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Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Thus the famous boast of Napoleon Bonaparte, who claimed that under his rule, talent, not inherited rank, would determine who advanced and who did not. The principle lies at the core of what is widely thought to be the American value system, and it underlies as well the foundations of capitalism. As a matter of strict law, "the career open to talents" remains the universal rule in American society. We have no inherited squierarchy, no "three estates," each with its separate law courts. But of course, the reality is very different indeed.

Some while ago, I wrote a blog post about the distribution of higher educational credentials in American society. I return to this subject today, because I continue to be convinced that the facts I cited then are the key to understanding a good deal that is happening currently in our politics. My interest in the subject was reawakened by my absorption in the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I followed intently while in Paris.

The facts I located on the web and cited here are these: In the United States today, roughly thirty percent of adults 25 or over have Bachelor's Degrees from four year institutions. Another twenty percent have some post-secondary formal education. This latter group includes those who enrolled in two or four year undergraduate programs but failed to complete them, those who have earned an Associate's Degree at a Community College, and those who have simply taken some courses at a State College or Community College but without pursuing a degree. Thirty percent is actually a high water mark in American society. When I was a lad, the figure was much closer to ten percent, and though it has been rising steadily, the rate of growth has slowed considerably in recent decades.

As I have often observed on this blog, one's economic condition in America is almost entirely determined by what job one manages to get and hold. There is a vast amount of inherited wealth in America, but it is concentrated in very few hands. For the overwhelming majority of adult Americans, how well or poorly you live is a function of your job. Now there are a great many good jobs, this being a country of more than three hundred million, but they constitute a relatively small fraction of all the jobs in the economy. Corporate executives do well, as do doctors, lawyers, college professors, architects, and such like professionals. But last year, in 2010, the median weekly wage or salary for all ninety-nine million plus full-time employees in 2010, was just $747 [$824 for male workers and $669 for female workers.] That means that fifty million workers were making less than $750 a week before all payroll deductions and such.

If you have a low-wage job and want to move up to something that will allow you to put food on the table, pay the rent, finance a car, buy health insurance, and maybe even have a bit left over for a restaurant meal or a night out at the movies, you very quickly run into what can be an insurmountable problem. To get any one of a large number of pretty good jobs, you need a college degree. And if you are one of that seventy percent who do not have a degree, you are screwed.

Obviously, you will need a college degree, and probably a good deal more than that, if you want to be a physician or a dentist or a lawyer. It won't do you any good to protest that you have really soft hands and care a lot about people, or that you have a strongly ingrained sense of justice. You almost always need a BA to get into Veterinary School, and then it takes four more years to become a vet. Your cat won't know the difference, but the Licensing Board will. And as we all know, you need a BA plus a Ph. D. these days to have any hope at all of getting a job as a college professor. But what about some other jobs that a man or woman might want to try out for as a way of moving up the economic ladder?

Do you need a B.A. to be a high school teacher? Of course. In some public school systems, applicants must even have a Master's Degree in the special field in which they want to teach. So if you are one of the seventy percent, forget about being a high school teacher. The same is even true nation-wide for Elementary School teachers. Some school systems require a degree in Education, others are content to accept someone with a degree in a subject area such as English Literature or Mathematics or History. But without the B.A., you can forget about teaching eight year olds.

Law Enforcement? Well, you can get into a Police Academy training program without a degree, but not the F. B. I. That requires a Bachelor's Degree at a minimum, and they would really prefer that you have a law degree as well.

What about the business world? Here things are not quite so rigid, but those without college degrees are facing a real uphill battle. The WalMart website says you really ought to have a degree in business management if you aspire to manage one of their stores. ExxonMobile's website doesn't even seem to acknowledge that someone might apply to them for a management position who does not have at least a college degree.

And so forth. Everyone in America knows this, although they may not be able to quote chapter and verse. And this means that there are maybe a hundred million Americans 25 and older who are perfectly well aware of the fact that they are on the outside looking in, with no hope of getting in, when it comes to good jobs.

