Tuesday, May 24, 2005

How Class Works, Etc.

Liberals of varying stripe (cultural, political, economic, etc.) are usually Very Concerned about issues of "race, class, and gender". It seems to be one of the things that a lot of otherwise pleasant young women will get very nasty about, very quickly. I found this out in college, where a Nader-worshipping professor taught a class on that very subject. Lo, whilst I was amongst the feminine masses at an event, I trod upon the holy ground of the professor of race, class, and gender. It was something innocuous, on the order of "I don't like the cut of that man's jib", referring to the professor in question. As with Doctor Yueh, it would have been better had I not ever been born. A bunch of the RCG Groupies descended upon me like I was the last living human in a bad zombie film, shrieking cries of "Misogyny!" (It sounds awkward, but can be utterly disarming against an un-prepared combatant. Even the best Jedi needs a bit of heads-up in order to defend himself, after all.) I managed to retreat in good order mostly by expert spin on my own remarks. It was rather close. All that aside, I was directed yesterday to a point inside the NY Times website, wherein one can calculate their "place" in America's class structure, based upon some factors. Some data is based on personal projections and/or near-term targets, but even so, my results were surprising: Occupation: Lawyer/84th percentile (of prestige) Education: Doctoral degree, i.e. J.D./99th percentile Income: $50,000/69th percentile Wealth: Up to $500,000/85th percentile Average: 84th percentile There were five tiers in which each value was scored, "Bottom Fifth", "Lower Middle", "Middle", "Upper Middle", and "Top Fifth". Only "Income" was not "Top Fifth". This I had not expected. I have a hard time believing that lawyers are in the top 20% of respected jobs in this country, but then again, I've grown up in an area where peoples' ideas of lawyers, more often than not, were probably formed by unsmiling men in suits telling them that, "The company/lending institution has all rights to your property in this instance", so go figure. As for education, I'm not surprised; doctoral degrees aren't exactly handed out easily. Income sort of rattles me, however. $50,000 (a round estimate) is ahead of the median household income of $46,000 in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1999, and is twice what the per capita income ($23,000) for Virginians in 1999 was. Yet, almost a third of the country makes more than that. It is difficult, I suppose, to internalize and comprehend that $50,000/year is both ahead of two statistical categories in the Commonwealth, while still lagging in the 69th percentile. Admittedly, when you have both Bill Gates of Microsoft and Janitor Willie on an income scale, things will look very strange. Wealth bothers me the most. The thing says that, "Wealth refers to a household's net worth in 2001. People in the middle of the distribution have between $50,000 and $100,000." I don't know if that includes all assets of the estate or not; my comments are based upon the understanding that "wealth" is wholly asset-inclusive. At some level, I am disturbed by what having $100,000 in wealth means and how far ahead of the rest of the country it puts you. Case in point: One of my best friends and his wife work in the financial industry. They're nowhere near the level of people from The Bonfire of the Vanities, and they don't work in one of Virginia's large cities. Yet, they just recently bought a house that cost close to a quarter of a million dollars. It obviously isn't paid for yet, but if you include the house's sticker price in their asset computation, they're ahead of 85% of the country in terms of wealth. They're both under thirty. I suppose the solution is to suggest better fiscal discipline on the part of the lower rungs of this particular ladder. Less cigarettes, more certificates of deposit, if nothing else. I understand that the lower rungs of wealth would obviously not be able to tuck away five digits' worth of savings every month, but even so, a slight program of regular savings at small interest has to pay off sooner or later. Deferred gratification works, doesn't it? (Yes. This message brought to you by the people of the United Methodist Church.) You'd think that sheer human greed would motivate people to have more wealth, whether through increased salary, participation in the financial markets, or what have you. Money has a particular effect on me, for instance. I respond to money approximately like Kirsten Dunst's creepy little Claudia in Interview with the Vampire responds to her first taste of human blood: "More, please." You'd think that this would be a rather universal reaction. At any rate, this survey taught me a couple of unpleasant truths. I certainly don't regard myself as some sort of socio-cultural economic elite, but the objective data would certainly suggest otherwise, and I'm not even that great of an economic performer. It bothers me at some level that the gap between myself and the man in the blue collar job probably can not be bridged, no matter how hard the blue collar man works. I, on the other hand, could theoretically improve my salary by an order of magnitude or two if I won a couple of cases, much like former North Carolina senator John Edwards. In the words of a cartoon character, "Zoinks!" I'm also somewhat irate about the high level of prestige attached to lawyering. Sure, it's a high value job. Does that mean that it's more important than say, the guy who picks up your garbage? That I don't know. I'd regard the garbage man as a foundational job, 'cause without him, I'd be up to my nose in rank filth. Ask New York City what it's like when the garbage men go on strike, especially when the Top Fifth isn't about to dirty its hands dealing personally with the problem. Organized civil society has problems when the guys the Times suggest are on the bottom don't do their job. It's like an army: The generals may plan grand strategy and the staff may concoct the perfect orders, but none of that's worth a hill of beans if Private Beetle Bailey decides he's not sending the orders, or doesn't want to drive his truck aggressively so that supplies get through. There is an inherent dignity in all honest labor performed well, regardless of what the Times and its snobbery thinks. It would seem that, based upon these factors and their yield, the following: 1. Your correspondent is better off than he thought he was. 2. Additional effort must be made in the philanthropic effort. As TR's speech to the Sorbonne put it, "To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected." 3. Even the seemingly modest (and relatively unsophisticated) economic goals of your correspondent are, apparently, pretty lofty when set against the rest of the country. 4. A certain sense of unease about the economic position of the country as a whole. I know that these data are the results of choices both conscious and unconscious, but they're also the result of externalities that the average individual can not, for whatever reason, overcome. That ought to be the bloody role of the government in the economy, making sure that we arrange things so that the man who wants to climb out of say a poverty-stricken background can do so with a fair amount of personal effort. The man from the Hamptons who is born into his third or fourth generation of wealth is no more accomplished---and perhaps less worthy of praise---than the man who comes from the poverty line to create a better life for himself, his wife, and his children. Put in racing terminology, the man who wins from the pole has less of a victory than the man who starts 43rd and finishes 15th. Well, now you know what I think. Tip of the Executor hat to Grim's Hall.


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