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Class Identity


A very interesting report showing that despite the constant discussion of the middle class in the media and by our politicians, as many Americans openly identify as working class as they do middle class:

Pew doesn’t include working class as an option in its survey, but the long-running General Social Survey (GSS) includes both working class and lower class as options. In the chart below, I use the GSS to track class identification between 1980 and 2012 (the most recent year for which GSS data is available). As it shows, at 44 percent, the share of Americans identifying as working class in 2012 was the same as the share identifying as middle class. Only about 8 percent of Americans identified as lower class, slightly higher than the roughly 5 percent on average who identified as lower class before the Great Recession.

This is important because it shows how the media and political class work to obscure class in this country, naturalizing the middle class as important while denigrating the working class as lazy or irrelevant. It shows at least the potential for some kind of more concrete class politics in this country. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Americans vote according to political class the way many progressives would like them to vote, nor does it mean that they believe their working-class status makes capital an antagonist to their interests. These are complex questions and can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.

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  • Anonymous

    A large percentage of Americans are also evangelical Christians, but their religious preference is never presented by the media as mainstream either. Obviously, there is some overlap between evangelicals and the working class, so these portrayals are probably related.

    • Hannibal Lecture

      “A large percentage of Americans are also evangelical Christians, but their religious preference is never presented by the media as mainstream either.”

      It’s true. Fundagelicals are grossly underrepresented in all of the news media, and their views are never presented as representing mainstream “values” or “religion”.

    • Aimai

      Indeed, important groups like Barna have never even done a study of evangelicals and religious affiliation.

  • E7

    Much of the identification appears to be based entirely on the term “working” though. How much more potential does a working class politics that includes a large portion of self identifiers who are earning over $75K offer over the corrupted middle class ideal?
    Maybe you could successfully link some of the those middles with the lower-middle and lower class but one would still need to overcome
    the racial component.

    Perhaps I am too pessimistic as I see the vanguard is already in place with that 10% earning $150K+ who identify as working class.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Since you bring up the racial component what strikes me is that according to the survey 53% of black men don’t identify as working class. Considering that 67% of black households make less than the median income, then they either consider themselves “lower class” or “middle class”. I’d be curious to see self-identification broken down in more detail for blacks and Latinos.

  • Anonymous

    Reading the study cited at the link, it appears this is a flawed survey, because respondents are told, “most Americans identify as working class or middle class,” before being asked what class they are. Without being prompted, according to the study, no more than 16% of Americans identify as working class.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      The priming in these multiple-choice surveys does seem to be a big problem. There was a whole lot of BS in the usual places about that Pew survey, which gave people five class choices: lower, upper, and three “middles.” Surprise, most people chose one of the middles, although, if you looked at all carefully, lower + lower middle = more than 1/3, IIRC. I’d be curious to read about an open-ended study that asked people (1) what a class is, (2) whether they think they are in a class, (3) what it is, (4) whether they think all members of their immediate household are in the same class, etc. No doubt one would find tremendous ignorance and inconsistency, as in so many things. Too cumbersome and expensive to do, though.

      • JoyfulA

        I’ve been defining myself as genteel poor for a long time, but it’s never caught on.

        • Dennis Orphen

          Maybe there are only two economic classes of people: those who act in their own best interests and those who act against their own best interests.

          • Nathanael

            Nah. There’s also “enlightened self-interest” vs. “unenlightened self-interest”.

    • tt

      Where are you getting this? I can’t find it in either the Pew survey or the GSS.

  • I move pianos. If that isn’t “working class” I don’t know what is. If all you do is shift paper or electrons around, sell stuff or make phone calls, you are not “working class.” “Working class” moves things, builds things, and makes the world look different at the end of the day.

    • This seems an entirely artificial divide that would exclude people and undermine class consciousness and politics.

      • DrDick

        A better definition of “working class” is those who work for someone else and do not control their own labor.

        • NewishLawyer

          That would make an associate at a law firm working class even if the associate is making 150 K a year.

          There needs to be some income element to who is working class and who is not. I admit that this is not an exact science though.

          • Andrae

            I think looking at income is going to lead you astray. The best discriminants of class I can think of are ‘agency’ and ‘expectation’.

