Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Special privileges"

Calling Flavia, Flavia's commenter "i," and the usual WWPD audience:

The following just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed: "Young, Privileged, and Applying for Food Stamps." I immediately knew that this would not be an article about food-stamp fraud, that is, about wealthy people getting food stamps (for kicks?) by manipulating the system. My guess, however, wasn't exactly right. I'd assumed this would be about an upper-middle-class kid regressing to the mean, or, I suppose, dropping below it. Cut off by the parents, and learning just how little a degree in Medieval Tapestry is worth in this economy. Or at least something about a PhD on welfare. Instead, it's by - and about - Katrina Briski, a white, college-educated young woman from, in her words, "a working-middle-class-family background." An example she gives of "suburban comforts" she's had at her disposal is ChipotleThis is "privilege"?

But that's exactly what's interesting about the essay. The author has somewhere along the line latched onto the idea that she is privileged. Not merely that she should be grateful for what she has, which most everyone should be, but that she comes from the stratum of society that ought to feel guilty for all it has. Even though what she has - white skin and a state-school non-STEM BA - is not exactly an Andover-Princeton-Goldman trajectory. Going by the information she herself provides, Briski neither started out nor ended up (thus far - she's young yet) wealthy or high-status. There are others relative to whom she is privileged, and her race, level of education, and childlessness defy stereotypes about who requires government support. Given her age and life situation, she might be more "broke" than "poor," although it's really too soon to tell. But "privileged," without painstaking contextualization, would seem to misrepresent the author's place in the world.

One might speculate that this perception of herself as "privileged" has informed her career choices, such as taking unpaid internships. One might also speculate that this self-perception is what prevented her from getting a job at Trader Joe's - if you come across as "privileged," you probably will have trouble finding work at a supermarket. I say this not to judge Briski's choices. Quite the contrary, these strike me as rational choices for someone who - presumably in the course of her education - came to believe that she had better own her privilege... despite not owning a heck of a lot else. I am judging the system that produces these expectations.

This phenomenon - by no means unique to the author - seems pretty clearly related to the fact that so many Americans now go to college, and college, which continues to think of itself as a thing-for-the-elite, continues to teach students noblesse oblige. "Service." The idea that it's greedy to want pay from one's first jobs. This, even when the students have massive debt and are not in much of a position to hand out helpings of oblige to others. 

For all the talk of unchecked privilege, I suspect there's also a great deal of overestimated privilege among Young People Today, who've dutifully learned about all the systematic oppressions that don't apply to them, yet find themselves quasi-unemployable and fully without the trust funds one somehow imagines every white, college-educated kid has to his name. Relative privilege is something, but it doesn't pay the rent. Thus, I think, OWS.


In further "privilege" news, the NYT's "Room for Debate" on circumcision bans has, not unexpectedly, drawn a horde of passionate commenters. Men who weren't circumcised and who imagine the procedure to be some kind of penisectomy (having evidently not taken in the number of children in Hasidic families), men who were circumcised as infants and who attribute whatever's gone wrong in their lives to their parents' fateful decision to make them a millimeter or whatever smaller in that area, and women... no, not so many women.

One can get to the point at which one thinks, 'hey, I grew up thinking this was sensible, but now that I stop and think about it, it is at least worth discussing,' until one comes across this winner, who believes that Americans accept male but not female circumcision not because one is mutilation and the other not so much, but because of some kind of nefarious cabal:

Does the author really think that male circumcision really gets a pass because it is (a) a religious practice, and (b) relatively safe? Is there really no importance in her reactions to the question of factor (c): that circumcision is part of a religious tradition that has very special privileges in the USA? Isn't it really the case that some religions are more equal in the eyes of the law than others?
Thus far, that comment has gotten 12 "recommends." Walt and Mearsheimer, I've found your next cause. The Euphemistic Circumcision Lobby.


Withywindle said...

On your food stamp lady: she doesn't appear to have worked during college, which does distinguish her from a lot of the students I've taught. (Working 20-40 hours a week, and often enough mediocre or horrible students because they were also taking full course loads for which they didn't have remotely enough time to prepare.) Privilege, bah, but she was comfortable as not all her peers were. I'd suggest that, incidentally, as a significant sociological dividing line: whether or not you have to work while you're at college. (I don't know if work-study for financial aid counts.)

Phoebe said...

Why do you think she didn't work during college? I did, but someone reading some random thing I wrote online might not know it. Is it the part where she says, "four years in undergrad, and afterward, as I applied to jobs"? I took that to mean that she was referring to the permanent jobs one seeks after college, not to having not had a job while in school. Is it her resume? Because it seems likely that a college grad would leave off jobs held at 19.

And I'm not sure that would be much of a dividing line, given that even college students who quite definitively come from privilege may have to work during college, because parents paying $50k already might not want to pay for coffee, beer, study abroad, fraternity membership, etc. I didn't know too many kids at UChicago who didn't work for pay during the academic year and summers, and this was not the scrappiest student population.

Work-study would if anything seem to indicate not coming from privilege, so I'm a bit confused there. As for "comfort," why do we think that if she didn't work, or didn't work enough to pay her entire tuition, that this wasn't facilitated by loans? Are loans "privilege"? Yes, there's a divide between those who 100% pay their own ways by working full-time while in school, and those who do not, but that most anyone going to a residential college at the traditional age will need either scholarships, loans, parental support, or some combination. It's a form of relative privilege to be able to go to college before you're 30, but "privilege," I think, implies something above and beyond that.

Withywindle said...

1) She didn't list any college jobs on her resume, and her account gave the impression of no such work experience.

2) I would say that as a general rule, you only take out loans of that size with a minimum amount of family wealth as collateral, explicitly or implicitly. I would be startled if larger loans didn't correlate with upper-middle class status. (Rich enough to take out loans without undue fear; not rich enough to pay for all the tuition directly.) Without government subsidy, the correlation presumably would be even stronger.

3) Work-study at my alma mater never seemed as onerous as 20 hours a week delivering for Dominos (or what have you). Summer jobs often were "work in the prof's lab off of his grant money and thus get professional experience". Conflating all of these forms of labor seems a bit fuzzy for analysis.

4) It would be interesting to have better statistics on what proportion of college students work, to what extent, in what way, etc.

5) I said comfort, not privilege. (I wasn't particularly fond of the word even before you started quoting chapter and verse on its irritating contemporary ubiquity.) You can express it as a gradient rather than an on/off switch. I still think the food stamp lady gives the distinct impression of not having worked during college, and, if true, that this would indicate a reasonable level of comfort as compared to her peers. If she was working through college, her current helpless affect is a little odd.

Britta said...

Well, the shittiness of the job doesn't have to correlate with its pay (usually its an inverse relationship) or neediness of the student. I suppose you could say there's "privilege" to get a good work study job, or go to a wealthy university that can subsidize its students to do things besides clean the cafeteria, but whatever, it doesn't automatically make the student less in need of the job. I had probably the cushiest work study job in college, one that was also prestigious and competitive to get, and in addition to liking the work and wanting to put it on my resume, it was by far one of the highest paying jobs/hour, and the most money I could make while in college. I also was a clerk in the admissions office, a suitably menial and boring job, and my need didn't change with the change in jobs.

Being "poor" (I use the term tongue-in-cheek) I also qualified for grants for "disadvantaged kids to give back to their communities," and got paid to volunteer over the summer in my hometown. On my resume it looks like I did the usual UMC unpaid internships, except mine were paid for by the feds. So, it's really hard to know exactly what's going on just based on someone's resume.

Also, I don't know about other places, but where I grew up youth unemployment was some of the highest in the nation, and getting a crappy summer job was almost impossible. I applied and got rejected for, among other things, 1) being a maid, 2) working in a Subway/coffee shop/ice cream store, 3) as a temporary employee at a dept. store for the summer sales, etc. All the menial jobs were already taken up full time employees, and no one wanted to hire someone for 3 months. For the few that did, the competition was fierce. Attempts to find actual crappy employment all came to naught.

Phoebe said...

OK, we're going to have to disagree re: her college work history. Note that she mentions waitressing jobs in the article, but they're not on her resume, telling us fairly definitively that her online resume is not the sum total of all jobs she's held.

