The Professional Class in America: Time to Step Aside?

Published April 26, 2017 in Warp & Woof

The Professional Class in America: Time to Step Aside?

William Sundwick

Lately, there has been much written about the changing role in American politics (perhaps, Western democracies, in general) of the upper middle class – we are now calling them the “professional class.” How did this social class become so dominant in advanced societies? And, where does it leave most workers, who lack higher education, who can barely hope to maintain basic middle class living standards, much less advance to something better?
Early American Professions

In eighteenth century America, land surveying became an established profession. It was the profession of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abe Lincoln, prior to moving on to military, legal, and political pursuits. Before you could practice surveying, you needed to have appropriate training, and be certified by some legal authority. These were the standards for professionals, as they are today.
The number of occupations that had such requirements steadily increased through the nineteenth century. Even the early colonists had recognized medicine, law, and divinity as professions. Land surveying was the first to be added, followed in the young republic by actuarial science, dentistry, civil engineering, architecture, and accounting. As technology and medicine continued to grow through the century, social complexity also grew, adding teaching, librarianship, nursing, optometry, and social work to the list.
Population growth itself increased the need for human services, and the establishment of new towns required public works. New ways of accumulating wealth through capital motivated a job market for experts in a variety of capital-intensive pursuits, including finance and economics. New potential for achieving the “good life” began to point toward psychology and pharmacy as professions. As we moved through the twentieth century, it became apparent that there would be many different specialized occupations, all needing both training and “accreditation.” With these developments, the gap between the ever enlarging “professional class” and the working class, who did not have such skills or accreditation, would continue to grow.
The Autonomous Class

Compensation levels between some professionals and others, as their numbers grew, often was based on educational attainment. Education became the primary membership marker in the New Class of professionals. Yet, all professionals share one thing in common — autonomy. We rely on them to make knowledge-based decisions in their respective fields. They may be charged with carrying out an organizational mission based on exercise of their judgement, if they are employed by an organization; or, if self-employed (i.e., “hanging out a shingle”), they market themselves to clients.
Regardless of the education required, it’s fair to say that professions concern themselves primarily with abstract concepts, symbol manipulation, and analysis. Some would generalize to say that professionals “work with their heads, not their hands.” Although this is clearly a generalization (artists, musicians, surgeons?), the distinction between knowledge work and manual work is the key point. And, the acceptance of the professional as an autonomous authority, by corporate hierarchy or client, is enforced by professional associations, who have considerable influence — and, who promote scarcity of professionals, via those educational requirements, to keep compensation high. 

 Inequality has been rising as professionals of various stripes account for a greater share of economic activity, compared to labor. If income is derived from ownership of scarce resources, it is rent income. Those resources can include land, airline routes, and oil tankers … and, they can include knowledge. They clearly include intellectual property in the form of patents and copyrights. They also include licenses  required by professions. Universities possess licensing authority, as do state and local governments. A degree from an accredited institution of higher education is always a “license.” The rental income for the university is tuition. Once licensed, the income generated by a professional holding that license is also rent – it is ownership of a scarce resource.
Karl Marx considered all professionals of his time to be participants in “rentier capitalism.” A rentier is what some economists came to know, colloquially, as a “coupon clipper” — those whose income is derived from anything other than production. In Marx’s time, they would be the bankers and landlords, the accountants, architects, and actuaries. In the modern era, the portion of the economy that Marx would describe as rent-based has increased manifold. One wonders whether our definition of economic rent shouldn’t be narrowed.
But, the other side of the coin is that the growth in power of the much-enlarged modern professional class has been at the expense of those who cannot match the scarcity of credentials held by the more powerful organized professional groups. Blue collar labor unions don’t even have the clout of teachers’ unions in contemporary American politics.
Class Resentment

