Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Great American Middle

The American government has an actual statistical measure by which it defines poverty -- it's based on half the median household income and it's adjusted for the number of people in the household. However, there is no standard definition for "rich" in American society, so we are left on our own to figure it out.

Well, what's the mirror saying back to us? According to a recent poll, 7% of Americans consider themselves "poor" while 1% consider themselves rich. That means a whopping 92% of Americans consider themselves "working-class" or "middle class."

Impossible, you say? How can this be? Shouldn't we have some kind of a neat 33/33/33 split? Not necessarily. The Richter scale (earthquakes) and the Saffir-Simpson scale (hurricanes) don't work that way, and America doesn't have to, either.

The Richter scale is logarithmic, not arithmetic -- a 5.0 is 10 times stronger than a 4.0, 100 times stronger than a 3.0, 1000 times stronger than a 2.0, etc. Not only do "10 Scale" earthquakes not represent 10% of all seismic activity, there's never been one. And a "9 Scale" earthquake only happens on average every 20 years.

To be much cruder, just imagine a bunch of guys rating girls at a bar. They're not going to hand out "9" or "10" ratings to 20% of the women, are they? No way. A clear mode rating will fall somewhere around the middle with ratings like "1" and "10" used extremely sparingly.

So now that we've established that not all scales have to be arithmetic, what do we do about class?

Well, let's start by acknowledging that we're dealing with something extremely complicated and touchy -- because the American mythic ideal is based on a rags to riches story, having started a few yards ahead when the gun went off is somehow seen as 'bad.'

But we need some baseline to separate super-upper-extreme special middle class from flat-out "upper class." Here's what I propose: the line between upper-middle class and upper-class should be based off the difference between wealth and income. People who depend primarily on income to sustain their standard of living are middle-class. And by that definition, it's totally within bounds for most people who live in places like La Jolla, Scarsdale, Bronxville, Short Hills, Wilmette, Potomac, or Dover to refer to themselves as upper middle-class. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, someone there with a healthy six-figure income is still dealing with a significant tax burden and high overhead. If they were suddenly cut loose from their income, their lifestyle would become unsustainable.

By contrast, someone like a Getty, a Bass, or a Dupont could legitimately be called upper class -- they could spend all their days staring at their walls or golfing and it would take generations before their net worth was even dented. They are basically impervious to outside factors like market vicissitudes or corporate layoffs. And despite they way others might see them, that's not necessarily the case for people trying to support their families in places like Lexington, Andover, or Brookline.

For the record, I come from a leafy suburb where I was always physically safe growing up and received a top-notch public k-12 education. My parents saved and paid the lion's share of five years of higher ed (bills from the university only) before they cut the line from the rod. I make no bones about any of that -- I am and always will be grateful for it. I'll never lie about that or hide it (except to joke about the military being my degree from the 'school of hard knocks'). In fact, I am literally wearing Luke 12:48 -- "To whomever much is given, much will be required" -- over my heart.

But I won't allow any of that to be caricatured, either.

I haven't taken a dime since finishing school in '03 -- not for a car, a down payment, or anything else -- and don't ever plan to. I try not to get defensive about it but I find it curious when my personal situation/background gets caricatured into something it's not (possibly because of what the Behvorial Economist Santosh Anagol calls the "All or Nothing Bias"). Curiously enough, this comes almost exclusively from peers who have been given and/or now have even more -- in some cases, far more -- materially. I'm not even going to get into why this is (it shouldn't take Carl Jung to figure out), but just try to be even-handed and not defensive in my correction of the caricature.

And to wrap this entry up, here are three facts about the Forbes 400 you probably didn't know:

1. 4 of the 5 richest Americans do not have a Bachelor's degree (all are self-made, too)
2. 7 of the 10 richest college-educated Americans went to public universities.
3. 70% of the Forbes 400 as of 2006 are self-made. That number is up 15% from 1982 when the list first came out.

I don't know how those numbers compare to other advanced democracies but I would suspect we're way ahead in terms of mobility/flexibility among this elite group.

No comments: