According to a recent Congressional Budget Office study, income for middle-class families, adjusted for inflation, rose from $41,400 in 1979 to $45,100 in 1997, or just 9%. In other words, the average American is only slightly better off now than he was then, despite unprecedented economic growth during this period.

Even so, one might understand the general reluctance to play the class card if all Americans were in the same boat. But they aren't. the average American's income increased by 9%, the wealthiest 1% rose 140% during the same period.

Put another way, the wealthiest now have 23 times more than the annual income of the average American, up from 10 times more in 1979.

Economic growth has been a kind of zero-sum game, and the gap between the middle class--no one even bothers to consider the poor--and the rich is getting bigger and bigger.

It is a state of affairs that should have made Americans more class conscious, not less. Another explanation is that sectional, cultural or racial disputes siphon off energy that might otherwise feed class conflict.

One of the great political achievements of conservatives over the last 30 years or so has been to tie social welfare to race rather than class. As a result, poor and middle-class white Americans tend to neglect their own interests in the belief that policies of equalization and fairness are designed chiefly to aid minorities.