Tag Archives: Class

Are Firms Today’s Low Class?

In the ancient world, there were different classes of people, who were treated differently. Some had more freedoms than others, such as to own property, make contracts, start lawsuits, speak in public forums, or travel on their own. On the street, some had to stay silent, to wear distinctive clothing, to give way to others, and to show on demand who vouched for them.

Today we are proud that we make fewer such distinctions among individuals. (Though we do distinguish kids and convicts.) But that may be less because of our liberality, and more because of the rise of large organizations, of which the ancient world had far fewer. Today we require many distinctions between individuals, for-profit firms, non-profit orgs, and government agencies.

For example, we ban many kinds of discrimination by firms that we allow by individuals, and we hold firms to higher standards of truthfulness. We require more public disclosures by them. And many want to further limit their abilities to speak in public debates.

We today are horrified to hear that an unwed mother might have once been required to wear a “Scarlet A” in public to display her status, and are similarly horrified by rumors of a Chinese “social credit” system to weigh many indicators of social approval and disapproval. (Though we seem okay with credit scores, relating only to our dealings with firms.)

But we seem fine with legally requiring firms to disclose Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) scores, which score firms by adding up dozens of particular “do-gooder” indications. A social credit score for firms. So far laws have not yet required us to shun the firms that rate poorly, though many suspect such laws are coming. But such scores today clearly help mobs to coordinate to punish firms, just as Scarlet As do for individuals.

Government agencies, in contrast, often have more privileges than both firms and individuals. For example, US police have “qualified immunity” protecting them from lawsuits. Government, academic and think tank studies are taken at face value, yet firm versions are considered suspect. Non-profits like universities are allowed to collude in ways that firms cannot.

Thus we today still do maintain formal class ladders in custom and law, but more ladders of orgs than of people. Now you might say this is fine, as class ladders are mean to individuals, making them feel bad, but organizations can’t feel bad. But in fact our class ladders of orgs influence how people in those orgs feel.

As individuals today largely gain status via association with orgs, the status of those orgs directly effects the status of individuals. So when we shame or honor an org, we also shame or honor the people associated with it. Formal class ladders continue today.

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Hypocrisy As Key To Class

Two examples of how a key to achieving higher social class is to learn the right kinds of hypocrisy:

Working-class students are more likely to enter college with the notion that the purpose of higher education is learning in the classroom and invest their time and energies accordingly. … This type of academically focused script clashes with the “party” and social cultures of many US colleges. It isolates working and lower middle-class students from peer networks that can provide them with valuable information about how to navigate the social landscape of college as well as future job opportunities. The resulting feelings of isolation and alienation adversely affect these students’ grades, levels of happiness, and likelihood of graduation. … [This] also adversely affects their job prospects. (p.13 Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs)

“There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor. … There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.” By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have.

Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.” This idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking—where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense—is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice. (more)

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Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Forager Mating Returns" »

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Working Class Futures

Two years ago I posted on an article saying most psych data comes from a weird source, US college students:

Americans are, on average, the most individualistic people in the world. … American parents, for example, were the only ones in a survey of 100 societies who created a separate room for their baby to sleep. … Compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist. They were also among the most optimistic, and the least class-conscious.

The article authors expect US college attitudes to spread to be the usual ones worldwide, because they are just better:

Our evolved tendencies to imitate successful and prestigious individuals will favor the spread of child-rearing traits that speed up and enhance the development of those particular cognitive and social skills that eventually translate into social and economic success.

Unsurprisingly, US non-college-grads are culturally more like the rest of the world. They more value conforming to norms and to others, and less value choice, control, and being different. (Many quotes below.)

Many futurists seem to also expect US college values to dominate the future. They imagine wealthy future folk as super-individualists — gaining even more “transhumanist” options to expand or change themselves, diverging according to differing personal inclinations, and often violating familiar norms in the process. My guess, however, is that increasing individualism results from a mix of increasing per-person wealth giving more personal options and less need for strong social ties, and the world copying the random weirdness of the most successful nation.

Thus when US success is eclipsed by other nations, and when per-person wealth again declines, both of which seem very likely in the long run, I expect more-farmer-like future folk to be much less individualistic than today’s US college grads. If as a US person you have trouble imagining them as like foreigners, since you don’t know foreigners well, then imagine them with traditional US working class values. Don’t so much imagine the low religion, marriage, and work effort typical of today’s US working class; instead imagine their grandparents.

Yes future folk may change in many ways compared to humans today, but less because of differing personal inclinations, and more to increase productivity and to be compatible and cooperative with associates.

