Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What's Class Got to Do, Got to Do with It?

More and more talk these days about growing socioeconomic inequality.  For example, according to the Pew Research Center:
In 1982, the highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 64.7%, according to research by UC-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez. Three decades later, according to Saez’ preliminary estimates for 2012, the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share had fallen to 49.6% — the lowest level since at least 1917.
Inequality is higher in the US in comparison to other developed economies (2nd highest income inequality, after taxes and transfers, out of 31 OECD countries).  The income gap between whites and blacks and Hispanics has grown.  Inequality of wealth is even more skewed.  And notably, says Pew, "Americans are relatively unconcerned about the wide income gap between rich and poor" (see 2013 global attitudes survey here).

Why not?  Maybe because we're so good at rationalizing it?  Matthew Hutson suggests this in his piece for Slate, Social Darwinism Isn't Dead.
New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.
Hutson summarizes this research, and gives some examples of social darwinist talk, such as that of former Lt. Governor of South Carolina, Andre Bauer.  During a 2010 town hall meeting, he said this in response to a question about school lunch programs:
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. . .You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.
The problem with this example--aside from the grotesque lack of empathy--is that Bauer isn't a member of the elite, those one percenters, and probably not in even the top 5% in terms of wealth and income (check out this NY Times site where you can guestimate your class position).  This brings me to what I think is the cognitive obstacle to reducing socioeconomic inequality.  It's not so much the elite, who have always rationalized their disparate wealth (or never deigned to to explain it).  It's that swath of people constituting the amorphous middle class--from employed working class folks on up to the upper middle class (where Bauer probably sits).  These are the ones who live on various comfortable rationales for inequality.

This large group includes people who are happy with inequality, even revel in it, as long as they're on the winning side of the movement of capital, from the schmucks who have little to the dashing buccaneers who evidently deserve a lot.  Back in 2004, CBS News acquired the following from the Justice Department, a recording of two Enron employees gloating over all the money they made for their company by driving up energy rates under false pretenses, and joking about a California utility's effort to recover some of that money:
Employee 5: They f_ _ _in' takin' all the money back from you guys?  All the money you stole from those poor grandmothers in California?
Employee 6: [chuckling] Yeah, grandma Millie, man. . .
Employee 5: Yeah, now she wants her f_ _ _in' money back for all the money you charged, jammed right up her ass for f_ _ _in' $250 a megawatt hour. . .
[both chuckle a bit]
(You can learn more about this affair in the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room)

Or I could cite the more recent home mortgage crisis, where educated middle class people in the housing, mortgage, banking and financial industries--wittingly or not--colluded in screwing over other people and fomenting an economic crisis (listen to This American Life's excellent report on this in "Giant Pool of Money").

This large group includes managerial staff who think their paternalistic gesture towards underpaid employees is noble.  Even Forbes, hardly a bastion of liberalism, couldn't believe that Ohio Walmart managers last Thanksgiving ran a food drive for their employees.  "Associates?"  Orwell would roll his eyes.
Photo courtesy of Our Walmart
at http://www.today.com/news/wal-mart-defends-controversial-food-drive-employees-2D11618754

This large group includes all of us that consume media that routinely celebrate individualism and deny the effect of socioeconomic origins.  Bill Murray does a nice job of satirizing this in this clip from the 1979 movie, "Meatballs."  "It, meaning class, "just doesn't matter," he repeats, though the movie goes on to reward the lower class Camp North Star its first victory over the nearby upper class Camp Mohawk in the annual Olympiad.  That's the kind of story we tell ourselves over and over again.

And there's some truth to it, for sure.  There is more social mobility in the US than most countries in the world, though that mobility has declined in recent decades, in part because of growing inequality in our educational system (see this Brookings report).  But those of us who have not fallen down the class ladder tend to explain our success, and the failures of those on lower rungs, in individualistic terms.  We worked hard.  We earned what we have.  We acted responsibly.  They didn't.

Never mind that we probably went to better high schools, grew up in more stable communities, with families and sets of peers that socialized us to maneuver well in our economy.  But we didn't work hard for that.  We didn't earn it.  It came our way because we were born in a particular socioeconomic stratum (and in my case, I got more unearned entitlements because I'm white and male).