Work-study, no, won't mean Dominos, although it might mean something like book-shelving at the library, which is not the same as being a research assistant. But what work-study generally indicates that your family is not wealthy. It's a way for schools to ensure that students who must work get priority over those who merely ought to do so for real-world experience/spending money. It used to be, and maybe still is at some schools, something that stigmatized kids on that kind of scholarship, as anyone who worked was surely not-well-off. Now, more do work, but I've never, ever heard of "work-study" as indicating wealth.

Re: debt, I'm not sure of your analysis re: who takes out how many loans, but in any case the author appears to have graduated from a state school as an in-state student. "Comfort"? If we take her word for it that her family is on the low end of middle class, and if we accept that this refers to their current situation and not to how the parents themselves grew up, that word, like "privilege," even if less annoying of a word than privilege, seems inappropriate in this case.

"If she was working through college, her current helpless affect is a little odd."

First off, there's working during college, and then there's paying one's entire way without loans or parental support. The latter is just about impossible for a traditional-age college student who doesn't also have a great scholarship, now that even public colleges are so expensive.

Let's say - admitting we have no way of knowing this - she merely did the former, working, say, only 15 hours a week at a campus coffee shop. "Comfort," or the recognition that working 20 a week for Dominos also wouldn't make a dent in tuition-and-living-expenses.

She's not claiming helplessness, exactly. Her predicament, as I understand it, is that she imagines herself to be a person-of-privilege, yet isn't one. She's bought into the idea - which you, alas, appear to have bought into as well - that anyone who's relatively well-off enough not to spend ages 18-22 raising four kids is "privileged"/"comfortable"/whatever. So it's jarring for her to realize that she's not the trustafarian she imagines herself to be.

Phoebe said...

The above was for Withywindle.


"So, it's really hard to know exactly what's going on just based on someone's resume."

That's very true, and extends to how people paid for college. I've known people who were "poor" for college purposes because their family kept its money tied up in a ton of properties, and others who were much closer to poor, but who'd made saving for the kids' college (easier if it's kid, singular) their first priority.

In the case of this article, my interest isn't the secret truths the author isn't revealing, but rather taking her at her word and looking at the situation she describes. We quite simply don't know if she worked during college, but have no reason to believe she did not. But if she's describing her background as quasi-working-class, and she has not subsequently become wealthy (as was, of course, the gist of the article) at best she might say that there are others worse off than herself. But that =/= "privilege."

So, to Withywindle's point, while it's true that these things are not binary, that race, cultural capital, having nice parents or not, etc. enter into it, when "privileged" is used as it was in the title here, there's a certain assumed cutoff for that sort of thing, and someone who went from working-class to broke, stopping off at their state school for a BA in between, isn't it.

Flavia said...

I see why you don't like her use of "privileged." But I'm not sure what your objection to her understanding of her subject position is otherwise -- her belief that someone like herself (white, college-educated, with a liberal arts major) isn't the "expected" beneficiary of food stamps aligns with the reaction of the censorious white lady at the beginning of the piece. Isn't she basically saying that times are hard even for the kinds of people who aren't the kind of people who normally go on food stamps, and whom the world regards as (to use Withy's term) pretty comfortably-situated?

I wonder, too, whether we can read her self-description as "privileged" as partly a response to growing up "working middle-class": she experiences herself as having made good (by going to college and not majoring in something "practical"), and as having more theoretical opportunities, than people in her family of origin. It's not that she thinks she's privileged in some absolute way, but that she feels privileged in a relative way.

Many of my friends who hail from the working class have endless stories about being told their education has made them too big for their britches, has led them to put on airs, etc.; there's a real enforcement of humility in many (non-coastal-elite) communities. So the author's use of the word "privilege" isn't necessarily--or isn't necessarily only!--a sign that she's been acculturated to a liberal-guilt, noblesse-oblige, knee-jerk norm of apologizing for her own privilege, however minor, lest her peers call her out for it. It could instead be a move she's making to forestall real criticisms from below.

But like you (I think, in your speculation that taking unpaid internships reflects her belief in her own privilege), I'd be more interested in hearing about that explicitly, if so. There's some interesting first-person stuff on the academic internet about people from working-class backgrounds who feel some pressure to live in the ways their educational environments acculturate them to behave (like taking unpaid internships). That seems a more productive way of thinking about the what relative privilege means.

Phoebe said...


"It could instead be a move she's making to forestall real criticisms from below."

That's a good point. My bet, then, would be that it's a bit of both. If this were 40 years ago, I could see that someone like the author, with that upbringing, would be really unusual for having gone to college at all. But today, there's still the perception that college=snooty, but it's unlikely she'd have been the only one at her high school going, and she may well not have been the kid in her class going to the most prestigious school. But still, a four-year college, immediately after high school... she may have stood out for this. It's hard to say.

But what I think is happening here is that there's this massive perception-reality split when it comes to what college means. In the national conversation about it, we still imagine that a "scholarship student" is somehow unusual, whereas in reality, the vast majority have some kind of financial aid. Working a part-time job no longer makes one stand out on campus - if anything, the reverse. Given how many Americans start college, even how many graduate, it's unrealistic to imagine that everyone who's ever been a college student is on their way to having their exploits profiled in the NYT Styles section. Yet people - including college students - continue to imagine that college means fancy-schmancy. Colleges themselves perpetuate this, and what results is... people like the author, who imagine themselves to be more anomalous-for-their-upbringings than they are, or perhaps who imagine that surely they grew up rich, because from what they learned in sociology class, they grew up a whole lot better-off than if they'd been in the Chicago projects.

All of which is my longwinded way of saying that I'm not sure if she's overestimating how much privilege she comes from or overestimating how unusual it is that she went from "working-middle class" to public-college graduate.

PG said...

My understanding is that a) work-study is something you get to be able to go to college at all, not for beer money while there; b) even people who 100% had their parents pay for room, board, tuition, books still worked in some form during summers. I mean, what else is there to do in summer, other than more school? My parents paid for everything during the school year, but when I decided I wanted to stay in my college town for a summer, they only paid summer school tuition; I took a regular, mildly unpleasant job to pay living expenses. I think that was a good thing; indeed, I wish there were more willingness among well off Asian Americans to have kids work during high school instead of just "school is your job," which has a disorienting effect on some once an actual job is their job.

PG said...

Oh, regarding the essay title, I do think she's "privileged" relative to what is popularly assumed to be the typical food stamp recipient. A great deal of political effort in the US has not gone to waste in creating the image of someone who receives public assistance as having grown up with unemployed parents, never learning about work (cue Gingrich on having poor kids be their schools' janitors so they can learn a work ethic), being a shiftless dropout, etc. Food stamps are a form of welfare, albeit not the TANF program available to low income parents. Even if we exclude any racial dog whistles, I don't think Reagan meant to call up this girl's picture in voters' minds when he talked about welfare queens and the like.
Being a good little liberal, the writer doesn't look down upon the project-dwelling dropout, but instead feels comparatively privileged.

Phoebe said...


"My understanding is that a) work-study is something you get to be able to go to college at all, not for beer money while there"

Yes - a more succinct phrasing of what I'd said above, and Britta, I think.

"I mean, what else is there to do in summer, other than more school?"

Unpaid internships. Volunteer trips to exotic countries. Lounging on the couch. But, point taken.

"Oh, regarding the essay title, I do think she's 'privileged' relative to what is popularly assumed to be the typical food stamp recipient"

Yes, which is also acknowledged somewhere amidst my graphomania above. But the title itself suggests a child of privilege who has really fallen, as opposed to... a working-class white woman who descended a bit, and perhaps temporarily, given that she's still quite young. I don't doubt that she does come across as different - racially, culturally - from the young women her age one might see late at night on the 2 train, going into outer Brooklyn with five kids. But maybe this comes from the fact that many of my high school classmates got free lunch and were plenty far from that stereotype as well, or because this is not unknown among grad students in poorly-funded programs, but it doesn't strike me as implausible that someone with this woman's background would qualify for food stamps, or consider that option.

Andrew Stevens said...

