Money and Class in America, With a Smattering of Traditional Music


There are many ways to say “middle class,” and Robert Sullivan has just coined a new one. The “not-rich” are, necessarily, not rich—they don’t rank among that elusive top 2 percent, “or anywhere near it.” But they’re also definitely not poor; Sullivan explains, almost apologetically, that “this economic category does not include the disastrously huge number of people who . . . aren’t able to live on what some people call an income.”

Hence, middle class—but the not-rich aren’t just any families from the block. They possess a certain social standing that has nothing (and everything) to do with class and gives them a lot more to say to the rich over cocktails. To be “not-rich,” Sullivan writes, “you need a college education,” and should “choose a field of study that will be personally rewarding but have no apparent application in the real world.” Indecisive? Try “medieval literature” or “traditional music.” But seriously, forget about the major—the point, for the not-rich, is to get the kind of education that assumes (at the very least) a lifetime above the poverty line and confirms status among the intellectual elite. In the previous millennium, they used to call this bourgeois bohemianism.

And while the not-rich may be paying off the “absurdly large loans” they took out to buy those traditional-music textbooks, it could be worse—they could be poor. Or more tangibly, they could be rich, like the Joneses with their “second homes and vacation homes and homes they continue to call homes even when they are in prison for . . . insider trading.” So take heart, not-richers, maybe even buy yourself the hardcover equivalent of a pat on the back from a fellow traveler. He could use the dough.