Notes on Last Night’s Debate

I listened to the debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama last night and, from looking around, see that there’s quite a bit of umbrage at it in the Left Blogosphere this morning. I found the event banal, as all of these events have been.

There were a small number of interesting points which I suspect will go unnoted in the din. First, Sens. Clinton and Obama used different definitions of “the middle class” in answer to Charlie Gibson’s attempt to extract from them a “no new taxes” on the middle class from them. Hillary Clinton defined the middle class as families earning an income lower than $250,000, a definition with which I’d agree. Basically, that’s all but the top 1% of income earners. Sen. Obama’s definition was families earning an income below $75,000. I think that’s an extremely narrow definition. It doesn’t even include all of the fourth quintile who to me are obviously middle class.

Sen. Obama also spent a great deal of time emphasizing fairness. Can someone provide me a succinct definition of the word? Equality is easy to understand. Fairness seems a little more slippery. Is it “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”? Is it just another word for expediency? Or is one of those words like “pornography” and we’ll know it when we see it?

The other point that I found very interesting is that neither candidate would commit to removing our troops from Iraq. That’s precisely what I’d expect and what I’ve been saying. However, if removing our troops from Iraq is the most important issue to you, a deal-breaker, I don’t see how you can conscientiously vote for any of the three candidates left standing.

Joe Gandelman, as usual, has a roundup of blogospheric reaction.

15 comments… add one
  • Egypt Steve Link

    You “basically agree” that a person making $250,000 per year is “Middle Class.” I guess you must “basically” earn something in that range, right?

    What’s up with calling Obama’s definition of the Middle Class — which as you describe it evidently includes the first three, plus part of the fourth, quintiles, or — let me try a little fuzzy math here — something like 80 percent or more of the population, “extremely narrow”????

  • Omaya Link

    “Hillary Clinton defined the middle class as families earning an income lower than $250,000, a definition with which I’d agree. Basically, that’s all but the top 1% of income earners. Sen. Obama’s definition was families earning an income below $75,000.”

    I remember last fall when the candidates were discussing a way to stabilize social security and something that lost in all the back in forth was the fact that when the candidates (at least Obama) was throwing around these numbers, they never made it clear that they were talking about families, but were talking about the incomes of individuals, so I’m not sure your assessment here is entirely accurate.

  • James Link

    I think Obama’s about right with his middle class level. My wife and I earned just a little bit less than $75k last year, and we live in the DC suburbs (not exactly the cheapest place in the country). I consider us fairly well into the middle class. Much more than that, and we’d start to be in the upper-middle class. If we start making $100k, we’ll have far more than we need to get along.

  • Shannon Link

    So the bottom 99% is the ‘middle class’? I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Obama’s definition is much more reasonable. Isn’t the term ‘middle class’ self-defining and subject to sensible bounds?

  • As a member of the $250,000+ “elite”, sure, I suppose I’d lump up to 200 or maybe 250 as upper middle class by definition. But, in practice, households making well into six figures aren’t the ones who feel the pain when food and energy prices rise. Unless of course they have overextended themselves or bought stupid mortgages, and then they deserve whatever happens to them.

    What I really want to know, and what never seems to get out there, is what actual final percentage of gross income goes out as federal taxes on average for people across the income spectrum? I think these numbers would show how ‘unfair’ the current tax system really is. I’m a friend of small government, free markets, and innovation, but I also think that the rising wealth inequality and increasing difficulty for average Americans are disturbing signals that the system is not working for folks other than the super-rich.

  • No, my wife and I make much, much less than that but I do look at earnings statistics. Based on those statistics I think that people making more than $350,000 are rich, those making between $60,000 and $250,000 are upper middle class (but still middle class), those making between $20,000 and $60,000 are middle class (with the lower income quintile lower middle class), and those making less, poor.

    My key point is that families making $97,000 aren’t rich, they’re middle class and, consequently, much of the top quintile is, too.

  • There sure are a lot of rich people who can’t grasp the concept of a number line.

    Middle means midpoint. Any definition of “middle” must include an equal distance from either side of the true statistical middle. Obama’s $75,000 definition of middle-class is just about the top boundary of the middle 50% of America — and this is for household income, not individuals. That’s a pretty generous definition as it only leave 25% to be poor ($77.5K) but it’s in the ballpark of reasonable.

    Clinton defining $250,000 (the top 1.5%) as middle class is fantasyland. To get an equal number of people on either side of a number line of income using her definition you’d have to dip far into the lowest depths of poverty level. If you throw out everybody making less than the median household income and just define ‘middle class’ as the middle of households making more than the median household income (all of whom are doing better than average) you still only get to $77,500 household income.

    How people doing better than half of all the people doing better than average are considered “middle” I’ll never know.

  • Only true if you think that incomes are normally distributed. They aren’t.

  • Larry Link

    Is there a real diffinition of “Middle Class” perhaps the candidates
    should have reframed their answers, for Obama, those who make 75k and less get such and such tax breaks, while those who make above that figure get another…so for Hilary, those who make 250k or less get on kind of tax break while those who make above that get another ….

    Can middle class be defined by income alone?? There may not be a single
    definition that is agreed upon…would a person with a PHD earning 40K a year
    be middle class because of the education factor alone? Would a high school drop out making 250k a year be middle class or is it a combination of many other factors depending on where you live, etc…

    What is middle class?


  • SteveH Link

    “Hillary Clinton defined the middle class as families earning an income lower than $250,000, a definition with which I’d agree. ”

    That makes no sense. Only 5% of households have an income over $167,000. It makes the term meaningless to claim that all those with incomes between $167,000 and $250,000 are middle class. There may be a difference between wealth and income, but people in the top quintile are not middle class.

  • jake Link

    Barack Obama was not defining the middle class, he was saying that Clinton’s definition was incorrect. The “75,000 dollars or less” was not his definition of the middle class but the primary beneficiaries of his tax credit. He could have been clearer but he is trying not to talk down to people…to his credit.

  • jmo Link

    The average salary of a Boston cop is 89k, a nurse with a couple of years of experience can make about 80k. Nurse married to a cop 169k.

    Cop and nurse, seems pretty middle class to me.

  • @jmo, maybe so, but the assumption these days is that it takes both parents working long hours or stressful jobs to make life comfortable, and what does that mean for the kids? Believe me, I am all for equal rights (no exceptions for ANY pigeonhole you may pick) and everyone’s right to self-fulfillment, but realize that this is a different mindset than our society has ever had before. Shouldn’t we strive to make it possible for a one-earner household with a reasonable job to have a family and live comfortably? P.S., Boston wages are atypically high, and so are expenses.

  • ted johnson Link

    The term “middle” doesn’t mean the group in the center of the income distribution. It means the socio-economic class in between rich and poor–wherever that falls on the distribution. That’s what makes this interesting: the difference between the socio-economic middle and the statistical middle. So there’s no reason to exclude people making up to $250k, even if that leaves only 1% of wage earners above “middle class.” To the contrary, the fact that we can even have this debate–i.e., that one could argue reasonably that up to the top 1% should be considered middle class–underscores the astounding concentration of wealth in the hands of very few.

    Personally, I agree with Hillary’s definition. A family of four with an income of $250k and no inherited capital looks, feels and acts like a culturally “middle class” family. What’s truly disturbing is that a family that is actually in the statistical middle probably can’t afford a “middle class” lifestyle.

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