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I'm glad someone decided to write about class in America -- an important subject -- but the Times's first take is just filled with baffling assertions:

Why does it appear that class is fading as a force in American life?

For one thing, it is harder to read position in possessions. Factories in China and elsewhere churn out picture-taking cellphones and other luxuries that are now affordable to almost everyone. Federal deregulation has done the same for plane tickets and long-distance phone calls. Banks, more confident about measuring risk, now extend credit to low-income families, so that owning a home or driving a new car is no longer evidence that someone is middle class.

Obviously, those things are happening. But if you can't tell who owns the expensive stuff and who owns the less expensive stuff you're not paying very much attention. Surely we all know the difference between a really fancy car and a less-fancy one, no? A gigantic house and a small house?

May 14, 2005 | Permalink


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» Class in the New York Times from Half Sigma
Matthew Yglesias writes, “I'm glad someone decided to write about class in America,” and links to a NY Times article about class. First of all, I’ve been writing about class in my blogs for a long time. It comes [Read More]

Tracked on May 14, 2005 7:13:33 PM

» Class, Status, Prada from Brad DeLong's Website
Matthew Yglesias is unhappy with the New York Times: http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2005/05/huh.html: I'm glad someone decided to write about class in America -- an important subject -- but the Times's first take is just filled with baffling asser... [Read More]

Tracked on May 15, 2005 10:00:59 PM


When are the factories in China going to start churning out Bay Area Real Estate? Because it really would be nice to have more than a 6000 sq. ft. lot.

Posted by: PaulC | May 14, 2005 6:17:40 PM

People with relatively lower incomes have been driving new cars and owning their own homes for half a century. The real news is that since the seventies, income equality has more or less continually increased. And of course as Yglesias sees and Time's don't, the gap in standard of living and often quality of has grown, too.
I hope the rest of the Time piece is better than this claptrap.

Posted by: Eyed | May 14, 2005 6:18:36 PM

Read the passage, Matt--it's not about telling the difference between the rich and the poor, it's about telling the difference between the middle class and the poor. It's true that for any given income level, the range in cars people drive is going to be pretty big. Less true of houses, even more true of clothes and electronics and jewelry and stuff.

Posted by: AF | May 14, 2005 6:23:44 PM

I think in context, the passage is not as bad as Matt suggests. The point wasn't that you can't tell, just that the old ways of telling don't work anymore. Think Michael Douglas in Wall Street, flexing his wealth by making a phone call from the beach on a giant brick cell phone. It is certainly true that there are lots of cool toys now that almost every American can afford.

Posted by: PaulC | May 14, 2005 6:38:43 PM

But if you can't tell who owns the expensive stuff and who owns the less expensive stuff you're not paying very much attention.

I think the point of this passage (indicated by the world "appear" in the introductory sentence) is that it used to be much easier to tell what class someone belonged to if you just looked at what they own, the equivalents of cell phone, big screen TV, big SUV, designer clothing, etc. (You can't usually see where someone lives on meeting them.) None of those sorts of things are good class indicators, as they might have been in the past.

I wonder of one of the Times's articles will mention Paul Fussell's Class, one of my favorite books? It's dated (very '80s in some parts), but still very entertaining, and makes the point that people in different classes actually define class in different ways, by money, by education and occupation, by taste (e.g., nouveau riche versus old money), and so forth.

Posted by: RSA | May 14, 2005 7:01:45 PM

Haven't read the article, but I think it's misleading to think of class in terms of simple economic well being or lifestyle, unless one really is using the data to craft some policy. The issue with class has less to do with actual standard of living and much more to do with perception of differences, perceptions of fairness and opportunity in society, and resentment that finds an expression in we versus they politics. Given the prevailing conventional wisdom of economic opportunity and advancement and social mobility, and the acceptance, even worship of wealth in general, it's hard to see the basis for any mass political mobilisation. Then again, if the current real estate trends continue much longer without significant correction, you will certainly see the basis for resentment emerge. In many ways, it's already happening in the split between rural and urban America. Of course, people will eventually move to places they can afford to live and the coasts will likely become hacienda societies, supported by subsistence labor and characterized by extreme income gaps.

