20 March 2007

Class categories

A friend of mine was just alluding to Paul Fussell's book Class: A Guide Through the American Status Systems. I found a list of Fussell's categories, and they're interesting.

Top Out of Sight — Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don't want us to.

Upper Class — Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don't have to work. They refer to tuxes as “dinner jackets.”

Upper Middle — Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn't be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.

Middle Class — The great American majority, sort of.

High Proletarian (or “prole”) — Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term “proletarian.”

Middle Prole — Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)

Low Prole — Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask “Would you like fries with that, sir?” as a career.

Destitute — Working and non-working poor.

Bottom Out of Sight — Street people, the most destitute in society. “Out of sight” because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don't vote.)

That's more slices than in Ruby K. Payne's terrific A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which is a chaotic but insightful book that does a a simple split into only upper, middle, and lower classes that is really illuminating about the cultural elements of class, especially around “common knowledge.”

I have seen a flyer circulated which summarizes Payne's system:

Moneyto be spentto be managedto be invested
Personalitysenses of humorachievementconnections
Social emphasisinclusionself-sufficiencyexclusion
Timein the momentagainst futuretradition
Educationabstractsuccess & moneymaintaining connections
Languagecasual registerformal—negotiationformal—networking
Family structurematri-archalpatriarchalwho has money
Driving forcesrelation-shipsachievementfinancial & social

Payne's model runs deep but having just three categories leaves a lot out.

I'm not a real sociologist, but I think of class in the US in more categories, to reflect some cultural distinctions among folks who may overlap in wealth and income but do different kind of work and have different culture and distinct social networks. I think it can be an oversimplification to imagine a simply linear heirarchy, so here is my own set of categories:

High, middle, and low aristocracy
Inherited wealth. Low means rich enough not to have to work, medium means able to afford the trappings of wealth, high means hundreds of millions of dollars or more. As Fussel observes, these folks spend their wealth making themselves invisible, especially as you move further up the scale.

Major and minor celebrities
This includes not only obvious movie and pop stars but also big-name politicians, a few entrepeneurs like Bill Gates, atheletes, and so forth. Fame is a different kind of currency than wealth, and it comes with its own social circle and culture. “Major” celebrities can presume a permanent place in this class; “minor” celebrities cannot.

Nouveaux riche
Entrepeneurs, CEOs, and so forth who have made enough money that they don't have to work ... but almost certainly continue to work, and work hard. These people may have wealth comparable to the middle aristocrats; at the point where they have as much money as high aristos they are better conceived as part of that artistocratic class, while at the low end they blur into the richest end of high professionals.

High and low professionals
People who make their living with some valuable mental skill. High professionals include successful doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives who make a lot of money ... but not enough that they can just quit working. Low professionals include just about everybody else who works in offices, from architects to customer service representatives, which means a broad range of actual income.

People who make their living with some valuable knowledge. Professors, scientists, and other experts of various kinds, including many artists. Often mistaken for professionals, but these folks have more (and stranger!) books in their houses. Again, covers a very broad range of actual incomes.

People who devote themselves to art or entertainment (though that last may simply mean entertaining themselves). Musicians, actors, bartenders, sex workers, nightclub bouncers, twenty-four hour party people. Keeping late or odd hours is a key defining characteristic. Incomes vary dramatically in this class, though they tend to be low.

High and low working class
People who make their living through physical work. The high working class have valuable skills, like plumbers or construction workers, while the low working class don't.

People working, often working hard, but perpetually worried about money because they're a paycheque away from economic disaster and homelessness, and don't have a route to improve that situation.

People unable to connect to the above-board economy. This ranges from the hungry homeless to folks currently hustling up wealth on a par with the upper end of the low working class ... but without any stability even at the day-to-day scale.

Notice that in American society, practically all of the people ranging from the high professionals to the low working class refer to themselves as “middle class.”

(This version includes an update to my original version which did not include Bohemians.)

In The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S. Michael O. Church offers a really instructive system with some parallels to my own, though the take on the relationship between class and culture is different. The description of the Elite ladder and of the forms of friction between the different ladders are particularly useful.

Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class. I’ll attempt to explain how this three-ladder system works, what it means, and also why it is a source of conflict. The ladders I will assign the names Labor, Gentry, and Elite.

In a follow-up, Church has more cutting observations, calling this machinery obfuscation of how there are really just two classes.