Am I arguing that economic outcomes for people are all structural?  No, clearly they're not because people from the same social class can go in different directions on the ladder (though the great majority stay in the same place), and people from the same social class can end up in very different economic niches (say, a political science professor compared to a bank manager or a chemist).  But I am saying that our staunch individualism, and our faith in the myth of 'pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,' contributes to the widespread sentiment that socioeconomic inequality is nothing to worry about, or nothing we can can or should address, even as it continues to grow.

It's not the odd politician spouting silly social darwinist stuff who is really behind our inaction on inequality.  It's that "silent majority" Nixon loved so much who has turned a blind eye to the causes and consequences of inequality.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beatlemania Redux

Scene from Hard Day's Night
at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/books/review/Handy-t.html
My brother, Dan, has been after me to come up with a list of my top 100 Beatles songs in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' first US tour.  I unilaterally compromised, and came up with a list of 50.

Dan, five years older than me, introduced me to the Beatles. We shared a bedroom and its radio and little record player (which taught me the concept of infinity--we noticed that the picture on the inside of the lid was a silhouette of a boy and girl dancing near the same record player, with the image repeated, of the same boy and girl dancing in front of the same record player--this kept me up a few nights wondering if that ever-shrinking boy and girl would ever end).  Dan was, what, maybe twelve when he started building his collection of 45s, and he had some of the mid-Sixties releases.  The only one I remember for sure is Twist and Shout.

We of course did the air band thing--though we didn't call it that back then, and I'm not sure the term is even used anymore today--perhaps it went away with the 20th century.  Anyway, Dan always got to be Paul, my older sister Julie was usually John, I was George (unless my fit about never getting to be John worked on Julie), and if we got my younger sister, Robyn, into the act, she would be Ringo.  We even got Mom and Dad to watch us a few times.  In other words, if not immersed, we were still sharing the national bath of Beatlemania.  None of us did the rock posters, though, and Julie and Robyn didn't pine over Paul or John (at least, not to my knowledge).  And I remember watching Help! and Yellow Submarine with interest, but not fascination.

Our repertoires of musical tastes soon diversified, and by the time of high school for me (1975-78), I was rarely listening to the Beatles, and latched on to other music Dan introduced me to every summer when he was home from college: Led Zeppelin, Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, the Doobie Brothers, among others.  And I fell under the thrall of Stevie Wonder and other R&B musicians like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, and Aretha Franklin.  And there were Kansas, ELO, and, well, forgive me, Styx (if I hear Come Sail Away one more time--or worse, Lady--I swear I'm going to throw up).  And I was developing a little classical side, a gift from my father, who sat me down one day in front of our console stereo (with stereophonic speakers, don't you know), and had me listen with him, at full-blast--we were the only ones home--Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  I was duly blown away.

But I started listening to the Beatles again regularly during Peace Corps (1984-88), and haven't really stopped.  The White Album has become the common opening music for long road trips with Margo.  I'll often listen to the Abbey Road medley while doing some sort of data entry.  And after reading Jeff Gould's Can't Buy Me Love a few years ago, my admiration their music has only increased (Gould walks the reader through the production of each album and song, noting the techniques and innovations along the way--his insights just fascinated me).  They are the touchstone of my childhood, and occupy a high place in my pantheon of musical demigods.

So here's my top fifty Beatles songs.  My Beatles collection is not comprehensive, but I selected these from fourteen albums holding more than 200 songs.  Choosing them was more difficult than I thought it would be.  I tried scoring songs in terms of musicality, lyrics, sheer cleverness, and the time-and-place thing.  But that was taking way too long.  So I went with this criterion: what could I not bear to not hear ever again?  But my original four criteria continued to play a role.  Musicality is why A Day in the Life is so high on my list.  That simple acoustic strum, joined by ghostly piano chords, and then Lennon's plaintive voice, a moment of chaos, and then McCartney saying he "Woke up. . ."  Something gets the the three spot for musicality and lyrics.  Harrison's sumptuous guitar work and lines pop up in my head all the time.  Cleverness?  That's why McCartney's hilarious Rocky Racoon is way up there--that faux western twinge, and that joke at the end about Gideon's Bible.  That's also why Happiness is a Warm Gun, Piggies, and Why Don't We Do It in the Road, made it in the top 50 (and I love the satirical high brow musical style in Piggies).  As for time-and-place, there are innumerable references I can make between songs and moments in my life, but for an example, a Peace Corps friend, Jack, and I broke out into Lovely Rita, as a fellow volunteer, named Rita, joined us in the back of cattle truck, to the mystified merriment of everyone there.  I regularly sing, in my head, the opening lines to Baby You're a Rich Man when encountering the pretentiousness of the wealthy, or the super-hip ("How does it feel to be/one of the beautiful/people?").  The Abbey Road medley gets number one spot because it combines all four.

