One of the nice things about Occupy Wall Street was that it provided a tidy shorthand to describe the problem of income inequality at a moment when the world didn’t really have one. Today, it’s a cliche: the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. But at the time, that brief phrase awakened many people to the idea that America’s riches were distributed more unevenly than they thought, and that an increasingly outrageous share was being concentrated at the very top. The winners in this story were corporate executives, business owners, and highly paid professionals—especially bankers. The losers were just about everybody else. Like all shorthand, this tale was a bit oversimplified. But in the wake of a financial crisis brought on by the greed and recklessness of those 1 percenters, it felt apt.
Back then, the people who took issue with framing America’s economy as a tug of war between the ultrarich and the rest of us generally fell into two camps. They were either inequality skeptics, who insisted unconvincingly that research showing the rise of the 1 percent was flawed, or inequality apologists, who argued that letting some people get exorbitantly wealthy was good for the economy, since it rewarded hustle and entrepreneurship (basically, Paul Ryan during his peak makers-vs.-takers period).
Lately, though, a few writers have tried to play down the idea of the 1 percent for a different reason: They say it’s making us miss the real story of class and inequality in America. Last year, a Brookings Institution scholar named Richard Reeves published a book titled Dream Hoarders, in which he argues that America’s upper-middle class is rigging the economy in its own favor. Our national focus on the very rich, he suggests, is blinding us to the reality of how well-off soccer moms and dads in places like Arlington, Virginia, are killing the American dream for everyone but their own kids. “Too often, the rhetoric of inequality points to a ‘top 1 percent’ problem, as if the ‘bottom’ 99 percent is in a similarly dire situation,” he writes. “This obsession with the upper class allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.”