June 07, 2005

All classed up and nowhere to go. An acerbic analysis of the New York Times's recent series on class.

I like that he uses the terrific classic phrase "world turned upside down" - we all need a little more early modern in our lives. I was also wondering if the NY Times will report on my wedding if I write them. Also, a bonus link - David Cannadine on Class in Britain. Bit drier and kind of deep into recent British historiography, but actually quite an interesting book for the non-historian, particularly the chapters on the class attitudes (spoken and unspoken) of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. Cannadine is really looking at class as a thing which organises society, rather than socioeconomic inequality. The two things are very different.

  • I enjoyed that first link jb and will start the second. I always found E. P. Thompson's discussion of what class is in the preface to 'The Making of the English Working Class' persuasive.
    By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a "structure", nor even as a "category", but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.
  • There was an telling episode related in Ruth Reichl's, former NYT restaurant critic, recent book. Her editor decided that the chairman of the NYT should be taken out for Chinese dinner, because he had apparently never been taken for a proper Chinese meal, or even been to Chinatown, even though he was a life-long New Yorker. In itself, an almost mind boggling class-related factoid for the head of such a 'cosmopolitan' institution. The first choice of restaurant, after extensive preparations by Reichl, was deemed completely inappropriate because they did not have a private dining room for the NYT Chairman. Rather, they would have to dine on a raised daise at one end of the very large dining room, which happens to be absolutely standard in Chinese restaurants. Heaven forbid the editor take the Chairman to dine in pseudo-public, with the hoi polloi. After finding a restaurant with a private dining room, the Chinese feast proved to be a complete disaster. The menu was chosen, mostly by the editor, to feature almost entirely seafood because it was more expensive and therefore theoretically 'classier'. The Chairman did not eat seafood. Seemingly no one had been comfortable enough to actually discuss the details of the dinner with him. Truly an epic example of the foibles and follies of 'class'. Thankfully, Reichl escaped mostly unscathed as she had made none of the final decisions.
  • She should have taken him to that Chinese place on Ninth Ave (sorry, can't remember the name, but I know it when I see it :) - forksclovetofu and kimdog took us there after the first meet up; I took my roommate there a few months later. Delicious food, under $10. Good service too.
  • I can't rember the name either, jb, but thanks for this post. I found this to be a very insightful article that helped me to shape a lot of ideas about class that have been swirling around my head for the last few years. Specifically since I moved to NYC, toting my baggage as a poor kid from rural east TN. I think issues of class are so hard to talk about and pinpoint because the line has deliberately been blurred in the US for so long in order to maintain the status quo. For instance, it was much easier to deny blacks civil rights when you convinced poor white people that that they had more in common with rich white people, that with poor blacks. Same with the current rise of conservatism and right wing ideology in the US. As long as "more middle-class people get into deeper debt to make high-end purchases like cruises and designer chocolates" and feel like they are living the high life, the less distinct the true class gulf becomes, except for those at the very top of the heap. The middle class falsely associates possessions (cars, houses, vacations) with upward mobility, when in reality, economic freedom is the true mark of the class divide. The section about education really hit home, since I am currently an indentured servant to the student loan companies. There was no other way that I could have completed my master's degree, but if I knew then what I know now… I can't say that I would have placed such a high value on higher education (especially from a state school in the South). Yes, I have my education, which has opened some doors (although not so many as popularly theorized). But now there are any number of other doors shut because I am anchored by a $500 student loan payment for the next decade.
  • Try $1000 for the next 24 years.
  • I think issues of class are so hard to talk about and pinpoint because the line has deliberately been blurred in the US for so long in order to maintain the status quo The line's blurry alright. How *would* you define the upper class? Would you base it on monetary assets? How much? Is someone with $1 million upper class? How about someone who made a million as opposed to someone who inherited it?
  • I'd take this article more seriously if it weren't for the author's unhealthy obsession/envy of the rich folk who appear in the Sunday Times' Vows section. It's easy to label the rich as idle parasitic fashion turds. It's also a cop-out. It's like characterizing all lower-class folks as dopeheads.
  • Hey Bernockle, are you serious?! That's $1000 for every, what?, year?
