Bourgeois IV: The Economics of difference

Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo studied the root causes of flawed decision making in their book Poor Economics. While much of the book is an applied economics redux of Ludwig von Mises’ more cerebral Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, there were several points that are particularly applicable in an examination on the difference between the bourgeois and the middle-class as defined only by income. The most important point is Banerjee and Duflo’s concept of the S-curve. According to this model, social mobility is not a sequence of steps or a diagonal line; it is shaped like the letter S, and each of the curves represents a significant hurdle on the path from the bottom left edge to the right top one. The first curve (obstacle) is a love of pointless material display, and the second is a desire for security and stability.

In Poor Economics, a crucial part is understanding the extent to which family plays in the equation. Banerjee and Duflo discovered that on the S-curve only the very top and the very bottom had more children than was the national average. The parents on both ends were more solicitous of their children’s educations and futures than those in the middle. In fact, having fewer children in the case of the middle which was recently elevated from the lower portion had an adverse effect on parental spending on education and opportunity, with the result that the middle became a place of stagnation. The economists explained that to some extent in cultures where having children is the retirement plan, middle parents felt as though they had less to spend because they had fewer children. But this did not explain similar gaps in cultures where reliance on grown children was not normative. 

Across the board, though, the top and bottom segments expressed the sentiment that they couldn’t afford to not invest in the very best for their children. For the top, the feeling was related to understanding that maintaining their position was contingent upon vast investment in the next generation; for the bottom, the only way having an above average number of children was worth the time and effort was for all of them to become highly successful. In other words, on both ends, the prevailing attitude was “can’t afford to fail.” Conversely, those in the middle of the S-curve aspired to security, rather than success, and the parents were only willing to spend as much as necessary to obtain that – it varied among the different countries studied, but no more than high school and a local college were quite common – even if the parents could afford much more and the children were capable of pursuing more. The correlation between more children and advanced, better quality education regardless of official social class was a shock to the researchers because it defied popular wisdom, which mandates that fewer children equals more opportunity and better education for them. Based on Banerjee and Duflo’s findings, parental indifference is more or less the root cause of modern “stagnation” and “inequality.”   

Given that today there is quite a bit of complaining in the developed world, particularly the US, about the “shrinking middle-class” and the ills, mostly portrayed as economic, associated with it. It is worth considering based on the data from Poor Economics that the middle-class is shrinking in a literal demographic sense, as well as a social one. The researchers found that it is common for families on the bottom half of the S to have, on average, four to five children (with as many as nine or twelve being usual in cultures with strong intergenerational dependency dynamics) and those at the top to have between three and four; middle families never had more than two. The image is that of an hourglass, with the “middle-class” being perceived as squeezed by virtue of the larger groups on the top and bottom. 

In July 2018, Brookings published a study on the subject of the “decline in social mobility,” with the surprise twist being that it was a downward drop from the American professional classes, rather than from an income-based general category:

As Aparna Mathur and Cody Kallen of AEI wrote in “Poor rich kids?”; “[P]erhaps the most puzzling – and least commented upon – finding is the large positive correlation between the parent’s income and the decline in absolute mobility over the years. Put more simply, the richer the parents, the larger has been the decline in mobility for their kids.”

While the “poor rich kids” phenomenon might be upsetting from the American mythos perspective, from the data collected by Banerjee and Duflo, it is completely to be expected. The researchers established that middle-S families experience diminishing returns over the course of multiple generations as a direct result of their priorities. For example, in India, one of the main countries studied, government bureaucratic jobs have been the favored, hereditary domain of middle-S families because of their security but over the course of the last-third of the 20thcentury and into the 21st these jobs have experienced wage stagnation, saturated markets, and, with the first two, declining social capital; in other words, they lose social mobility. However, middle-S families continue to persist in their established behavioral routines. Hence, Banerjee and Duflo diagnosed love of security as the second ill, the (almost) insurmountable “hump” in the quest for social mobility. 