            I see no reason why someone working for $150k can’t be working class, if they have no other choice and no reasonable expectation that this will ever change. Granted, assuming a sensible legal market (that doesn’t currently exist), most associates working for $150k would have the reasonable option of working for themselves and have the agency to choose to work for someone in the reasonable expectation of one day making partner.

            On a similar note, I see no reason why someone working sub-minimum wage must be working class. If they have the social and economic capital to chose not to do so, but are doing it in some Romneyesque “putting myself through college” schick.

            Envy has always been a powerful weapon of those with power to divide those who united would threaten that power. The day you start excluding potential allies on the basis they earn professional-level salaries, is the day you fall into that trap.

            • NewishLawyer

              I would say that if you managed to get one of those 150K positions in these economy, there is a good chance that it is not forever. Also careers are strange, they can stay the same for a while and then change rapidly.

              I have been a perma-temp lawyer since March 2012 and making decent money. There are plenty of times I despair about being stuck like this for my entire career. There are also times when I am glad for where I am because change can always be a change for the worst.

              There has to be some income requirement to being working class and maybe it can be a bit relative based on where someone lives, whether someone has dependents or not, extent of loans and obligations, etc.

              What does it mean to be working class? Does it mean always feeling overextended and not having money for entertainment/relaxation/spending? Can someone consider himself or herself working class and completely satisfied with their economic lot in life?
              I would like to advance in my career and income level but there are probably plenty of people who would be happy as a clam to make 150K a year.

              I make less than 150K a year, much less and can’t say I am living poorly.

        • LeeEsq

          I’m not fond of either your definition or Repack Rider’s definition. Your definition is too inclusive. His is too exclusive. There all sorts of low level white collar work that is working class but wouldn’t count under his definition. Under your definition, a doctor that earn over 100,000 a year is working class if she works for a major hospital but not so if she has her own practice or shares it with others. Simply working for others doesn’t make a person working class. Wouldn’t all politicians be working class by that standard because they are in theory working for the people that elected them into office if not the entire nation?

      • Rhino

        I divide people into ‘working class’ and ‘capital’. I don’t care if you make half a million dollars a year, if you have to kiss the bosses ass to keep your livelihood, you are working class.

        The capital/worker divide is NOT the same as the divides between upper/middle/lower classes. The one is a definition of how you earn your wealth, the other a definition of how well off you are.

        You can be upper class and still working class: doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes are all working class and can certainly be very affluent.

        • Nathanael

          Those are useful divides, but I divide people into “socially responsible” and “sociopathic thieves”.

          The real problem group are the sociopathic thieves who have capital.

    • NewishLawyer

      Too artificial. There are plenty of people whose jobs don’t involve too much physical exertion but they are possibly not making big money either.

      I used to work as a freelance legal proofreader. Every now and then, I worked the graveyard shift at a big law firm. They put me in the word processing department with many women who seemed to be permanent graveyard shift workers. Typing legal documents all night so they would be ready first thing in the morning when the associates and partners came in. There were also a few full-time legal proofreaders working the graveyard shift. I would say those people are working class even if some of the proofreaders were grad-school educated artists who needed a steady stream of income.

      I will grant that there are probably biographical and psychological issues that determine whether someone sees themselves as working class or middle class. A person who went to a paralegal vocational program might be more likely to see themselves as working class than a 22-23 year old college graduate who is doing it for a bit to see if they want to be a lawyer or not.

      Also some formally “working class” professions have become more professional like nursing. When I was growing up, I had the impression of nursing being seen as a distinctly working class profession. Now people get a lot of schooling for it. Fictional media like Saint Elsewhere showed the nurses as being working class (they had a union and went on strike).

      • DrDick

        Right. You highlight an important factor here, which is the shifting nature of American class structure. Most professionals now work as employees, rather than as independent businessmen or partners in a firm, as they did in the 19th and early 20th century. At the same time, many traditional working class jobs have become increasingly professionalized. I am not sure that the old labels really make sense the way they used to. Making a distinction between hourly and salaried employees does make some sense, but even there many people are in the gray area.

        • NewishLawyer

          When I worked at a firm as a freelance attorney, I was paid by the hour. As far as I can tell, the firm paid everyone by the hour except associates and partners and this potentially included their Chief Operating Officer and the head IT guy.

