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Class - America's dirty little secret?

 
 
nimh
 
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 06:10 pm
In The Guardian, regular contributor Gary Younge wrote an article on the Comment&Analysis page that struck me.

The basic thrust of his article can be summarized in where he quotes Bell Hooks: "Class is the elephant in the room ... as a nation we are afraid to have a dialogue about class" - as he says, "the very issue in which American political culture remains in denial".

He observes the drastically increased wealth differences of the last thirty years, noting: "According to Fortune magazine, the average real annual compensation for the the top 100 CEOs in America went from $1.3m in 1970 - 40 times the average worker's salary - to $37.5m, or more than 1,000 times, by 1998."

Leaving aside its unparalleled increase, to a measure that cannot possibly correlate to any increase in productivity or achievement anymore, he then acknowledges that a great inequality of wealth itself is of course not counter to any American value - justified as it is "on the grounds that there is equality of opportunity". After all, "America prides itself on being a country where anyone who works hard enough can make it". But there's the rub.

"Reality in the last half century has been quite different. [..] Comparing the incomes and occupations of 2,749 fathers and sons from the 1970s to the 1990s", a recent study showed that social mobility in America had actually decreased.

It is the combination of the unequaled amassing of wealth by the rich and the actual shrinking of the window of opportunity - however big or small it was in the first place - to join its ranks, that brings up the other taboo of American self-perception. "By the beginning of the century," he quotes Kevin Phillips, the US "had become the west's citadel of inherited wealth. Aristocracy was a cultural and economic fact."

Younge uses the obvious examples of political dynasties to drive the point home. You had the Kennedy's, you have the Bushes, but he suggests a trend more systemic. "Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Martin Luther King all carry the names and the job titles their fathers did." Or to use a less familiar example: "When Republican Senator Frank Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska in November it was his task to select his replacement in the US Senate. He scoured the state, and produced a list of 26 names, including the son of Alaska's other senator, Ted Stevens. In December, after careful consideration, he decided the best person for the job was - his daughter."

Murkowski is "a principled opponent of affirmative action", believing that the best person should get the job (which in the case of Alaska's seat in the Senate just happens to be his daughter). Much of the rest of Younge's piece is about this topic. The American right is against, he is pro. But he also considers the issue to, typically, miss the point.

"So long as those who wish to have an honest debate about equal opportunities confine themselves to race, they will only understand inequality as an aberration in the normal order of things. Only once they wed it to class does it become a systemic flaw which underpins the order of things."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,883050,00.html.

What do you think?
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 06:17 pm
Oh, for sure. I would love to talk about this in the context of "Fury", if anyone's game...

http://able2know.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=3773
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 06:19 pm
As a resident of this country I wouldn't consider it a secret at all. Still, most of us are relatively content because the pie is so big, and as a consequence our individual pieces are quite large, as well.

I tend to view such examples -- the political families, the CEO good-old-boy networks and whatnot -- with a somewhat skeptical eye, only because it is very easy to make isolated examples seem like the norm. Nonetheless, wealth begets wealth and power begets power -- and perhaps our fascination with and adoration of wealth and celebrity makes it easier to swallow placing the rich and famous in seats of power. We did, after all, elect a bad actor to the highest office in the land. And our last presidential election did pit the son of a former senator against the son of a former president.
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 06:52 pm
<listening>
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 06:57 pm
Upward mobility is contingent upon dislodging the person above you, non?
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 07:10 pm
I think it would depend on the economy to some degree, no? In a boom we'd have companies growing and jobs opening up along the ladder - except for the very highest postions.
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ehBeth
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 07:10 pm
Or moving forward with your 'gang' while pushing back the rest of the crowd?
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New Haven
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 07:13 pm
Class in America is determined more by net worth as opposed to net income. Very Happy
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New Haven
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 07:13 pm
upward mobility=guts+sweat+luck
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 09:20 pm
patiodog wrote:
I tend to view such examples -- the political families, the CEO good-old-boy networks and whatnot -- with a somewhat skeptical eye, only because it is very easy to make isolated examples seem like the norm.


Yes, the examples are sometimes too "colourful", almost, to ponder seriously for too long. But I find the figures - even if you do already know it, somewhere - staggering. In less than thirty years, the top CEOs went from earning 40 x as much as the average worker to earning 1,000 x as much. That blows the hole idea of meritocracy out of the water. That has nothing to do anymore with "guts+sweat+luck", to quote another of the replies here.

