Eco’s ‘How to eat ice cream’

A friend recently gifted me a vintage copy of some of Umberto Eco’s essays translated to English. One of the essays, titled “How to eat ice cream,” opened with an anecdote Eco said was based on his childhood. In the story, there was an ice cream vendor who sold regular cones for two cents and ice cream pie cones for four cents. Eco said his parents and grandmother would buy him which ever type he requested, but there was a limit. Young Eco envied the neighbor children who would parade down the street carrying a regular cone in each hand. But whenever he asked for four cents to buy two cones, the adults would flatly refuse and tell him that he could have a pie cone instead. As an adult, he mused:

[…] I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. […] And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

The parenting method must have worked because he became Umberto Eco. What Eco recognized was that his parents had inoculated him against false consumerist behavior. The preventative measures were not against the so-called consumerist society but ostentatious display, the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Around January 2018, there was a meme floating around social media. It said something along the lines of “Entrepreneur: someone who lives a few years the way most people won’t so that they can spend the rest of their lives living the way most people can’t.” I very belatedly discovered Carl Schramm’s 2004 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm identified the 1950s as the time when American society ceased valorizing business ownership and virtuous risk in favor of material security. As part of the “security first” mentality, children and young people were openly discouraged from seeking independence or from being different in a positive way. The world was one of ossification and stagnation, even as the federal government and media pushed a strong Keynesian message of “consume to grow.” On a side note, now that I think about it, Keynesian economics resemble the children’s video game Snake: one guides the snake to food so that it will grow but eventually it becomes so big that it bites itself – Game over.

Even given the massive propaganda effort put into promoting Keynesian theories, scapegoating “consumerism” or “consumerist society” is a form of escapist thought, a dodging of responsibility. Eco spotted the cause and effect nature of being a parvenu. The desire for “fictitious privilege” creates a set of priorities that cause one to spend his wherewithal thoughtlessly. In turn a “boast of wealth” strategy leads to “’I’d like to but I can’t’” through ensuring that there is no money when real opportunity arrives. The world becomes one of abundant middle as the effort to possess everything spirals.

The Good Life vs. reality

Recently, a former classmate badgered me into accompanying her on a run to the supermarket. As we were checking out, I, as a person who is very dedicated to the principle of self-interest, used a handful of coupons and a discount card to lower my final tally. My companion had a judgmental reaction to the proceedings: she gave me to understand that she never sought discounts or used coupons because to do so was beneath her station. Oddly, she could see no connection between her attitude and her continuous complaints about being short on funds. It was only much later that I connected her attitude at the cash register with her frequent monologues about a “broken society,” a slight fixation on “inequality,” and an overweening sense of entitlement.  

In 1971, NBC produced a sitcom called The Good Life, not to be confused with the British series of the same name. The American series was unsuccessful, in comparison to its competition, and it was canceled after fifteen episodes. I have never seen the show as NBC has never rerun it or provided a home release of it. I first heard of The Good Life in a book, whose title I have regrettably forgotten (for a long time I thought the book was Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox but now I can’t find any allusion to the tv show in Easterbrook’s book.). The author of the forgotten book alluded to The Good Life as a watershed moment in tv history with its portrayal of the so-called super-rich – the one bit I remember was that the book described the show as “the most luxurious show [in terms of portrayal of lifestyle]” and connected the show to a sudden increase in a broad sense of entitled victimhood throughout society. The Good Life  was also, apparently, part of creating the environment conducive for the success of the soap opera Dallas (1978 – 1991).

The plot behind The Good Life is that a middle-class couple become exhausted with the pressures of suburban life and maintaining a lifestyle that’s beyond their means. Consequently, the pair decide to scam their way into the household of an industrialist multimillionaire by disguising themselves as a butler and housekeeper. The theme which (apparently) underlay the show was the idea that there is a class of people who live extravagant, exotic lives (the proverbial good life) and therefore can afford to support some sponging malcontents.