          These were not necessarily bad hourly salaries either. 35 dollars an hour was not uncommon for paralegals. Freelance attorneys made at least 40 an hour.

          The firm also tried to keep strictly within the 40 hours max to avoid overtime. Freelance attorneys received more overtime than paralegals.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Yeah this would also exclude reams of so-called “pink collar” jobs as well–everything from librarians to paralegals to home health care workers to waiters/waitresses.

        I think the simplest definition of working class is just how much money you make. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. Basing it on a characterization of the type of work just seems odd to me.

        • NewishLawyer

          Do Librarians see themselves as working class or even pink collar?

          I have a few friends who have Masters in Library Science. They are very adamant about being treated and seen as well-educated professionals and not working class or pink collar. They make firm and long distinctions between library clerks (the people who check out books and the stereotypical shusher) and librarians.

          • Lee Rudolph

            University librarians (in my experience) are grouped with faculty (whom I would consider as wage slaves, but that’s just because it’s how it felt to me for the last decade or so until I got out of the business).

          • ThrottleJockey

            I was using the term more colloquially than that, NL, more along the lines of the clerks at the local library. ..But for me I always think of classes in terms of income anyways, so I can imagine well educated people being working class. Is a adjunct professor with PhD in Classics working his nights as waiter working class or middle class? To me he’s working class, but he has a ton of academic experience.

            • NewishLawyer

              This are all fair and good points but I lean more towards the multi-faceted verision of class that Karen and others discussed below.

              Part of this is because we don’t know how to decouple class (as in economic level of well-being) from taste in the US.

              For better or for for worse (largely for worse), when people talk about class in the United States, they usually seem to be talking about cultural identity and likes and dislikes.

              In any sane country, Mitt Romney and the Koch Brothers would count as members of the elite. President and Michelle Obama would also be members of the elite but not as elite as Romney and the Kochs.

              In the Palin-land version of the United States, an elitist is an artist-actor-writer in their 20s or 30s who might be living paycheck to paycheck and wait tables at night but spends went to a school like Oberlin or Smith and prefers to browse for second-hand editions of New York Review of Books Classic paperbacks instead of watching The Biggest Loser or the Bachelor as Karen noted below. Said elite person might also go to the NYU School of Dentistry free clinic for tooth care. Note: I know artists who do this for their dentist work.

              Some or many new lawyers might not make much money but they are generally on their way to earning decent to excellent amounts of money. Pre-recession thinking of course. Even my Constitutional law professor said that public interest lawyers do okay or at least better than a lot of people in the income making department.

              A lot of people also might not see themselves as working class even if they are based on income or they will see themselves as working class despite their income. A person who runs a small but successful contracting business will be seen as working class probably. A landscape designer who also happens to have a graduate degree in Anthropology or some such? Maybe not.

              • ThrottleJockey

                I see your point. It reminds me of the unintended irony when one lawyer, Rick Santorum, called another lawyer, Barack Obama, a SNOB(!) for having the audacity(!) to suggest people should go to college. He received wild cheers for that & I just asked myself, do these folks realize Santorum is a millionaire precisely because he went to college??? Bizarro-world.

                • NewishLawyer

                  I went around saying Rick Santorum, BA, JD, MBA after that.

        • DrDick

          Even there, there are problems, as some skilled trades (electricians and plumbers for instance) can make more than college professors. Class identity is a complex blend of income, occupation, and social status, among other factors.

      • Michael

        Fictional media like Saint Elsewhere showed the nurses as being working class (they had a union and went on strike).

        “Getting a lot of schooling” doesn’t preclude being “working class”, and certainly not being unionized. Nurses have been highly schooled for at least a century, but have required unions to be compensated and treated in accordance with their training and value.

        The reaction to this has contributed the the deprofessionalization of nursing functions in the last few decades. Many functions that would have been performed by an RN in times past are now filled by less trained, and lower paid, Physicians’ Assistants and various specialist technicians.

        To define “working class” as “unskilled labor” seems to me an inadequate description of the economic and social reality.

    • Tyro

      Hard to say. Do you move pianos or do you own a piano-moving business in which you hire piano movers, paying them an hourly wage out of the fee you charge your customers?