  • To clarify, my loans are $500 per month. And to further clarify, I have an MSW and work in the non-profit field. StoryBored... that's tricky. As I said before, I don't think class is so much about assets, as it is about economic freedom. That encompasses a number of things, including priveledge, connections, and living situations. For instance, my exbf came from an upper class family. Not super wealthy, but very comfortable in the economic sense. He went to an ivy league college, and completed his bachelors debt free (thanks to his parents). His connections at Yale then enabled him to get research gigs which paid for his Masters and PhD. When he was ABD and hit a wall, he was able to live rent free at his family's lake cabin and pump gas at a friend's boat dock for 6 months. His monetary assets... close to nil. But I would still place him firmly in the upper class. And when he was ready to step back into the real world, it was just a matter of a few phone calls. That's economic freedom. And yes, I realize I have a big ole chip on my shoulder about this issue.
  • Nope. 1000 per month. Rather serious.
  • Call me crazy but I think anyone that reads the New York Times and doesn't live near or do business in the New York is an elitist anyway. I see those commercials trying to get me to subscribe to the New York Times. Excuse me, I live in Indiana. I don't care about New York. But I hate people. Regarding class, I think that the main problem is that people see the shiny stuff and they buy into wanting it. I have so many students who are in college just so they can get a job and make a lot of money. Maybe because its because everyone in my family is blue collar, but money ain't my key to happiness. I'm just glad that unlike my 60 year old dad I don't have to be at work by 5am five days a week. I was talking to a friend a few months ago and he was lamenting that his brother seems to be making it while he is still in school. One of the markers that his brother had, "made it" was that he had a BMW. Now, I don't have a brother, but if one of my friends bought a BMW I would laugh at them and ridicule them every chance I got. I think buying a luxury car would get you beat up in my extended family! I realized that many people have their heads in the ground when a few years ago when Nickel and Dimed came out and people were all abuzz about it and I even saw the author on CNN because it was a suprise that it was difficult, if not impossible to survive on minimum wage. How is this news? How is this suprising??? Anyone that didn't already know this needs kicked in the shins. I suppose that as long as people keep caring about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, there isn't much hope...
  • I'm stunned. Kimdog, do you also have to pay for 24 years? Bernockle, that's paying $288,000 over 24 years.... Holy sh*t....Wow. I'm speechless. Do they allow you to pay off some of that earlier? I attended our local university, and granted this is twenty years ago, but the tuition for a 4 year computer science degree was $4800. Or five of your monthly payments.
  • Sure. There is no penalty for early payment. I imagine that I owe somewhere in the high nineties right now if I were to pay it off. As it is, I do not have somewhere in the high nineties to plank down on it just now. I have been paying for six years so far. It is rather staggering. It is like I own another house that I am not allowed to go see. I do own some property that is increasing quickly in value. When I have enough equity to wipe out my entire debt, I will strongly consider doing so even though financial "experts" say that is not the thing to do (interest rates, etc.). But, for me, debt is a lingering headache and threat to my well-being. When I am free from it, I believe that I will truly feel liberated.
  • I was also wondering if the NY Times will report on my wedding if I write them. Do you want it to be in the "Weddings" pages or the "Social Announcements?" (I'm not quite sure of the distinction myself.) Are you willing to pay $50 per line? Your Wedding Announcement Here covers the NYT's new pay-for-placement plan for wedding coverage. I don't know what are the criteria for a wedding being featured free of charge, but I do sometimes enjoy reading Veiled Conceit's analyses of those freely freatured weddings.
  • Oh, definitely whatever is more prestigious. I want gushing reviews of our self-decorated chapel, and boiled university catering chicken. I think you can actually nominate yourself for the free weddings section. I'm totally going to come up with great stuff. Groom as the grandson of world-famous hematologist (author of a textbook, pretty good one too) and descended from a knightly family (maybe, they think, from about 1066), bride as the descendant of a distinguised Canadian family (distinguished for being old, and in the same town for 200 years, until one of them finally got a good job.) I could do this - a little flourish, a little chutzpah, and we could have a society wedding. Seriously, those write ups are crazy. How does anyone think the U.S. isn't a classed society if there are things like that? It's more aristo than the Europeans. Only without the impressive titles or cool old houses. bernockle - I totally understand your desire to get rid of the debt sooner rather than later. And interest levels aside, the debt can still be a barrier/burden (if you need to take time off work, etc). I have to question seriously whether you can claim that higher education really is open, if it comes with those kind of debt levels.
