Embarassment of Riches

The Times declares class warfare


Class anxiety must still exist in some quarters of America. At least, somebody out there is still buying copies of popular recent excursions through America's class structure, such as Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by leftish literary critic Paul Fussell and Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by conservative columnist David Brooks. Now The New York Times has decided to weigh in on the issue by inaugurating this past Sunday a series that looks at "Class in America." According to the Times, "Class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and taste. It is attitudes and assumptions, a source of identity, a system of exclusion. To some, it is just money."

The Times begins by noting that "merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege." However, the Times asserts, merit "is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned." The implied objection seems to be that because one's parents taught one to work hard, study, be polite, and save money, then one has not earned one's success. How in the world does the Times expect someone to become successful without those attributes? Rarely is it possible to earn success while being lazy, ignorant, rude, and a spendthrift.

In any case, some parts of the old system of inherited privilege have indeed crumbled. For example, the Times notes that only 37 members of the Forbes 400 richest Americans inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980s. The percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs with Ivy League degrees dropped from 16 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2004.

And the time when people could tell someone's social class merely by glancing at them is long gone. A friend who has long lived in Germany and who occasionally consults with German businesspeople on American mores observed that Germans often complain to him that they can never tell who is in charge when they walk into an American company's conference room.

Back in the twentieth century (and in all of previous history), one could pigeonhole a person's social class through markers like hygiene, clothes, model cars, housing, occupations, recreation, vacations and so forth. The Times admits that using possessions and recreational choices to distinguish between classes is much harder to do today when most Americans can afford cellphones, computers, cars, and takeout. What does it say about class differences in "culture and taste" when the lowest price ticket for the NASCAR Pocono 500 is $99.00 while the cheapest ticket for Tosca at the Met is $26.00? General Motors market and industry executive director Paul Bellew told the Times: "The level of material comfort in this country is numbing. You can make a case that upper half lives as well as the upper five percent did 50 years ago."

The Times is very worried about growing inequality. Between 1979 and 2001 the real income of the top one percent of households ($700,000) increased 139 percent, while the income of the middle quintile ($43,700) increased just 17 percent and the poorest fifth rose by only nine percent. However, a Times' survey found that most Americans say that their standard of living is better than their parents' and that they think that their kids will be better off than they are. In the poll, 45 percent said that they were in a higher class than when they grew up and only 16 percent said that they were in a lower one. The Times cites recent data show that social mobility between income quintiles has slowed down in recent years. But Americans don't seem to care. "The slicing of society's pie is more unequal than it used to be, but most Americans have a bigger piece than they or their parents once did," notes the Times. The article somewhat grumpily adds, "They appear to accept the trade-offs."

It will be interesting to see if the Times series can spark a new round of class warfare—if not between the lower and upper classes, at least among the chattering classes. F. Scott Fitzgerald's once supposedly declared to Ernest Hemingway. "The very rich are different from you and me." To which Hemingway replied, "Yes, they have more money." That about sums it up for me.