When researching the show, one thing that struck me about it was how prescient it was in terms of foretelling some of the themes which are present in our current socio-political discourse. The two con-artists are reasonably successful college graduates who believe that society promised them the good life as a reward for going to college and having careers; however, when the pair see the lifestyle shown in glossy magazines – mansions, tennis courts, Rolls-Royce cars – the couple feels that society has reneged on its promise. The logic of the show’s premise is that the couple has been pushed by society – that wicked, amorphous “they” – toward a life of deception because there is no other path to riches open to them.

LitHub ran an article titled “How the well-educated and downwardly mobile found socialism.” The article isn’t worth reading, but the title touches on what began as the fictional premise of The Good Life and has become a full blown, ideologically fraught, issue today. What happens when perception of status is overblown and there is no sense of timeframe to temper expectations? 

Thinking of the popularity of AOC or Andrew Yang and the manner in which they have successfully tapped into the tropes of “unjust society” of “inequality,” the modern millennial (my own generation) seems to have embraced the premise of The Good Life. The tv show contained a very subtle, and completely subversive, inversion of the moral order: because “society’s promises” were broken, the dishonesty of the protagonists was not immoral. The extension of such reasoning is that the industrialist was obligated to support the swindlers anyway due to his greater wealth.

Capx just ran a terrific article by Jethro Elsden, “Jane Austen, the accidental economist,” in response to the new film version of Emma. One of the interesting tidbits the author found was that in modern terms, Mr Darcy’s £10,000 per annum income is probably equivalent to £60 million today, which would make his wealth around £3 billion. Even then Elizabeth Darcy had to “make small economies” once she decided to support her sponging sister and feckless brother-in-law. Granted the economies might have been the result of not telling her husband, but still the point remains that no one can long support spongers.

Elsden alluded to the logic of social pressure and the malignant effect it had on Austen’s characters who feel compelled to engage in an “arms race.” A major reason the swindlers of The Good Life turn to dishonesty is that they feel pressured to look like successful suburban college graduates. The problem was that  in the case of Austen’s characters and the tv show from 154 years later, the definition of “success” in relation to appearances was fungible. Rationally, it is ridiculous for the youngish couple of The Good Life to be in same place financially and socially as their mark, the middle-aged, widower industrialist whose lifestyle (but not work ethic) they covet.

To return, finally, to the anecdote regarding my shopping expedition, the episode is an example of a type of path that begins with frivolous preconceptions and ends with The Good Life on the comic end and the rise of Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren on the other. These politicians have located a demographic which has no sense of progression of time, stages of development, or realistic expectations. A perfect example is my ex-classmate, who has subjected herself to a fantasy regarding her own realistic expectation and now believes that the social contract has been broken.  For such a demographic, the emotional trumps the rational. It is easier to believe themselves wronged than as merely victims of their own imaginations.

The veil of nostalgia

In article for Worth, titled “A new wealth gap is growing – attention inequality,” authors Joon Yun and Eric Yun of the Yun Family Foundation, an institute dedicated to “transforming the way people think,” argued that “attention inequality” is having a destructive force on society and expressed nostalgia for the days of “monoculture.” They defined this idyllic time as one where all attention was focused on one or two people or groups, e.g. the Beatles, and on no one else. The idea expressed by the Yuns is that the new internet world where everyone may take his best shot at fame is unfair, and a veil that should not have been lifted has been removed. In the meantime, everyone, described as “the heart-broken masses,” wanders through the selection at will, as customers as well as fame-seekers. The Yuns’ complaint is very similar to a running theme in the works of Michel Houellebecq: the free market of choice has created winners and losers and in doing so has destroyed the dreams and self-respect of the last group.