I do have strong thoughts on how that article has aged. At the time, I was unduly sympathetic to my native social class, the Gentry. This blinded me to something I had begun to suspect, and that Alex Danco articulated– that a sociological “middle class” is a comfortable illusion, a story capitalist society tells itself to mask its barbaric nature, performing a similar function to the notoriously clueless middle manager, Michael Scott.
To do Marx justice, we must note that Marx did acknowledge a middle class’s existence: he wrote on the petite bourgeoisie, the small business owners and independent professionals. He predicted, correctly, that they would be losers in the ongoing class war– that machinations of the politically-connected, mostly-hereditary haute (or “true”) bourgeoisie would push them to the margins and, eventually, throw them into the proletariat. Marx did not loathe the petite bourgeoisie and he did not overlook their existence– he simply recognized them as powerless relative to market forces and the movements of history. What they gain through innovation and comparative advantage, they lose over time to the superior political and economic power of the real elites, who never compete fairly.

(If you have an interest in the tech industry, Church's comments marry well with Putt's Law Of Failure from his darkly satirical book Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat.)

Sideria has a discussion of class which underlines the functioning of the cultural differences between classes.

It is a common misconception that the primary obstacle to being in a much higher class is money to afford the things by which one performs that class. The limiting factor is not money, it is this: it is impossible to join a culture the ways of which you know nothing. You may come by money, but the ignorance of how to use it to perform that higher class will keep you out as adamantly as if there were a wall built around it.

In the course of his post Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment John Michael Greer of the Archdruid Report has a sharp little observation about social class categories.

It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

Greer has some very unwholesome politics, but this is one example of how he can be illuminating.

Elseblog I have an old post which accumulated some smart comments about this observation by Brad Plumer:

One way to define class — and this is hardly an original thought — is to look not at income but at power. Power in the workplace. Power in the world. The working class, from this point of view, can be defined as those who do their jobs under strict supervision, have little control over what they do or how fast they do it, and have no power over anyone else. Notice I picked this definition somewhat deliberately; these are precisely the sorts of people who, under labor law, can join a union. Obviously the definition's not hard and fast. I'm in a union, after all, because at work I technically get no input into the Mother Jones budget, and have precisely zero authority over any other employee. So that's the law. In practice, though, I do have the ability to hire, promote, and fire interns, I get to work at my own pace, and have wide discretion over what projects I want to pursue. So I'd put myself in the middle class, even if I make far less, income-wise, than many who would be considered working class. Intuitively, this classification makes far more sense than calling me “working class” and, say, a well-paid, unionized electrician “middle class.”

16 March 2007

Dylan sings Seuss

Via Neil Gaiman, I learn that Bob Dylan developed his signature vocal style singing Dr Seuss books.

(Maybe even better than Jesse Jackson.)

15 March 2007

Whiteboard cartoons

Occasionally at work I cartoon at the whiteboard. Mostly the results are unimpressive, but there are a couple of examples that I'm kind of proud of.

This is Colonel Nugget:

This is an attempt at drawing the actor John Houseman:

12 March 2007

Health care policy

Scott Lemiuex at Tapped figures out an amazing statistic.
Let's use their figures to extrapolate government health care spending per capita:

United States  $2745

Again, our system doesn't just spend far more money than France's much better system and Canada's heavily flawed but still better system, but more government money.

That's right. In theory, we could switch to a single-payer health care system that covers everybody, eliminating all of the current costs to individuals and employers, and do it without raising taxes a nickel.

10 March 2007

Pundits for war crimes

In case you don't only get your political commentary from the blogosphere, I have some observations about mainstream punditry.

Recently Glenn Greenwald and Paul Campos ripped into famed war hawk blogger Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, who turns up also in mainstream publications and on TV. As Campos originally observed:

“We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and Iranian atomic scientists ... Basically, stepping on the Iranians' toes hard enough to make them reconsider their not-so-covert war against us in Iraq,” Reynolds wrote.

Of course Iran is not at war with America .... Moreover, even if Iran were at war with the United States, the intentional killing of civilian noncombatants is a war crime, as that term is defined by international treaties America has signed. Furthermore, government-sponsored assassinations of the sort Reynolds is advocating are expressly and unambiguously prohibited by the laws of the United States.

How does a law professor, of all people, justify advocating murder?

As Brad DeLong observes, Reynolds is stealing a page from a prominent mainstream “Middle East expert” pundit:
Tom Friedman who was telling us at the time that we needed to invade Iraq because we just had to kill some Arabs. We just had to, OK?
Meanwhile Arthur Silber, whose blog Power of Narrative you'll find marked in bold on my blogroll, does us a service in closely reading pundits Max Boot and Charles Krauthammer and finding advocacy for murder and torture.

