Posts Tagged ‘Social class’

Thomas Frank on why Obama failed

September 11, 2018

Thomas Frank was recently interviewed by one John Siman, whom I’m not familiar with.  This part of the interview stands out for me.

TCF: …… I had met Barack Obama. He was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I’d been a student there.  And he was super smart.  Anyhow, I met him and was really impressed by him. All the liberals in Hyde Park — that’s the neighborhood we lived in — loved him, and I was one of them, and I loved him too.

Barack Obama

And I was so happy when he got elected.  Anyhow, I knew one thing he would do for sure, and that is he would end the reign of cronyism and incompetence that marked the Bush administration and before them the Reagan administration.  These were administrations that actively promoted incompetent people.  And I knew Obama wouldn’t do that, and I knew Obama would bring in the smartest people, and he’d get the best economists.

Remember, when he got elected we were in the pit of the crisis — we were at this terrible moment — and here comes exactly the right man to solve the problem.  He did exactly what I just described:  He brought in [pause] Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, considered the greatest economist of his generation — and, you know, go down the list: He had Nobel Prize winners, he had people who’d won genius grants, he had The Best and the Brightest.

And they didn’t really deal with the problem.  They let the Wall Street perpetrators off the hook — in a catastrophic way, I would argue.  They come up with a health care system that was half-baked.

Anyhow, the question becomes — after watching the great disappointments of the Obama years — the question becomes: Why did government-by-expert fail?

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A clash of elites: the 0.1% vs. the 9.9%

May 29, 2018

The United States has two elites—an elite of great wealth, embracing about 0.1 percent of the population, and an elite of educational credentials, based on the next 9.9 percent.

A writer named Matthew Stewart wrote a good article in The Atlantic about the 9.9 percent, of which he considers himself a member.  If you go to an elite school, you’re on track for a job in medicine, law, finance or management consulting.

How you do in those jobs is up to you, but you’ve got a permanent, lifelong advantage over somebody who is a high school graduate or somebody who attended a non-elite school.

We Americans like to talk about how equality of result doesn’t matter, only equality of opportunity matters.  But the whole point of being in a higher social or economic class is to lock in advantages for your children.

Thomas Frank has written about how American politics has been changed by the fact that liberal reformers in the 9.9 percent no longer identify with the 90 percent.  Instead their goal is a multi-racial, gender-neutral aristocracy based (supposedly) on merit.

This has been exploited by Donald Trump, who speaks the language of the populists of old, but represents the interests of the plutocracy.   And the liberal professional class confuses Trump with real populism, and fears the masses more than they do the power elite.

These are sweeping, over-simplified generalizations, but I think they are a broadly accurate picture of what’s going on.

LINKS

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy by Matthew Stewart for The Atlantic.

Forget Trump—populism is the cure, not the disease by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

Front Row kids and Back Row kids

January 13, 2018

[Updated 1/15/2018]

Photojournalist Chris Arnade believes American society is divided into a Front Row, which is doing well, and a Back Row, which is being left behind. The following is from his Twitter feed.

The prevailing culture honors the Front Row, and public policy rewards it.

The prevailing culture disrespects the Back Row, and public policy ignores it.

LINK

The View From the Back Row, an interview of Chris Arnade for Current Affairs.  [Added 1/15/2018]

Chris Arnade on how the other half lives

January 13, 2018

This includes two updates

Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.   (old saying)

Chris Arnade spent 20 years as a Wall Street investment banker, then quit in 2011 to start a new career as a photojournalist, first interviewing and photographing drug addicts and prostitutes in the Bronx, then traveling across the country to talk to working people and poor people who’ve been left behind in the new economy.

Arnade said that what he concluded was that addiction is the result of isolation, isolation is the result of rejection and the chief source of rejection is the U.S. educational system.

The U.S. educational system, he said, teaches that the way to achieve success is to go to a good college, leave home and devote yourself to achievement in your professional life.

Those who do this successfully are the elite in American life.   The problem is that not everybody is able to succeed this way, and not everybody wants to do this.

Some people put family, community and religion first.  In this respect, he said, there is little difference between black people and white people, or between Anglos and Hispanics.

Arnade calls the first group the Front Row and the second group the Back Row. The Back Row are not only disrespected, Arnade said.  The economic system is rigged against them.

Every important decision on national policy, since at least the North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA) in 1994, has put the interests of the Front Row ahead of the Back Row.

The one institution in society that welcomes the back row is the churches, he wrote.  He himself is an atheist, but he said that churches welcome you, no matter what your credentials or lack of them.  I’m not sure that is true of all churches, but his point is correct.

Another place the Back Row is welcome, he said, is McDonald’s restaurants.  McDonald’s original business model was a place where you can get in and get out quickly, but McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants have become places where you can get a nourishing meal at a low price, charge your cell phone and hang out with friends.  Most of them have an old man’s table that retirees have staked out for their own.

If you’re a Front Row person and want to break out of your bubble, stop having coffee at Starbuck’s (or the equivalent) and stop start spending time in McDonald’s (or the equivalent), Arnade advised,

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Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit and social class

November 21, 2017

I read Little Dorrit as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.   Reading the novel as part of group helped me appreciate how great Charles Dickens was—as a descriptive writer, as a storyteller and as a student of human nature.