Those promised quotes on US working class culture: Continue reading "Working Class Futures" »

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Elites Excel At Hypocrisy

A few days ago Tyler blogged a study dissing elites:

Upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, [and] cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize. (more)

While Tyler had doubts, I’d guess this is mostly true. I’m reminded of Freakonomics on “What the Bagel Man Saw”:

The same people who routinely steal more than percent of his [honor system paid] bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box. … Telecom companies have robbed him blind, and … law firms aren’t worth the trouble. … Employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He reached this conclusion in part after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors — an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service and administrative employees. … ”I had idly assumed that in places where security clearance was required for an individual to have a job, the employees would be more honest than elsewhere. That hasn’t turned out to be true.” (more)

I’m also reminded of Charles Murray’s wish that on marriage, hard work, religion, and (caught) crime, elites would more “preach what they practice.” At least by the usual reading, elites are more moral on these key choices.

My interpretation: elites excel at hypocrisy. Elites can better distinguish ideals which are mainly given lip service, from ideals that really matter personally. Elites can better see which laws and social norms are actually enforced with strong penalties, and those that can be violated with impunity. This ability comes in part from implicit cultural learning, and also from just raw IQ. Homo hypocritus is alive and well – having good enough brains and social connections to manage hypocrisy well is still a core human capacity, as crucial for success in our world as it was for foragers.

This theory suggests that weak culture, the parts without strong local teeth, matter more for lower classes. Upper classes give lip service to whatever they are supposed to endorse, and then mostly ignore it to do what helps them personally. It is the lower classes that are more likely to naively do what culture suggests. They are more likely to “only marry for love” or “follow your bliss” or to think “its all relative anyway.”

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Charles Murray, Farmer

I finished Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. He is quite convincing on his main empirical claim: the behavior of US high and low classes have indeed come apart in the last half century, mainly as low classes reject religion, marriage, and full-time work.

This raises the obvious question of whether classes have been similarly coming apart in the rest of the world. But Murray seems uninterested in that question – he is fervently nationalist, and mainly laments the US losing its exceptional status of having fewer class differences, and becoming more like other rich nations. Since regression to the mean is what we should expect about most any nation with an exceptional feature, this shouldn’t be very surprising, and we shouldn’t expect a reversal.

Curiously the US may have “regressed past the mean”, achieving classes that are even more distinct classes than in most rich nations. Perhaps the US allows more change and mobility overall.

Near the end of the book Murray allows himself a rant on what he thinks was great about the US, and bad about Europe. This seems to me an unusually vivid presentation of a farmer-style intellectual point of view, a rare find in the modern world:

There’s a lot to like about day-to-day live in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – The Europe Syndrome.

Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates. … The precipitous decline of marriage, far greater in Europe than in the United STates, is another symptom. What is the point of a life-time commitment when the state will act as surrogate spouse when it comes to paying the bills? The decline of fertility to far below replacement is another symptom. Children are seen as a burden that the state must help shoulder, and even then they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. It that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)

This sort of view may seem alien to many intellectuals, and even obviously wrong. But it isn’t obviously wrong, and it was pretty common in the farming era. Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly.

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Talk Rules Are Classist

Our society claims to be concerned about less-favored races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, etc. But our most visible and well-enforced policies for showing such concern are rules about what folks may not say. And these rules are heavily classist, imposing much larger burdens on lower classes. Let me explain.

Humans have complex coalition politics, wherein we jockey for allies, test potential allies for weaknesses, and try to undermine rivals. We often communicate at several levels at once, with overt talk that better withstands outside scrutiny, and covert talk that is more free.

Lower “working” class cultures tend to talk more overtly. Insults are more direct and cutting, friends and co-workers often tease each other about their weaknesses. Nicknames often express weakness – a fat man might be nicknamed “slim.”

Upper class culture, in contrast, tends more to emphasize politeness and indirect communication. This helps to signal intelligence and social awareness, and distinguishes upper from lower classes. Upper class folks can be just as cruel, but their words have more plausible deniability.

The enforcement of laws against racist, sexist, etc. expressions is limited by the ability of courts and related observers to agree on the intent of what was said. Observers will not have access to all the local context and history that local folks use to interpret each others’ words. Now since official observers like judges tend to be upper class, they do tend to be better able to interpret the intent of upper class words. But this advantage seems insufficient compensate for the much greater indirection and politeness of upper class talk.

