I spent my most recent cross-country flight reading an issue of Vogue, which had promised "reality" fashion on the cover and proffered the oh-so-relatable fashion rules and budgets of a supermodel, an Israeli heiress and some other boring moneyed L.A./New York type. But I don't feel duped -- I pick up the occasional Vogue precisely because it reads like speculative fiction, taking wacky premises ("What if people knew, much less cared, who Yvonne Force was?") to their deadpan, satiric conclusions.
Please don't tell me Vogue's not really an elaborate joke.
Kidding aside, Vogue is actually proof that all the upward-mobility rhetoric in the world is remarkably useless when it comes to decoding the cultural signals that members of a social class rely on to tell Us from Them. It's one of a handful of newsstand magazines out there willing to admit we actually do have class systems in the U.S., and they can be impenetrable.
Class in America's a long-standing interest of mine: I first became aware of it when reading The Preppy Handbook in middle school, realizing that exclusion was the gold backing social currency and -- this was the horrifying part -- it wouldn't stop even after I escaped school.
Because I apparently never recovered from the radical premise that snobbery flourishes in the U.S., I maintain an abiding interest in reading about how and why people are okay with social class systems. My reading list has has included: Thorsten Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class; Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System; C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite; David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise; Richard Coniff's A Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.
(I am currently debating whether to buy Nelson Aldrich's Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America, or merely put it on reserve in the library. Same goes for Joseph Epstein's Snobbery: The American Version. Any input from people who read these is appreciated.)
So yeah, into reading about socially-sanctioned exclusion, and how it affects individual opportunity. You can imagine my intrigue when I read the WSJ's May 13, 05, article "As Rich-Poor Gap in U.S. Widens, Class Mobility Stalls." Although the story is worth reading on its own (and can be read for free here), here's what you need if you want to bluff your way through a cocktail-party conversation on the topic:
A substantial body of research finds that at least 45 percent of parents' advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60 percent. With the higher estimate, it's not only how much money your parents have that matters -- even your great-great grandfather's wealth might give you a noticeable edge today.
Many Americans believe their country remains a land of unbounded opportunity. That perception explains why Americans, much more than Europeans, have tolerated the widening inequality in recent years. It is OK to have ever-greater differences between rich and poor, they seem to believe, as long as their children have a good chance of grasping the brass ring.
In other words, we are remarkably good at thinking we are the exceptions to the data trends.
I'm not going to all this hoorah over one article, but because the NYT is going more in-depth on the class and mobility issue and running a whole series on it. May 15's article, "Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide," includes this feel-good item:
One study, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, found that fewer families moved from one quintile, or fifth, of the income ladder to another during the 1980's than during the 1970's and that still fewer moved in the 90's than in the 80's. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that mobility declined from the 80's to the 90's.
The incomes of brothers born around 1960 have followed a more similar path than the incomes of brothers born in the late 1940's, researchers at the Chicago Federal Reserve and the University of California, Berkeley, have found. Whatever children inherit from their parents - habits, skills, genes, contacts, money - seems to matter more today.
Needless to say, the numbers and the people's perceptions, they don't match up:
A recent New York Times poll on class found that 40 percent of Americans believed that the chance of moving up from one class to another had risen over the last 30 years, a period in which the new research shows that it has not. Thirty-five percent said it had not changed, and only 23 percent said it had dropped.
More Americans than 20 years ago believe it possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich. They say hard work and a good education are more important to getting ahead than connections or a wealthy background.
The series is promising to go on for three weeks. God knows how long the critical dissection will run. Mickey Kaus took an early lead (and if there's a way to link to individual entries, I'd love to know what it is), but I found Reason's take ("The Times Declares Class Warfare," May 16, 05) to be a more riveting read. The gem:
If only because they're getting to the heart of a whole new question. Michael J. Weiss's The Clustered World, and other books I've read on shopping and buying (listed here) all posit that people are buying their way into the elite, that you can put a dollar value on "culture and taste" which maps to a perceived social value. The numbers above argue otherwise.
So can we even agree on the parameters of social class? Or is one of the characteristics of American class that it's culturally fluid?
I have no idea. I hope I come closer to an answer over the course of the NYT's series.