Sunday, June 11, 2017

Counterpoint: Rich people know they're rich and wish to stay that way

Whenever I see someone arguing that the solution to inequality is for haves (in whichever area) to acknowledge their privilege, I have to see how they think this will play out. How is getting the beneficiaries of unearned advantage to admit to being advantaged ultimately anything more than an etiquette ritual, one that - like all posh etiquette rituals - winds up reinforcing privilege?

Richard V. Reeves's NYT op-ed, "Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich," is a request that attention be paid to the "favored fifth at the top of the income distribution," rather than just the One Percent. It's also a UK-US comparison, in which the UK's notoriously bonkers class system comes out ahead, because the British privileged have checked their privilege:

[M]ost of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.
(Have white Brits checked their white privilege? A question for another time.)

Reeves's argument is that the annoying, hypocritical behaviors of the rich and upper middle class - things like preaching meritocracy but sending children to private schools - happen because "the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them." He writes:
There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up.
If only American fancy types knew they were fancy, problem solved!

So. I think Reeves has correctly identified several of the structural obstacles to social mobility in education, housing, and tax policy. He's completely right - not the first to point it out, but totally right - about a certain brand of liberal hypocrisy, especially where private education is concerned.

But I don't think he quite makes the case that "class consciousness" is what's lacking. And that's for a couple reasons. First, Reeves ignores the tremendous and obsessive rise of privilege-awareness in the US, during and since the 2008 recession. There's been this enormous expansion in the way liberal Americans understand privilege - and, yes, a parallel expansion in how it's understood by conservatives. On the left, there's now an understanding that privilege isn't just wealth, but also whiteness, maleness, cultural capital. On the right, it's about urban coastal elites, and anyone who finds Trump distasteful being inherently a posh snob. So when Reeves writes,
The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.,
I'm not sure who's being addressed. Who has absorbed the notion that to be privileged is to be in the One Percent? Occupy Wall Streeters? A handful of socialists? Because this is not, I don't think, a mainstream view in liberal America. Americans don't have the same history of class consciousness as Brits, but Americans have embraced the notion of privilege-checking with newcomers' zeal. Americans frequently overshoot the mark and speak about huge swaths of the population as privileged that are not in any meaningful sense privileged. (As in, consumers of lattes, kale, avocado toast, and yes, I know the avocado toast dude's Australian.)

Second, then, there's the feelings-ish question of why, if American meritocracy's a myth, upper middle class parents are so fixated on their kids getting ahead. Is it, as Reeves argues, that they're unaware of their privilege?

No. A lot of it is that there isn't much of a safety net in the US, so if your offspring leave their schmancy class of origin, they don't just have to contend with not being as rich or posh as their childhood playmates. They might, for example, not have health insurance. (Where, one wonders, does the Struggling Millennials narrative fit into this?) It's not good enough, for them, to look at stats ("Most of the children born into households in the top 20 percent will stay there or drop only as far as the next quintile.") and assume their kids will probably be fine.

Then there's the fact that the US doesn't have an actual aristocracy, and has, at least, a history of mobility, such that today's fancy types, at least until recently, would very often have not-so-fancy parents or grandparents. (I'm guessing this is less true in the UK, Reeves's family history notwithstanding.) What Reeves calls "the American class reproduction machine" is the result of effort. It's not a passive maintenance of social hierarchies. It's precisely because American elites understand themselves as not "entitled" to their status that all this effort gets made.

Point being, the reason rich and upper middle class Americans are not acknowledging their status as an aristocracy is that they're not an aristocracy, but rather a precariously situated caste that needs to take active measures to hang onto its position. Or, rather than even looking at this as a caste, it's a bunch of individual families with shared interests where their kids are concerned.

The answer, then, is... more of a safety net. It needs to be not-dire if a rich person's kid doesn't wind up being rich. As for how to get rich people to go along with this, that's the tricky bit. But I see no reason how (further) alerting them to their privilege will inspire them to spontaneously give it up.


caryatis said...

I agree. In America, probably more than Europe, there is a certain school of thought epitomized by our Secretary of Energy, Rick "There are no classes in America" Perry. But more educated rich people, like me, are generally willing to admit they are at least relatively rich. I mean, I'm drinking something made of mangoes and champagne right now. Well, sparkling wine. But knowing I am rich does not inspire with a hatred for inequality or a love of progressive taxation. The article you mention seems to be making the common mistake of thinking, "If only people knew what I did, they would agree with me!" Just _educate_ people, and they'll all be liberals. Because it's too hard to admit that we disagree, not only about facts, but about values.