      • Karen

        This is an important fact. When we bought out piano last year, the delivery crew consisted of the son of the owner of Strait Music, the owner himself, and two jazz musicians who worked for the company as a day job. Not exactly the lumproletariat, there.

    • ChrisTS

      Sooo, waitstaff, secretaries, and bank tellers cannot be working class?

      • N__B

        Tellers have their hands on thousands of dollars every day.

        I mean, duh.

        • ChrisTS

          It only counts if you can take it home with you (legally).

          • N__B

            You wait until your money is 18 years old?

            • Lee Rudolph

              What, you’ve never folded a dollar bill so that the small print reads “GAL TENDER AND PRIVATE”?

    • Tristan

      Right, so ‘real working class’ is all the stuff we could probably build robots to do.

      And this is a source of pride for you?

  • Karen

    Lots of people are thinking about this today

  • Of course. The Clintonian focus on the middle class is one of the worst aspects of our politics, because it repeatedly screws over the poor and working classes. And further, a lot of “middle” class people include urban professionals who do quite well and form the tax base. (Every northern European social democracy taxes the hell out of the middle class. Good government costs money.)

    • ThrottleJockey

      (Every northern European social democracy taxes the hell out of the middle class. Good government costs money.)

      Well, let’s not get carried away here, heh, heh…The top 3% have something like 50% of US wealth…we can tax them & leave the broad middle alone…Households making $200K are in the 5th percentile, but I wouldn’t tax the hell out of them. As well off as they are there’s a vast difference between that and the millionaire’s club.

      • Actually, you really can’t, for both political and fiscal reasons. You end up with Proposition 13. Soaking the rich is fine for distributional reasons, but we need the middle class to fund the government.

        • DrS

          Wait, you can’t tax the rich because you’ll just get prop 13?

          I’m getting the sense you don’t know what you’re talking about.

        • Nathanael

          That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

          Prop 13 was passed because the corrupt superrich paid a lot to have it passed. If they’d had the hell taxed out of them, then, well, it wouldn’t have been passed.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I don’t think the Clintons had any choice in this; and neither does Obama which is why he hasn’t changed that. Given the race-infused politics of class in this country (see today’s thread on the UAW loss in TN) Dems can’t win the White House talking about the poors all the time. When white working class voters hear “poors” they think “blacks” not themselves (see link in OP). By saying “middle class” Clinton & Obama broadened their coalition. Its the politics of addition, not subtraction. And since income inequality has dramatically affected everyone under the 85th percentile, I don’t think its just good politics, its also good policy.

      • It’s terrible policy. The middle class are not the big victims of the 1 percent. The poor are.

        • DrS

          Define “middle class” in your statement.

          There are a ton of people who used to be middle class that aren’t any longer due to the plutocratic class. Are they not victims?

          A good chunk of the current middle class will fall out of that range due to the plutocratic class. Is their heightened lack of security not an issue?

          • If they are no longer middle class they are victims.

            But the recipients of the bulk of “middle class tax cuts” are not.

            • ThrottleJockey

              In any tax cut the bulk of the benefit will go to those who pay the bulk of taxes. But as a % of their income poorer people saw a bigger benefit than upper middle people did.

            • Tristan

              If they are no longer middle class they are victims

              This is basically saying you’d feel bad for a guy who’s been stabbed, but would be indifferent about the knowledge that someone is about to be stabbed.

        • To be a little more clear here, a lot of people think of people such as those thrown out of work in the recession when they talk about the “middle class”. But people with no income are poor, not middle class. Meanwhile, when we actually make policy, income taxes can’t be raised for people making $195,000 per year, as if those people are oppressed.

          The middle class is spoiled. They think they can have great government and not have their taxes raised. And the result is the people who actually need help don’t get it.

          It’s awful public policy.

          • DrS

            But they were middle class before the recession. Protecting the middle class is kinda important in keeping people out of poverty.

            I’m all for raising taxes on the middle class, if that’s what it takes. But isn’t the middle class that’s making out like bandits here. How bout we try returning some progressism to the actual tax rates?

        • Tristan

          The middle class are not the big victims of the 1 percent. The poor are.

          Lucky for us, they’ll soon be the same thing!

