America is uniquely screwed up about class. So are the other new world countries
As I write this I'm coding occupations from a database of the complete 1880 census of the United States. Mechanically, what I'm doing is looking at 80 character descriptions of people's jobs, and giving them 5 digit codes in an Access database. In the end this will allow anyone who cares (and is not a genealogist) to make some sense of the 550,000 different responses 37 million Americans (the other 13 million were under the age of 10, and thus ineligible to answer, or neglected to give a response) gave to the basic request for the "Profession, occupation, or trade of each person, male or female."
Right about now I am working my way through assorted odds and sods who work on the railroad, thinking about whether someone who describes their job as "tends station" is like a "station master" and kind of a manager, or whether "tends station" is more of a subordinate clerical position. And what about someone who "works at railroad station." What do they do? If they were the station master, surely they would say that? Probably "works at railroad station" means the man (this is 1880) does general duties at the station; perhaps selling tickets, unloading freight, calling the arrival and departure of trains. In the end, some of the actual meaning of the job is lost to history.
I mention this to dispel any lingering notions that historical demography and economic history are glamorous profession, but also to make the point by example that while clarity may be elusive the distinctions do matter. There was a substantial difference in pay and status between the station master and the grunt who unloaded goods or shoveled coal. Needless to say, being the President of the railroad was even more prestigious.
(At the risk of losing my readers in this digression, there were lots of small railroad companies in 19th century America, many of which were incorporated, so being president of a railroad could mean being president of a 6 mile transfer line, or being James J. Hill and holding sway over the plains and northwest. More of the former than the latter.)
Class is a slippery subject, and I have considerable sympathy for the New York Times endeavor to say something about class in America in their Class Matters series. They're not the only ones; the LA Times examined risk and inequality for families back in October 2004, and the Wall Street Journal looked at inter-generational income mobility in a May/June 2005 series (but for that you'll need a subscription, sorry).
The Times series gets the most criticism, because it was more ambitious, and because it's the New York Times. Paper of record, liberal elite and all that.
They cop it from all over the place --none of the people commenting on the series had much love for it after the obligatory "glad someone's looking at this" comment. Two of the more substantial criticisms come from Chris Lehmann in the Boston Phoenix, and Jack Schafer in Slate.
Lehmann's take is that:
Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.
Schafer's criticism is rambling, and all over the map (but then so is his target). He makes an advance on the argument that class is really moot these days, because most everyone has more and better material possessions than people did back in the day, which he defines as the 1960s.
Then he says relying on surveys that exclude immigrants--who have high relatively high inter-generational mobility--"places a cloud" over the "whole project. Really? When only 11% of the country is foreign born I'd say that places a cloud over, ummmm, 11% of the project. But whatever. What's 89% of the population when you have an axe to grind?
Then he says that because choices and circumstances differ (1) between individuals and families at a point in time, and (2) for one person over time, you can't make sense of class at all:
Lives are in such flux over any two points in time—one ages, marries, divorces, spawns, changes jobs, gets sick, gets sicker, gets well, moves to a new climate, etc.—that it's maddeningly complex to determine whether one's stock is up or down .... No consumer price index, academic data, and statistical tool known to man can crack these nuts.
Finally, Schafer lights upon the idea that journalists in New York are particularly envious of the people they report on. The whole series, he suggests, is really an expression of journalists own status anxiety:
Journalists are notoriously sensitive to matters of class and status, especially a New York journalist with a $125,000 salary that might make him an object of envy to a reporter living in Lansing, Mich., but that stigmatizes him as a knuckle-dragging proletarian on his home turf .... If they're blue about class in America, you can't blame them.
This is the admonition to look at an author's perspective motivation gone amok, beyond parody. Nobody can write about class because we're all so invested in our part of the class structure.
Now you can see the continuing appeal of Tocqueville . It's the foreign observer, mixing easily with the locals, traveling the country, who can see the people and their social relations as they really are. Something to aspire to.
But what I've seen, as a foreigner from another new world country, is that American ambivalence about the existence of class relations is not unique. It's unique in its particular forms—the usual things that can be used to explain why American social history is not the same as Canadian/Australian/New Zealand social history: race and religion—are relevant here too. But the national myth—or delusion—that class does not exist here persists.
Tocqueville observed about America in a section entitled "Influence of Democracy on Manners Properly so Called" that
In democracies servants are not only equal among themselves, but it may be said that they are, in some sort, the equals of their masters
When Tocqueville spoke of "manners" he didn't mean how you hold your knife and fork (<joke>and just as well for Americans whose incompetent use of these instruments is the disgrace of the civilized world</joke>), but rather of the way in which people of different economic circumstances conversed and interacted.
'Jack's as good as his master' here, and even better in some cases
Contemporary [19th century] observers attributed this equality of interaction to the economic mobility in the new world, and one man one vote elections. If men could advance rapidly and far from humble origins (inter-generational mobility) and humble starts (career advancement) then servants might soon be masters. Moreover, in the voting booth servants and masters spoke with the same weight.
There was, of course, inequality in the new world. But these new world countries came of age with the justifiable belief that there was more economic mobility and political equality than in Europe. Comparing at least Britain and the United States we know this was true. Contemporary observers were not wrong. The national myths of the classless society was grounded in something real. It was always likely a bit of an exaggeration, but it expressed some reality, and reflected an important ideal.
In the last century two things have changed (just two? not really. two things that are relevant). We know the United States has become less economically mobile, (it's probably true for Australia and New Zealand too) compared to its past and to European countries; and old world Europe has become more politically equal.
The exceptionalism of the relationship between rich and poor, between the new world and the old, reflects an historical ideal, rather than a current reality. The myths of the new world classless societies attributed mobility and easy social relations to the character of immigrants and the bountiful opportunities of abundant land.
We tend to forget that economic mobility in a society does not spring just from the good character of its population and [what appears to be] free land. Policy, government policy, is important too.
Universal male suffrage created a constituency for policy that distributed benefits to many white men. When land appeared free it was easy to distribute benefits to the relatively poor without taking from the wealthy. That is a harder trick to play when land is no longer free, abundant or very useful. Policy that promotes economic mobility may advance the interests of many at the expense of some others. But governments that want to stay in office have to wonder about balancing the votes they will lose when they take and tax, with the votes they will win when they spend and distribute.
That's a harder trick to pull off. Getting the right balance between government intervention to ensure opportunity, and government interventions that do too much to ensure outcomes is not straightforward.
We should not kid ourselves in the New World that because we have a history of high economic mobility, and because we idealize mobility, that class does not exist and does not matter. Because class has many dimensions—measurable and not—we will never really understand it. But that does not mean that class doesn't exist. The belief that a history of opportunity and an ideal of mobility persists into the present is the conceit of the new world.Posted by robe0419 at July 26, 2005 4:41 PM | TrackBack