Sarah Boxer has a good blog post up on CBS News's Political Hotsheet making fun of Mitt Romney for identifying himself as a member of the middle class even though his net worth puts him somewhere between $190 million and $250 million. But what's most striking to me isn't Romney's poor-mouthing. It's his defining "the great middle class" as comprising "80 to 90 percent" of the population. So what we have, I guess, is a bottom 5 to 10 percent we can call the poor, a top 5 to 10 percent we can call the rich, and a middle 80 to 90 percent we can call middle class.
We can calculate it that way if you like. But if the 94th percentile in income is middle class then the 94th percentile in height must give up any claim to being tall and the 94th percentile in reading comprehension will have to stay after school to perform remedial work with the other mediocre students. If you are better-looking than all but 6 percent of the general population then don't even think about asking the prom queen out on a date because she will find you too homely.
If the good citizens of Lake Wobegon defy mathematical logic by believing all their schoolchildren to be above average, then something very like its opposite governs American thinking about social class. At the far ends of the income distribution people want to believe they are average when they are not. Suggest otherwise and you're liable to offend them. This is not an entirely bad thing. If people want to think they are middle class then that probably means they share the same values as (or at least want to think they share the same values as) the real middle class. But when people who aren't middle class define the middle class as themselves they are liable to forget that the real middle class subsists on a lot less than they do. That's how people like M. Todd Henderson, an otherwise-intelligent law professor at the University of Chicago, end up writing hopelessly stupid blog posts complaining that they can't afford to pay more in taxes even though their households' $250,000 income puts them ahead of 98 percent of the rest of the country because the nanny bills and the private-school tuition are just too damned high. (Henderson later apologized, though in such a self-pitying way that it was clear he was still clueless as to why he'd enraged so many people.)
If these folks want to feel sorry for themselves, they shouldn't call themselves middle class. They should just complain that they're paupers in comparison to people like, say, Mitt Romney.