Perhaps the question is whether existing in a world of dreams, one in which a person could feel good about himself using the “might have been” fantasy, is an acceptable burden to thrust upon society. After all, in his short story “The secret life of Walter Mitty [which the Ben Stiller film butchered],” satirist James Thurber’s point was that living in dreams replaces action, allowing people to imagine themselves as people filled with unrecognized abilities. Even Thurber’s picture of the type for whom such an existence is necessary was probably accurate: a passive middle-aged man who had missed opportunities in his youth (implied WWII vet, so both chances to be a military hero and cash in benefits to start a business, further education, etc.) and resents his wife as the cause and the personification of the mediocrity of his existence.

But are we better off with the veil of mediocre monoculture lifted? Is the fact that revelation may not be pleasant for those who discover that they are unappealing to the modern market really a justifiable cause for concern? Is the old world of “monoculture” really something to look back upon with nostalgia?

My former composition and counterpoint teacher was also a concert pianist, who trained at The Juilliard School. While still a student my teacher was signed by a major record label. One of the tidbits I learned from him was that back in “those days (mid-20th century)” practically the only way a young (classical) artist had of obtaining notice was to be at an elite conservatory since that is where the scouts went almost exclusively.

The MO for finding the “latest new thing” made perfect sense for the time period. There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of investment on the part of the label that went into publicity for and grooming of a young artist. Further, in my teacher’s case, the label handled studio and recording expenses, created and booked concert tours, and handled venue costs. The artist did not have to repay the funding; however, total expenses would be deducted from any royalties should he/she become successful. The investment risk meant that going to places where the already-succeeding were clustered was the safest bet for the big labels. There was very little room in the equation for a person who was not already positioned to join the upper professional echelons, or someone who had no insider access.

Was a situation where the major labels acted as gatekeepers and only considered people who fit a certain profile really better than the current one where the internet and digital tools allow artists to perform directly to the audience? The nostalgia for a time of “monoculture” speaks to a yearning for a closed, stratified world. The world where my teacher grew up and worked was a world in which someone with big dreams could imagine himself as simply undiscovered, an unrecognized talent whose gifts would never benefit society. There is some security, a perverse comfort, in such a dynamic. A person never has to confront the idea that maybe he has no talent, maybe his music is not good enough, maybe what he does is something no one finds interesting, perhaps there is no market for him to fill.

The breakup of the “monoculture” has forced average Joe dreamer to confront these possibilities. Instead of only playing and dreaming in his garage, he can now release his own albums on iTunes and Prime Music, upload videos to YouTube and Daily Motion; he can have his own website and create his own publicity. He can wait to see if his work is accepted and if there is an audience for it. The Yun family has argued that the process of exposure and competition is cruel, that it breaks up human contact, that it consigns the vast majority who desire to be part of the “culture” to being part of the “heartbroken masses.” But the real question is: How is average Joe dreamer any better off under the old system? Isn’t a situation in which he at least has a chance to be seen, to make it big, better than one in which he is simply locked out? 

Contempt for capitalism

Scarcity is merely contempt for that which is easily obtained.

                                                                                               ~ Seneca (attributed)[1]

While I am aware that many of the NOL writers do not agree with Jordan Peterson, I think he is correct when he says that many of the contemporary problems faced by society are the product of prosperity. The essence of his argument is that in an evolutionary sense mankind has two sets of priorities: 1) necessities of life and 2) social standing attached to life meaning. For the first time in history, we are living at a point where the necessities of physically staying alive, e.g. housing, food, medical care, etc. are obtainable and now people are free to fixate on the second set of priorities. The point where I personally diverge from Peterson and those of a traditional “conservative” inclination is that I do not think it is incumbent upon broader society to provide a sense of meaning or status for others.