Posted by: hyh | May 14, 2005 7:01:54 PM

Class is an important topic. I believe there has been a leveling--if you define class by material possessions. Certainly, the old snobberies and signs have shifted. You can't assign someone to an "inferior" category based on dress anymore, in general, and "superior" status is dissed: I'm just as good as you! Experts and expertise is challenged. The powerful are ridiculed on late night TV.

I think class is morphing in America. The change has to do with fragmentation and the loss of a common culture. The upper class used to be the educated elite or the folks who inherited vast wealth and land. They set the standards for styles and manners, had access to decision makers and embodied the culture.

But since the rise of the information age and the internet, all kinds of people have vast fortunes and access to information, and since the postmodern critique of American culture no one can agree on styles and manners, and the culture is fragmented. People still carry these mental images around: Rich people do this or that. These constructs are corrupted by commercialism. They fancy that celebrity is class. They think that class is established by what you own, not based on how you bear yourself, your sense of honor and so on. People hoot at the idea of a "gentleman" or "lady" anymore.

A great book is "The World We Have Lost" which looked at pre-industrial society in England. Things like Kings and Bishops have salience, according to this analysis, because they are relicts of that older world. So, too, our concepts of class date from an older world.

But humans are so hierarchical. We're just big chimps always seeking alpha status. So I think "class" is just in a lull, before we start to rank order again. It's interesting that Tom DeLay accused the Democrats of having no class recently, and in this context, you do need to consider the conservative worship of George Bush, annointed by God just like the old Kings. What is all that about?

Posted by: PTate in MN | May 14, 2005 7:12:02 PM

Class in America.

Posted by: Petey | May 14, 2005 7:29:38 PM

I have a sneaking suspicion that the wealthy are trying to increase their status by making it harder for average Americans to acquire certain things.

Having a private jet is much more cool now that average Americans have to stand for hours in line for pointlesss "security checks."

At the extreme, they are trying to deny most humans clean air to breath by fighting pollution standards.

How nice it will be for the rich if they are they only ones that can afford private air scrubbers while the rest of us gasp and cough our way through life...

Posted by: monkyboy | May 14, 2005 7:31:59 PM

Yes, Paul Fussell's Class is the gold standard. A must read. It's the book David Brooks keeps failing miserably to emulate. Imagine Bobos in Paradise, only not crap.

Posted by: Rebecca | May 14, 2005 7:32:31 PM

I dunno - see, they keep coming out with *new* toys. Sure, a number of students in the high-poverty school where I work have cell phones and portable cd players, but none of them, as far as I know, has an iPod. Actually, that's a pretty good test, I think . . . Perhaps it's just the tech trickle-down time has sped up?

The point about political changes was interesting, though , in light of that new polling data . . .

The organic free-range chicken in every pot thing is delusional (both in terms of food culture and price), but amen for the next bit "Because income inequality is greater here, there is a wider disparity between what rich and poor parents can invest in their children."

I want to see that on a billboard. At least until folks grasp it.

Posted by: Dan S. | May 14, 2005 7:42:10 PM

For one thing, it is harder to read position in possessions.

Thorsten Veblen disagrees with the Times. And he's dead.

Damn, I mean it's well-publicised that Tiffany and Prada and other luxury retailers are doing pretty fucking well thanks to the top-end tax cuts. The point is simple: as the cost of certain consumer items goes down, class delineations are expressed just as clearly, but in different social and consumer practices. Like having healthcare, for instance.

But as monkyboy has suggested, the increasing segregation of the ultra-wealthy means that much that was once considered 'conspicuous consumption' is now less conspicuous: the one-sixteenth share of that private jet being an obvious example. In fact, inconspicuousness could itself be considered a consumer choice that delineates class: the gated community, etc.

I wonder whether the Times writers have the disadvantage of writing from New York City, where many of the class indicators of American life -- choice of car, size of apartment -- aren't as evident. But that particular piece really is pablum.

Posted by: ahem | May 14, 2005 8:28:14 PM

"Think Michael Douglas in Wall Street, flexing his wealth by making a phone call from the beach on a giant brick cell phone."

