If words are used too often, they start to lose their meaning. Try saying the phrase “deep discount” to yourself sixty times in a minute, for example, and it turns into a disjointed collection of consonants and syllables with no connection to any existing concept or experience. The technical term for this psychological experience is “semantic satiation,” and it was recently described in the sitcom Ted Lasso as the moment when “words become a sound.”
One phrase that American politicians have nearly pushed to the point of semantic satiation is “the middle class.”
It’s a phrase with a specific economic meaning, and it seems simple enough to define: divide the economy into thirds based on income, and the center third that’s neither at the top or the bottom is the middle class.
But when politicians make their exhortations to the great American middle class, they’re typically trying to appeal to everyone — from minimum-wage workers in the service economy to McMansion-dwelling suburban families in the top 10%.
Most recently, the huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan pushed through in 2017 was wrongly pitched as a “middle class tax cut.” And all that elasticity applied to the term has done its work: Surveys have shown that nine out of ten Americans consider themselves to be middle class, which is of course mathematically impossible.
In a recent episode of Pitchfork Economics, I interview New York Times tax and economics reporter Jim Tankersley about his new book “ The Riches of This Land: The Untold True Story of America’s Middle Class.”