She does say "My parents had the same struggles, maybe worse, as twenty-somethings starting a family and a business in the ’80s." Note the "starting a business" part. When I was younger, I worked for a man who went out and poured concrete every day, but he was a multi-millionaire (tens of millions, not just a few million) because he owned the business, a whole bunch of real estate, and a convenience store chain his brother ran for him. I doubt the writer's parents were that successful, but they can be pretty damn successful and still be called "working-middle-class" if they're also in the entrepreneurial class. There are many highly successful entrepreneurs who could still describe themselves (or have their children describe them) as "working class."

Also note that she does not seem at all concerned about whether her parents would or could take her back; she just doesn't want to go back to live with them. I don't know how wealthy her background is, but I'm guessing that her own perceptions are probably pretty close.

Phoebe said...


That her parents started a business tells us very little. Do kids I went to high school with, whose parents started Chinese restaurants, need to write exposés about their privilege? And given that throughout human history, people have lived with their parents, that this is theoretically a possibility for her (although she might then need to go and get her own job, or at least take over household tasks so her parents could work more) hardly means they have a McMansion for her to come home to. I think we have a bit more in the way of class indicator from her reference to Chipotle and Starbucks as the epitome of "comforts."

Phoebe said...

Also, for Andrew and others, if I may yank my own thread back on-topic...

The issue is not whether we can interpret this particular author's narrative to mean she comes from more privilege than is obvious from the information she provides. Like, maybe she secretly has a three-million-dollar trust fund she's too proud to avail herself of, but if so, this isn't in the article. The point is that given the info provided, she appears to be rounding up a good deal to get to something that could plausibly be referred to as "privileged," that overestimating one's privilege is indeed a thing, and then looking at what it means that this happens. I suppose, if one takes the 'but Chipotle is a fancy restaurant, b/c not everyone can afford it' approach, then fine, everyone with anything to be grateful for is "privileged." But that's inventing a new meaning for the word.

Andrew Stevens said...

The Chipotle comment is more of a region thing; she appears to have grown up in a somewhat rural area where it might not have existed.

I would say that it's still far more common for well-to-do people to underestimate their socio-economic status (I have no opinion on "privilege" which is a stupid word to use when we're really talking about socio-economic status). E.g. if you make only $100,000 a year, that puts you in the top 7% of individuals nationally. If you have two wage-earners each making $50,000 a year, that puts you in the top 16% of households. From talking to people who make that sort of money, particularly from certain parts of the country, many of them seem to have the impression they're lower middle-class or something. Your classmates whose parents started Chinese restaurants almost certainly grew up very well-to-do, even compared to other white or Asian Americans.

Conversely, by the way, it is also still pretty common for people below the median to overestimate their socio-economic status, thus America's enormous self-proclaimed "middle class," which is something like 98% of people.

My own impression of the article is that it would be wrong for her to apply for food stamps, simply because I got the strong impression that her parents are more than able to help her out and she appeared (at a point in time before she wrote the article) to be more willing to swallow her pride and go to the government than to swallow her pride and go to her parents. If my daughter ever applied for food stamps, I would be quite annoyed. It is one thing for her to be a burden on me and quite another for her to be a burden on society.

Phoebe said...


You're partially right. There are absolutely, absolutely, absolutely people who grow up super-rich, but remain under the impression that they're "middle-class." This is faux-scrappiness, I've blogged about it, I've encountered it, and I promise I don't doubt that it's out there. However, along with that phenomenon is another, which entails someone who does have genuine money concerns imagining that somehow whiteness and college-educated-ness are rent money, as opposed to being characteristics that make it statistically more likely you'll have rent money.

Re: Chipotle, maybe it was new to her, maybe she somehow didn't realize it's a chain, but if its prices struck her as upscale, then she did not grow up rich. As for whether a kid whose parents owned a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Queens, say, is "privileged," this we're going to have to disagree on. It's important to remember that cost of living varies, so even kids I went to school with who did not plausibly grow up even middle-class might have had household incomes that would have gone so very far in parts of Appalachia where they did not live.

Re: whether this particular woman should go to her (working-class) parents if at all possible, that's another whole question, one that isn't nearly as straightforward as you make it out to be. What parents owe their adult children (over 18, or post-college - in this case both) financially is not obvious, whereas what the government entitles you to kind of is. Is this woman morally obligated to become financially dependent on her parents, which would effectively mean giving them as much say over her life as they had when she was a child? Even if they're charming people, even if there's no special situation (a gay kid with homophobic parents, an atheist kid with religious parents, etc.), this is a pretty big deal. A 15-year-old can't just say, I'd like to live life by my own rules, so I'll take the housing projects over my parents' roof. But a 25-year-old can. That's not to say every 25-year-old should.

Meanwhile, some not-so-sympathetic commenters to her piece pointed out that government services aren't there to support dreams or lifestyles, and therefore that someone who wants to work "in media," and who must live in Brooklyn, at the epicenter of cool-20-something life, should not be on food stamps if she could perfectly well live and do something less hip. This argument seems overly harsh, but is closer to correct than suggesting that an adult should imagine herself to be entitled to parental support.

Andrew Stevens said...

I never said she was entitled to parental support - if her parents turned her down, that's that. The impression she gave is that she could have moved back in with her parents, but that this would be professionally suicidal (no jobs in her field where they live). This would indicate they were ready and willing to support her, but likely balked at supporting two separate households. I.e. come back with us and we'll be happy to pay your bills, but perhaps more reluctant to pay rent on a separate apartment.

I never used the word privileged - I used the word "well-to-do," and I suspect that they were, even relative to their cost of living. (The median wage in New York City is not nearly as high as many New Yorkers seem to believe it is. The median household income in New York City was only $38,000 in 2010. If you are expending the excess in order to live in the more expensive parts of the city, that is a choice you are making and does not make you lower-class.)

Britta said...


I've totally noticed that phenomenon of everyone being "middle class." I think a big part of it is comparison to your neighbors, and also, I read somewhere that poor people determine wealth based on stuff (e.g., I have a TV, I'm not poor), whereas rich people think of wealth as opportunities or social influence. Also, I think most Americans calculate wealth based on their immediate surroundings, so relative wealth is really important. At my elementary school, not being on Welfare made one "rich." If you didn't have to get clothes from the free clothes drive, had parents who could pay the $3 field trip fee, and didn't live in the neighborhood you were "rich." One of my good friends was a girl who lived not too far from me, and we both saw ourselves as rich white girls. Her parents owned a home in a working class white neighborhood and neither of them had been to college. Her dad drove coach buses (like the buses you rent for tours) and her mom was a SAHM and former stripper. When the kids were older, her mom got a job in a retirement home cafeteria washing dishes, where she still works. At the time these seemed like MC jobs, but now they don't.

In college, my then boyfriend saw himself as "middle class." His dad was a corporate lawyer, and his mom worked at a neoconservative think tank. His family income was over half a million a year. He saw himself as middle class because his mainline neighbors were wealthier (I'd say average household income in his area was seven figures) and lived in much more ostentatious homes. His friend's parents also did thing his parents wouldn't or couldn't do, like buy him a condo in Manhattan (though they did pay his rent.) Also, and I think this is correct, there's such a long tail on wealth that even making 500-600k a year doesn't go very far at the top. Where the UMC and the LUC (lower-upper class) line is is kind of wishy washy.

Anyways, I guess in the US in terms of not having a hereditary nobility and mostly being bourgeois there are general cultural similarities that people are maybe trying to get at with the term "middle class" (is stripping or bus driving selling talents or labor? I guess if you're a home owner you're at least petit bourgeois though...). I also think that there is something about living off wages rather than investments or trust funds that puts us in a similar boat, which is what the whole 99% OWS thing is trying to get at, i.e., that you don't have to be impoverished to be getting screwed over (which is I guess also the point of this article.)

Britta said...

On the parental support thing, I've talked a lot about this with my friend doing Americorps in NYC, living on $11,000/year (and not qualifying for foodstamps, since she had more than $2,000 in her savings account, even though that amount gets you foodstamps elsewhere in cheaper parts of the country, but I digress.)