In fact, it is a perfect illustration to debunk the myth that upward mobility (in the US of today) merely requires hard work and some luck, which is the underlying fundamental belief in how Americans largely seem to define and explain themselves and the world around them. No - that's the point - apparently it is more than that. The notion of class implies top, middle, lower (etc) groups throwing up borders and boundaries of all kinds to prevent such mobility and use the newly found protected status to privilege themselves ever more. It is such a development the article signals.

I read earlier that the poorest in the US now actually have less spending income than in the seventies, so it's not a question of all getting a bigger piece of an ever expanding pie either. And it is something specific for this time, as such a drastic change in distribution of wealth as that figure above suggests - in the US, now, says the article too, 1% of the country owns one-third of the national net worth - has I think been unparalleled (and that's the last time I'm using that word this week).
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Tue 4 Feb, 2003 09:24 pm
sozobe wrote:
Oh, for sure. I would love to talk about this in the context of "Fury", if anyone's game...


that's cool, i'm actually reading that book now. but i'm not gonna read what y'all wrote on it till i finish it, so ... i might be a while ;-)
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Feb, 2003 10:09 am
nimh wrote:
I read earlier that the poorest in the US now actually have less spending income than in the seventies, so it's not a question of all getting a bigger piece of an ever expanding pie either. And it is something specific for this time, as such a drastic change in distribution of wealth as that figure above suggests - in the US, now, says the article too, 1% of the country owns one-third of the national net worth - has I think been unparalleled (and that's the last time I'm using that word this week).


This is why I said "most" and not "all." Most people, though, are comfortable enough that they view rich boys who increase their already vast wealth while running (or walking, or dragging) a company to no appreciable profit (or even to the brink of insolvency) with no negative emotion stronger than bemusement -- and sometimes vote them into office.

(Perhaps it's because if we acknowledge that their place above us might be the result of happenstance then our place above others might have been arbitrarily bestowed, as well, and we are not given to self-loathing or ennui in America. ;-) )
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snood
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Feb, 2003 03:58 pm
"and we are not given to self-loathing or ennui in America. "

...which is a good thing. But sometimes I think we are not given to examination of our own motives, either, which ain't so good.
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Feb, 2003 05:12 pm
nimh wrote:
Yes, the examples are sometimes too "colourful", almost, to ponder seriously for too long. But I find the figures - even if you do already know it, somewhere - staggering. In less than thirty years, the top CEOs went from earning 40 x as much as the average worker to earning 1,000 x as much. That blows the hole idea of meritocracy out of the water. That has nothing to do anymore with "guts+sweat+luck", to quote another of the replies here.

In fact, it is a perfect illustration to debunk the myth that upward mobility (in the US of today) merely requires hard work and some luck, which is the underlying fundamental belief in how Americans largely seem to define and explain themselves and the world around them. No - that's the point - apparently it is more than that. The notion of class implies top, middle, lower (etc) groups throwing up borders and boundaries of all kinds to prevent such mobility and use the newly found protected status to privilege themselves ever more. It is such a development the article signals.


Your attempt at debunking only holds true if the only ones that managed to succeed were in the top "class" to begin with but that hasn't been the case. If you go back and look at the stastics on all those CEOs you'd find that most of the people that held CEO titles through the 1990s were not born into "rich" families. There have been quite a few studies on the backgrounds of CEOs and others at the top of Corporate America and most did, in fact, work their way up.

Yep, CEO's certianly make more in relation to the average worker than they did in the past. But are they the same people as CEOs as it was in the past? The answer is a resounding "NO!"
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Feb, 2003 05:23 pm
Hmmmmm........
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babsatamelia
 
  1  
Reply Wed 5 Feb, 2003 09:31 pm
I am and have been acutely aware of a class
system in our wonderful, open to all, all are
equal country, the good old boys USA!
*I'm not one of the good old boys
*I am over 50 and have a severe disease
that leaves me disabled
*I am female, that makes me lower class
I am not certain WHEN I became aware of
it - but class distinction is one of the most
hidden realities of life in the USA.
Look at what WE have become - compared
to what our forefathers envisioned for us!
It is heartbreaking, but it is reality.
ALL societies begin to fall apart, become
decadent, and begin that fast downhill
slide into a pit of once succesful societies.
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Thu 6 Feb, 2003 06:28 pm
fishin' wrote:
nimh wrote:
In fact, it is a perfect illustration to debunk the myth that upward mobility (in the US of today) merely requires hard work and some luck


Your attempt at debunking only holds true if the only ones that managed to succeed were in the top "class" to begin with but that hasn't been the case.