    • DrS

      Well, compared to the wealthy, there are some parts of the upper middle class that we tax the hell out of.

      The relatively well off segments of the “taxed enough already” tea party types do see that they have a higher tax burden, but for some reason they don’t seem upset that they are paying a higher rate than mitt Romney. Or at least upset at mitt.

      • Well, we tax the wealthy inconsistently due to capital gains rates. But it’s worth noting that Ronald Reagan equalized the rates and Bill Clinton cut them (as did George W. Bush). Because, you know, all those “middle class” stock investors.

        • Nathanael

          Um, actually, not quite accurate.

          Ronald Reagan’s administration massively slashed the rates for rich people’s “earned income” (the CEO’s million-a-year salary and $20 million bonus). He cut the capital gains rate at the same time.

          Reagan also slashed the top estate tax rate (from 70% to 50%), which is one reason the Walmart heirs are so rich.

          After being found guilty of Iran-Contra and losing both houses of Congress to the Democrats, he consented to “equalize” the capital gains rates for a couple of years (1988-1990).

          Bush I reinstated a lower capital gains tax rate.

          Clinton proposed raising all the rates, but he Republicans *absolutely demanded* that the capital gains rate be kept lower, and Clinton compromised.

          George W. Bush then cut the capital gains rate much further, to its lowest level since 1916, and also cut the estate tax even more.

    • LeeEsq

      This isn’t really accurate. The American reluctance to talk about class in general and the working class in particular existed long before Clinton was elected to any office. This reluctance dates to at least the end of World War II, where people who would not be described as middle class in Europe began being seen and seeing themselves as members of the middle class because they could live roughly the same lifestyle as an office worker. Even during the War on Poverty, it was pretty clear that the poor people were destitute rather than working class as traditionally understood.

  • Anonymous

    One of the defining features of American discussions of class is how hard a time we have defining class distinctions, or even having a discussion at all. (As seen above.)

    • Karen

      “Class” in this country has two meanings: the social science technical one that denotes economic status; and the popular one that really means “has good taste.” Almost all uses of the first other than in academic papers really mean the second one. Thus can products of expensive boarding schools and Ivy League colleges and who live by clipping coupons for their trust funds feign the common touch by using bad grammar and liking NASCAR. (Back when we were single, a friend and I used “do you follow NASCAR?” to eliminate any potential date who replied in the affirmative.)

      The conflation of economic privilege with preferring high art and reading over watching TV and listening to Toby Keith and Kanye West is one of the biggest problems progressives have in this country, especially among working class whites. ALL of the items on Charles Murray’s infamous test for “eliteness” were cultural; none had anything to do with economic power or status. I would rather have ten root canals without anesthesia that watch most TV shows or listen to Top 40 music, and I am very proud of this fact. My preferences don’t make me privileged, but because I look and sound “elite” to many people from my hillbilly background, I won’t be as persuasive as some Heritage Foundation trustafarian who fakes an affection for terrible music or movies. We’re going to have to find a way over the taste divide in order to bridge the real class divisions.

      • DocAmazing

        Paul Fussell’s book does (I think) a pretty good job of balancing the trappings with the economics. There are well-off working-class people (cops get pretty well-paid, for example) and poorly paid middle-class people (newly-hired attorneys). Fussell sees “class” as multifactorial.


      • ThrottleJockey

        There’s a black version to this. Regardless of your politics, if you “talk white”/”act white” other blacks will perceive you as being “bourgie” or arrogant. Growing up with a mother who insisted on Queen’s English and having ‘eclectic’ music tastes (in the ‘hood that means Top 40 music) I got called an oreo many times as a kid, even by family…I won’t even bother with what I got when folks learned I snowboard :-)

        • Karen

          Yeah, my parents have never entirely forgiven me for taking them to an avant garde ballet performance back in the late 80’s.

        • LeeEsq

          Relatedly, shortly after Kurt Cobain committed suicide I read a letter in Spin, Rolling Stone, or maybe even the NYT from a black kid around my age who wrote getting shit for liking Nirvana and grunge rock better than hip-hop even though he related to grunge rock more. People really shouldn’t be called various types of traitors for their cultural tastes in most instances.