There are different levels of safety nets. A coworker friend also doing Americorps was the sister of an A-list celebrity who already was trust-funded. While the girl genuinely tried to live in her budget, she had access to her brother's penthouse apartments and didn't have to worry about that much. My friend, like me, doesn't have a trust fund or parents willing to fund a low-paying lifestyle, but who would be willing to help out in an emergency or make a short-term loan, and who would take her in if the alternative was homelessness.

By contrast, there were people doing Americorps who had no savings and parents with no ability to help out at all, not even for a loan of a few hundred dollars.

There's a real difference in the sense of well-being, from totally secure "money is not an issue" to, "this would be kind of shameful but I could do it if I had to," to "oh god I really better not get sick." annoys me how Americans think of government money and services as something for poor people. We don't view calling the police as shameful, and that MC people ought to have private security forces, or private roads, so why should other services only be for really poor people? If you qualify, you should take advantage. Maybe if people think of government services like country clubs or condos (i.e. you pay a fee (taxes) and get stuff in return (education, health care, safety, infrastructure), we would be living in a country that wasn't trying to turn itself into Angola (no offense to Angolans reading this.) Scandinavians don't see social services as shameful stuff for lazy poor people, they see it as a perk of living in 'civilized society' where people chip in for the collective good. I suppose it's our Puritanism showing through though.

Andrew Stevens said...

I had a typo in the above post. Should have been $48,000, not $38,000. Sorry about that. I was thinking $48,000 when I typed it, so no other change to what I wrote.

I'm sure that a lot of it is comparing to neighbors. ("That neighbor next door with two boats is the one who's rich. I can barely afford the one I've got.") I have no doubts that there are lots of people who are just scraping by in their exorbitantly expensive real estate, but there's a reason why that real estate is expensive and real estate in Appalachia isn't.

Perhaps this leads to Phoebe's point. It's possible the writer considers herself "privileged," even though someone from a more affluent background would not, is because she grew up much better off than her peers.

Phoebe said...


"I never said she was entitled to parental support - if her parents turned her down, that's that."

What you said was that she was more entitled to parental support than to government support. That this needed to be her first step. Which is not an arrangement that's going to work for many adult children, or, for that matter, many parents. The parents in this case might agree, but appear to be doing so under duress, and moving back home might not be a viable option even if it's an offered option. It's one thing to say that she's too fancy if she must live in NY, another entirely to say that she should be willing to return to being dependent on her own parents. It might well be better for everyone involved for her to be dependent (well, slightly so) on the state. Or, yeah, if she lived somewhere else.

"Perhaps this leads to Phoebe's point. It's possible the writer considers herself 'privileged,' even though someone from a more affluent background would not, is because she grew up much better off than her peers."

You may not be using the word "privilege," but that's a YPIS if I ever saw one. And it's a great one, too, because a) you're making assumptions about my background, while leaving your own a mystery in the way only the Internet allows, and b) your assumptions are incorrect. For the first nine years of my schooling, i.e. the formative period, I was significantly less well-off than my peers. This was most obvious in that they all had cars and country houses, which my family did not, but there were other clues as well - country clubs, charity galas, celebrity connections, things like that. I was worldly enough, or well-raised enough, to realize, despite my relative lack of stuff/connections/weekend-shopping-funds, I was upper-middle-class, not middle-class, not poor, and so was not stunned when I got to high school and met a bunch of kids who were middle or lower-middle-class, to whom I seemed rich.

Anyway, to address the non-YPIS angle of your point, unless the author is in fact a cement baroness, I probably did grow up wealthier than she did. But what I'm responding to is the author's assessment of her own upbringing as "working-middle class." The "working," if we're to take her word for it, means lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Not poor, but something below "middle." Her remark about Chipotle supports this. She thinks she's "privileged" because she's white and a college graduate, not because, in the secret recesses of her autobiography, we might learn that she's a cement baroness. She's saying white + BA = "privilege." I'm saying that yes, these things are, all things equal, advantageous, but that she's overshooting the mark.

Phoebe said...


Relative privilege/advantage is a lot. Not all, though - there are still factors such as: can your family afford food/housing, are there constantly money worries, is how to pay for college a big deal, etc.

"I also think that there is something about living off wages rather than investments or trust funds that puts us in a similar boat"

Indeed, and I think that's true even if there's not much social mobility, and in reality those near the top don't need to be that concerned. The wage-earning elite imagines itself to be precarious, and the tutors and whatnot come from genuine, if misplaced, anxiety.

Re: parental vs. government support, this is a post of its own in the making (like, long since). I tend to think things would be better if young people, from much earlier on, were supported more by the state than by their own parents, i.e. if rich people continued to pay more for college, but via taxes, not to fund Junior's personal tuition. There's now this incredibly long period during which it's ambiguous what parents ought to do. For example, if you apply to law school and you're under 30 and single, the FAFSA or whatever it's called for law school asks for your parents' potential contribution. We wouldn't generally think of a 27-year-old with a job as a dependent, and the law doesn't compel a parent to pay up. But it's asked, because it's ambiguous.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, you completely misinterpreted my comment above, for which the blame is entirely mine.

Let me rephrase:

"Perhaps this leads to Phoebe's point. It's possible the reason Ms. Briski considers herself 'privileged,' even though someone from a more affluent background might not, is because Ms. Briski grew up much better off than her peers."

I had an ambiguous pronoun in there, which led you to your misinterpretation, but I assure you that's what I meant. (I knew pretty much everything that you said about your socio-economic background in this comment already, because I've been reading you for a long time and I have a very good memory for biographical details.)

I have discussed in comments of many blogs, perhaps even this one, my own socio-economic background. I grew up in a decaying old industrial town in Connecticut, the child of a schoolteacher and a stay-at-home mother (with a college degree in education, though). My father was afflicted with schizophrenia when I was six, which plunged the family into poverty. My mother, unable to find a job as a teacher, worked at a call center doing customer service to make ends meet, supporting me, my father, herself, and my three siblings until my father became too dangerous and had to be removed from the house and my older brothers moved out shortly thereafter. After that, we were somewhat better off as she had fewer people to support.

When I worked my way through college, I sent money to her in order to try to pay off the debts she had accumulated until, eventually, I took over her finances completely and stopped the hemmorhaging that was occurring because she was so irresponsible with bills.

The saga above is purely descriptive and not meant for any point-scoring purposes. My parents were both college educated. I am descended almost entirely from WASPs, granted mostly long lines of Puritan farmers rather than great entrepreneurs, but my ancestry would qualify me to be a Boston Brahmin if any of them had made a substantial amount of money. I actually don't consider myself terribly "scrappy," whatever that might mean and, in any event, I am certainly rich now, due almost entirely to an unearned and innate relative advantage in facility with numbers, which I have possessed for as long as I can remember.

And, while I don't believe she is entitled to either parental or government support, I do believe that her parents, by virtue of their special relationship to her, have more of a duty towards her than the government (which is to say, everybody else in society) does.

Phoebe said...


Thanks for the clarification. YPIS accusation rescinded, but I'm still not seeing why you think she-the-author grew up wealthier than her peers. That there exist, in this country, people who call their parents "working-class" when the "work" involves being incredibly rich factory-owners, say, doesn't mean that this is what we should assume in the typical case. The Occam's Razor interpretation would be that she thinks she's "privileged" because she equates white plus college-educated with privilege.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't agree with you that this is necessarily how Occam's Razor slices in this case. Most business owners of any kind, even hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants, so long as the business isn't failing, are going to be more successful than their peers in your average public school in the mining towns of Minnesota. The addition of "working class" seemed to me to be a defensive measure meant to stress that they still worked for a living and (as she says) were not themselves college educated and not meant to imply "below middle class" as it would in England. I.e. they are meant to deflect attention from her "privilege," in the same way that, if I wished to do the same, I would leave out my parents' educational level in describing my childhood situation. I do believe that she is trying to give the impression that you received, but is too honest to truly deceive. If she had genuinely grown up not well off, she would have talked about that, but instead she is silent on the subject.

Naturally, though, I could be wrong.

Britta said...