  • Try $1000 for the next 24 years. uh...bernockle, if you're paying $1000 per month for 24 years, you'll have paid $288,000. Even taking in the (presumably) $72,000 you've paid the last six years, there's still over $100,000 difference from the "high nineties". That said, my absolute sympathies. I think students in the last ten years at least have been getting a damn raw deal in many developed countries. I do owe about $15,000 myself (Arts degrees are much cheaper,local university and I stayed with my parents), but it's to my mom, officially. Parents are allowed to deduct money from their Central Provident Fund (something like a Social Security or National Insurance) to finance their children's education, but children have to start paying back that amount within a year of graduation, either in lump sum or monthly for up to 20 years.
  • It's like a mortgage. Payments include interest. Each payment I make right now probably reduces the principle one or two hundred dollars. That is how mortages (and student loans work). You wind up paying 300,000 for a 100,000 dollar house over 30 years. I bought a house for 160,000 a couple of years ago. The mortgage is 1100 a month for 30 years. That works out to around 400,000 paid after 30 years. Any loan with interest works the same way. The real crime is that the federal government only allows people to consolidate their federal loans one time. Just about every studend consolidates as soon as that person graduates. I did that. Now interest rates are so much lower that if I refinanced now I would be able to reduce my payments by nearly 50 percent. Unfortunately, the law says that I can only consolidate/refinance one time. Just another example of our government working hard to protect the interests of the banks/wealthy at the expense of regular folks.
  • I'm in that boat. The other crappy thing is that you can't wipe out your federal student loan debt if you go bankrupt. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't have gone to college right after high school. I would have lived and travelled a little, tried to figure out what I want to do with my life. As it stands, I have a graphic design degree, and no real interest or talent in that area, but a shitload of debt. And why did I go to college right away? Because that's what middle class folks do. Fuckity shitbags.
  • Just seconding Bernockle. I owe about $36k. But it's the interest that kills me. Which is why I will be paying about $60k over 10 years. I've been paying for 6 years, but for a few of those, I was on "hardship" payment plans, where I wasn't even touching the principal. Just fending off the interest. Some time last year, I stumbled across an article (I think it was in the Nation, but damned if I can find it) about the idea of forgiving all state held student loan debt as an alternative to tax cuts to stimulate the economy. First off, it would be an economic measure that would primarily benefit the lower and middle classes. And secondly, it would have cost less than Bush's last tax cut. Not having student loan debt would be *life changing* for me.
  • And why did I go to college right away? Because that's what middle class folks do. Fuckity shitbags. Indeed. When Mrs. Tool and I have our own, I think we're going to encourage them to take a year between high school and college. Join Americorps, work, do anything productive and spend your free time figuring out what you want to do with your life.
  • But, for me, debt is a lingering headache and threat to my well-being. Best of fortitude to you Bernockle. I totally agree with getting rid of the debt as soon as possible. I'd question any financial "expert" who would suggest otherwise. The after-tax return on debt repayment is probably better than what you would make on any investment. And it's guaranteed too. Just another example of our government working hard to protect the interests of the banks/wealthy at the expense of regular folks What can you do about it? If I was in your (or Kimdog's) shoes, i'd live on gruel until that sucker was paid off. Banks are out to make profits. I'd take pleasure in making it difficult for them. Even if it means personal deprivation in the short term. By coincidence, there's this article on Easing the Loan Payback Pain in Businessweek this week. It's got some numbers: "About three-quarters of all college students borrow money...to invest in their education...Along with a diploma, the average college graduate leaves school owing $20,000"
  • Koko, that was kinda my situation too: going into university without really knowing what i wanted to do. It just happened to work out for me that the major I picked was something that fitted me well. I had narrowed it down to two: physics or comp. science. If i had chosen physics, i would have f*cked up big time. There is a big problem with the system that way, 1) it's a pretty costly way of finding out your calling. 2) as you say, many are kinda on autopilot, i know i was, going into college.
