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The upper middle class

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Chris Rock, New York magazine interview:

For all the current conversation about income inequality, class is still sort of the elephant in the room.

Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see the Virgin Airlines first-class lounge,* they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?

*Offers spa treatments, “expert mixologists,” and, at Heathrow, a “lodge and viewing deck” with an “après-ski vibe.”

Once a social system has moved all or nearly all of its members above the level of brute starvation, wealth and poverty soon become inherently relative concepts, but that doesn’t make them any less real. One of the consequences of living in an extremely rich country which features increasingly extreme wealth stratification is that people who would have been considered rich fifteen minutes ago are suddenly part of the “upper middle class.”

Take, for example, what has happened to economic relations within the American university. It’s well known that American colleges and universities must increase their operating budgets every year at rates faster than inflation because of reasons, and therefore it becomes inevitable, given the contemporary economic structure of the country as a whole, that these institutions will spend enormous amounts of time and money currying favor with super-wealthy potential donors. Giving money to a “non-profit” educational institution provides the masters of the universe with sweet tax breaks, while allowing them to indulge in the ego-gratifying pleasures of plastering their names all over various buildings and centers and even whole schools and colleges.

And so it has come to pass that the highest-paid people within universities (aside from some football and men’s basketball coaches, which is a subject for another day) are those employees who are responsible for, respectively, kowtowing before the great and the good, and investing the proceeds gathered up by successful administrative mendicants.

Thus the highest-paid employee of Columbia University is this guy, who runs the school’s endowment, and who was paid more than five million dollars in FY2013 for his trouble.

Meanwhile the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, had to scrape by on a hair under $3.4 million in total compensation. (Bollinger was one of 36 presidents of American private colleges and universities who were paid more than one million dollars last year).

Bollinger got into academic life more than 40 years ago as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s law school. By 1979 he was a full professor, and was pulling down $31,500 per year ($103,000 in 2014$). The following year the university’s new president, Harold Shapiro, earned a salary of $75,000 ($215,000 in 2014$).

Now the thing is I bet Lee Bollinger doesn’t feel very rich, despite the fact that he makes, in real, inflation-adjusted terms, more money every two weeks than he did in an entire year back when he was a full professor at an elite law school, before he got into the administrative rackets (Bollinger was provost at Dartmouth and president of Michigan before ascending to his present position).

After all Bollinger’s job consists largely of hobnobbing with people who “earn” more in two weeks than he makes in year. And some of those people make less in a year than some other people make every two weeks.

Which is how an academic who makes three and a half million per year ends up feeling sort of “upper middle class.”

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