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Wealth, Poverty and Bernie Madoff

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Okay, here’s the thing.

I’m a compulsive reader.

I mean, I’m a really compulsive reader.  I read all the time.  I’d read in traffic if I could figure out how to hold the book.   I’ve got to have something to read, no matter where I am, orwhat I’m doing. 

So yesterday, after complaining, for good reason, about Little Women, I came across an interesting fact.  The book we know as the “novel” Little Women is actually two separate books, published six months apart.  What is now labeled “part one” of a single work was originally the entire novel, and what is now labeled “part two” was the sequel.

So, I thought, I had an out–I could finish part one and say I was actually done, since that was an entire book, even if it didn’t seem like it given the formatting of my edition.  I mean, I read a single story in a collection sometimes, why not one of two novels in a compendium.  Or whatever you want to call it.

This was a great idea, but it ran into a serious problem.  I finished part one while I was waiting to get into my classroom, and suddenly there I was, in an empty hall, on a nice cushioned bench, and the only thing I had to read was…part two.

And I knew, if I started on part two, I’d have to finish it.

So I tried.  I really did.  I roamed up and down the hall looking for reading material.  One of the problems with having the kind of student who “hates the news” is that they don’t read newspapers, and they don’t discard them, so I couldn’t find one.  I found a bunch of promotional materials for students looking to apply to Western Connecticut State University, the name of which always gives me a fit of the giggles.  I’m old enough to remember when this was Danbury Normal School, meaning a teacher-training school in the days before elementary and high school teachers had to have “degrees.”  It was nice promotional material, as far as that kind of thing goes, but there were more pictures than words, and in no time at all I was staring at…

part two.

So, you know.  I had a half hour wait.  I started part two, and now I’m sitting in the middle of it, trying very hard not to engage in the kind of avoidance behavior tha tmakes bad books last so long with me.

That said, however, I have a few observations.

One is that, from the evidence of the chapter detailing Jo’s first success in publishing novels and short stories, not a whole lot has changed in a hundred years.  Reviewers, especially, seem to run the same gamut, as if they’re places are being filled generation after generation by clones.  There are lots of good reviewers out there, and there are some I take very seriously, but I know that guy who wants to lecture me about how I’m promoting Communism/capitalism/degeneracy/whatever and  yet can’t remember the names of any of the characters, and the guy who cribbed his review from one of the ones in the industry press–except the industry press got bound galleys with mistakes in them and this guy is complaining about a mistake tha tno longer exists in the finished copy he was actually sent. 

But the bigger issue is the question of poverty, which I alluded to a little yesterday, and also to what it means to say that somebody is “culturally middle class” as opposed to “middle class.”  That second one came up in the lottery one.  So let me try this.

It’s possible to have a middle class income and yet not be culturally middle class (or upper middle class), and to be culturally middle or upper middle class and yet have little or no money. 

I have a suspicion that I’m going to make a complete hash out of trying to explain this, but let me give it a shot.

Sarah Palin is culturally middle class, or maybe even culturally lower middle class–I’m sure she has an upper middle class income as governor of Alaska, but the culturally upper middle class do not send their sons into the armed services directly after high school graduation.  And if they go into the services at all, the go to the academies.

The culturally upper middle class work out, support NPR, read real newspapers, read other things, and tend to be obsessively and competitively career oriented–if you have a choice between your work suffering and your family suffering, your family is what goes.  The associates in my father’s old law firm work ninety to a hundred hours a week until they make partner.  Then they go on working that much as long as they remain partners.  When I was growing up, my father was almost never home before I went to bed, and home on the week-ends only sometimes. 

Then there are schools and colleges–to the culturally upper middle class, it makes sense to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to make sure that your children attend academically rigorous private schools.  The price tag on a place like Andover or Taft taps $40,000 a year, and will actually cost close to $6,000 even with financial aid.  But such places make it much easier for a student to get into a first-tier university, and the first tier is the goal.  And even if the kid can’t manage the first tier, living away from home on a campus is simply expected.  At least part of “the college experience” is that living away from home thing.  What’s m ore, “majors” must be traditional majors–English literature, art history, philosophy, biology, political science.  Undergraduates in the Ivies can’t major in business or teaching–those options aren’t even offered.