        • Rhino

          Skiing and snowboarding, and I say this as a fanatical skier, are the whitest sports on earth.

          I bet there are more brown polo players, by percentage.

          • Tristan

            Lacrosse is the whitest sport (at least by north American standards of whiteness). Yes, I know what you’re going to say, but the fact it was taken from an indigenous people is what MAKES it the whitest.

            • Manju

              That explains why I misremembered those shirts as “Izod Lacrosse”.

      • NewishLawyer

        I concur with a lot of this.

        I wonder how much damage is done by people like me who come from upper-middle class but very liberal families but with the so-called “elite” tastes that frequently get bashed about in American-cultural politics.

        Everyone in my family is a liberal Democrat and we can trace this back to when my great-grandparents stepped of the boat at Ellis Island and into NYC. I grew up in a well-to-do suburb of New York and was frequently taken to museums and other cultural events as a child. Fast forward, a few decades and my culture is not very popular or common for the most part. I don’t really care about video games or TV or Top 40 music (I do listen to a lot of indie rock though but not always the super-loud kind). I spend a good time reading and going to the theatre. My reading tastes are usually not very popular except every now and then with John Irving, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt. Plus I have always lived on the coasts and mainly in NYC-Metro or SF!

        The Jewish thing also destroys the common touch a bit.

        Now how to separate taste from real class is the divide.

        • Karen

          We don’t do damage. Good taste is GOOD, and I want world where more people have opportunity to develop it. One reason I completely loath the modern right wing is precisely because they spread this stupid idea that class is a matter of taste, when they themselves share MY taste. The Heritage Foundation writers and the Koch brothers don’t spend there leisure at biker bars or watching NASCAR, and they all pronounce N U C L E A R correctly.

          • NewishLawyer

            Right this frustrates me about the right-wing as well.

            They often share the same bourgeois-bohemian taste as the Brooklyn-San Francisco upper-middle class liberals that the decry as all that ails America.

          • ThrottleJockey

            I think NL was on to something. Sometimes on this blog I just roll my eyes whenever someone sneers about how much Michael Bey sucks, or how Heinz Ketchup makes you stupid, or whatever shiny object beloved by the masses is really beneath our contempt (people named ‘Madison’ for instance). Its just a few folks, but they’re loud.

            Its ok for people to fetishize rare, narrowly appreciated cultural artifacts, but I don’t get the disdain they have for everything else. Its like Frasier vs Martin.

            Its like my coastal friends who sneer at the thought of canned food and Cheez Whiz but have no idea the 2 plate fulls they just gobbled up was made with 2 large bottles of the stuff, and a can of Frenchy’s fried onions. And that’s why no matter how much they beg me I won’t tell them the recipe :-)

            • Vance Maverick

              Its ok for people to fetishize rare, narrowly appreciated cultural artifacts, but I don’t get the disdain they have for everything else. Its like Frasier vs Martin.

              I had to look up Frasier vs. Martin (did Joe Frazier fight some boxer I hadn’t heard of?). I do not have disdain for what I found.

              • ThrottleJockey

                Frasier (aka Kelsey Grammar) & his father Martin. Sorry for the vague allusion!

                • Vance Maverick

                  All I was missing was the father’s name. Frasier is an interesting test case for this — part of why I never paid much attention to it/him is that he’s a cartoon “intellectual” designed to amuse the anti-intellectual streak in us, and I actually admire intellectuals.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  Well I admire intellectuals too which is why this blog is enjoyable…I also think laughing at yourself is important. The Russians get an A+ on the Olympics if only because they laughed at themselves during the closing ceremonies. Around my coastal friends I invite as many “hick” jokes as I can…Frasier is great for a lot of reasons, but chief among them for me is the father/son/sibling relationships. Martin really could be my father.

            • Karen

              I think the two attitudes — Real True Americans only eat at McDonald’s and listen to Toby Keith and sneering superiority at ketchup and summer blockbuster movies — are closely related. In both cases it’s a pretense instead of a genuine taste. If someone really likes Nickleback, that’s okay. If they pretend to like that band because liking Nickleback demonstrates tribal solidarity, that’s another thing entirely.

              Also, I adore Popeye’s. The lunch crew at the location near my office knows my order and start it when they see me get out of my car.