Among the byproducts of rising inequality between workers and professionals is the resentmentthat comes when your supervisor is not one of you — if they come from a different class, a professional class, rather than rising through the ranks. The attitude of “I’d like to get out of this rut, too” is becoming more common in America as inequality increases, with wages stagnating. Those who have not invested in education to the same extent professionals have ask: “Why do the professionals deserve those fancy salaries?” Or, they question whether the professional (rentier) is more producer or consumer (“maker” vs. “taker,” to use political rhetoric of the 2012 presidential election).
In contemporary American society, one of the principal tools professions use to increase their influence, and fortunes, is to create “Barriers to Entry.” The greater the educational requirements to gain the license to practice, the more rent income goes to the university, and the more income can be earned by the practicing professional. Their knowledge and skills become dearer, scarcer. Hence, politically, it’s easy to see a natural alliance between the academy and the professional association. One can argue, however, that the current state of this alliance (or conspiracy, depending on your point of view) is out of balance. As higher education now requires extensive debt (rental income for student loan finance), the income for the academic partner may decrease, since nobody can afford to enter … or, at least, stay for their credentialing ceremony! The alliance is threatened. Unless we grant this activity is somehow increasing net productive value, the likely result is a state of social entropy (see blog post, 4/14/2017, “Social Entropy: Tribalization and Decline of Elites”).
Democrats vs. Republicans

American politics, since the late nineteenth century, has been dominated by two political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. These two parties, however, have not talked to the same constituencies over the last hundred years. The Progressive Era of the early 20th century featured the Republican Party advocating most effectively for working people and consumers. The Democratic Party of that era was regional and agricultural, suspicious of any threat to the existing social order. However, the First World War saw an internal upheaval among Republicans, and they emerged in the twenties clearly the party of capital, and against labor.
Only after the Crash of 1929 did “New Democrat” FDR rescue his party, by openly opposing the free-market capitalist agenda of Republicans. Throughout this period, the professional class was steadily increasing its influence on American culture, in general. Government became very technocratic, with expanding bureaucracies, employing a multitude of experts, much like the growing capitalism of the previous century. The continuation of the New Deal, after Roosevelt’s death, managed to co-opt even the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Nixon. Professionals became a dominant constituency in both parties.
Then, in the 1972 election, the Democratic Party imploded. After the humiliating defeat of George McGovern, Democrats embarked upon a two-decade project to remake their party into a pro-capitalist, pro-growth, pro-rentier advocacy group. This is the thesis of Thomas Frank’s book, “Listen, Liberal” (2016). No more policies for the working man … campaign rhetoric, yes, but no longer any concrete policies to benefit the working class. It reached its peak during the Obama years; and, by extension, Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the last election.
Thomas Frank’s Prescription

Of course, working people didn’t disappear, but the Democratic Party, at least, focused, instead, on “identity politics” of racial and educational commonalities. As Frank develops it, if Democrats are to win elections going forward, they must rediscover the working class, probably at the expense of the professional class. The Party, he claims, has lost its roots … gone is organized labor, one of the three pillars of the party at mid-century: labor, POC (People Of Color), and the professional/technocratic class. Only two legs of the stool remained after the turn of the 21st century. Barack Obama succeeded only because his two challengers were even more obviously beholden to the world of capital, and rent, than was the Democratic Party. The off-year drubbings Dems have received over the last decade in Congress and statehouses, support his contention.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party also has a three-legged stool, social conservatives (also known as the “religious right”), business interests (especially, small business), and certain professionals (especially, military, and law enforcement). In election after election, state after state, these three legs proved more durable than those supporting the Democratic stool. Surely, a re-energized labor contingent could easily find itself loyal, once again, to the Democratic Party, if only that party would welcome it into its ranks. For its part, organized labor may have to do some restructuring, too, before it can make any difference in future elections. How about clear, focused positions on some of the economic issues around rent and inequality – for openers?
And, we could also use a broader definition of productive labor … is not any labor that increases net social benefit productive? Perhaps it’s time to let Karl Marx rest in peace.

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