See, this is where I disagree (maybe it's the Puritan WASP background ;). Why should an adult who legitimately qualifies for a social service not avail herself of it? Is it her parents job to bleed themselves dry before anyone can except the services their taxes help pay for? Also...mooching of our parents is only delaying the problem, because if we suck our parents' retirement accounts dry, they'll be a very large contingent of poor old people who will need much more than food stamps. I'm very much pro-family helping other family out, but honestly, the role of government services is to support people who need the support. When social services work well, they maintain individuals as productive consumers who add to the GDP and to job creation through consumption. Except with a few programs, we're too shortsighted to help the middle class remain middle class, so we focus on preventing the absolute destitute from dying in the streets. Unfortunately, this system is far more expensive, as we poor enormous resources into imprisoning people we're not willing to educate, and providing emergency care to people we're not willing to keep healthy.

Britta said...

*sorry, accept, not except in the 5th line

(Also, the last part gets away from Andrew's point, not to make it look like I'm picking on anyone in particular.)

Phoebe said...


And why do we think she grew up in a mining town? Am I missing something?

Andrew Stevens said...

Not clear whether she grew up in a mining town, but she does say that her parents started a business in one. I assume, barring better information from her article, that her parents were still there, ergo she grew up there, just as I assume that they still have the business (or profitably sold it) and that it's at least modestly successful. (It seems clear to me that if the business had failed, she would either have A) not mentioned it or B) said that it failed, since she was describing how tough things were for her parents.) But I base it on "My parents had the same struggles, maybe worse, as twenty-somethings starting a family and a business in the ’80s, facing a recession and a bleaker economy in the mining towns of northern Minnesota."

Britta - it could easily be the Puritanism (though, like most descendants of Puritans, I am an atheist). I would be lying if I said my mother did not avail herself of any social services - I received free lunches from the public schools, I believe she received some food assistance from the government, at least for a short time, and she certainly received food assistance from our Congregationalist church's food pantry, but it was always her strong preference to support us on her own (despite her moderate left-liberalism - she's a liberal Republican who last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988). I'm going to argue that this attitude, common in the U.S., is extremely prevalent in Scandinavia, but not necessarily in other cultures, which is how Scandinavia can get away with very generous social services without bankrupting themselves.

There are very large differences between what can work in the homogeneous societies in Scandinavia and the extremely heterogeneous society of the United States. Sweden is 85% Swedish and 5% Finns. They all have a common culture, which has strong ethics in particular directions. Milton Friedman was once told by a Scandinavian economist, "We have no poverty in Scandinavia." Friedman responded that the United States also had no poverty amongst Scandinavians, which is, I believe, as true today as it was then. By the way, before anyone accuses me of making a racial argument rather than a cultural argument, some of the worst offenders in terms of exploiting social services are Caucasian groups and this has always been true. (Also, because cultures change in the U.S., some ethnicities which used to be problems have absorbed U.S. culture and are no longer a problem.) But a free society with largely open immigration is always going to have problems maintaining generous social services at a bearable cost.

However, our largest difference here is, I'm sure, moral philosophy. I assume your moral philosophy is largely utilitarian (correct me if I'm wrong). I side with W.D. Ross who said, "Moore [a utilitarian philosopher] seems to simplify unduly our relations to our fellows. [He] says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbors stand to me is that of possible beneficiaries by my action. They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case. When I am in a situation, as perhaps I always am, in which more than one of these prima facie duties is incumbent on me, what I have to do is to study the situation as fully as I can until I form the considered opinion (it is never more) that in the circumstances one of them is more incumbent than any other; then I am bound to think that to do this prima facie duty is my duty sans phrase in the situation." (I should note that I believe Ross incorrectly used the term prima facie here and I prefer to use the term pro tanto.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Help of this kind should be provided as locally as possible. Families, churches, local shelters, and the like, not only because they have a greater duty to provide for their own than the rest of society does, but because the most important thing we need to do is to ensure that they learn to stand on their own two feet and not need to avail themselves of the services any longer. E.g. my father-in-law lives in our basement. He had gotten himself into a great deal of financial trouble. By bringing him in locally, I have been able to create a plan for him to get out of the situation and ensure that he sticks to the plan. We're three years into my four-year plan and we're right on track, mostly because of his great trust in me and willingness to abide by my decisions. In another year, he will have cleared all his debts (including to his daughter and myself) and will have cash flows which were much greater than the ones he was previously living on, all without expanding his income very significantly. This sort of help can only be provided locally by someone with strong knowledge and willingness to help. He needed to be taught lessons about budgeting, how credit works and how to use it responsibly, and other things that government social workers just don't do properly.

I believe your philosophy (as I understand it) undermines those kinds of relationships. I have found that most people on the political left are much meaner with their money and time to their very close relations, precisely because they have strong support for governmental action in that regard, so they wash their hands of their higher duties. As a parent, it is my job to guide my child. I certainly wouldn't exhaust my own finances to do it and I strongly believe that retirement savings should be prioritized over, for example, college savings for children. (Personally, I am in the happy position to be able to do both, but if I had to make a choice, I would recommend loans to my child. Nobody will loan you money to fund your retirement for obvious reasons.)

I also believe that government services are inefficient and part of what is exhausting the middle class is a burdensome government that they're paying for which provides far less than it consumes. E.g. I would favor redistributionism more if so much of it didn't simply fund a bloated bureaucracy which consumes without producing much in the way of substantial benefits. The poverty level in this country was continually declining right up until LBJ passed his Great Society programs in the '60s. Since then, it hasn't budged an inch. If I believed those programs worked, I assure you I would favor them, but the evidence appears to be all against them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta - by the way, agreed that the drug war has been a disaster and the whole justice system needs a great deal of reform. Also, while I'm sure we disagree with the remedy, employer-provided health insurance (which our tax code is geared to produce) is an antiquated system, more suited to a time when people rarely changed jobs and certainly needs reform.

Britta said...


Actually, I'm pretty much a hardcore deontologist through and through, what with the Lutheran upbringing and such, though it seems like you're a virtue ethicist (?), so you probably still disagree with my moral outlook :) (My childhood upbringing was basically "Categorical Imperatives in action.")

I would say that there are similarities between Anglo and Nordic cultures, but there are a few differences. For Scandinavians, what makes the welfare state work is that cheating and lying are some of the worst moral offenses, and so cheating the welfare system is far more shameful than I think it is here. In the US I feel like there's a much stronger "if no one caught me then it wasn't wrong" ethos, and this permeates all levels of society, including at the top, where cheating at elite schools is more common than not (cheating was certainly rampant at my IB high school, usually by the students with the better grades.) There's even a heroism to being sly and breaking the rules and getting away with it. In contrast, in Scandinavia while there's certainly a soft spot for tricksters and naughty children in the literature, there's not the same celebration of outlaw-hood or criminality as there is in the US. Related to not cheating is the emphasis on working hard to the best of your ability, and again, not shirking or holding back. Not giving your best is seen as dishonest, because you're basically cheating whomever you promised to work with/for. My mother shows up to work 15 minutes early to organize her desk so she's not doing it on company time, even though no one really checks or probably even cares, and she would never steal office supplies or use the photocopier for personal use, even though others do. This sort of attitude then extends to social benefits: Scandinavians see nothing wrong with availing oneself to benefits one legitimately qualifies for, but purposely being idle to collect benefits or cheating the system would be beyond shameful.

I also disagree about leftists being inherently stingier than others. I don't doubt there are stingy leftists, as there are stingy people of all stripes, but growing up I learned that one has a duty to a community at all levels: at the lowest level is the household, and at the highest level is the state. We were expected to tithe about 20% of our allowance to church every week as a lesson to be generous. My parents devoted almost all their free time to volunteer work, and much of my childhood involved this. A difference is morally, I don't think one has more of a duty to help one's family, though I recognize affective ties make it more likely and I probably would help a sibling far more than a stranger, but I would say that's not really behaving in a moral way. (This is where I agree with Kant that it's more moral to help a stranger out of a sense of duty to help others rather than to help a friend because you have feelings towards them.) Scandinavian nations are pretty leftist with a communitarian bent, and they contribute per capita the highest amounts to foreign aid and certainly see it as their duty to help negotiate peace in the Middle East or fight AIDS in Africa.