Hmmm ... well, it's not so much my attempt at debunking the myth, but Gary Younge's that I picked up on. So what about his other piece of evidence: the research comparing the social mobility of parents / children in the seventies and nineties, that apparently shows an actual decrease in social mobility? That would make those CEOs who did still make it up there from far below an increasingly rare exception.

It would also make the amassing of wealth by the top 1% increasingly, even if not exclusively, a collective self-enrichment of a small caste allowing only limited, selective access. That is nothing spectacularly strange of course - happens everywhere, kinda part of the deal of the economic system - the market economy - that is best capable of generating wealth. But it should debunk the myth that wealth in America is fairly and solely to those who merit it to at least some degree - and hopefully to a degree enough to acknowledge the thing that is commonly acknowledged elsewhere in that "everywhere" - namely that a system that by nature encourages such a caste to spiral itself up that way deserves some redress - some corrections that reestablish the equality of opportunities for every generation again.

Finally, to end this post with a more basic rhetoric flourish - <grins> - if social mobility is really just "sweat, guts and luck", looking at that top 100 of CEOs you have to wonder whether women or African-Americans - to name but two - are really so much less capable of sweat, guts and luck ...
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patiodog
 
  1  
Reply Thu 6 Feb, 2003 06:39 pm
babsatamelia wrote:

Look at what WE have become - compared
to what our forefathers envisioned for us!
It is heartbreaking, but it is reality.


On the other hand, look what we have become compared to what our forefathers were...
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Thu 6 Feb, 2003 10:23 pm
nimh wrote:
Hmmm ... well, it's not so much my attempt at debunking the myth, but Gary Younge's that I picked up on. So what about his other piece of evidence: the research comparing the social mobility of parents / children in the seventies and nineties, that apparently shows an actual decrease in social mobility? That would make those CEOs who did still make it up there from far below an increasingly rare exception.


Quite right.. Younge's idea.. ok.

Deciding what the "other piece of evidence" means is a bit of looking through a crystal ball. Without looking at the specific study and seeing exactly what was counted and how, it's impossible to determine what it actually measured. He doesn't bother to give a reference to what study he's talking about. In the article he mentions a quote from a Robert Perrucci. Perrucci has done several studies (this is his area of speciality..) but the numbers don't match anything Perrucci has published. What is the standard of a "social mobility" move? Is that based on income? Net Worth? Home ownership? One thing Younge doesn't bother to mention is that there has been wage stagnation nationally in the US for better than 25 years now. Wages have risen less than the rate of inflation across the board (with the greatest slowing being between 1989 and 1997). The reason those CEOs ended up with the great disparity rise isn't due to their annual salary. They got huge numbers of stock options as a part of their employment contracts and their net work skyrocketed with the stock market of the 1990s. Do the survey again today after the market has dropped and I'd wager that that huge disparity has shrunk greatly. The networth of those CEOs was all on paper.

Quote:
It would also make the amassing of wealth by the top 1% increasingly, even if not exclusively, a collective self-enrichment of a small caste allowing only limited, selective access.


Interestingly, since he mentions Perrucci in his column.. According to Perrucci's theories that "top class" that controls government and wealth is 20% of the US population. Not the 1% Younge uses. But even Perrucci's studies use some slight of hand.. For example, he considers anyone that is self-employed and anyone that is an hourly wage earner to automatically be excluded from that top 20%. Why should someone that is self-employed and makes $20 million a year or an hourly wage earner that makes $50/hour be excluded while someone that works for someone else and makes $90,000/year as a salary is considered in the top 20%?

Quote:
But it should debunk the myth that wealth in America is fairly and solely to those who merit it to at least some degree - and hopefully to a degree enough to acknowledge the thing that is commonly acknowledged elsewhere in that "everywhere" - namely that a system that by nature encourages such a caste to spiral itself up that way deserves some redress - some corrections that reestablish the equality of opportunities for every generation again.


I don't know anyone that has ever believed in any such myth that the US was a 100% meritocracy. It never has been and never will be but you are assuming here that equeal opportunity would result in equeal balance and that is a dangerous assumption. It assumes that everyone that has opportunities will make use of them and that has been proven false a million times over. Interference on the part of the government to attempt to control such events would also turn the "American dream" of "anyone can make it" into "anyone can make it if the government decides to allow you to". That's hardly a campaign slogan any politician is going to put forth and just moves any control of class distinction that may be there to the government which means that the top 20% of the US population would be the political elite (and their families of course..) and no one else.

Quote:
Finally, to end this post with a more basic rhetoric flourish - <grins> - if social mobility is really just "sweat, guts and luck", looking at that top 100 of CEOs you have to wonder whether women or African-Americans - to name but two - are really so much less capable of sweat, guts and luck ...