I'm not sure I agree that there ought to be more of a safety net, though. Participation in the work force is crucial both for individuals' mental health and for society. We don't want to get to a UK-like situation where lots of young, able-bodied people live on welfare with no direction in life. But maybe you're thinking of universal health insurance?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

In terms of a safety net, yes, I do especially mean universal health care. Free public college wouldn't hurt either. I make no claims of being a public policy expert, however, and don't know whether, for example, universal basic income would be somehow, in some way not obvious to me, disastrous. My intervention here isn't to say that I can pinpoint at exactly which threshold a safety net could become *too* strong. It's that where the US is at on that front is not anywhere close, and I think the knowledge that a kid who doesn't manage to stay rich is a bit of bad luck away from destitution does a lot to explain why rich parents are so fixated on making sure their offspring stay in their income bracket of origin.

Miss Self-Important said...

I agree with most of this, but have one question: is it really the case that the prospects for downward mobility are so stark (eg, from summering on the Cape to no health insurance in the space of a decade?), or is that mainly the public perception of downward mobility, especially on the part of the rich parents working hard to keep their kids in their income bracket?

Because I agree that people think this, or worse, they think that it's either elite college-->elite job, happy family, decent life or non-elite college or no college-->dead-end job, opioid addiction, OD death. They might think this b/c these are the two sorts of American life trajectories represented by media most often, and they have little personal experience with anything that lies between. (Like, what's it like to be a construction worker? Or do marketing for a small trucking company? Who knows? Probably not the people who send their kids to Dalton and sweat at night about them falling down the social ladder.)

But it would seem to matter what is motivating rich people more - fear of a truly precipitous socioeconomic descent (whether or not it's statistically probable is irrelevant, as you say), or fear of what they believe to be a precipitous socioeconomic descent but actually isn't b/c they either don't know what lies directly beneath them, or they view it as sufficiently horrible as to be equivalent to --> dead-end job, opioid addiction, OD death.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I remember private school classmates thinking that there was something inherently tragic about my switching to a public high school, even though - yes - the public school was Stuyvesant. I'm not sure if this related to media representation so much as... like you say, personal experience. One, students at the private school tended to be either very rich or admitted via a program to get brilliant but underprivileged students to private schools. This made middle class people sort of invisible. And two, very rich kids set the tone, and imagined their lives to be normal, making everyone less well-off than they were (including my not-remotely-destitute family) seem, well, poor. So... yes, I think there's absolutely an element of this where the belief that it's the Hamptons or the gutter comes from ignorance of the vast (if shrinking) middle ground.

But I don't think "summering on the Cape to no health insurance in the space of a decade" is even remotely implausible, given the rise of precarious jobs without benefits, in the absence of universal health care. And - and here's where media representation does enter into it, these days, at least - people with jobs like "marketing for a small trucking company" are now regularly the subject of "economic anxiety" articles. That the middle-middle/lower-middle class is a disaster away from poverty, or understands itself to have lost status in today's world, is very much in the news. So as stratification increases, so too does a sense - more founded than it once was - that it would be tragic to be *just* middle class.

Miss Self-Important said...

"That the middle-middle/lower-middle class is a disaster away from poverty, or understands itself to have lost status in today's world"
Right, but these are two quite different things, hence my question. Does the rich person send his kid to Dalton b/c he thinks that anything short of this preparation, and the kid will literally be unable to make rent, anywhere? Or does he send him b/c he thinks that w/o this preparation, he will have a declasse life, meaning he will live in a subdivision in an exurb of Pittsburgh, believe in psychics and talk radio, never read a book, and take his kids out to dinner at Chili's thinking it's actually good food? Does he fear death or social death, and can he even distinguish between them?

I agree that for some people, the real dangers of downward mobility are the motivating factors for pushing kids super hard and doing whatever you can to make them competitive. I think that group is largely comprised of precariously middle class or working class immigrants. What I'm skeptical of is that the rich, the people who profess liberal views while sending their kids to Dalton, whom you're mainly describing here, are motivated by this fear more than a fear of the social/cultural dangers of downward mobility, that their kids will become people to whom they won't even be able to relate in adulthood.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: which demographic we're talking about here, I think there's a shifting of categories. Maybe. (I'm thinking of the Amy Chua - "tiger mom" phenomenon.) Maybe there was a time when the "real dangers of downward mobility" parents and "the rich" did things differently (they sure did when I was growing up!), but now, not so much. With more meritocrat-types entering the ranks of the rich - and, presumably, some old-money types experiencing downward mobility* - maybe today's Dalton parents are just a better-funded version of Stuyvesant parents.

*That was another issue with the article and its presentation of the data. If more than half of the children of the top 20% stay in that income bracket or the one below it, that's still lots of born-rich kids not remaining rich.