For example, on Krauthammer:

“We must all be prepared to torture.” And even worse: we are “morally compelled to be monsters.

The confession is undeniable. Be absolutely sure to grasp what it is: Krauthammer thus confesses that he is already a monster, but he does not want you to condemn him for it. To the contrary, he wants you to become a monster too, to accept that you were “compelled” do so in the name of morality itself ...

Friedman is a regular columnist for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Krauthammer is a regular columnist for the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Boot is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times. All three frequently appear as commentators on television news programs.

Of course, as Ezra Klein points out, the producers of news programs aren't thinking so carefully.

This is nothing personal to Jonah, but why is he going on NPR today to talk about global warming? Does he actually, uh, know anything about global warming? Forget whether his opinion on it is accurate, given the universe of possible participants in a debate about climatological science, a generalist political journalist from The National Review doesn't sound like the most enlightening choice. Indeed, I shouldn't be on talking about global warming either. Not only haven't I read, but I can't even understand, most of the scientific literature on the issue. NPR's listeners deserve better.
America deserves better. Our press has failed us.

09 March 2007


Michael Wesch, cultural anthropologist, has created Teaching the Machine, a crafty little piece of propaganda summing up a lot of stuff about the evolution of the Web. It's got a some of that old Wired magazine breathlessness, especially when it gets to the sock-o ending ... but mostly in a good way.

08 March 2007

Who thinks we do?

Bill Maher is a comic first and a political commentator second, so his rants tend to oversimplify for the sake of snark. But I have to agree with him when he says, “New Rule: We Don't Need Drug Tests for Librarians.”

Check it out. The details are even more absurd than it sounds on the face of it.

07 March 2007


Jean Baudrillard

We've lost another postmodern French philosopher.

Derrida was dense and witty; his magic word was “deconstruction,” looking so closely at a text that its meaning shatters into a million pieces. Foucault taught us to find the worm of internal contradiction in the apple of any process in society; his magic word was “Foucauldian,” finding the mirror that shows the funhouse reflection between the Self and the Other. Guy Debord led the Situationist critique; his magic word was “the spectacle,” the way that society has become and empty theatrical performance.

Baudrillard's magic word was “simulacrum,” the copy with no original, the map that blots out the territory, the legend that becomes the fact. His other word was “hyperreality,” the place where you live when everything is a simulacrum. Like Disneyland. Or America. And while you can find Derrida and Foucault lurking in the papers you wrote in college, and the shade of Debord stalks the temporary streets of Burning Man, only Baudrillard has the distinction of having his ideas (mis?)made into a series of blockbuster action movies: The Matrix.

The New Yorker reports that in 1999, M. Baudrillard was asked what I should say about him today.

“You’re Baudrillard, and you were able to fill a room. And what I want to know is: when someone dies, we read an obituary—like Derrida died last year, and is a great loss for all of us. What would you like to be said about you? In other words, who are you? I would like to know how old you are, if you’re married and if you have kids, and since you’ve spent a great deal of time writing a great many books, some of which I could not get through, is there something you want to say that can be summed up?”

“What I am, I don’t know,” Baudrillard said, with a Gallic twinkle in his eye. “I am the simulacrum of myself.”

He will be missed.

06 March 2007


The verdict is in.
Libby, 56, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and a fine of $1 million.
What am I talking about? My ongoing obsession with the Plame case.

Apropos of nothin'

Zombie! In! Spaaaaaace!

05 March 2007

Today's quote

Why Bill Clinton's past infidelity is more relevant to his wife's candidacy than Rudy Giuliani's own infidelity is to his own candidacy is an exercise left to the reader.
It's that liberal media, right?

04 March 2007


If you were reading this blog in 2004, then you know that I did a fair bit of cheerleading for John Kerry. For a long time I wasn't thrilled that he was the Democratic candidate, and I still wish it had been Howard Dean, but I was behind him because I was so frightened of another four years of the Bush administration.

Then he won my heart. I distinctly remember the moment. It was in the first debate when moderator Jim Lehrer asked him:

If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?
In my opinion, there is an unequivocal right answer to this question. And Kerry said it without hesitation.
Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.
He then delivered a perfect two minute explanation why no other issue even comes close. And later in the debate, he had an exchange with the President in which they argued about how best to handle North Korea.