The culturally middle class work to live, rather than the other way around.  If a crunch comes between work and family, it tends to be work that suffers.  They’re careful about moving to towns with good public schools, and they use them.  And they’ve got nothing against the kid going to Harvard if he gets in.  On the other hand, they’re not wedded to the idea that the kid has to live at school.  Something closer to home will do just as well, and “majors” are expected to be something “practical,” that will get the kid a job after graduation. 

A lot of the reaction to Sarah Palin, I think, was the perception that she was not culturally upper middle class, which nearly anybody who makes it as far as a career in the national media would have to be.  Even the self-proclaimed conservatives who say they champion the middle class are themselves culturally upper middle class, and it matters to them.  Think about Ann Coulter, who had a hissy fit over the Harriet Myers appointment because Myers had gone to Southern Methodist University, instead of a “good” (read Ivy) school. 

I am really making a hash of this, but what I’m trying to get around to is this:  on different class standards, different things are considered so essential that they cannot be denied.

In Little Women, that thing is a maid.  No matter how poor the Marches are, and they’re often poor enough to have to mend holes in clothes because they can’t afford new ones, they’re always Hannah, helping to cook and clean.

For the culturally upper middle class, there are those tuitions–if you suddenly fall out of work and find yourself reduced to penury, the administration at any first-rate private school will turn itself into a pretzel making sure your kid can stay, because, of course, going to public school is out of the question.

But what stopped me, thinking about Hannah the maid in this thoroughly idiotic book, was the Bernie Madoff problem–which is also the Citigroup CEO problem and the Lehmann Brothers problem.  There are those huge bonuses, and they’re nonnegotiable–the idea that one would have to do without that particular thing is unthinkable.

And courts buy into this.  As Enron was inking, Lay and Skilling were being granted all kinds of financial concessions to make it possible for them to go on doing things like maintaining club memberships and going on vacations because–well, because, those things are nonnegotiable, everybody has those, you can’t deprive people of them.

Okay, I really am making a hash of this.  I think what I’m trying to say here is that the courts should not assume that it is necessary to keep someone materially in the class in which he culturally belongs–“everybody” does not really have club membership money, at least as long as you’re defining “everybody” in some sensible way.

Okay.  Blah.  Bleh.

I really am doing this badly.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Wealth, Poverty and Bernie Madoff'

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  1. Social classes – fascinating. Of course, there’s the theory that we live in classless societies, but I don’t agree with that one.

    I think I’m in the Sarah Palin social class – although unfortunately without the governor’s salary. Middle/lower middle; that’s me. Maybe even working poor, depending on which relatives and which parts of one’s life are included.

    I’m not sure workaholism is a distinguishing characteristic. I’ve seen it in people I’d characterize as solidly middle class. They certainly didn’t send their children to private schools or universities and certainly did emphasize the importance of studying something ‘practical’ after high school.

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that I have never met anyone who is upper middle class by your definition. I know lots of people who earn a lot more money than I do, but they don’t have the other markers. A ‘merchant’ (to use a local term) family I knew of, with successful business interests far outside their hometown, sent their children and grandchildren to the local public schools and wouldn’t have been considered workaholics by anyone, although they all worked. There are a few families who send their children to Bishop Strachan and whatever that school in Nova Scotia is that used to and probably still does offer accommodation for your daughter’s horse as well as your daughter. Not many, though. I don’t think I know anyone who wants their children to study something that won’t be useful in earning a living, although some will tolerate it, and others seem to put the earning a living thing on hold indefinitely, which I find really odd. Able-bodied adults at home not working, not studying and not even helping with the housework! But that’s leading me off on a tangent.