Wasn't that Dabney Coleman in Modern Problems?

Posted by: liver | May 14, 2005 8:32:38 PM

Speaking of Class...

The great frustration of the last two Presidential elections has been that the Democrats were absolutely thumped among the white working class.

Those folks should be the heart of our majority.

And, of course, this is reason #22 for elevating Johnny Edwards.

Posted by: Petey | May 14, 2005 8:37:39 PM

Actually, I found the hidden conservative assertions more interesting. Is it really true that Banks are willing to make loans to poorer people simply because they are better at measuring risk? I thought I read that regulation had forced banks to make loans to lower income people for housing, and as a result banks got better at measuring risks and then expanded loan programs. Also, are plane tickets and long distance phones really cheaper because of Deregulation? While I think this might be part of the story, I assume technological change had a LOT to do with it, particularly with long distance calling. I just find it interesting that a magazine feels so comfortable asserting that certain events are necessarily causally related to other events in instances such as this, when it seems like they often hesitate a lot to make any empirical assertions at all or accuse people of lying because "viewpoints differ". It seems like conservatives can make statements about empirical reality that ar fundamentally inaccurate, but no one will say it because viewpoints differ. Meanwhile, people feel free making these types of causal assertions in ways that fit with the Conservative Economic Story when in fact viewpoints might differ. I have NO IDEA if these statements are inaccurate, but they seem like the kind of statements that would do with some defending. And they also seem unnecessary for the piece.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 14, 2005 9:10:13 PM

You're defining down Class Warfare - it isn't about whether you have a nicer car - it's about whether you have a car at all. It isn't about whether you have a big screen TV, it's about whether you have to live with a ratty black-and-white 13" while your boss has 500 channel cable.

The fact is, the american capitalist engine has made 95% of the world's luxuries accessible to the (American) poor. So much so, they can hardly be called poor by any rational definition.

A rising tide lifts all boats. The fact that some boats were made fancier in the process isn't enough to build the passion required for a class war. Too many people can look at the past 30 years and recognize that innovation has been better to them than socialization.

I'm sure you all will start spouting off "What about X, what about Y, what about Z?" And yes, you'll probably be correct. But the fact is, it used to be the whole fucking alphabet that distinguished the haves from the have nots. Now, it's just 3 letters. People can deal with that. They can accept a little bit of inequity.

"Oh, but _these particular inequities_ are so important! How can they possibly accept them." They can, and they do. Deal with it, and find another way to win their votes. Try not giving them the impression that you think they're too stupid to make their own choices about how they spend their money, to start with.

Posted by: john brothers | May 14, 2005 9:46:31 PM

Re: The great frustration of the last two Presidential elections has been that the Democrats were absolutely thumped among the white working class.

Depending how you define "working class" this is not all that true.
The Democrats did quite well (capturing a majority) of voters with incomes under 30K-- to the extent these people voted at all. Non-participation is a major problem with this coterie. And among voters who are union members the Democrats also came out ahead.
Where the Dems have failed badly is with A) rural voters (regardless of income) and B) Middle class voters
There just aren't enough working-class and lower income people to elect democrats to presidential or senatorial offices.

Posted by: JonF | May 14, 2005 9:55:39 PM

Most of the commenters so far have revealed their status in their comments, as I think Matt has in his. My image of Matt is someone who lives on the lower edge of the upper class, and can tell a $500 tie from a $50 dollar one at a glance. I know I can't.

The "upper class" is the top 1%, folks, who have most of the wealth and most of the power. These are the people who have benefited most from Republican fiscal policy. Very very likely you have no idea of how these people live. Most of you seem to be talking about the upper middle class, low six figures annual income. Try to imagine 8 figure annual income.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 14, 2005 10:00:38 PM

I restate:Matt doesn't live at the lower edge of the upper class, but I suspect he has had a closer look at them than the vast majority of us.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 14, 2005 10:03:43 PM

Surely we all know the difference between a really fancy car and a less-fancy one, no? A gigantic house and a small house?