  • Seriously, those write ups are crazy. How does anyone think the U.S. isn't a classed society if there are things like that? I think we can all agree that there's class in any society. I'm more interested in how we draw the boundaries. There are those upper-class twits in the Vows section, and then there are....who else? It's more aristo than the Europeans. Not sure about that one. I'd argue the opposite. The Europeans wrote the book on aristocracy. Isn't mobility between classes in Europe much lower than in the U.S?
  • Storeyboard - Current overall income mobility is no higher in the US than in Europe, and lower than income mobility in Scandinavia or Canada. There was a recent mefi thread on this. I have studied the history of class in early modern Europe, among other things. The lack of social mobility into the European aristocracy has been exagerrated. In eighteenth century England, during the "age of aristocracy", 20% of gentry families at a given time could be new blood. That mobility didn't come from poverty, of course, but from big farmers, professionals, merchants and others moving into the gentry from the adjacent classes. France had similar levels of social mobility into their lower noble orders. What you see is both upward and downward mobility, not so very far, but often more downward. I don't think anyone has does a analysis of the comparative life changes between the eighteenth century and now, but considering that the English gentry and peerage (together the "aristocracy") constituted the top 2% of the population, I wouldn't be suprised if current mobility into that level of society was not much greater today (irregardless of the insane belief of 19% of Americans that they are in the top 1% of income. Apparently math skills do not accompany success).
  • Cool link jb, thanks! There goes another stereotype. An interesting excerpt from page 9 of Corak's paper shows some nuances in the differences in social mobility between countries: "The Nordic countries and Canada seem to be the most mobile societies...." also "In North America children with above average potential, experience more generational mobility than their European counterparts while below average children experience less...[but the difference between rich countries] pales in significance when a comparison is made with poorer countries. In the several developing countries studied there appears to be significantly less generational mobility and in at least one case, possibly none at all."
  • Recent news on American mobility "The number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more rose 21 percent in 2004, according to a survey released Tuesday by Spectrem Group, a wealth-research firm in Chicago... There are 7.5 million millionaire households in the United States, breaking the record set in 1999 of 7.1 million." I'm actually a little surprised it's that high.
  • Billion is the new million. Ok, not really, but I don't think a million goes as far as it used too, judging by property values, for example.
  • True, which to me is scary. The real-estate bubble in some parts of the U.S. is going to mean bad, bad news sometime soon. Here in Canada, if you have US$1 million, you can retire. Set aside US$150K for a house, live off US$30K in annual investment income. Part of the reason for the bubble in the first place is exactly the unrealistic expectations of people chasing the "dream".
  • The original NYT articles are somewhat interesting to read (NYT free reg, blah, blah). I found the article on education to be more well rounded and nuanced than the analysis linked here led me to expect. However, the article on The Relo Class made me want to throw up. The wife of the profiled family is a completely insufferable bitch. When a four bedroom house and a $40K SUV become baseline survival necessities, it's time for a reality check.
  • Thanks for that Rhiannon. Here's a couple of quotes on both sides that i found interesting: On Mobility: "Only 37 members of last year's Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980's" On Education: "Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years... but 66 percent of high-income students did. That gap had grown over recent years."
  • When a four bedroom house and a $40K SUV become baseline survival necessities, it's time for a reality check. And don't forget the one-mile-radius rule! The poor, poor thing had to drive miles and miles to send her precious kids to and from all those activities. My heart bleeds for her. *roll eyes*
  • The real problem with America is that we prioritize the wrong things. After living minimally for nearly six years now, I think I can lose five sixths of my income without feeling any pain. Indeed, I fully expect to, as some sort of economic crash in the US is overdue, and competing for a global market is impossible with our high income expectations. I wonder how difficult it will be for average Americans to adjust to no longer being the richest people in the world (even using the right wing's favourite metric of per-capita GDP). Civil war sounds less ludicrous every year. Here's a good motivational article advocating a kind of disconnection. (Caveat lector: I don't agree with all of it.)
  • Class Consciousness Matters? Just stumbled upon this intersting read...