Guess what I just read from Joshua Micah Marshall? The Bush administration has badly screwed up handling North Korea.

Because of a weapons program that may not even have existed (and no one ever thought was far advanced) the White House the White House got the North Koreans to restart their plutonium program and then sat by while they produced a half dozen or a dozen real nuclear weapons—not the Doug Feith/John Bolton kind, but the real thing.

It's a screw-up that staggers the mind. And you don't even need to know this new information to know that. Even if the claims were and are true, it was always clear that the uranium program was far less advanced than the plutonium one, which would be ready to produce weapons soon after it was reopened. Now we learn the whole thing may have been a phantom.

I wish I were surprised.

03 March 2007

What he was gonna do

Now that it's not gonna happen, Joss Whedon confesses his plan for Wonder Woman.
My take on the movie was simply the story of somebody who saw the world with fresh eyes. Somebody who saw that the Gods were still keeping us down, even though they might have changed their names or become companies. And the world is horribly out of balance and not as good as it should be.

It was sort of her journey to understanding what makes us the way we are, because she wants desperately to help and be a hero. It was basically her journey towards becoming a human being, without which no heroism is truly worthy. So it was about the ability to stand up and do the best you can, and to learn about the strength that comes out of weakness, which is what I often write about... but I'm not going to be writing about that anymore. I don't honestly know what turned the studio off. They never told me, so I can't say what you can expect to see should they make the movie, because I don't know what they're looking for.

The link is to a long interview with lots of art from the forthcoming Buffy comic, in case you're one of my readers who wants that.

02 March 2007

Sy Hersh

Sy Hersh has a new long article in The New Yorker and again it's a doozy. (There's also a good interview with Hersh on CNN, where he hits the highlights.) Hersh reports that the White House is driving toward a sweeping change in US alliances in the Middle East, pointing toward (suprise, surprise) an air attack on Iran.

There's been lots of commentary in the blogosphere.

Digby, of course, is on the case, with a long post that includes key quotes from Hersh and others. Digby rants:

Think about this for a moment. The crackerjack Bush administration—which failed to anticipate the rise of Iran once they removed its dangerous enemy from the scene—is supposed to be able to recognize who's who among these various Muslim players and deftly play all the factions against one another in a very discrete and high stakes game in which they finesse a final outcome that brings about peace and security.

Joshua Micah Marshall points to the bottom line in this new set of alliances.

the US has essentially decided to get out of the al Qaeda/Sunni-jihadist fighting business and redirect our efforts toward fighting the Iranian peril. The real war we're in the midst of now, it turns out, is the trans-Middle Eastern Sunni-Shi'a civil war. And we're going to side with the Saudis, who will in turn enlist a bunch of al Qaeda type groups to work on our behalf against Iran.
But wait ... Only a short time ago we were told that Cheney and his crew at the White House wanted to take the side of the Shi'as in Iraq's burgeoning civil war. In other words, for all the attention to who we're going to attack and how and how many soldiers we need to do it, there appears to be a basic debate (to be generous) or confusion (to be less generous) within the administration over which side we're even on.

Does that even make sense? Kevin Drum has an explanation.

Having never really believed in the threat of non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the first place, the Bush administration may now have come full circle from 9/11, tacitly teaming up with Sunni jihadists in the hope that they'll help us take out the state-based terrorist threat of Iran—after which, presumably, the jihadis will all go home to watch TV and raise their families. Just like they did after the Afghanistan war.

And for those who didn't quite follow that last comment from Mr Drum, let me explain. He's not talking about the recent Afghanistan war in the wake of 9/11, he's talking about the one in which the Afghans resisted the Soviet invasion in the late '70s and early '80s. The US kept the Afghan jihadis well-supplied, and as a result they eventually succeeded in fighting off the Soviets.

A lot of those guys were hardcore and did not retire, but went on to get involved with a range of jihadist movements, many of which survive to this day. Among those guys: Osama bin Laden.

01 March 2007

O Captain

Via Wil Wheaton, I learn that John Scalzi contemplates The Exisitential Plight of Chester Chipmate.
But more than that, as a store brand mascot, Chester is denied the vehicle that would allow his character its narrative: The commercial. Everything we know of all the major cereal mascots comes in 30-second animated snippets; it's how we know Tony the Tiger is an excellent lifestyle coach, or that Snap, Crackle and Pop have virtuoso comic timing, or that the poor Trix Rabbit is in desperate and immediate need of therapy. We will never have these brief windows into Chester's soul; store brands aren't given commercials of their own.