Andrew Stevens said...

Since we are talking about relative poverty here (and we must be, since there really isn't any genuine poverty, as it would have been defined historically, in the 21st century U.S. that isn't caused by alcoholism/drug addiction/mental illness and hasn't been for about 70 years for white people and about 50 years for other races), let's please keep in mind that downward mobility must exist in order for upward mobility to exist. That's just math. It is inconsistent to complain about the lack of upward mobility in the country while simultaneously decrying that any downward mobility exists at all. In relative terms, the two must balance out.

The U.S. has an extremely generous social safety net. The problem is that it's made baffling and inaccessible by a labyrinth of byzantine bureaucracy. Smart poor people can easily game the system and live better than an ancient pharaoh off of it so long as they understand the rules. This is why I favor, along with Charles Murray, repeal of the whole system and replacement with a UBI. Just give money to poor people and let them spend it however they want. It would be a whole lot cheaper and more efficient and might actually reduce poverty. But, of course, that's a pipe dream and is not actually in the cards. That bureaucracy employs an awful lot of people and they are way more powerful than mere taxpayers/the poor. The poor in America have a lot of problems, but lack of money isn't particularly one of them.

I find it puzzling that people think lack of health insurance is so dire. People talk about "dying in the streets" as if that was an actual thing that happens.
And, of course, it does happen occasionally and on those rare occasions, I suppose such stories are built up in certain circles so it seems like they happen all the time. EMTALA was passed more than 30 years ago and seems to do an excellent job of making sure the poor receive the health care they need. (And our general wealth and compassion was already mostly doing that job for the 20 or so years prior to its being made law.) Health care when you're poor is quite easy. You go in, you get the treatment you need, and, if you can't afford it, then you don't pay the bill. Worse comes to worst, declare bankruptcy. American bankruptcy laws, unlike European laws, are very generous as Trump has reminded us. ("I took advantage of the bankruptcy laws" really translates to "you don't have to pay your creditors in America if you don't want to." His whole business philosophy was to borrow as much money as he could and then never pay it back. Our system basically allows this.) Sure, you're better off with preventative care, but by the time most people really need that, they're covered by Medicare.

What bothers me most about our current system is that hospitals charge extortionate prices to the uninsured and, again, if you don't know how to game the system (just tell them "I'm not paying you that, but I will pay you X"), then you think you owe a lot more money than the doctor and/or hospital would actually accept to clear your bill. You can even do so with a clear conscience because, if you ask the price ahead of time, I just about guarantee they will refuse to tell you.

Andrew Stevens said...

My father-in-law just had back surgery. He has received bills totaling something like $200,000. I think it's safe to say that virtually (if not literally) nobody actually pays that. Due to his Medicare Part C plan, he paid about $1000 of it which he could easily afford. I have no idea why doctors/hospitals send out sticker prices that nobody pays (colleges are pretty similar), but they do. I suppose that's mostly why people think being without health insurance in the U.S. is worse than it really is. They look at bills like that and think "How could I pay this without health insurance?" Fact is, you wouldn't. But that doesn't mean you wouldn't be able to get the surgery. My father-in-law was living with us before he was 65, had no health insurance, and had some sort of medical emergency come up (I can't remember what - kidney stone surgery?). After it was over, I filled out some paperwork for him and the hospital waived the bill due to his inability to pay it. At that time, he paid for his own preventative care out of his own pocket and those bills (checkups and generic prescription drugs) were pretty easily affordable, even on his fixed income. Though I don't want to make too much of my father-in-law as an example since obviously he had an important social safety net that many poor people nowadays lack in our increasingly atomized society.

Being a canny shopper for health insurance is also a very underrated skill. I really had to push hard to get my father-in-law to accept the Medicare Part C plan I selected for him. The doctor he already had wasn't on the plan, though thankfully he retired within a few months anyway, and it meant higher out-of-pocket costs for routine health care and drug prescriptions, but it had a much lower out-of-pocket maximum, which he is thankful for after he had his back surgery.

I'm very concerned that my daughter grows up to avoid alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, terminal physical and/or intellectual laziness, crime, and, Deus volent, mental illness or serious physical illness/disability. I'm not terribly concerned that she might become poor. I'd still rather be poor in the 21st century U.S. than in any other country that exists or has ever existed. The funny thing about the health argument is that it's the one thing on my list which wealth doesn't do a lot to mitigate. If you come down with mental illness or serious physical illness/disability, your life is probably going to be much, much worse no matter how rich you are. Whereas, as the Kennedy clan and many other aristocratic families throughout history show, great enough wealth can protect you from many of the negative consequences of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, gambling, and physical/intellectual laziness. It has always been the poor who have been most in need of morality which is why, historically, that's where it was typically vested.