I read an interesting article in Salon about Yankee Conservatives' sense of Nobless Oblige and obligation to give back to the community through service or charity vs. Southern "plantation" Conservatives' sense of "winner take all and loser be damned" which comes with no obligation to even feel bad about those less fortunate. I certainly have respect for and can agree that the first form is moral in its own way, even if it's not a system I agree with.

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta, I don't have any objection to your analysis of the difference between Swedish and U.S. culture re: cheating. In fact, it is a rather elegant explanation for why a strong social safety net has been successful in Sweden and has not been nearly so successful here (in terms of actually lifting people out of poverty so they don't have to rely on it any more). Certainly, our nation's current attitudes toward adultery would seem to bear you out. (I wonder how acceptable it is in Scandinavia? Genuinely cheating adultery, that is, not counting open relationships and the like.)

As for stinginess, I am of course speaking in very broad generalities. I am certainly not saying all people on the right are more generous than leftists, simply that on average this is true. Many studies have shown that conservatives give more to charity than leftists do, even if you ignore charitable giving to churches. However, that there are a great many charitable leftists and stingy conservatives is beyond dispute. Nor am I impugning the charitableness of Scandinavians, who could very well be an exception to a general rule. It does seem to me to be the case that people hate most in others the sins they see in themselves. The puritanical preacher obsessed with sexual sin is often found to be consorting with prostitutes or young men or something. Similarly, a great many leftist politicians who rail against corporate greed are often lining their own pockets with corrupt deals or cheating on their taxes. Al Gore and Joe Biden famously gave virtually nothing to charity until shamed into it. Obama was similarly stingy until he was running for President. The most aggressive and predatory capitalist I ever met professed to be a Trotskyite.

Also, your own comments seem to bear out what I said. As you say yourself, if you were actually capable of living up to your own moral code (that you can't do so, by the way, and neither can anyone else, is a pretty good indicator, in my opinion, that it is mistaken), you would be much stingier with your time and money to close relations than, say, I would be (if also more generous with your time and money to total strangers or to the federal government). I am now reminded of a line from Hair. "Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend?" etc. Not that I believe the line is applicable to you or anything, but it occurred to me that the song represents the same critique of leftist generosity.

Andrew Stevens said...

Personally, I don't believe it can seriously be argued that I don't have more of a duty to my child than I do to others. A world in which everybody acted as if that were true simply wouldn't work. Since there are so many people in the world worse off than my daughter is, I suppose I would have to begin neglecting her until I have raised all other people up to her level. I find this morality to be counter-intuitive and disastrous in its consequences if it was seriously applied (which it never is - Kant, of course, never married and had no children). It might be a fine morality for gods or for angels, but ignores people as we actually exist.

I consider myself a deontologist, specifically a deontological moral intuitionist a la W.D. Ross, by the way, not a virtue ethicist (although I do believe it might be possible to transform my moral philosophy into a virtue ethics, but I prefer it in the form of rules since I'm the sort of person who needs rules, having little in the way of natural empathy to fall back on). I see the same flaw in Kant as I do in utilitarianism, raising a single moral intuition to categorical importance over all other moral intuitions. I believe morality is actually a balancing act and there are no easy shortcuts. Of course, it's possible to interpret Kant's categorical imperative in a way which I would find congenial, but such an interpretation would conflict with Kant's own views.

I read the Salon article and found it long on polemic and short on insight, the usual caricature of Southern culture one expects to find in certain media outlets (though I can agree with some of its criticisms, being no defender of the Confederate South, but I would prefer the analysis to be more sympathetic). There was actually a strong sense of noblesse oblige among the Southern aristocracy which, unfortunately, did not translate as well as it ought to peoples of other races. Also, the use of Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian son of an enthusiastically Confederate slave owner, as an example of Yankee ethics is bizarre. He is after all the man who resegregated the federal government, President of Princeton University or no.

Britta said...


I wouldn't be surprised if the Salon article were flawed, but I did think it raised some interesting points. Regardless if they map on to North/South, there does seem to be a new(?) strand of unapologetic "uncompassionate conservatism" which has become prominent. Perhaps it maps onto a certain denomination of Christianity?

It's also true that Kantian ethics can make people be assholes on a personal level. Scandinavians (well, especially Swedes) are stereotyped to be stingy on an interpersonal level, especially with family, even if collectively they are generous. (Generous hospitality is a big virtue, so Scandinavians are much friendlier with strangers and casual acquaintances :)* While my parents were good MC parents who spent lots of time with us and did lots of things with us, my father especially spent lots of time with less fortunate kids since "they didn't have parents to love them like I did." I remember being jealous of the time and attention he bestowed to these kids, and then feeling guilty about being jealous of kids who lived in foster systems, or who were refugees, or whose mom sold their food stamps for crack. But, there was definitely an idea that, since my dad thought all children should be loved, he would spend time loving other kids since we were pretty covered. Likewise, my mother didn't let us take SAT prep classes, since that would be cheating (since they were aptitude tests, they ought to test general potential, not specific knowledge), and what made the cheating worse was the use of wealth to get a leg up over poorer people.

But, being an unapologetic Kantian, I would say that on the whole I'd rather live in a Kantian society. Also, I think, particularly with interpersonal love, there's a question (even pondered by Kant) as to the extent we should maximize morality in our lives. I find Bonhoeffer's "Ethics" interesting as an attempt to grapple with Kantian ethics and how one could justify lying and killing for the greater good (answer: you can't, but sometimes you make a choice to be immoral...)

*True story. At my great-uncle's 90th birthday, which was a big celebration, my mother went to get a piece of birthday cake, and even though there was uncut cake, her cousin gathered all the crumbs and smeared frosting on the side into a piece saying, "oh, you don't need to cut a piece, because these crumbs are the same as a piece." My mother thought "oh, good idea, lets not waste cake." Then they realized they were being a little crazy, and my mom's cousin gave her a piece of cake.

Withywindle said...

The Salon article is wretched history. I will just say here that it does not place you well to understand either Thomas Jefferson or Robert Taft.

PG said...

Andrew: FYI, anything that relies on tax returns to tell you how much people gave to charity only actually tells you how much those people wanted deducted from what they owe the government. I wonder why this might be different between liberals and conservatives ... ;-) Personally, I didn't stress keeping track of my donations to charity until I married a Republican who loves income tax law.

Phoebe said...

I'm going to set aside the question of liberalism, conservatism, and charity, and look just at the question of politics and "generosity" to family. I think part of the issue there, when it comes to helping adult relatives, adult children especially, is that money from family comes with strings that money from the government does not. These might be useful, get-back-on-your-feet, teach-a-man-to-fish strings, but they're also likely to include more specific requirements. Things like, 'here, move back home, or let me pay for school, but just don't be gay as long as I pay the bills.' Or many, many less-dramatic but still-important variants. When you're a kid and you want to do X, your parents' veto power stems in part from the fact that it's their roof. A return to child-like financial dependence... might not mean that, but it sure allows for the possibility.

So, while I don't have any anecdotal evidence of cold, harsh liberals cutting off their adult kids (if anything, the contrary), I do think there's a sense in which liberals might prefer for hard-times funds for adults to come from the government than for them to require relying on family.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG: the purpose of tax deductibility of charitable contributions is to allow people to give more to the charity; it makes no sense not to take the deduction. If you wish to make a statement and give more money than you owe to the government, you can make a bigger statement by simply donating money to the U.S. Treasury, though nobody ever seems to do this. In any event, the graspingness of Al Gore (no double meaning intended) is well known by now. To be honest, I don't wish to speak ill of Biden. I think his low charitable contributions are simply because he still saw himself as being not very well off and the same was probably true of Obama. In retrospect, I could have given more money to charity myself when I was building my wealth, but my natural fiscal conservatism led me to ensure my own security first on the theory that the first duty of charity is to be sure that charitable resources don't have to be extended to you. So if you checked the right old tax returns of mine, the same criticism could be leveled at me. Unlike Mr. Gore, I do believe both Biden and Obama are good men and I was really thinking more of Chris Dodd, Charlie Rangel, and others when I initially made the comment, but Gore, Biden, and Obama were high-profile cases of it that most people would know about.