    I don’t know why the courts would buy into non-negotiable bonuses, I really don’t. I do understand that settlements take into account the social standing and wealth of the person concerned – no one’s going to expect the ex-spouse of a millionaire to get the same settlement as the ex-wife of a public school teacher or the ex-wife of a minimum wage earner. But if you’re talking about bonuses for good work being paid to the people who almost destroyed the business they were paid to run, it makes no sense. And no one starves in the street because they can’t afford the country club fees any more.


    12 Feb 09 at 2:39 pm

  2. Just a quick note. The NY Times had an article a few days ago “Trying to live on 500K in this town”


    Interesting to see what is regarded as essential!


    12 Feb 09 at 4:20 pm

  3. Sorry about LITTLE WOMEN, but this is why you always carry a back-up book. I’ll carry two to work, and if I read for 10 minutes while eating lunch it’s a slow day.
    The maid: status symbol of course, but also an obligation: what will she do if you turn her off? And she may be cheaper than new clothes. In Regency Britain, a maid cost 10 pounds a year plus room and board. A meal and a night in a good coaching house might run more than two pounds, and the TAX on a carriage was 30 pounds a year. The handy “inflation multipliers” don’t tell you how much relative prices have changed.
    But I think the overall point is well taken. Our business criminals tend to be members of a class, and while they may be thrown in prison, they don’t lose their class status and so not the things essential to maintain it. But it’s not just our business executives. The journalists who produce fraudulent stories and the politicians caught in crime may lose positions, but they’re hardly ever actually run out of the fraternity. They get picked up by a lesser paper or find a job in a think tank. It would be instructive to check those who are thrown out, and see what it takes.
    I recently read a novel in which a woman high in the local power structure realizes that a near-peer has probably committed murder, though she’ll never be convicted of it. The accused blusters that “our kind of people don’t do that sort of thing.” The reply is “There is no kind of people that includes you and me.”
    It’s a good novel, but often these days I’m not sure murder would be enough.


    12 Feb 09 at 5:09 pm

  4. “The journalists who produce fraudulent stories and the politicians caught in crime may lose positions, but they’re hardly ever actually run out of the fraternity.”

    I think it depends on what fraternity you’re talking about. If you are a doctor who routinely kills patients during routine surgery or seduces a series of patients, you might have to go halfway around the world to find a branch of the fraternity that will take them in (and then only if they haven’t heard the news). If you’re a bit of a business cheat, well, your professional counterparts can be much more forgiving. I was absolutely astonished when a local contractor at the centre of a massive bankruptcy ended up back in business before the last mess was cleared up – supplier X was still loudly and bitterly regretting that he’d never see a penny of what was owed to him and supplier Y was happily doing business with him! It’s all very well forgiving and forgetting on a personal or social level, but doing business with someone whose last business dealing were with people who are practically out howling for his blood? There’s no accounting for human behaviour!

    And sometimes it works in reverse – I’ve heard that sometimes when a judge and crown attorney have a ‘respectable’ (middle class at least) person accused of something fairly disreputable – alcohol or drug offences, for example – they may well throw the book at them even though they give lesser sentences to the hopeless losers with repeat offences.

    Maids were cheap, as you say. My family even had one (well, ok, a baby-sitter) for a short time. It’s only about a generation or two back that quite ordinary families could manage to hire a ‘girl’ who would work for room, board and some minuscule wage. I was reading an online article about ‘slavery’ in India or Africa, and although some situations were terrible, others sounded exactly parallel to the ‘girl’ (or ‘Home girl’) who did so much of the housework in Canada not that long ago.


    12 Feb 09 at 5:39 pm

  5. John – a very appropriate article.

    I really wonder why, though, would someone in charge of a collapsing bank would expect to keep all that stuff? Most people, when their employer is undergoing or fighting off financial collapse, lose at least some of their economic status because they can’t pay for it any more.


    13 Feb 09 at 2:30 pm

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