              • ThrottleJockey

                Lol, Nickleback I left them off the list! I like ’em! And, yeah, Popeye’s is awesome. Thank God I no longer live 4 blocks away from one, I can now see my toes again :-)

                Yeah, I think you’re right, Karen about the pretense thing. When I did a semester abroad in college it was funny how much I craved the smallest, most insignificant bits of Americana–spam for instance. So I think every sub-culture has something to offer & its great to celebrate all of it.

          • Hogan

            The big fights aren’t high culture vs. mass culture; they’re different varieties of mass culture. Not Toby Keith vs. Mozart, but Toby Keith vs. Jay-Z; not NASCAR vs. ballet, but NASCAR vs. NBA; not Popeye’s vs. chicken a la king, but Popeye’s vs. KFC. And if you notice a racial dimension to a couple of those, that makes you the real racist.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Modern Family vs Duck Dynasty, baby.

            • NewishLawyer

              This is largely true.

              For me it is mass culture v. high culture though.

              Or Why would you read a Game of Thrones when you could read a Dance to the Music of Time?

              Why would you stay in with TV (when I lived in NYC) when you can see top international theatre at BAM?


              I have a reputation for being high-brow among my friends.

              • Vance Maverick

                A visitor once sneered at the copy of Dance to the Music of Time on my shelves. On the one hand, poets are odd company, on the other, it’s a game you can’t win.

                • NewishLawyer

                  “it’s a game you can’t win.”


              • affectation

                I am sure you do.

        • LeeEsq

          NL, our great-grandparents were nonpolitically Orthodox Jews or relatively well to do businesspeople that voted Democratic because practically everybody living in NYC from an immigrant community voted Democratic. Will you stop trying to create a radical immigrant history that doesn’t exist for our family.

          • Point of order: are you two related? Or are you speaking in general terms about the NY Jewish immigrant experience?

            • LeeEsq

              We are related.

              • Thanks, that clears up this subthread a lot.

          • NewishLawyer

            I dissent on how you categorize our great-grandparents.

            At least one of them voted for Debs (probably)

            • LeeEsq

              Which one? Dad’s paternal grandfather was a beard-wearing Orthodox Jew that lived in Crown Heights. His maternal grandfather made and sold Kosher wines, that is he was a businessman and unlikely to vote for debs. Mom’s maternal grandfather was Orthodox as well and basically hung around Synagogue as much as possible. Her mom’s foster parents were middle-class German Jews.

              • Rhino

                Grabs popcorn, leans back in easy chair…

  • Larry

    Whatever the possible flaws of the study or its questions, until relatively recently hasn’t it been the case that you could be a working-class person and still have a middle-class lifestyle? Think fairly recent union wages in the auto industry, and especially if there’s a second income in the family. If true, which I think it is, that would make for zero contradiction between believing you’re middle class and knowing that you’re working class. So this ‘controversy’ seems to be a lack of recognition of obvious reality on the part of its promulgators and/or a way to get your name in public again.

    • Vance Maverick

      No question that there was a Great Moderation, to coin a phrase.

      But more generally, would someone explain like I’m five — granted that there are differences, how do we decide how many classes there are, and what divides them? What is the general understanding of class that regular people use? What model of classes is used effectively in research, and again, what are the criteria?

      • Vance Maverick

        Hmm, consider that last paragraph reordered to pull the question about vernacular understanding of class out from between the two phrasings of the question about scholarly understanding.

        I would complain about the lack of an edit function, except that the availability of an edit function wouldn’t have saved me.

        • NewishLawyer

          This is largely along my thoughts because I have a hard time figuring out what people mean when they mean middle class.

          It often seems like people (on both the left and the right) think middle class equals high school graduate or some college for maximum level of education but able to lead that mythic mid-century lifestyle comfortably. My advanced degrees automatically make me not a member of the middle class. At least that is the impression that I get.

      • Vance Maverick

        The Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_class_in_the_United_States includes an image of the Mechanics Monument in downtown San Francisco. It’s turgid and muscly, imagining the working class more like the Village People than Jacob Riis.

