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Little Notes on the Commentary

with 6 comments

I read Michael Fisher’s comment on the Magazine post, and I do want to point out some things.

First, in the article I was talking about, the women profiled were all young, just out of high school, and without children.

They each received substantial financial aid packages that included books, fees, AND room and board.  Transportation is almost never an issue on residential campuses, although transportation to and from home for holidays might be.

They were, in other words, in the perfect position to benefit from their opportunities. 

In fact, they were in a better position to benefit from those opportunities than many of their classmates with wealthier families, since a far smaller percentage of their packages required them to take on debt. 

In spite of all that, two of the three of them were bombing out of school, in one case for reasons the university involved had diagnosed as a form of self sabotage.

Self sabotage or otherwise, however, it was the case for both the girls who were about to drop out that the principle issue was the fear that getting an advanced education would inevitably mean becoming alienated from their families and the world in which they grew up.

That fear was not misplaced–moving up the social ladder DOES mean becoming alienated from your family and friends. 

This almost certainly has something to do with the fact that most people who report such a climb also report having felt alienated from their families and friends from the beginning.

If you don’t fit to begin with, you have less at stake when you walk out the door.

It is hard to see, however, what can be done about this sort of something truly draconian, like removing children from their poor parents at birth and raising them in a different environment. 

Simply giving them great schools and stressing upper middle class value systems during the school day won’t work.  Their families will  have a lot more time to work on them, and their family relationships will be a lot more important to virtually all of them.

My objections to the article I was commenting on is precisely in its attempts to obscure what is meant by “class.” 

Articles of that kind tend to veer back and forth between different definitions, intending to–and succeeding at–leaving the impression that ‘class” is another world for “socioeconomic status.”

But class is not principally about money.  It’s much more about ideas, attitudes, tastes, and habits.  There are plenty of educated-upper-middle-class people out there making working class salaries or less.  Their kids are in AP classes and getting scholarships at Harvard not because their parents have the bucks, but because their parents know things like the fact that it doesn’t matter what the sticker price of a college is, and AP will help  you get admitted and get financial aid, and financial aid awards can be negotiated.

Second, as to the risk thing–yes, I understand that risk is scary, and more often than not, when you take a risk  you fail. 

But risk is the name of the game.

The REALLY objectionable part of the bank bail out was that it uncoupled reward from risk.  It turned bankers into a protected class that did not have to suffer from their  mistakes, and let them keep the cash anyway.

Risk is scary, and it very often fails, but you should NEVER get serious rewards without it.

Ray Kroc went through bankruptcy at least twice–it might have been three times–and bad bankruptcy, too, with the house gone and the kids on the street and the family’s lives torn up and shredded and no idea where the next bottle of milk was coming from.

When he threw the dice again,  he had no guarantee whatsoever that he’d end up with McD’s instead of back in bankruptcy court.

If you don’t have the stomach for that kind of thing, I sympathize.  I don’t either. 

But the price of safety is–and should be–a much smaller reward.

And yes, yes, I k now–some people are Paris Hilton and have families with money that let them have all they want without working.

But part of the incentive for taking big risks is–and should be–the hope that you will be able to keep your children and grandchildren safe from the sort of risks you had to take yourself, and from the day to day grind that is the only other alternative.

I read the article from which Michael posted those comments, and a couple of other articles from the same site. 

The information is true, and it’s affecting–but it’s also completely irrelevant.

It’s certainly irrelevant to any discussion of “income inequlity.”


Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Little Notes on the Commentary'

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  1. Risk is unavoidable.

    Getting married is a risk. Just look at the divorce rate.

    Having children is a risk. You can’t be certain of how they will turn out. I know a university professor who had a son in medical school. The son got high on drugs and is now in prison for murdering his girl friend. A wasted life.

    Changing jobs is a risk. So is staying with an employer whose business is going badly. Consider the people who lost jobs when General Motors went bankrupt.


