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January 29, 2014

The Left Talks a Great Deal About the Evils of Income Inequality, But Is Very Happy to Perpetuate a Regime of Social Inequality

Mickey Kaus has been writing about the Great Unmentionable in progressive circles, Social Inequality, for a long, long time, since at least the mid 1980s, turning his observations into a book, 1992's The End of Equality.

He wrote about the subject a few days ago at theWall Street Journal, in preparation for Obama's new declaration of War on Income Inequality.

The problem with the Democrats' new war on inequality ("the defining challenge of our time," says President Obama ) is that there are two kinds of growing inequality—and the Democrats are attacking the wrong one.

...

Harsh Truth No. 2: If it's not enough for everyone to work hard—if you now have to be smart enough to learn—only some people will make that jump.

When we think honestly about why we really hate growing inequality, I suspect it won't boil down to economics but to sentiments. No, we don't want to "punish success"—the typical Democratic disclaimer. But we do want to make sure the rich don't start feeling they're better than the rest of us—a peril dramatized, most recently, in the "Wolf of Wall Street" and its seemingly endless scenes of humiliation and rank-pulling.

"Whether we come from poverty or wealth," President Reagan said, "we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough. We must be equal in the eyes of each other." Worry about this social equality lies at the root of our worry about economic equality.

Social equality—"equality of respect," as economist Noah Smith puts it—is harder to measure than money inequality. But the good news is that if social equality is what we're after, there may be ways to achieve it that don't involve a doomed crusade to reverse the tides of purely economic inequality. As Reagan's quote suggests, achieving a rough social equality in the midst of vivid economic contrast has been something America's historically been good at, at least until recently.

I don't love his policy prescriptions on this score (making most welfare like Social Security an entitlement, to be received without shame or stigma, re-instituting the social-mixer and social-leveler of the general draft for all able-bodied men). But his point is interesting.

Social inequality -- that is, strong caste and class identification, and disparagement of all other (or "lesser," in the eyes of the class-obsessed person) castes and classes -- has gotten more pronounced over the past ten years.

It is weaponized for politics. Sarah Palin quite plainly is not dismissed by the New Class merely because they disagree with her beliefs. Their disdain has a nasty personal edge to it -- they disapprove of her and the class she hails from. The New Class is not to content itself with disparaging Palin. They actively wish to include millions of Americans they've never even met inside the broad circle of their angry, arrogant disdain. The fact that they are not just attacking Palin but attacking millions of other people is not a bug, but a feature. The additional casualties of the attack are not regrettable collateral damage, but rather bonus damage to be celebrated.

I've been interested in how class distinctions form and mutate for a while now. It's not true that class arises only from income levels, of course. That never has been true. I'm not even sure that class distinctions arise chiefly from income disparity. They instead arise from educational and social disparity -- with class-conscious people exaggerating the differences between themselves (the elevated) and the rest (the base) in order to supply themselves with an argument for the proposition most important to the class-conscious: I'm Better. (And of course the corollary: They're Worse.)

Our current class distinctions are similar to those in Victorian England:

[A] Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity.

And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a "mind" worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

Now, of course, there were plenty of middle/professional class people who did work with their minds -- doctors, theologians, professionals, lawyers, nurses and so forth -- but there were an awful lot of such people who didn't, or only did to a trivial degree, and of course there were plenty of working-class people who didn't work much with their minds at all. Low-level factory workers, ditch-diggers, etc.

So there was an element of truth to the mind/hand distinction -- but it was a relatively small element of truth, more disproven by contrary example than confirmed by rule.

And even in terms of wages -- this I thought was interesting -- there really was no distinction between them, except that the working class person usually made a little more money than the average member of the middle/professional class. Sure, what we'd call true professionals made more, but not a huge amount more, and, at any rate, there were comparatively few of those compared to the large number of clerks and such.

Yet, despite there being no genuine distinction between them to demonstrate that one class was "higher" than the other, the distinction nevertheless took root, and middle class girls would marry middle class boys and working class girls working class boys. Which is the real test of a true, defined class -- do they mix enough to intermarry? If not, they're pretty well defined classes. Which is sort of one of the criteria used to determine whether one animal is merely a different variety than another or a whole different species. Can they mate?

At any rate, that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow "above" someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.


I quote this as an introduction to another great Matthew Continetti article, Love in the Time of Obama, about two paragons of the New Class, MSNBC bomb-thrower Alex Wagner and Obama chef Sam Kass marrying each other.

This is really a Read the Whole Thing thing, because you can't really grasp the whole without seeing all the details. But I'll quote Continenti beginning to lay out his argument that a truly aristocratic New Class is not merely forming in America, but in fact formed decades earlier (see Bill Ayers' quick career recovery from a youthful dalliance in terrorism and bombing) and is now in its second or third self-perpetuating generation.

The first time he saw her from a distance. She was a reporter, observing his workplace from the outside. He was struck by her good looks, her energy. He mentioned her to a friend, who told him she was out of his league. But he persisted. His friend brought him to a party where he found an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. One thing led to another. He took her to drinks. She mentioned she liked baseball, rooted for the Washington Nationals. They had that in common. So for their next date he took her to play catch. In Nationals Park. When it was closed to the public.