Here's a perfect example of why Democrats keep losing elections. Matthew seems to think it is somehow a big deal that some people drive BMW 7-Series and other only drive Maximas. Oh my gosh, says Matthew, just look at the income inequality! But he misses the point of the article in its entirety. Income inequality was a big deal in the bygone days because there was a qualitative difference in peoples' lives. That is, it was a big deal when some people drove cars and others had to take the bus because they couldn't afford a car; it was a big deal when some people owned a house and others lived in tenements. But today's income inequality is completely different. Everyone owns a car - and the difference between a 7-Series and a Maxima ain't much qualitatively, even if there is a big cost difference. Likewise, qualitatively, there's not much difference between a small house and a large one, even if the cost difference is large. But you lefties keep looking at the graph and saying to yourselves: income inequality is going up, therefore class must be a salient political issue. It's not, and you are blind to the reason why.

Posted by: Al | May 14, 2005 10:44:31 PM

For the record, I don't think Democrats hope to win elections by class warfare. Arguably, Republicans try to win donors through class warfare, but that's a different issue. The relative success of free markets has ended the class warfare debate for most people, not only in this Country but also in Europe. Of Course, everytime Democrats point out that Republican policies lead to tax raises for the majority of the population (as when they pushed prefunding of social security by raising payroll taxes and then used those funds to offset huge tax cuts on the wealthy and on wealth), Democrats are accused of class warfare. Everytime Democrats suggest that slightly higher marginal rates of taxes on income from high earners and from investment could fund an effective National Healthcare system and address the budget deficit, they're accused of class warfare. If anyone has defined down class warfare, it's the right-wing and the media. Those types of suggestions are NOT class warfare - they're suggestions for addressing national problems that effect a huge number of Americans and addressing them by raising taxes from people who have a lot of money and benefit the most from the present system. It's not class warfare - it's just realism. We've reached the point where Republicans refuse to acknowledge that we're going to need to raise money from SOMEWHERE or cut spending on the actually expensive programs. Balanced budgets and suggestions for some entitlements increasing opportunity and one or two nationalized sectors of the economy (health, education, and defense say) could only be termed "class warfare" by the types of ideologues and lousy thinkers who now permeate our national debate.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 14, 2005 11:03:10 PM

"Depending how you define "working class" this is not all that true."

By almost any reasonable definition of the white working class, Al Gore and John Kerry lost them by over 20 percentage points.

You can divide the American political history of the last 80 years at 1968. Before that date the Democrats reliably won majorities of the white working class, and after that date, the Democrats have usually lost that group.

As they go, goes partisan majority status. As I said before, Johnny Edwards could...

Posted by: Petey | May 14, 2005 11:03:18 PM

Al, you ignorant slut. Healthcare? There's a goddamned qualitative difference there.

Posted by: ahem | May 14, 2005 11:05:17 PM

People are going to have to present numbers for the working class that Gore and Kerry lost - the average household income in this Country is around $40,000 per household, and Kerry won households that made under $50,000 / year. Now, I haven't seen the breakdown by race and income, but it would be helpful if people actually cited the source of the data for Kerry losing the white working class. It would also be helpful if people made it clear what they mean by working class. most of the Country is middle-class, not working class. I would argue that any family making over $30,000/year is probably middle class, not working class - or at least arguably so.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 14, 2005 11:08:26 PM

Class used to describe a level of income, certain types of work and the lifestyles that went with it. It also meant that people depended on close-knit networks like their local church, family and neigborhood that defined many of their values and beliefs.

All of the above mean that in a certain point in time, in certain places, class was a methodologically useful unit of analysis.

Frankly, I don't think that's this is the case anymore.

While there is abject poverty on the one end and extreme wealth on the other, there is a giant soup of middle class in between where people do many types of work through their lifetimes, have essentially solved their most basic material needs and instead fight over status symbols and most importantly they are exposed to the widest and most diverse sources of culture, values and belief systems in the history of the world.

In other words, people are able to construct and define themselves more independently than the generations that were defined by their belonging to a class or other greater social groups.

And we are talking about one of the least class-conscious societies in the world to begin with.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | May 14, 2005 11:12:55 PM

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