There are columns for Dan and Julie's rankings of the same songs.  NR means my song didn't make it into their rankings (for Dan, his top fifty; for Julie, her top twenty).  You'll find Dan and Julie's lists below mine.  It's interesting, to me, anyway, how three siblings born in 1955, 1957, and 1960, can have very different takes on Beatles music.  Two of my top twenty songs make it into Dan's top twenty compared to eight in Julie's list.  Dan and I share but 27 songs in our top fifty lists, in part because I like Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album a lot more than Dan does, while Dan shows an affinity for Help! and Hey Jude.

Is it my penchant for stranger sounds?  That still begs the question of why I might have that penchant, and I guess what I'm getting at here is the question of where taste comes from.  The three of us experienced the same socialization.  But we occupied different rungs in the five sibling set, and came into the world, and became cognizant, at different stages of a sometimes turbulent family history.  And there's the obvious point of individual variation--age and gender, different kinds of internal wiring, different experiences, and our own sets of peers (a psyche colleague once told me that by the age of ten, peers have a stronger socialization effect than parents).

Rather than focus on difference, I could also note our similarity--that we three even bothered to put together these lists, which reveals something of our "sociodemographic niche."  As one researcher put it:
Music may seem like a light topic, but sociologists would argue that it's important because the things people do for fun form the basis for a lot of connections between people, and across those social connections a lot of social resources and information about jobs and other things can flow. Being familiar with the right kind of culture can put you at ease with people who can provide you with certain resources.
"Blah, blah, blah" the Beatles might say, and then start singing "I'm just happy to dance with you."


Rank
Andy's List
Album
Dan
Julie
1
Abby Road Medley
Abbey Road
14
NR
2
A Day In The Life
Sgt. Pepper's
1
NR
3
Something
Abbey Road
22
6
4
Rocky Racoon
White Album
NR
NR
5
I Am The Walrus
Magical Mystery Tour
23
NR
6
The Fool On The Hill
Magical Mystery Tour
NR
NR
7
Hello Goodbye
Magical Mystery Tour
NR
5
8
I'm Looking Through You
Rubber Soul
NR
NR
9
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
Help!
29
8
10
Here, There And Everywhere
Revolver
37
3
11
Baby You're A Rich Man
Magical Mystery Tour
NR
NR
12
Yesterday
Help!
19
NR
13
Magical Mystery Tour
Magical Mystery Tour
NR
NR
14
In My Life
Rubber Soul
3
14
15
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sgt. Pepper's
NR
NR
16
Blackbird
White Album
34
2
17
All You Need Is Love
Magical Mystery Tour
NR
19
18
With a Little Help From My Friends
Sgt. Pepper's
36
12
19
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
White Album
21
NR
20
Dear Prudence
White Album
NR
NR
21
Martha My Dear
White Album
NR