Britta - I was amused by "There's a question to the extent that we should maximize morality in our lives." Whenever someone says, "Should I act ethically?" I always respond, "acting ethically" simply means "doing what you ought to do" so when you ask "Should I act ethically?," you're asking "Ought I to do what I ought to do?" And, once phrased that way, it's obviously a tautological question with an obvious answer. Of course you should. In my opinion, the reason why Kantians can debate this question is because their moral system is flawed. It is on occasion (though very, very rarely) ethical to lie or to kill and there are very, very rare occasions when such actions are the only correct ones. I rarely dwell on this when discussing ethics simply because most people don't need any help justifying lying and do so quite easily whenever it's convenient and I don't wish to aid and abet them in this by making too much of the tiny number of occasions when one ought to lie. (There has never been a single such occasion for me in my entire life.) I saw a debate on Bill Maher in the midst of the Clinton scandal, where Clinton's self-serving lies were justified with analogies about hiding Jews from Nazis. Seriously. I would much rather live in a Kantian society than the one we've got now. Practically speaking, unlike utilitarianism, which frequently leads to really wooly thinking and bad results in practice, Kantianism rarely does. The times when Kantianism will steer you wrong tend to be obvious and people ignore the Kantianism and do what they ought to do anyway.

But this is why I prefer the theory of pro tanto duties, which makes sense of Kantian arguments about whether we should act morally. We do have a duty to be honest. We do have a duty of non-maleficience. Kant was correct about these things (which puts him way ahead of the utilitarians, who only favored these things if they promoted the greatest good for the greatest number). But these duties are pro tanto and can be overturned when they conflict with a higher duty, i.e. there are rare cases when it is immoral to tell the truth, when it is immoral not to kill. The utilitarians are correct that we have a duty to promote the aggregate good, but that duty is often outweighed by duties of fidelity, reparation, and gratitude and vastly outweighed by the duty of non-maleficience.

Andrew Stevens said...

Your father, by the way, sounds like a very good man who correctly balanced his responsibilities as a father with his responsibilities to the community. But he did so by ignoring his Kantianism when taking it too far would have prevented him from carrying out his duty to his family.

I disagree with the premise that there is an ascendant "uncompassionate conservatism," I'm afraid. It is a common error to believe that people who are opposed to the government doing X are opposed to anyone doing X and this is not true. I would oppose a government shoe industry; I don't oppose shoes. And so forth. I live in Iowa and frequently break bread with evangelical conservative Christians who are almost indistinguishable from their Southern counterparts. I disagree with them on many things; I do not doubt the goodness of their hearts. Most of them spend a great deal of time volunteering in their churches to help the poor or going on missions to foreign countries to help the poor there (and evangelize, of course, but this too stems from a compassionate motive, the desire to save souls even if I believe their beliefs are mistaken). By the by, despite my comments earlier in the thread about correct charity, I also do not doubt the goodness of my friends on the left. I do find that they often confuse advocacy of compassionate government policies with genuine compassion, but this is an error in reason and not in motive. When I do question their charity and compassion, it is principally their charity and compassion to their political opponents, and there they are equally matched by their opponents on the right.

Britta said...


Yes, in general few people are put in a situation which requires true heroism. The point of examining these limits, is to really grapple with exactly how rare that situation is and how grave the decision to make it is. To (poorly) paraphrase Kierkegaard, "how do you know when your faith puts you above the ethical?" If you're wrong, you're usually very wrong, and if you're right, you can still do profound damage to oneself and others. He rightly points out that Abraham would be considered a very dangerous and deluded man by 19th century Danish (and today's) standards. Of course, being agnostic, I think Bonhoeffer's struggle is more apt: it's easy in hindsight to think assassinating Hitler and smuggling Jews out of the country was the right thing to do, but how do you decide in the moment that you have some higher duty to lie and kill? What if it's abortion doctors instead of Nazis? That's not something to take on lightly with any sense of righteousness, and recognizing the profundity of the situation is often what differentiates true heroes from terrorists or dictators in the making. Many people start out with Right on Their Side, and then end up being as bad as what they were fighting against. Kantian ethics didn't prevent Bonhoeffer from making a choice to 'go all the way' in the resistance, but they gave him a circumspectness that people doing much less don't have. (His, "don't remember me as a hero, but as a murderer and traitor to my country" is about right. Also, his struggle with the fact that by the time you're living in Nazi Germany, Kantianism has gone off the rails and what that means is pretty interesting reading. I read his "Ethics" in high school and I would make it required reading if I were world dictator ;)

I would also argue there's a big difference between Northern Midwestern and Southern Conservatives, having spent a lot of time with and being related to the former, there's definitely a communitarianism among Midwestern conservatives that is lacking elsewhere in the states. I know N. Dakota Republicans who would vote socialist before voting Democratic, and the Midwest was a hotbed of populism for a long time. Given the political history, most people know and/or are related so Socialists or Farmer-Labor types. I have relatives who are pro-life missionaries whom I like and respect very much, even though I don't really agree with the idea of proselytization. They are genuinely nice people who put their money where there mouth is though and adopt disabled third world orphans.

What I want is an explanation for are phenomenon like Rush Limbaugh, or Fox News in general, or booing gay war veterans, or cheering that poor people with cancer deserve to die in the streets. There is a not insignificant group of people who appear to have no sympathy for people not 1) directly related to them, or 2) exactly like them, or 3) who have suffered any misfortune whatsoever. What happened "but for the grace of God go I?" This isn't just "we both want X, but have different idea of how to get there," but a growing sense that actually many Americans have completely different ideas of the societies they want to live in. Plenty of American are 1) openly racist, 2) openly hostile to everyone who isn't their specific type of Christian, 3) openly hostile to poor people, and 4) openly in favor of dismantling the middle class, and 5) openly hostile to most constitutional protections, and so forth. I know this isn't all new, and a lot of this is a revival of very common attitudes, but it seems to be picking up steam in rather unpleasant ways.

Britta said...

Oh, and on charity, deductions are only worth it if you're wealthy enough they add up to more than the standard deduction. I donate a little every year (not a whole lot and less than I should because I'm a grad student and I feel financially insecure), but I don't declare it because it's orders of magnitude less than the standard deduction. I also discovered I'm in the top 50% of income earners in the US, so for what it's worth, most Americans probably can't afford to declare their donations. But, for wealthier people, I'm not sure my mother declares her donations, and she tithes at least 10% of her income to charities.

PG said...


I agree that that's the purpose of making certain donations deductible. It still doesn't make tax returns a definitive statement on how much people give to charity. See also Britta's comment above.

Even my dad, who's also a conservative and has a professional do his tax returns and rack up as many deductions as possible, donates more to charity than is documented on those returns because a lot of the money he donates goes to India. Usually only the largest foreign charities or those with a ton of American donors go through the process of getting 501(c)(3) status in the U.S. If my dad is donating to a school set up for poor kids, where most of the other donors are resident Indians, you'll never know about the donation if all you're going on is his U.S. tax return. I've had the same experience when I donated in the memory of a friend's grandmother to a small UK charity -- no way to deduct that.

My dad also does a lot of quasi-charitable provision of health care in the U.S., because he takes any patient in need who makes a good faith effort at payment. But precisely because of my dad's set of principles -- he refuses to give care to those who state at the outset that they have no intention of paying, and believe themselves entitled to free care -- he can't deduct the care even if he's never fully repaid for it because it began as compensated care. In contrast, many other physicians in private practice categorically refuse to take patients who are uninsured and can't pay for all services up front.

In short, I would be more cautious than you are about assuming how charitable someone is based solely on reading his tax return.

Andrew Stevens said...

The tax deduction thing is a bit of a silly side issue since it doesn't really matter to any of the argument and I've already excused Biden and Obama (if not Gore). However, A) the people I was talking about were certainly getting more than the standard deduction, B) they were surely being advised by tax professionals (none of them strikes me as the sort who does his own taxes), and C) none of them claimed an excuse like PG's father's reasons above. (They did claim a general lame "I gave more than that, but didn't record it," but gave no details so it was somewhat difficult to take them at their word. P.G.'s father would have had details at his fingertips.)