The moral center of the novel is Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshalsea, a famous debtors’ prison in London, where her father has been imprisoned as a result of business failure.

She is called ‘Little’ Dorrit, rather than by her name, because she is small of stature and looks more like an adolescent girl than a full-grown woman.

She embodies the specifically Christian virtues.  She is loving, self-sacrificing, humble, forgiving, patient, devoted, uncomplaining and thankful for every blessing.  This makes her as out-of-place in class-conscious Victorian London as she would have been in the Rome of Quo Vadis or in success-seeking 21st century USA.

One of the themes of Little Dorrit is what we now would call “classism.”   The novel is full of characters whose life revolves around having other people acknowledge their social rank.   This includes, first and foremost, Little Dorrit’s own family

From a young age, she is a virtual parent to her father and her older brother and sister, for which they show little or no gratitude..  She learns how to read and write, learns marketable skills from other inmates and gets a job outside the prison to an elderly rich businesswoman, Mrs. Clennam.

Her father, William Dorrit, over the years creates an identity as “the Father of the Marshalsea,” to whom visitors and other debtors have to pay tribute and acknowledge his superior status.

Despite William’s dependence on Little Dorrit, he condemns her for befriending fellow inmates, such as the mentally retarded Maggie, because this undermines his pretensions to superior social rank.

Amy’s beautiful gold-digging older sister, Fanny, and shiftless older brother, Edward, take the same attitude.

Mrs. Clennam is the other character in the novel whose life is shaped by religion.  In contrast to Little Dorrit’s, her religion consists in obeying strict rules concerning personal conduct and business obligations, and in showing no mercy to those who do not.

Her religion makes her unhappy, and causes her to make others unhappy.

Little Dorrit is sometimes sad, but she is capable of being happy and she does nothing to make herself unhappy.

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400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

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Ruby K. Payne on understanding poverty

October 27, 2016

hidden-class-rules0001

Ruby K. Payne is a teacher who thinks that middle class teachers often fail to understand poor children because they don’t understand that the poor operate by different rules than the middle class.

In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she says that holding on to poverty’s survival rules will hamper you if you try to function in the middle class.

It is not that one is good and the other is bad.  It is that their situations are different.  If you don’t know from one month to the next whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent, for example, you aren’t likely to be planning your career goals for 10 years from now.

Social class is a taboo topic among Americans.   So long as we can see somebody below us on the social and economic scale, and somebody above us, we think of ourselves as middle class, even if we’re in the lower 10 percent or the upper 10 percent of income earners.

Thinking of ourselves as all “middle class” binds us Americans together.  As Ruby Payne points out, it also blinds us to real differences.

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The hidden rules of social class

October 27, 2016

Could you survive in poverty?  A checklist

_____1. I know which churches and sections of town have the best rummage sales.

_____2. I know where the nearest food bank is and when it is open.

_____3. I know which grocery stores & garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food.

_____4. I know how to get someone out of jail.

_____5. I know how to physically fight and can defend myself if necessary.

_____6. I know how a person can get a gun even if they have a police record.

_____7. I know how to keep my clothes from being stolen at the Laundromat.

_____8. I know what problems to look for in a used car.

_____9. I know how to live without a checking account.

_____10. I know how to get by without electricity and without a phone.

_____11. I know how to use a knife as scissors.

_____12. I can entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.

_____13. I know what to do when I don’t have the money to pay my bills.

_____14. I know how to move my residence in less than a day.

_____15. I know how to feed 8 people for 5 days on $100.

_____16. I know how to get and use food stamps.

_____17. I know where the free medical clinics are and when they are open.

_____18. I am very good at trading and bartering.

_____19. I know how to get around without a car.

_____20. I know what day of the month welfare and social security checks arrive.

Source: Knowledge of the Hidden Rules of Social Class: A Questionnaire

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Equality of opportunity and equality

April 23, 2015

Hardly any American politician talks about growing economic inequality in the USA.

Instead they talk about equality of opportunity—the equal chance to work your way up into a higher economic bracket than the one you were born in.

I agree with this up to a point.  Somebody who is lazy and useless does not deserve to be rewarded equally with someone who is hard-working and productive.

The problem is that it is much easier to work your way up when the majority of Americans are improving their economic condition.  It is very hard to work your way up when the majority of Americans are falling back.

Swimming with the current is something everybody should be able to do.  Swimming against the current is a challenge that not everybody can meet.

I am all for giving members of the underclass the means and the incentive to work their way up into the middle class.  But in the USA at the present moment, there is less and less of a middle class for them to move up into.

David Graeber on social class and virtue

March 26, 2015

The ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity

via David Graeber | The Guardian.

In hard times, it is good to have savings, but it is important to have friends.

The decline of respect for work

April 13, 2011

My friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a fine article by Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, in his new magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, about the devaluation of work and the worship of wealth and consumption.  Here are some highlights of the article.

Lewis Lapham

… The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country’s corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.

Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help. … …

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