In an interview with Christina Hoff Sommers and Danielle Crittenden of AEI for their Femsplainers podcast, Peterson illustrated his argument with an anecdote from his childhood on the Canadian plains. He described how, despite college being free in Canada at the time, he was the only one from his high school class to go onto tertiary education. Some but not all of the cause, he said, was ignorance. He observed that much of the reasoning related to an inability to delay gratification. At the time, his hometown was an oil center and was flush with money from the boom of the 1980s. Consequently, going to work immediately and making a lot of money was more attractive for high school seniors than was attending university. For the next decade this strategy worked. But, as Peterson recounted, when he was in the final year of his PhD, two things happened: 1) the wells supporting the town ran dry and 2) the oil bubble burst.

Unsurprisingly, what were a blip on the radar and a minor hiccup in the global and historical scope were disastrous for Peterson’s hometown. What became apparent in the fallout was a softening of character and mind. Counterintuitively, men who had no problem rising at 4:00 AM and working in subzero temperatures for sixteen hours were shown to be fragile in the face of greater adversity. Having manufactured an identity that emphasized the pointlessness of skill acquisition but also placed great importance upon high income, these beneficiaries of the oil bubble were devastated when their incomes disappeared and their lack of relevant skills left them unemployable and consequently without status. In the following decades, the town became one of many others of the rustbelt variety, plagued by unemployment, substance abuse, and apathy. It was this sequence that Peterson said caused him to start thinking in terms of the evolutionary stages of development. For us, the most relevant takeaway is the limitations of money on conferring status.  

As Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) wrote in his article “Influences affecting the development of thrift (1907)” in which he lamented the loss of capitalist mentality among the American people,

It is obvious that the more closely society is knit together, the greater the influence of social standards upon economic conduct. The solitary frontiersman shapes his economic conduct with very little regard for the opinion of other frontiersmen with whom he may occasionally associate. The one rich man in a community of poor men is scarcely at all under the dominance of social economic standards.

Saunders ultimately concluded that increased status anxiety or social dissatisfaction was, however counterintuitively, a sign of progress. After all, the real life of a frontiersman was quite different from that romanticized in Zane Grey books. Therefore, assuming that no one really wants to live a subsistence existence, a world in which people are materially comfortable, even if subjected to social pressures, is inherently better.

The concerns induced by social pressure are external to material wellbeing since a positive environment for the latter ensures that people can live above subsistence without difficulty. Social pressure is hardly objective, and because of its variable nature, symbolized in Johnson’s essay by a “suburbanite touring car,” which was both unproductive and quickly superseded by newer vehicles, sweeping claims about feelings of social pressure must be denied validity. Johnson presented the thirst, which he observed in 1907, for status symbols as both positive and negative. Positive because it indicated greater prosperity; Negative because it created a different set of societal problems. As society became increasingly removed from a subsistence existence, the human cycle of craving and acquisition – which in a hunter-gatherer environment meant survival of winter – developed into an obstacle, rather than a necessary tool. The contemporary extension to Johnson’s line of reasoning correlates to Peterson’s assertion that the fixation of broader society on status is a natural sequitur to achieving a level of prosperity sufficient for the basic needs of all to be addressed.

While the topic of interest to Johnson was thrift and capitalist mentality, or rather the lack of it, on the part of the American people, his essay contained an interesting and pertinent observation regarding land practices. Remembering that he wrote this particular essay in 1907, he remarked on an agricultural real estate bubble existing in the Midwest, his native region. The reason he thought it was important was that he maintained it demonstrated two points in the spending-thrift, status- (genuine) capitalist paradigm. Property prices and valuations had risen, he argued, past the productive potential and therefore market value of the real estate in question. This rise was driven, he said, by the farmers themselves who spent lavishly on land because of an association of ownership with status, even if they were then unable to use the land effectively and therefore unable to recoup the investment. He predicted that land purchased under these circumstances was not a good investment. Further he added that when the bubble collapsed, not only would there be monetary loses, there would also be ego and identity crises as those farmers who saw the value of their holdings diminish would feel as though they had lost social standing, even if they didn’t lose a single acre. However since, Johnson observed that many of the farmers he knew, and upon whom he based his hypotheses, had repeatedly mortgaged their current holdings in order to buy additional pieces, the economist predicted property forfeiture as well.