According to the Brookings study, the fallen American middle-class has experienced all of these symptoms as well, and certainly the demagogues have happily adopted rhetoric relating to claiming a disappearance of the “middle-class.” Although, as the AEI study cited by Brookings cautioned, income is not a particularly good indicator of mobility, there is no doubt that there is a sharp decrease in perceived well-being among the children of the American “middle-class:”

The reason this is interesting is that it matches Banjeree and Duflo’s findings regarding the middle-S groups of all the countries they studied, which indicates that their research is applicable to developed and underdeveloped countries alike. 

But the loss of manufacturing jobs cannot explain what happened to the near-rich and the top 1%. Naturally, it may be difficult to surpass highly successful parents, but that does not explain why mobility rates have declined so sharply at the top income levels, especially if wealth and incomes are becoming more concentrated. Moreover, average incomes for the top 1% have remained at about 4 times the median income over these years. Yet, for the 95th percentile, absolute mobility fell from 84 percent for those born in 1940 to 20 percent for those born in 1984. And for those born in 1984, coming from a top 1% family essentially guarantees earning less than one’s parents, with a mobility rate of 1.2 percent.  

While there are some cultural differences that serve to obscure similarities, if one looks at American educational expenditure, for example, one sees that the average middle-American family spends more on semi-educational activities than other families in comparable situations in other cultures. However, viewed critically, very little of that expenditure is on efforts that advance career prospects, or even on pursuits that hold genuine cultural and intellectual value. This was the issue with the Abigail Fisher vs. University of Texas case. For those who might not be aware of the case, Fisher sued UT-Austin, claiming that the institution had racially discriminated against her using affirmative action; UT-Austin said that race hadn’t factored into its decision in regard to her because she simply wasn’t candidate material. After two hearings by the Supreme Court, the judges ruled in favor of the university. Ultimately, though, the case had little to do with affirmative action and everything to do with that all the extracurricular activities she cited as proof of extenuating circumstances for mediocre academic performance, e.g. involvement with Habitat for Humanity, were ultimately worthless. Cutting through the legalese, the lawyers for UT-Austin essentially explained that her “achievements” were not remarkable literally because every applicant put down something similar on his/her CV. It was a simple case of supply and demand.

From a Poor Economics perspective, the case fell within the bounds of middle-S behavior, the pursuit of security represented by conforming to “everyone else;” from a historical bourgeois view, it is proof that activities, or busyness, are not a replacement for true achievement and accomplishment. It is a classic example of value not always equaling cost with the twist that the cost of the cited extracurricular activities was not equal to their value. To map this firmly to the S-curve and the “squeezing” of the middle-class, it doesn’t matter if the refusal to invest is direct, as in middle-S parents interviewed by Banerjee and Duflo in developing countries, or insistence that average activities are equivalent to achievement, as in the Fisher case, the effect is the same: the ersatz middle-class with its aspirations to and mimicry of the bourgeois is revealed as simply inadequate, and it is so as a result of its choices.   

If there is one thing economist Tyler Cowen has been warning the country of for the last two decades, it is that many of the declines and discontents we face today stem squarely from a mania for stability that afflicted American post-War society. In the same vein, there was Kevin D. Williamson’s infamous, although completely justified, U-Haul article from right before the 2016 presidential election, which elicited anger because his prescription supposedly required people to “abandon their roots,” to reject something integral to themselves. 

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom from classical antiquity is that mimesis will ultimately fail; conversely, metamorphoses will ultimately succeed. Rising along the S-curve requires rejection, demolition of perceptions and of, possibly, mental values. It demands metamorphoses, not merely imitation. In The Anti-capitalistic Mentality, von Mises remarked that the resentment directed at multi-generational, hereditary prosperity and privilege overlooked that everyone involved went out and recaptured “every day” the ingredients for their own success. Their nice cars, big houses, fine clothes, etc. were simply the reward for their constant, invisible toil, one which Mises pointed out very specifically embraced the concept of sic transit gloria mundi. It is not an accident that the two hurdles of the S-curve are points of mimesis: the material and the perceived, which does not even exist. The question that people must ask is: Are we content to pretend, to wrap ourselves in the apparel of success and achievement, or do we wish to become?

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