How does it look form where I stand? What follows is subjective and anecdotal, but not therefore irrelevant. I live in a world of college graduates. Everyone of my relatives is a college graduate [grandchildren excepted, of course], and so are all of my friends and acquaintances. All the opinion makers on television are college graduates. Even the professional basketball and football players are, by and large, college graduates [LeBron James to the contrary notwithstanding.] The people without college degrees who appear in the media are, by and large, there for "man in the street" or "local color" interviews.

This skewed perception is deeply engrained in the endless public conversation about the needs of the "middle class." In 2008, the median household income for all households was a bit more than $50,000. Since the median wage of full-time workers was about $35,000, this of course means that most households were sending more than one wage earner into the labor market. But households with annual income of $150,000 or $200,000 are routinely described by politicians as "middle class,' despite the fact that a quick calculation of Government statistics shows that only a bit more than 5% of all households had annual incomes of $175,000 or more. The endless talk about the "interests of the middle class" is profoundly dishonest and out of touch. The reality of American society is that people are, by and large, much poorer and possessed of much less in the way of educational credentials than anyone is willing to acknowledge.

And that, I am convinced, is what lies beneath the rhetorical surface of so-called "Tea Party" anger. People by and large may be ill-informed, or lacking in educational credentials, but they are not stupid. Those on the outside looking in know perfectly well that they are not living, and have little hope of living, the lives portrayed in the media. It is those on the inside who engage in self-delusions, imaging that their $150,000 a year incomes make them "middle class," and that everyone save for the lazy and the people of darker skin have college degrees.

The French version of this skewed perception, this blindness, was thrust into public view by the Strauss-Kahn matter. In France, the ruling elite is drawn almost entirely from the graduates of what are called "les grandes écoles." Those not familiar with France may be surprised to learn that nobody who is anybody goes to the Sorbonne. Class prejudice trumps everything, especially ideology. French socialists, as I observed, were quite ready to assume that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a sting, and it took a week or so before French feminists started to speak up for the poor Black working woman whom he assaulted. [The New York Post, that indispensable source of gossip, reports that as Strauss-Kahn was forcing himself on "Ophelia" in the grossest and most appalling ways, he kept shouting, "Don't you know who I am?"] In Paris, the separation of the classes is the inverse of the American pattern. The inner city is preserved as a paradise of old French life and culture. The poor, the unemployed, the North Africans whom "true French" cannot acknowledge as genuine citoyens, are consigned to the banlieue on the outskirts of the city.

As long as we on the left persist in this skewed perception of the American reality, we will be unable to understand what is happening in our political life, nor will we will be able to forge bonds across class lines to advance a progressive agenda.


W said...

The difference between the US & France on Strauss-Kahn is the US sees him as guilty & France as innocent, yet strangely BOTH manage to hardly mention the maid! I'll leave judgement on that to the courts rather than the media.

W said...

& the US does love college education as a business. "Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation."

From what I've seen & heard from the US there is a stigma in not having a college education yet a lot that depends on which college you go to & often that is determined by how wealthy your family is, often coupled with how influential they are too. The current government in the UK is trying to turn their college education into something mirroring the US. Australia is quite far down that road too.

Both appeal to overseas students at the expense of college places available to their own residents, whose families taxes built & help maintain these institutions. It seems that the main difference between the US & UK is still an old-fashioned idea of supporting & nurturing 'natural' ability. As a US friend said, "working class people don't 'do' art in the US" meaning they would never be able to afford, or justify, an art college education.

In the UK at the moment we have both a PM & the mayor of London being old Etonians, possibly the most elite university in the UK. Things are looking a bit backward there...

Michael said...