Who said blacks and/or women were less capable? Both groups were held back for decades. You expect that the immediate correction will be that they jump to the top of the ladder?
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Sat 15 Feb, 2003 08:14 pm
I'm sorry, I seem to have overlooked this "loose end" - this post added to a thread of mine after I last looked at it. Thoughtful response of Fishin' and some good points. Clearly pointed out the weak points in Younge's arguments, foremost the lack of details in referencing and quoting, which means we have to take his word on many of his points. Like "looking through a crystal ball", indeed. Of course it was an opinion piece in a newspaper, not a scientific study, and you do find few footnotes in the paper nowadays. In that sense it wouldnt be quite fair to discount what he says purely on that basis. Now, to some concrete points.

fishin' wrote:
The reason those CEOs ended up with the great disparity rise isn't due to their annual salary. They got huge numbers of stock options as a part of their employment contracts and their net work skyrocketed with the stock market of the 1990s. Do the survey again today after the market has dropped and I'd wager that that huge disparity has shrunk greatly. The networth of those CEOs was all on paper.


Point about wages vs stocks taken. To conclude that the massive rise in the "net worth" of these CEO's (or the top 1% rich Americans, overall) was therefore "all on paper", and thus doesnt really count, on the other hand, seems a bit naive. It wouldn't even be true if people bought (or were given, as in the example) a choice of assets in 19xx and kept it, doing nothing with or about it forever. I invested a little bit in the 90s - came into some money (nothing like what we're talking about here). I bought some bonds. Every year, out of nowhere, I got a bunch of money - return on my bonds. Didnt work for it, didnt even have to gamble cleverly for it. All I'd needed was to have some money in the first place - from then on, it automatically created more money. Some will have earned that first money by hard work. Many others - and in the US, according to Younge, an increasing number of others - will have been born into it. And many will have been able to have their returns multiply a n-fold times faster thanks to the explosion in executive reward in the form of stocks etc. There's little virtuality about that. And there's other forms, of course, too. Like, many bought a house on a mortgage that was based on stock assets.

Nothing wrong with the principle itself here - one of those miraculous wealth generation characteristics of capitalism. But if the multiplication of wealth suddenly is increased n-fold for the top n%, and for them only, and the top n% is also increasingly harder to access, you lose both the meritocratic legitimisation of that wealth, and the principle of equal opportunities about it. The argument of "paper only" has that none of this actually happens, b/c the multiplication would be virtual only - but as these modest examples already show, that's not true even on a basic level.

Then, of course, people don't hold on to that asset they were given forever. They sell, buy, exchange, speculate. If they're clever, they can create a lot of real, non-virtual wealth for themselves that way. Of course, that cleverness is in itself worthy of reward. But no more than a clever gambler deserves his winnings. What the disproportionate multiplication of that "huge number of stock options" CEOs were granted (often irrespective of the merit of their work) has done, is simply given the gamblers arbitrarily increased stakes to play with. So while the rest of society was to a greater or lesser degree stuck in that below-inflation wage increase cycle, the sudden and bizarre increases in the "paper" incomes of the top n% meant they suddenly had stakes in their hands to gamble with a multiple of anything they had had ever before - thus creating a system of colective self-enrichment of the top class quite separated from company achievements and national wealth increase. That's where Younge makes his point quite clearly, I think.

On the referencing, like I said, you are right about the lack of specification. But there is a priori also no reason to disbelieve him. I don't see a lot of evidence here that what he writes is wrong, either. You seem to get close at one point, where you note that:

Quote:
According to Perrucci's theories that "top class" that controls government and wealth is 20% of the US population. Not the 1% Younge uses.


But the %ages denote different things. I don't know what Perrucci means, where you quote him, about "the top class [controlling] government and wealth" -"controls government and wealth" is rather vague. Younge is pretty specific - "1% of the country owns one-third of the national net worth". So - <shrugs> - it's not much of a refutation; it can easily both be true. 1% of the country owns one-third of the national net worth (a statement of fact that shocks me, always again) - and 20% of the country owns and controls as much more as to meet Perrucci's criteria of "controlling the national government and wealth".

Finally, on:

Quote:
I don't know anyone that has ever believed in any such myth that the US was a 100% meritocracy.


I'll just refer back to that quintessential formulation of the underlying concept of America - the underlying lie of America, Younge would probably have said - on this thread, again:

New Haven wrote:
upward mobility=guts+sweat+luck


I'd say - face up to it being class+guts+sweat+luck, and encourage intruments that help people jump across that first hurdle in the equation - that take that first element out of the equation again, period, as much as possible.
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