Monday, August 15, 2005

Article: Class and Mobility

Michael Barone has a lousy but thought provoking article about class up on (part of my daily reading list).

Here's a summary plus my two cents...

There is less social mobility, and the U.S. and U.K. are becoming more stratified, with distinct economic and cultural layers.

"We cannot help noticing," Mount concludes, "that the old class system has been reconstituted into a more or less meritocracy upper tier and a lower tier which is defined principally by its failure to qualify for the upper tier."

He then goes on to attribute people's failure to qualify for the upper tier to intelligence and personal behavior:

Not everyone has an emotional need to be on top: How many people, if they thought seriously about it, would really want the burdens of a CEO, however lavish the pay?

Barone is an idiot. He's trying to paint a picture that America is more meritocratic then it used to be, and that because its more meritocratic, there is less mobility - because people are choosing less education and to work at jobs that pay them less money.

As Murray has written, all you need to do to avoid poverty in this country is to graduate from high school, get and stay married, and take any job...

Meritocracy may mean less mobility, but that is bearable if, as Brooks says, "America is becoming more virtuous."

So the reason that you're poor is that you're either stupid, lazy, or immoral.


Oh, and conspicuously missing from his article is any statistics or economic indicators. Wow, what a surprise. Must have been an editing mistake.

Minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. A person working full time at that wage will earn $10,712 a year, before taxes. The official poverty level in the U.S. for a family of 2 is $12,490 a year (though it varies by state - and goes up as you add children). Getting married lowers your taxes in some cases, but unless your spouse works, it doesn't get you more income. So even taken at face value, Barone's claims are wrong.

And honestly, how well are you doing in America if you earn $12,490 a year? Do you think the kids of someone earning $12,490 a year go to the same schools and get the same opportunities as the kids of someone earning $100,000, or even $40,000 a year?

He also fails to mention that as of 2004, only 27.7% of Americans age 25 or above have a bachelor's degree. For those with a college education, America is a pretty meritocratic place. I know plenty of communication and (sigh) poli-sci majors who could have studied business or engineering and be doing much better right now.

But even then, college is massively expensive. The only way you can afford to go now is if your parents pay your way through school, or if you take out huge college debt (while forgoing the income you would earn while working during that period, or killing yourself as I did doing both).

Debt cripples young working people for years, if not decades. It inhibits your ability to move, buy a home, take highly useful for networking and education but poorly paying internships, and your ability to go to grad/law/medical school, which is the real brass ring in America. So even within that slice of our society, there is strong stratification.

And if you're unlucky enough to be part of the 72.3% of Americans age 25 or above without a bachelor's degree, then you're pretty screwed. If you're lucky, you can get a good union job in a skilled trade. But most people can't, no matter how hard they work or how much they value education and wealth.

Oh, and as a side note, one of Barone's hero's - Charles Murray - who he quotes in this article, wrote a book called the Bell Curve where he said black people do worse economically then white people because they're dumber. Seriously, I'm not making that up. And he's an eminent conservative scholar.

Conservatives have plenty of ideas about how to fight poverty. Improving educational standards, making welfare work based, involving faith based organizations, charter schools, etc. Some of these ideas suck. Some are revolutionary in how they have or can improve the system. But all of them focus on trying to change the system for the better.

But there has always been a strain within conservative thought that "you get what you deserve and deserve what you get." It is a knee jerk defense of the status quo, simply because they benefit from the current arrangement. These ideas are self defeating in the long run and intellectually lazy to anyone who bothers to spend 15 minutes researching the situation. Nothing to see here, move along people, move along.
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