This is the main reason why I despise Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as much as I do, but have always had a soft spot for Obama. My own policy preferences are probably closer to Trump's than to Obama's (broadly speaking, though on many issues such as criminal justice and free trade, I'm vastly closer to Obama) and are definitely closer to Bill Clinton's. But Obama is a decent moral exemplar, whereas Clinton and Trump are scumbags. That may have been Obama's only real success as President (other than bin Laden and repealing "don't ask, don't tell"), but it's an important one.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, I thought the idea was we were talking about the top 5%, who send their kids to private school while talking out of both sides of their mouths about it? I don't think the immigrant strivers are part of this class yet, since they can't afford most of the private schools where people preach egalitarianism and practice stratification. Based on what I know of Chicago's magnet school population, there is still a difference of mentality b/w upwardly-mobile immigrants and upper-class natives: class remains more about the trappings of class for the latter group, whereas immigrant parents are concerned with tangible goods that flow from high income at least as much as status.

Consider the career paths immigrant families push their kids towards - engineering, medicine, pharmacy, nursing. Mostly dull, unglamorous stuff by Dalton standards (unless high-level medicine or software engineering), but economically reliable. I think this is true even when the Dalton set is comprised not of socialite wealth-inheritors but meritocrats. Meritocrats soak up the same valuations of work and leisure as their peers, no? I mean, would you steer your child into a career in pharmacy as a matter of policy? (Steering them into being distinct from preventing them from pursuing, which I doubt you'd do.) Or would you send them to filmmaking camp if they expressed an interest and you had the funds? I suspect that this top 5% that Reeves is concerned about is mostly made up of parents whose fear of downward mobility includes fear of their children working at Walgreens, even if they make $90k doing it, and desire for socially-prestigious success in some "culture industry" career, which is much rarer than success at being a pharmacist. These fears are almost totally phantasms and will not be appeased by a stronger safety net.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Ack, I noticed I'd forgotten to link to the piece - fixed! Revisiting it, I double-checked - Reeves is talking about the top 20%, not the top 5%. (The "favored fifth.") And... I think the families wanting their kids to Find Themselves, but who are put off by practical but lucrative careers, are either very rich or not-rich but multigeneration impractical. Reeves is arguing for an expanded definition of "rich" that includes people not in the do-something-you-love-and-live-off-bottomless-family-money income bracket.

I'm assuming, when you ask, "would you steer your child into a career in pharmacy as a matter of policy?", "you" is standing in for "a Dalton parent" (or similar). Because these are, on so many levels, not the same question, and it's really only the "Dalton parent" one that's relevant here. But the problem is... I don't know the answer. The most I can say is that my middle school classmates - the ones whose careers I have some sense of through Facebook, so maybe not representative - seem to be working sensible, practical, not particularly glamorous-sounding jobs. Not pharmacists at Walgreens, but not Vogue editors or handbag designers, either.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, I meant you, personally, as a meritocrat but not an heiress. I assume you have imbibed the same attitudes as me, which include a reflexive sense that I would not actively steer my kids into things like nursing or pharmacy, at least not unless express a strong and considered desire to pursue them.

Ok, top 20% would include immigrant strivers and a lot of others. I think Reeves has his facts wrong though - the top 20% don't make $200k; they make just over $100k (at least according to every source I could find). But yes, if you expand to top 20%, then you move beyond the class of people whose childrearing practices are motivated primarily by fear of their kids' cultural descent into Deplorable territory, and include a lot of people who ARE Deplorables.

But then I wonder if Reeves's argument doesn't just dissolve? This is a pretty diverse group. Some people in it are taking truly "anti-meritocratic" measures on behalf of their kids (but mostly just the very rich), but others are just doing normal stuff to help their kids along, like going over homework and signing them up for activities and sports, etc. I'm not sure what a mass self-acknowledgment that they are RICH could possibly change about their child-rearing practices, unless Reeves anticipates some kind of mass privilege-renunciation whereby they all move to Detroit as penitence. But that's the problem you describe. On the other hand, I'm also not sure that universal health insurance would change their practices much either. (Maybe it would ease some of their inner anxiety?) But people who can afford not to are still not going to want to live in Detroit even if their health care is free and the (remaining) residents of Detroit have a UBI.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Having spent some time living in a country with universal health care, I can state with confidence that its existence doesn't magically cancel out snobbery, elitism, or striving. But I do think a society wary of safety nets is going to be one where the fear of offspring ending up in the gutter motivates more than just the people for whom that's a likely outcome.