22
A Hard Day's Night
A Hard Day's Night
8

23
Eight Days a Week
Beatles For Sale
18

24
Lovely Rita
Sgt. Pepper's
NR

25
Please Please Me
Please Please Me
NR

26
I'm So Tired
White Album
NR

27
All My Loving
With The Beatles
NR

28
For No One
Revolver
46

29
Love Me Do
Please Please Me
NR

30
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
White Album
NR

31
Across The Universe
Let It Be
33

32
We Can Work It Out
Yesterday and Today
38

33
Strawberry Fields Forever
Magical Mystery Tour
9

34
Can't Buy Me Love
A Hard Day's Night
28

35
Hey Jude
Hey Jude
6

36
I Saw Her Standing There
Please Please Me
25

37
Help!
Help!
16

38
Penny Lane
Magical Mystery Tour
26

39
Revolution 1
White Album
NR

40
Lady Madonna
Hey Jude
35

41
The Long And Winding Road
Let It Be
NR

42
Got To Get You Into My Life
Revolver
NR

43
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
White Album
24

44
Mother Nature's Son
White Album
NR

45
Norwegian Wood
Rubber Soul
47

46
I Should Have Known Better
A Hard Day's Night
17

47
Piggies
White Album
NR

48
Maxwell's Silver Hammer
Abbey Road
NR

49
Come Together
Abbey Road
11

50
Why Don't We Do It In The Road?
White Album
NR



Rank
Dan's List
Album
Andy
Julie
1
A Day in the Life
Sgt. Pepper's
2
NR
2
Let It Be
Let It Be
NR
NR
3
In My Life
Rubber Soul
14
14
4
Revolution
Hey Jude
NR
NR
5
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Meet the Beatles
NR
NR
6
Hey Jude
Hey Jude
35
NR
7
Here Comes the Sun
Abbey Road
NR
1
8
A Hard Day's Night
A Hard Day's Night
22
NR
9
Strawberry Fields Forever
Magical Mystery Tour
33
NR
10
Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds
Sgt. Pepper's
NR
NR
11
Come Together
Abbey Road
49
NR
12
Ticket to Ride
Help!
NR
NR
13
If I Fell
A Hard Day's Night
NR
18
14
Abbey Road Medley
Abbey Road
1
NR
15
She Loves You
Beatles' Second Album
NR
NR
16
Help!
Help!
37
NR
17
I Should Have Known Better
A Hard Day's Night
46
NR
18
Eight Days a Week
Beatles VI
23
NR
19
Yesterday
White Album
12
NR
20
I Feel Fine
Help!
NR
NR
21
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Beatles '65
19

22
Something
Abbey Road
3

23
I Am the Walrus
Magical Mystery Tour
5

24
Happiness is a Warm Gun
White Album
43

25
I Saw Her Standing There
Meet the Beatles
36

26
Penny Lane
Magical Mystery Tour
38

27
Eleanor Rigby
Revolver
NR

28
Can't Buy Me Love
A Hard Day's Night
34

29
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
Help!
9

30
She Said She Said
Revolver
NR

31
Paperback Writer
Hey Jude
NR

32
Day Tripper
Yesterday and Today
NR

33
Across the Universe
Let It Be
31

34
Blackbird
White Album
16

35
Lady Madonna
Hey Jude
40

36
With a Little Help From My Friends
Sgt. Pepper's
18

37
Here, There, and Everywhere
Revolver
10

38
We Can Work It Out
Single
32

39
You're Going to Lose That Girl
Help!
NR

40
Don't Let Me Down
Hey Jude
NR

41
Get Back
Let It Be
NR

42
Girl
Rubber Soul
NR

43
All You Need is Love
Magical Mystery Tour
17

44
The Ballad of John and Yoko
Hey Jude
NR

45
I've Just Seen a Face
Help!
NR

46
For No One
Revolver
28

47
Norwegian Wood
Rubber Soul
45

48
Back In the USSR
White Album
NR

49
Drive My Car
Rubber Soul
NR

50
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Abbey Road
NR




Rank
Julie's List
Dan
Andy
1
Here Comes the Sun 
7
NR
2
Blackbird
34
16
3
Here, There, and Everywhere
37
10
4
Penny Lane
26
38
5
Hello, Goodbye
NR
7
6
Something
22
3
7
Happy Xmas
NR
NR
8
You’ve got to Hide Your Love Away
29
9
9
The Long and Winding Road
NR
41
10
Ob-Li-Da, Ob-Li-Da
NR
30
11
Get Back
41
NR
12
With a Little Help From my Friends
36
18
13
And I Love Her
NR
NR
14
In My Life
3
14
15
Happy Birthday
NR
NR
16
Love Me Do
NR
29
17
Norwegian Wood
47
45
18
If I Fell
13
NR
19
All You Need is Love
NR
17
20
Hey Jude
6
35