    23 Mar 13 at 6:10 pm

  2. A discussion or so back, the EUMC required a level of education, an income and a range of professions allowing some autonomy. Now the income requirement seens to have been waived but the culture, instead of being common among them, has become part of the definition. I can live with either one, but a shifting definition makes discussion difficult.

    And it’s critical here. You don’t lose friends and family because you make more money than they do, or stay in school longer. You lose them when you’re embarassed by them: their entertainments aren’t amusing, their language is coarse and their behavior is immoral. Which of the great progressive educators wanted to make boys ashamed of their fathers? That’s it.

    We’ve got two possibilities here. One is students being sold a lifestyle package along with education or professional training. It’s not enough that you master history or biochemistry: you have to give up hamburgers for pate, show tunes for ballet and hoops for soccer and windsurfing.

    The other possibility is that the requirements of professionalism–integrity, diligence, prudence and thrift–are incompatible with the student’s native culture, which tells the student that doing her own work is foolish, time off is more important than good grades and high pay, and showing up on time dressed neatly is “acting white.”

    If the students are being sold the John Kerry Lifestyle Package, the schools should stop calling themselves colleges and universities and go with the more honest “finishing school.” But if we have a sub-culture which has defined itself in a way incompatible with success, we have a much more serious problem.

    I’d look at the community colleges and extension schools, by the way: the Lifestyle Package is seldom offered where the student is not isolated from his or her home, but doing the homework and showing up on time is necessary everywhere.


    24 Mar 13 at 5:05 pm

  3. What’s an EUMC?

    What gets me about these tales of the underclass is the passivity that is assumed to exist.

    Sure, some poor people are passive. A lot of them aren’t. It takes effort and ingenuity to deal with an extremely tight budget and sudden expenses; a level of ingenuity I think is often unappreciated by those who haven’t had to do it. Some people are also tempted to bitterness and despair by the awareness that there are people in their town for whom an essential car repair isn’t a crisis. Others simply work around it – hitchhike, arrange a lift for a while, perhaps trading that for another favour, etc. Deciding whether an offered promotion or job in another town is worth it overall is something people at all income levels do. That one I’ve seen in action a lot since the collapse of the fisheries devastated the local economy. And before that, it was the downturn in mining… Sure, it’s a hard decision, and especially hard for those with little margin for financial error. That doesn’t mean that a lot of them don’t do it – and deal with the fallout if it doesn’t work out.

    There certainly are people who mock those who work and turn all their efforts into getting through life without actually doing anything on their own. I think they do less harm to society than those who turn their efforts to illegal activities such as the drug trade, myself, but I can’t deny that the other kind exist and are parasitic.

    But these don’t account for all the poor, and it is not necessary to be parasitic or criminal to be poor.


    25 Mar 13 at 7:58 am

  4. Cheryl–Educated Upper Middle Class. As I was grumbling, the definition thereof seems to vary. Think post-graduate degree, income of USD 100,000-250,000 a year with some flexibility in work and a belief that work and education take precedence over family–or possibly two of the three.

    Certainly it is not necessary to be parasitic or criminal to be poor. I never heard anyone say it was. Bad luck or a poor choice of majors is quite sufficient. The question before the house was why young people with the ability to do college work and the money more or less available may choose not to do so.

    As for mockers and parasites, I think they may be MORE harmful than drug dealers. It would vary case by case, of course, but consider the street-corner dealer who sells some rich white kid his weekend supply of recreational drugs. Now think about the loafer who convinces a bright cousin that doing homework is stupid, and showing up on time for the interview is “forgetting where you came from.”

    The real economic fundamental is culture.


    25 Mar 13 at 9:54 am

  5. Robert,

    I hadn’t heard that acronym before. Is there an uneducated upper middle class??

    I didn’t mean to imply you said that the poor were parasitic or criminal. Articles like the one linked to seem to imply that it’s impossible to be poor without becoming or being parasitic or criminal, although there is the variation in which the poor are forced to become parasitic and remain poor because they have so few options and are fatally discouraged by the difficulties caused by poor transportation, poor pay, and sudden financial crises exacerbated by these. Most poor people I’ve known either are poor from circumstance (disabled, widowed or divorced with children etc) and manage to deal with their situations without sinking into passivity or despair. Some with children manage to encouraged them to do better financially than they did themselves.

