trying to identify which of your own children are being identified as the downwardly mobile ones. But, you know, these are very uncomfortable conversations in many ways. But I think that unless we're willing to tolerate a little bit of discomfort in our conversations, then really we're in really deep trouble.
INSKEEP: Richard V. Reeves is the author of "Dream Hoarders." Thanks very much.
REEVES: Thank you for having me.
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INSKEEP: He's the latest voice we've heard on the History of Our Time. You can find other conversations in the series at npr.org or on Twitter. I'm @nprinskeep, and I'm going to tweet it right now.
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