Not an ordinary love story. But then these are not ordinary lovers. He is Sam Kass, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move health initiative, senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, and food initiative coordinator in Barack Obama’s White House. She is Alex Wagner, host of “Now with Alex Wagner” on MSNBC, weekdays at 4 p.m. Kass’s friend is Richard Wolffe, the executive editor of MSNBC.com, a political analyst for MSNBC, and the author of Renegade: The Making of the President, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, and The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. The shindig where the couple started talking was MSNBC’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner after-party, the invitation-only event where Rachel Maddow mixes cocktails to demonstrate her working girl credentials. The bar where Kass and Wagner had drinks was Monkey Bar, in midtown Manhattan, where you can pair a $17 glass of Sauvignon Blanc with a $26 organic chicken paillard. They are planning a summer wedding.

I learned all of these details in the February issue of Vogue, in an article with this stammering headline: “The Talk of the Town: Alex Wagner and Sam Kass—Politics’ It Couple.” The article was written by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group. According to his biography on the Leigh Speakers Bureau website, Weisberg is “one of America’s most prominent writers on politics and policy,” which pretty much says it all about the state of American writing on politics and policy.

Weisberg was last spotted in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, screaming at Roger Ailes to get off his lawn. For two decades, Weisberg and his wife have owned a weekend house in Garrison, N.Y., which they love “for its scenic beauty, its peace and quiet, and its old-fashioned sense of community … it’s a refuge from the pace of city life, a place with an easygoing mix of lifestyles and a widely shared ethos about preserving what makes it special.” Putnam County, where Garrison is located, is 94 percent white and has a median income of $95,000. Then Ailes showed up and ruined the place.

A similar insularity and self-satisfaction, a stubborn refusal to ascribe rationality or good faith to those outside the circle of friendship, can be found in Weisberg’s article in Vogue. The pages of Democratic donor Anna Wintour’s magazine provide him sturdy journalistic ground. Unlike his Times review, or indeed the book in the Times he was reviewing, Weisberg in Vogue actually had access to his subjects. And such access: a perfume of casual friendliness, of smarmy knowingness, sticks to these glossy pages, making them indistinguishable from an ad for Quelques Fluers. Weisberg likes these people. He finds them intelligent, accomplished, sophisticated, current, fashionable, tasteful, humble. “I’ve been a guest several times” on Wagner’s show, he tells us in an aside, but it’s not like he wants to be invited back or anything. “On good days, the conversation just clicks.” Conversation does click when no one disagrees, when no one is disagreeable. Click is a good word to describe the old “Now,” where five liberals sat around a table attempting to out-snark each other.

Click may be a good word for the show, but “clique” is a better one for the world described in Vogue.

You will not be surprised to learn that Alex Wagner, who is praised for making it on her own, in fact made it because of her family connections and then the celebrity connections her family connections afforded her (she was George Clooney's assistant at one time, for example).

In case you're not fully on-board with Continenti's thesis of a self-perpetuating, reinforced-by-marriage-within-the-class New Aristocracy, you can read this James Pethokoukis piece on the steep decline of high-status people marrying relatively low-status ones, what Pethokoukis calls "Cinderella Marriages."

He notes this is a reason for increasing income inequality -- after all, a lower-middle-class pretty girl who marries a richer, higher-class man will experience significant income mobility (and so too, to a lesser extent, will her family members, who will suddenly be in possession of very useful set of family connections).

But it's also, of course, primarily a strong reinforcement of class inequality. Only true equals can form a stable marriage, after all. And in earlier times, it was not so remarkable that a higher-income, higher-status man might find a lower-status, lower-income woman to be an equal.

But not so much anymore.

Alex Wagner, I'm sure, will be cheerleading her little heart out for Obama's heroic efforts to reduce income inequality... while remaining silent about the increasing class inequality that propelled her from "Assistant" to "TV Personality" to "Celebrity Bride" in just a few short years.

And it's important to note that this isn't just about politics for Wagner, or any other members of the New Class. It is standard human behavior to exploit one's competitive advantages to the fullest, while simultaneously working to undermine or reduce one's rivals' competitive advantages. People like Alex Wagner are filthy rich in social capital, but only very very comfortable when it comes to income. I mean, they just barely crack the lower levels of the upper class. They're not really rich, you know. (One wag noted that the media defines unnecessary wealth (which should be subject to confiscatory tax rates) as "one dollar more than a double-income marital team with top jobs in the media field could conceivably earn by age 45.")

Other people are richer in income, which gives them certain advantages-- the houses, the Caribbean getaways, the corporate jets (hey... they talk a lot about those!). The New Class doesn't like the truly wealthy having those advantages -- they want all advantages to come from educational and social capital, you know, the thing they have -- and so seek to reduce the rich's income while, noticeably, never so much as acknowledging about their own very significant, unfair competitive advantages.

Why, it's totally unfair that some rumpled-and-déclassé - hedge fund manager should be able to just swagger his way past the line at Nobu and get a table immediately, just because he's so rich and spends a ton.

That sort of privilege should be restricted to the truly worthy -- you know, people on TV, people that Vogue writes about. People that Jacob Weisberg is friends with and finds fashionable.



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posted by Ace at 03:47 PM

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