Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Commentary: A Question of Class

At an excellent blog called Collective Sigh, 'andante' writes about the tendency of Americans to 'upgrade reality' when talking about how much money they have.

The working poor would invariably describe themselves as middle class; those who have a million dollars in assets and two million in debts would describe themselves as wealthy.

A poster named Michael responded:

I've always heard anecdotally that it's a great rush toward the middle: Everyone in the U.S. claims to be "middle class," whether they're barely a step above sleeping on a subway grate or whether they could buy their own personal subway out of pocket change.

I started to answer him but Haloscan was down and anyway what I had to say was way too long for their comment limit so I'm answering here.

Michael's right, or at least more right. I've had what I'm afraid to say is extensive contact with every one of society's layers over the past 40 yrs from the destitute to the super-rich. Here's how it actually goes:

1) We poor like to say we're either middle-class or, in a pinch, lower middle class.

2) The lower middle class thinks they're solid middle class.

3) The solid middle class thinks it's barely middle class and hanging on by its fingernails.

4) The upper middle class thinks it's solid middle class and fairly stable.

5) What the upper class thinks depends on whether they're old money or neauveau riche. If they're old money, they will admit they're 'well-off' but caution you that they don't have as much as you think they do, a lot of it was stolen by--er, paid out in--taxes, and anyway a dollar isn't worth what it used to be. The NR's either brag about how much money they have, flaunt it, throw it in your face, and then grovel if they happen to meet one of the super-rich, at which point they suddenly become upper middle class, or else they're very modest about it, almost ashamed if it, and prefer not to discuss it at all. If pressed, they will say that they're really not rich, and to prove it throw out the name of someone they consider rich--Bill Gates, for example. (The latter are concentrated in the MidWest where the rich guy in the crowd is likely to be the one with a new parka.)

6) The super-rich don't like the word 'rich' but won't argue the point. Some will even admit it but usually only after they make sure you understand none of it is 'liquid' and they have a 'cash flow problem'. They tend to downplay it, describing it as 'being comfortable' or 'doing alright'.

7) The only category I can't speak to personally is the new super-rich. I haven't known any of them, but I hear there's a tendency not only to admit that they're rich but even to feel a tad guilty about it. They tend to be do-gooders, god bless 'em, but they also tend to do most of the good for themselves and be defensive about it if asked. They're looking for money to buy them a 'quality of life'.

The movement is generally toward the middle, as Michael said, pressing up from the bottom and down from the top. The rich don't think they're middle class but they don't want you to think they've got as much as they've got because they're comparing themselves to the next rung up and feeling relatively poor. The poor don't want to be seen as failures so they push up, describing their poverty as 'going through a rough patch' or 'trying to get back on our feet'. It isn't that either of them is 'upgrading' or 'downgrading', it's that their definitions of middle class are different.

# To the poor, being middle class means you can have a home, a car, and pay your bills.

# To the middle class it means being able to pay your bills with some left over at the end of the month and not having to worry too much about where the money is going to come from if the car needs serious repairs.

# To the rich, middle class is a nice house but not a mansion, a private school for the kids but not one that's on the top of your list, a new Mercedes every three years instead of every year, and the inability to buy your own private jet. Being able to own your own jet plane is pretty much the cut-off--when you can do that, you're rich and even the rich won't deny it.

The point where they all agree is the point where they're each hopelessly uncomfortable with the whole subject--and just as hopelessly dysfunctional. I've known isolated individuals in each class who are or have become at peace with their 'station in life', but not too bloody many. Most of us don't know how or even whether we should talk about it. The poor are forced to--it's the ruling factor in our existence--but the upper class has made a rule to protect itself: 'Respectable people don't talk about money.' They've simply banned the subject from polite discourse, which is handy for them. It allows them to pretend it doesn't matter for anyone else, either.

On the other hand, talk about making money is not only not banned, it's encouraged to the point of being the only allowable discourse in certain circles. Any chatter about, oh, say, art or books or science--absent the dollar figures attached to them--is considered childish, pointless prattle and, though I hate to say it in the 21st century, largely the province of women (which proves, of course, that it isn't serious).

It's Moloch, you see. We live at this point in a land ruled by Moloch: money is the ultimate, the only, socially acceptable definer, yet because we don't care to acknowledge what that says about us, we deny it, changing the definition as we go to accomodate our changing financial condition. It isn't, we tell ourselves--rich or poor--the money; it's the person, and then promptly judge the person by his wealth--or lack of it. The dichotomy is so pervasive, runs so deep, and is so unresolvable that we simply can't deal with it unless we do so through an illusion that there's nothing to deal with.

The problem, of course, is that acting this way is creating the very reality we deny: we very often become what our financial station says we're supposed to be. We define ourselves according to our bank books before someone else can do it for us, probably in a less flattering way. America is profoundly and fundamentally pathological in its attitude toward money and class, and very few of us seem to want to change that.

At least I think we don't. So few people will talk about it that it's hard to tell.