      • Anonymous

        In my opinion, while cultural tastes matter, class, on a practical, day-to-day basis, is primarily determined by how a household makes a living. If its adult members create economic value by working with tangible objects, whether as a factory worker or a typist as mentioned above, they are working class. If they create economic value by working with intangibles, primarily ideas, they are middle class, such as teachers, salesmen or managers in a business. The more complex (and remunerative) those ideas, the likelier the household is part of the upper middle class subsection of the middle class. Examples of this would include doctors, lawyers, engineers, and even clergy. If the adult members of the household create economic value by generating investment returns on their assets, they are upper class. A small business owner who actively operates his or her business would probably fall into the middle or upper middle group, because he or she is making money off his or her labor, rather than just making investment/financial decisions and getting a return on investment. On the other hand, a real estate investor, who made decisions about where to deploy capital and then sat back and collected rents, would probably fit soundly into the mold of a pure capitalist/member of the upper class. While differences in taste among the classes are important, many of those differences stem from differences in economic and occupational status.

        Of course, this is an oversimplification, and there are lots of gray areas between the classes, as well as cases of people who have the characteristics of multiple classes. As I said above, one of the defining characteristics of the American class system is uncertainty.

        • Vance Maverick

          If its adult members create economic value by working with tangible objects, whether as a factory worker or a typist as mentioned above, they are working class. If they create economic value by working with intangibles, primarily ideas, they are middle class, such as teachers, salesmen or managers in a business.

          Why is this an important distinction? Serious question.

          (Also, what’s a “typist”? ;-))

          • Anonymous

            Excellent question. Perhaps most importantly, working with intangibles tends to pay better than working with tangible objects. There are of course exceptions, such as skilled tradesmen or big city firefighters. Second, intangibles workers tend to be put in charge of tangibles workers. This holds true not just in businesses, but in the military (officers planning and directing a mission versus enlisted soldiers carrying it out), non-profits, and probably even at your local parks department. Third, the body breaks down by middle age in ways in which the mind does not, producing a career risk for manual laborers.

            • Vance Maverick

              The breakdown makes sense, but I still don’t get how the tangibility distinction is more powerful than the others you use to explain it. To take an easy example, I’m a programmer, which means what I work with is sort of intangible; I don’t manage, but am managed; and I’m paid well. In other words, I have varying scores on the scales you’ve mentioned, and it’s not plain to me what the sum says.

              • Anonymous

                The tangibility versus intangibility question is basically a proxy for whether a worker works with his body, performing manual labor, or his mind. All those other distinctions, such as level of pay, level of freedom or supervision, and level of job security, flow from that distinction. If you work primarily with your hands, you are likely to make less money, be under greater supervision, and have less job security. If you work primarily with your mind, you are likely to make more money, have more freedom, and have more job security. Why is that? I suppose it comes down to basic issues of economics, biology, or even physics. The goods and services that one can produce through mental work tend to be worth more economically than the goods and services that one can produce through physical work. Although, as I’ve said, there are obvious exceptions to this principle.

                As a programmer, I would say you work with your mind and are solidly in the middle or upper middle class. While you might literally use your hands to type out code, the value that you bring to the table is not your typing skills, but the programming sequences that you conceive in your mind.

                • Tom Servo

                  Yeah. Is a highly successful trial lawyer working class because he works with his body (standing up, using his voice to talk?). Is a Goldman Sachs VP working class because he uses his body when he barks orders at a subordinate? Then neither is a programmer-there’s no physical distinction there.

        • Nathanael

          This is a good description of economic classes. You can also make a distinction based on pure power.

          There are those who can get in to see their Congressmen.
          There are those who can get elected Congressman.
          There are those who buy Congressmen.

          To use a very sloppy distinction. But there are real distinctions which are along these lines.

          If you get caught driving drunk, do you
          (1) get arrested and lose your driver’s license and go to jail
          (2) get arrested and get a slap on the wrist
          (3) get let off with a warning not to do it again
          (4) get let off with an apology from the policeman for bothering you

          This is a good way to know what power class you’re in. And there are people in class (4) in this country, just start googling for the stories.

          • Warren Terra

            Does anyone have a count of how many comments Nathanael has posted here in the last couple of hours, almost entirely by himself and unanswered? I’m guesding at least four dozen. It’s impressive, in its way.

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