So when an upper and a lower class person both express disfavor with a certain race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc., the lower class expression is more likely to be legally and socially verifiable as racist, sexist, etc. If we add in the general reluctance of legal and social systems to punish upper class folks relative to lower class folks, we see that the burden of such policies mostly falls on the lower classes.

Could it be that advantaged folks are especially eager to support policies to help the disadvantaged when the cost of such policies are mainly borne by someone else?

(Idea stolen from a conversation with Katja Grace.)

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Hail Winter’s Bone

Though Intrade gives it the lowest odds of winning best picture tonight, like Tyler my fav was Winter’s Bone. Like another Oscar contender, True Grit, it is the story of a teen girl’s gritty struggle. Except that the world of Winter’s Bone is rural and low class. A colleague’s wife confessed to me that she was so horrified and repulsed by the world depicted as to make her reluctant to venture out of the city. While most folks in our society pride themselves on their respect for other cultures and ethnicities, such folk have little reason to fear being mistaken for someone from most such cultures. Their respect extends the least to “white trash,” who they have the most reason to fear being confused with.

Words like seamy, sleezy, and seedy are negatives vaguely associated with sloppiness, immorality, and low class, as if to imply that such things naturally go together. Which seems to me the worst sort of vague insinuation. I can accept that low class folks tend to be sloppier, and in some folk’s morality that in itself makes them less moral. But while I’m happy to celebrate our new better top class, if we are talking about an economists’ sort of immorality, i.e., hurting other folks on net, it isn’t clear to me that low class folks are less moral. They contribute a larger fraction of income to charity, if I recall. I can see you might be terrified of associating with them if you feared being confused with them, but I can’t sympathize much with that, as your desire to keep your status high comes at the expense of keeping the status of others low. I don’t see great cause to fear more direct harms.

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Naked Classism

When San Francisco banned the McDonalds Happy Meal, Adam Ozimek said that illustrated the slippery slope of paternalism; if we’ll ban that, what won’t we ban? Now the US Feds offer a bigger example:

The Food and Drug Administration said it had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol was unsafe and unapproved. … The products … have become a favorite among college students. … Treasury Department officials announced … the companies would be told that the products had been mislabeled and were therefore illegal to be shipped. And the Federal Trade Commission told the companies that marketing the products might violate federal law.


Federal officials were facing increasing pressure to take action in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents. … Students … ended up in the emergency room after consuming the most popular of the drinks, Four Loko, including some with alcohol poisoning. In other incidents, deaths and fatal car crashes have been blamed on the drinks. …

The drinks … contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine, making it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are, experts say. … Consuming one can of Four Loko is the equivalent of drinking as many as five cans of beer and a cup of coffee. …

Four Loko [said] … “If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees . . . would face the same scrutiny that our products recently faced.” … It had previously added multiple warning labels to its cans.

My college student son assures me caffeine doesn’t keep kids from knowing they are drunk, and it is easier to track drinking with a few big cans than with lots of little shots; they usually limit themselves to one or two cans a night. Those who want to binge can do so just as easily without the cans. But the facts don’t seem to matter.

cans2The FDA likes to present itself as a paragon of scientific rigor, but there is no rigor here. No randomized experiments or even careful regressions. Just public pressure to “do something” about vivid examples of “those people” hurting themselves.

Little remains of the rule of law precept to treat people equally. The exact same chemical combinations which are fine to serve rich old folks at cocktail receptions, are banned in cheap cans from convenience store coolers. Clearly the goal is to target particular vaguely-imagined classes of people, and regulators would be fine with having the law specify the color of the cans, the geographic locations, time of purchase, form of financing, whatever it took to get to “them” without overly bothering “us.”

And this is where the slippery slope of paternalism leads: naked classism. When we the good people notice that those distrusted others do things that don’t seem proper to us, well we should just pass whatever laws it takes to make them toe our line. Surely it wouldn’t be responsible to just let them do stuff we wouldn’t, right?

Added 8a: mtraven points us to a CDC fact sheet, which cites exactly one randomized experiment with 26 subjects, whose abstract says:

When compared with the ingestion of alcohol alone, the ingestion of alcohol plus energy drink significantly reduced subjects’ perception of … impairment of motor coordination. However, the ingestion of the energy drink did not significantly reduce the deficits caused by alcohol on objective motor coordination.

They saw no difference after 30 minutes, but after 120 minutes the perception of altered motor control under alcohol was 15 +/- 15 (0 is none, 100 is max), while under alcohol plus energy drink was 11+/- 12, and under energy drink alone was 6 +/- 12.  They pooled the later two groups to get a 5% significant difference from the first group!  That’s not remotely kosher.

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