    As for the relative damage caused by drug dealers and the mockers and parasites, my opinion has been influenced recently by a notorious local having moved in practically around the corner, and whose household has been noted for lots of traffic, especially late at night and often involving very young girls as well as young men, an assault on a young girl which somehow didn’t result in charges being laid, and, oh, yes, the death of a dog, the second vicious attack carried out by one of those poor pit bulls he teaches to be vicious. That case ended in a small fine and the return of the dog, since no one could prove how the dog got out (the owner claimed someone opened the gate deliberately). And another similar establishment was the site of a murder very recently. Almost all the violent crime in my small city seems to be related to the drug trade, and although the victims generally seem to be those directly involved in the business, I don’t think I should have to live in a city in which violent crime and antisocial behaviour is tolerated because, after all, it’s just thugs killing thugs. They aren’t the only ones affected, and they shouldn’t be setting the standard for public behaviour.

    Or possibly, as some speculate, various members of the law enforcement establishment don’t want to cut of their own supplies, and don’t go out of their way to enforce the law.

    Oh, well, some people say it’s the price of prosperity. We didn’t have the same scale of problems when few people could afford to indulge in cocaine. If that’s the case, it should end soon since according to the political rumours, our very atypical and brief local period of prosperity is coming to an end.

    Culture isn’t the be all and end all, either. Sure, there’s a tendency to mimic the culture of your new social group, whether you move up or down the economic ladder, or to or from the big city. I can’t comment on people at the dizzying heights of economic success because I don’t know any, but some people who come from poverty to solid middle class jobs over-indulge their children by giving them everything they didn’t have. Others emphasize the education and values of hard work that got them where they are. And there are some very successful people who don’t mind at all showing where they came from by their accent or taste in entertainment. Not everyone who moves up abandons or is abandoned by their families and old friends. Some do, of course, maybe many do – it’s hard to maintain relationships in this mobile society at the best of times without mutual incomprehension regarding working habits and interests. Culture is complex and fluid enough to allow for a lot of possibilities.


    25 Mar 13 at 1:49 pm

  6. You’d have to ask Jane about EUMC. She’s where I picked it up. I’d think it would be hard to STAY in the upper middle class without an education, though some of the rich people I’ve seen–especially politicians–seem to have been very STRANGELY educated.

    As for the poor:
    I know poor people who worked hard every day but didn’t make much.
    I know poor people who just can’t manage money.
    I know poor people physically unable to work regularly.
    And I know poor people who WILL NOT get up in the morning, every morning, and go to work.

    Some of each are friends or family. I haven’t counted them by type lately. I should note that the poor I know who work regularly own homes and small business. Some of them have travelled overseas. They don’t much fit the images in our politician’s speeches.

    The fourth category are exactly parasites. They think everyone who works regularly is a fool, and they take every dime of our money they can get the government to give them. I have no sympathy with slaveholders, with union featherbedding, or with government jobs created for the sake of putting someone on the payroll. I don’t even have much sympathy for the hereditary rich. So I have no more sympathy with the “I’m too smart to work” crowd than I have with any other hateful and poisonous ideology.

    Violence. You are not describing violence inherent in the drug trade. Wal-Mart and CVS do not engage in gun battles. Neitehr do the local liquor stores–now. What you’re seeing is the violence which results when the government tries to forbid consumption and so criminalizes the entire distribution network. We have, once again, done this to ourselves.

    There is a good argument–I regard it as a VERY good argument–for obeying the law for its own sake. But if I expected that to be done universally here, I’d have to disband the population and start over–possibly with Danes. There is an EXCELLENT argument for saying people should choose for themselves what to ingest, and the police should confine themselves to making sure they don’t drive or operate heavy machinery afterwards. I don’t expect to win that one in the Progressive Era either.


    26 Mar 13 at 7:23 am

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