The middle class understands third-wave coffee and fancy ham just fine. The luxury they can’t afford is money.
So David Brooks took a friend to Radici on Capitol Hill. When his friend bugged out over the Italian spot’s over-the-top menu, they decided to go for Mexican instead. Probably they went to District Taco or La Plaza or (God help them) Tortilla Coast. Another day passes in #ThisTown.
But this was no ordinary lunch for David Brooks. His high school–educated friend’s reported discomfort with the learnéd deli menu opened Brooks’s eyes to the state of inequality in America, the subject of his latest column for The New York Times, one for the ages.
Here Brooks sets up the meal. Economic anxiety, table for two?
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Gabagool! Never mind that blue-collar workers have been eating capicollo on a roll since before Brooks started writing about the establishment. (“We’re not so bad.”) The American middle class is perfectly capable of appreciating the trappings of fine urban living, from sipping Blue Bottle Coffee to watching Twin Peaks (all over again). The gulf between bologna and beaujolais isn’t so vast—and it’s never been the problem anyway. Today, the luxury that the middle class can’t afford is money.
Notably, Brooks’s column doesn’t start with his mortadella mortification at the deli. First, and in short order, he punches out the structural factors contributing to decreased social mobility and increased income inequality across the country. Brooks cites research by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti on how zoning curbs growth and a book by Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves on how gains trapped at the top lead to income stratification, layering these concerns like so much soppressata and provolone on an Italian sub. But then he tosses these observations aside, like a half-finished five-dollar foot-long.
After the eye-opening episode on the Hill, Brooks pivots. “I’ve come to think the structural barriers [that Reeves] emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent,” he writes.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
Look, there are lots of little luxuries that come with today’s updated bobo lifestyle. So many that Brooks might have easily trotted out a new portmanteau, a sequel specific to the romphim-wearing, mezcal-swilling, avocado toast–splurging neoliberal elite. (“Boujee” ought to work just fine.) But is there any real doubt about who is enjoying that roséwave lyfe?
Not really: He’s just talking about Millennials. As a generation, though, and especially compared with the bourgeois bohemians of Brooks’s cohort, Millennials are have-nots. Those same people who clog the aisles at Whole Foods and “possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace” (here Brooks means Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but let’s let that slide) don’t have car payments in places like Portland, New York, and San Francisco. Moreover, they can’t get mortgages in those places—so they might as well spend their wages on $14 cocktails. Or arugula, or lattes, or fondue, or whatever the latest consumable signal of aspirational upper-class living is.
The difference is that, back in the ‘70s, yuppies had a lot of money, while the punks, the poseurs, and the losers had less. Today, the yuppies of yore still have all the money, while Millennials have to make do with the mere markers of success—“the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes.”
Millennials have a maxim for this making-do: Fake it ‘til you make it. Rosé and Reply-All don’t cost much, after all. Taste is cheap. Homes, on the other hand, to say nothing of investment income, comfortable retirement plans, higher education, childcare, or generational wealth, are prohibitively expensive. There are sincere economic divides in America that have nothing to do with conspicuous consumption—geographic, gender, and racial divides. Middle-class Americans can learn to navigate upscale Italian markets (or just pick a goddamned sandwich). But nobody accepts a “cultural code” as a down payment.
Back when the gap between middle-class homeowners and upper–middle class homeowners was narrower, signals mattered more. What drugs you did, where you discoed, where you summered, where you schooled: just a few of the gradations of affluence. Brooks still recognizes himself among the elite, but misdiagnoses what’s keeping him there. Today the income divide is much larger, but anyone with a Blue Apron account can navigate a Tuscan panini. It’s not charcuterie knowledge that’s preserving privilege in America. It’s the rich who are doing that.