I don't agree that there are large differences between the Southern evangelicals and the western Iowa evangelicals. My wife is from the South and both of my brothers live there. My connections aren't as deep to them as they are to the Northern Midwesterners, but I have never been surprised by them. There is, I concede, more racism in the Southern group, though 1) it certainly isn't open - you have to be pretty well trusted by them to hear it, 2) I'm openly atheist and everybody is accepting of that, though I have no doubt they all believe I'm going to Hell and are sorrowful about it, 3) very few of them are what anybody would describe as rich, 4) if they're openly in favor of dismantling the middle class, this is news to me (or do you mean they openly favor programs which you personally believe will have the effect of dismantling the middle class?), expecially since they invariably consider themselves middle class, and 5) is a mixed bag - they are much more in favor of some constitutional protections than their opponents, much less so of others.

Rush Limbaugh and the small number of partisans doing the cheering and booing at political debates (and it was a vanishingly small part of the audience both times - if you think otherwise, I urge you to watch both videos again) - I don't know who these people represent, but they certainly don't represent Southern evangelicals. I have to ask if you have ever met any people who hold all these beliefs that you ascribe. Can you point to a book that any of them have written, laying out their program to purposely dismantle the middle class, grind poor people underfoot, extirpate other races, and so on? Or is this just what you believe the effect of their policies would be and not what they believe the effect of their policies would be? Southern evangelicals are a despised minority who have been very effectively demonized for most of my life. I'm not a huge fan of their defensive victimization posture, but it's certainly understandable. A very significant part of the population has declared war on them.

They are, of course, wrong on gays (as are the Midwestern evangelicals), but I'm sure they'll come around eventually. As Fox News's Shepard Smith has said, they are pretty clearly on the wrong side of history on that one and I have no doubt they'll see the light sooner rather than later.

Andrew Stevens said...

To balance it out, there are some other ways where I believe the evangelicals (and other conservatives) could use more Christian compassion.

1) Criminals. While there wasn't a significant contingent of people booing gay soldiers or cheering people dying without insurance, there was a significant contingent cheering the death penalty. Even if we could all agree that the death penalty is sometimes necessary, it's simply not the sort of thing anyone should be cheering.

2) "Lazy people." While there is certainly no generalized hostility against poor people on the right, there is less compassion than I would urge toward "lazy people." While I certainly agree that the world doesn't owe anybody a living, I believe the cause of most layabouts isn't just "laziness," but one or a combination of A) despair that the system is rigged against them (which is very rarely true, but widely believed), B) a crippling fear of failure which leads some people not to try at all, and C) often undiagnosed medical or psychological issues. E.g. I myself went through a period when I could barely summon the energy to get out of bed for months on end. Turned out it was a severe case of sleep apnea (fairly rare for, at that time, a relatively young man at a relatively healthy weight) and a very expensive test and an expensive machine later, I was perfectly all right again.

3) Gays and lesbians. Already mentioned above.

PG said...


the people I was talking about were certainly getting more than the standard deduction

According to CNN in 1998:
"The giving pattern of the Gores has been erratic over the years. Last year they gave $35,530, most of which came from the proceeds of Mrs. Gore's book, Picture This.
"In 1992, aided by the royalties of Gore's book, Earth In The Balance, the couple donated $52,558. Most of that $50,000 went to the University of Tennessee to endow a chair in memory of Gore's late sister.
"During the years in between the Gores did not itemize their tax returns, and therefore no charitable donation statistics are available for that period."

they were surely being advised by tax professionals (none of them strikes me as the sort who does his own taxes)

You can know at least as definitively whether someone used a tax professional as you can know how much they gave to charity: it's also deductible, on Line 22 of Schedule A. Actually, any tax preparation fees are, including the charge for electronic filing, but generally a CPA costs more than Turbo-Tax software.

The only returns I looked at (because they popped quickly on a Google search) are Obama's and Biden's for 2011. Both claimed nothing on Schedule A Line 22 -- indeed, left the entire "job expenses and certain miscellaneous deductions" section blank.

So either you're wrong about what kind of people use tax preparation, or about how perfectly a tax return reflects all deductible expenditures.

You won't get in trouble for failing to report a deduction. However, if you ever get audited (Clinton and Obama both have been accused by Republicans of sending the IRS after their political enemies), and can't turn up a receipt from the charity/ tax preparer for which you claimed deductions, you're screwed. But also note that I am not your lawyer and none of this is legal advice.

I realize that this is irrelevant to the main discussion in this comment thread. I just find it interesting on a meta level of what people assume they know about famous strangers.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG - good catches. I made a clear intellectual error on itemizing. My thought was anybody who lives in a house like the Gores' is going to have deductions greater than the standard. What did not occur to me (and should have) is their house is probably completely paid up and so they have no more mortgage to deduct. Foolish of me.

However, I am still 99% that Obama and Biden did not prepare their own taxes in 2011, but the simplest explanation for why they didn't deduct those expenses is because they didn't have any. I.e. they had their taxes done for free and nobody charged them. I'd bet dollars to donuts that somebody on the staff does the taxes and are not paid specially for it.

PG said...

PG - good catches.


My thought was anybody who lives in a house like the Gores' is going to have deductions greater than the standard. What did not occur to me (and should have) is their house is probably completely paid up and so they have no more mortgage to deduct. Foolish of me.

If you're thinking of the Gores' Nashville mansion that attracted much attention due to its energy consumption, they didn't buy it until 2002. He's been out of public office since January 2001, so there's no way to know what he reports on his tax returns. During his many years in Congress and the VP office, Gore may have opted just to rent in Tennessee to maintain his residency there, rather than own a home.

I'd bet dollars to donuts that somebody on the staff does the taxes and are not paid specially for it.

It would be politically risky to have a nonprofessional do this work, as well as ethically questionable (tax returns are the responsibility of plain Mr. Barack Obama, not President and First Lady, just as they are plain Ms. PG's responsibility).

Obama's 2011 and 2010 returns were prepared by a Chicago CPA who also was a contributor to Obama's 2008 campaign. Biden's were prepared by a CPA in Bethesda, MD. You'll see the names, accountancy firms and signatures of the preparers on the return, usually around the second page alongside the couple's signatures.

While these CPAs may have done it for free, the market value of their services probably would be higher than the exemption from gift reporting, so there would be an obligation to report it as a gift. Either Biden and Obama are violating federal law by failing to report the gift, or they paid the guys and just didn't itemize that deduction. Given the Fox News report on how the Obamas "botched" their return by not minimizing their tax obligations, the latter seems more plausible even if you're not a fan of the current Administration.

Andrew Stevens said...

No tax preparer is so incompetent that he leaves off the fees he was charged from the deductions; it's not a plausible theory. I also don't believe they were violating gift rules, so the most plausible theory is that there was a deal to leave the fee off the returns, to protect the confidentiality of the fee charged. (Not sure which of the parties would want such a thing, but I could come up with plausible reasons why the tax preparers or the clients might want it.)

I was actually thinking of the home in Arlington. See this link. The Gores have never rented. They still own the family home in Carthage, in addition to the homes in Nashville, Arlington, and Montecito.

PG said...

A deal to leave the fee off the claimed deduction is still leaving the fee off the return. It's still showing that people, for whatever reason, may not claim every possible deduction and thus a tax return is not a perfect reflection of all possibly deductible activity. And that's just if you only deem an act charitable if it benefits a registered 501(c)(3) -- donations to the Catholic Worker, for example, are not deductible.

Re: house -- yes, I would hope the Gores were thrifty enough to have paid off a $150k house in 15 years of a Congressman's and then Senator's salary, such that they would not continue to deduct mortgage interest on that house in 1993!

Andrew Stevens said...

Eh. Since it was likely the tax preparers who wanted it left off, they probably reduced their fee by the amount that would otherwise have been saved in taxes. But, sure, I never claimed that everybody takes every possible deduction, though the usual reason is poor record-keeping. I'm just saying that the Gores are greedy, grasping people who have to be shamed into giving money to charity, and probably figure out a way to make a profit from it when they do. (By the by, Britta, my distaste for ostentatious displays of wealth almost surely does come from the Puritanism.)