I wonder whether the phenomenon of regarding $100,000+ salaries as middle class has to do with the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

That is, I could imagine somebody making, say, $150,000 per year hearing about financial execs, CEO's, entertainers, etc. pulling in multiple millions and thinking something like this: "Those people are wealthy, and I'm not making nearly that much, so I must be middle class."

(I experience a version of this when I listen to music. In some third-person sense, I know I'm pretty good on my instrument of choice, the electric bass. But when I hear a really good bass player, I instinctively think "Gee, I suck" and don't ever think that most people don't even know how to play the instrument.)

W said...

Over here (in Australia) the government recently said that couples with a combined income of $120,000 or more would no longer be allowed child benefit & similar benefits. The right wing media (which is most of the conventional media here) was outraged & talked of the government as if it had said that couples that earnt that amount were rich. All they were saying is you're not POOR if you earn that much!

Michael said...

W, that's scary. I'm not sure what the exchange rate is between US and Australian dollars is, but I suspect that many people Australia earning $120,000 are pretty rich. (Please correct me on the exchange rate if I'm wrong.)

As you may know, here in the US, the rule seems to be that all those who need no social or economic support from the government get as much support as they want. In the meantime, those who desperately need it don't have a chance of getting it. And if somebody complains about this, the official reply is, as Professor Wolff pointed out, something about helping the middle class. And if that fails, the plutocrats just yell "Socialism" as loud as they can.

NotHobbes said...

Social mobility in the UK is virtually non existant for those unfortunate enough by birth to be at the base of stratification

Simon said...

@W - just a quick correction: Eton is a secondary school, not a university. Your point stands though - they both went to Oxford and were members of the elite drinking society, The Bullingdon Club, at the same time (along with the current Chancellor of the Exchequer):

W said...

@ Simon, oops, my bad! Accepted.

& I forgot about the Bullingdon Club, complete with a photo of the Prime Minister & the London Mayor that was banned from being published as it had them appearing as the archetypal English toffs!

Apparently the US is number one for the worst social mobility, the UK second. It would appear that the American Dream has become just that. (Will try to find original info.)

I think the US & Australia is dollar-for-dollar at the moment & very strong, it's middle class needs no help, it's the working class that are suffering as the average house price for Sydney is over $500,000!

NotHobbes said...

@W. That's right regarding the UK having woeful record on social mobility; both intragenerational and intergenerational. Even as far back as 1954(Glass Report) our record was pathetic. Pretty much a closed system here

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Notice, by the way, the studies of social mobility [going back to the work by Seymour Martin Lipset several generations ago] all start from the assumption of a very steep pyramidal class structure. Very rarely is the existence of that pyramid itself challenged or criticized. Fairness is thought to consist merely in large movements between classes. Much more could be achieved if we attacked the structure of the pyramid itself.

formerly a wage slave said...

I just wanted to say that I find such general reflections very useful for finding my way in this --well, I was going to say "desert" or "wasteland"--country. (I say that as someone born here who has lived abroad long enough so that it feels not at all like "home".)

In retrospective I could say that I lived thirty years in the USA without fully realizing the degree to which there are classes, even though I was aware of various indications of the fact without somehow putting the pieces together.

However, one of the most striking moments in my realization of the true situation came in a restaurant in Prague, a city where I was then working, having previously spent two and a half years in Bratislava.

As I was introduced to a group of Americans, the mother of a college-aged young woman made a point of telling me about her daughter's school and the fact that the daughter was a graduate student.
I found it shocking and aggressive.

What struck me most at the time was that the information seemed so superfluous and unimportant, while at the same time there was something like urgency in the woman's manner. I didn't wish to offend her or disrespect what seemed so important to her, but I couldn't avoid a feeling very different than what I imagined she had expected.

I suppose it was such experiences which led me increasingly to avoid further contacts with people from the land where I had been born and educated.

Today, only the genuine need of my elderly parents has forced me to return, and I find that my relationships to Americans are no less bizarre than they were in that Prague restaurant.

Mark L.