Class Consciousness Matters
What's missing from the New York
Times and Wall Street Journal.
by David Moberg
In These times magazine, July
The myth of the self-made man is American
culture's own special heart of darkness, helping to explain both
its infectious optimism and ruthless greed. The idea holds enough
truth and seductiveness to make it easy to forget its delusional
dangers. To reprise Marx's famous formulation, individuals, like
humankind, do make their own personal history, but not under conditions
they choose. But in America, we choose to ignore the caveat about
conditions at our peril.
The myth, or belief, that people are solely
what they make of themselves is useful to keep in mind while reading
two ongoing series: the New York Times' on class and the Wall
Street Journal's on social mobility. Both focus attention on a
truth about American society that runs counter to most people's
deep-seated beliefs: There is less social mobility in the United
States now than in the '80s (and less then than in the '70s) and
less mobility than in many other industrial countries, including
Canada, Finland, Sweden and Germany. Yet 40 percent of respondents
to a Times poll said that there was a greater chance to move up
from one class to another now than 30 years ago, and 46 percent
said it was easier to do so in the United States than in Europe.
Although the news about social mobility
has not been widely reported, it is generally recognized that
inequality has grown over the past thirty years. The Times series
highlights how much the super-rich have made out like, well, bandits.
While the real income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell
from 1980 to 2002, the income of the top o.1 percent-making $1.6
million or more-went up two and a half times in real terms before
taxes. With the help of the Bush tax cuts, the gap between the
superrich and everyone else grew even larger.
The American people accept this, it is
argued, because they think not only that there's more social mobility
than there is, but also that they'll personally get rich. Indeed,
a poll in 2000 indicated that 39 percent of Americans thought
they were either in the wealthiest one percent or would be "soon?'
The Times poll was slightly less exuberant: ii percent thought
it was very likely they would become wealthy, another 34 percent
"It is OK to have ever-greater differences
between rich and poor, [Americans] seem to believe' David Wessel
wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "as long as their children
have a good chance of grasping the brass ring?'
This view is problematic. First, the greater
the inequality, the less likely the possibility of mobility. Increased
inequality worsens the large disparities in resources that families
can devote to education-resources that are increasingly important
for both entering many careers and for social mobility. A college
degree, it should be stressed, is important not just because of
the knowledge acquired, but because college serves as a class-biased
sorting mechanism for entry to certain jobs. In contrast, the
record suggests that countries with greater equality also have
greater mobility. Substantive equality creates more equality of
But even if there were mobility, such
inequality would be problematic. Is it fair that society's wealth
be divided so unevenly? Isn't there a decent standard of living-rising
as economies become wealthier-to which everyone who "works
hard and plays by the rules' in the Clintonian formulation, should
be entitled? Great social disparity means that the financially
well-off use their money and greater political leverage to protect
their privilege rather than to design policies for the common
In defense of the rich getting richer,
former Bush economic advisor Gregory Mankiw wrote in response
to the Times series that the richest increased their share when
the economy boomed; so if we want prosperity, let the plutocrats
prosper. But the economy grew faster in the first three decades
after World War II when equality was increasing than in the next
three decades when equality was decreasing. In any case if the
income from growth is captured by the very rich, as it largely
has been for a couple decades, this path to prosperity offers
little to most people. Also, with high inequality, even the pretense
of community declines, social conflict increases and society functions
more poorly. Individual mobility is not the only way to improve
one's lot. Social solidarity and working together can improve
This brings us back to the self-made man.
It becomes clear, as the Times series is titled, that "class
matters:' just as race, gender and other accidents of history
matter. The social class into which someone is born largely defines
one's class as an adult, and both make a difference in how healthy
or how long-lived the person will be, especially in the absence
of universal health insurance. It influences access to education
and to jobs.
The myth of the self-made person, however,
encourages the person who succeeds to think his good fortune is
due entirely to his work and genius. For this reason businessmen
in the United States have historically been more anti-union and
hostile to government than their counterparts in Europe. And the
myth makes those who fail blame themselves.
According to recent polls, American workers-worried
more about job insecurity, rising costs of education, health care
expenses, the availability of insurance, pension failures and
social security privatization-are increasingly looking for stronger
social action to provide security. They are deeply skeptical about
the globalization that has increased inequality and insecurity.
Like the French vote on the European Union constitution, a U.S.
referendum on globalization might well divide along class lines.
The irony is that taking responsibility as a society to guarantee
more stability and equality-by regulating the global economy and
establishing universal guarantees of health care, education, and
retirement security-can provide citizens with more individual
For now, the realm of freedom for most
Americans remains constricted to the shopping mall, where they
can buy their identities. Both the Journal and Times point to
the rapid growth of personal credit as one way that Americans
have continued to buy while earnings have stagnated. Former United
Auto Workers official Frank Joyce even sees the rise of credit
cards as undermining workers' interest in unions. Income, earned
or borrowed, obviously greatly differentiates people's lives,
even if a working class consumer can only indulge in a box of
luxury chocolates or sub-luxury car. And the growing differences
in income are exacerbated by growing but unmeasured differences
in health insurance, as well as various business perks such as
free cars or expense accounts.
But the focus on income ignores the even
greater inequalities of wealth. Wealth provides security. As the
Times series points out, the better-off consistently talk of making
choices while working class individuals talk about feeling trapped.
from wealthy families can take unpaid
internships, spend a year abroad or experiment with careers; kids
from working class families are likely to stick with a summer
job that pays the bills and provides health insurance, thus failing
to finish college.
More important, wealth and class are issues
of power. Aaron Kemp, who lost his job when Maytag shifted production
from Illinois to Mexico and Korea (see "Maytag Moves to Mexico:'
January 17), remarked, "I never remember even thinking about
what class I was in until after the plant closing announcement
and layoff. And then you begin to think about what class you're
in." Rather than manners or fashion, class ultimately has
more to do with who has the power to make such decisions and the
powerlessness of the majority. These crucial aspects of class-social,
political and economic power-have been missing from the series.
It might have been good for the Times
to run an excerpt of Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro's new book,
Death by a Thousand Cuts. It recounts how the super-rich worked
with ultra-conservatives to demonize and possibly eliminate the
estate tax, which they renamed the "death tax' As William
Gates, Sr., father of Microsoft Bill, often argued on behalf of
the tax, the very rich accumulate their wealth not simply because
of what they did but because of the society in which they lived,
and they have a debt to that society. And the heirs of such wealth
are the antithesis of self-made men.
The rich used their political power, their
money and the right's shameless, mendacious hucksters to protect
their riches, at the expense of society. But belief in the myth
of the self-made man-abetted by the feckless incompetence of Democratic
opposition-made many ordinary people suckers for the right-wing
pitch. Class matters, but so does consciousness of class. That's
another, longer story.
Index of Website