A prototype Austrian economist, though born and raised on the Nebraska plains, Johnson made no moral judgements about the acquisitive instinct or the needless purchase of property. The pettiness exemplified by Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) and his claim that curved driveways was a pointless display of wealth and status because they used space that might be put to better use (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899) was simply not a factor in Johnson’s works. Johnson’s conclusion on improper land acquisition and use was based purely on dollars and cents: for a farmer, unprofitable land was not an investment, and no amount of wishful thinking would make it into one. Johnson’s predictions about an impending time of property price collapse and hurt egos came to pass in the 1920s with the agricultural depression, which was in full swing by 1924. The bubble burst was possibly delayed by World War I. The Dust Bowl and Great Depression of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was an epilogue to a situation that had begun many decades before.

In 1922, shortly before the agricultural bubble burst spectacularly, Johnson wrote another article, “The Promotion of Thrift in America,” in which he warned, again, that the American land-owning farmer was overleveraged. He also identified the existence of a tenant farmer class whose status was due to lending policies which encouraged current owners to become overleveraged through easy mortgages, thereby inflating property prices, but prevented first-time buyers from entering the market. The dispute between NIMBY and YIMBY is hardly new. To further exacerbate the situation, the agricultural sector had begun to receive federal subsidies as part of the war effort. While Johnson didn’t mention this in his article, the subsidies further distorted the connected real estate market as they made farming appear more profitable than it was. In response to criticism for his decision to refuse to subsidize agriculture in any way, Calvin Coolidge, who was desperately trying to salvage the American economy and took a firm anti-subsidy, anti-price control approach, said, “well, farmers never have made much money.” Johnson’s predictions from 1907 came true, but Coolidge’s 1926 decision on subsidies received the blame.   

What relevance, one might reasonably ask, has a set of observations from 1907 on the investment attitudes of, primarily Midwestern, American farmers have today? Why should these observations be combined with comments on status, work, and society made by a controversial academic? The reason is best exemplified by Sen. Marco Rubio’s article in the National Review titled “The case for common good capitalism.” It was an apology of soft socialism swaddled in pseudo-religious sanctimony culled piecemeal from various Catholic encyclicals. Since Kevin Williamson already dissected the article and its flaws, there is no need to rebut Rubio at this juncture. The overarching thesis to Rubio’s piece is that society has robbed the working man of dignity. The logic is tangled, to say the least, and it crescendos to the conclusion that a shadowy, disembodied society has mugged the working man and taken his dignity (or sense of status). The basic equations appear to be as follows:

  • burst property bubble = conspiracy to deny ownership, at least dignified ownership, to average Joe
  • loss of jobs for unskilled labor = denial of right to work;
  • lack of workforce-owned corporations = some vague travesty that is tied to denial of ownership.

For this last, Johnson in “The Promotion of Thrift in America” specifically mentioned such corporate arrangements as complete failures because they created hostility between employers and employees, and in fact reduced employee-loyalty, since the latter believed that such arrangements were intended to defraud them of their wages.

In his two articles, Johnson frankly argued that only the middle-classes and up practiced thrift and engaged in capital acquisition and investment. He dedicated most of “The Promotion of Thrift in America” to expounding upon the ways that the “wage earners (polite speak for working class back in the 1920s),” farmers, and the lower-middle class not refused to pursue capitalist behavior but would respond with active hostility when thrift campaigners (yes, there was an save-and-be-a-capitalist campaign in the aftermath of World War I, right up there with the temperance movement![2]) suggested that they should. The crux of the issue, one which Rubio’s article refuses to recognize, is that, like in the 1920s, the roots of broader societal complaints lie decades in the past. The efforts to create a quick fix are therefore both futile and infantile. Every couple of decades a specific subgroup, be it the overleveraged farmers of the early twentieth century or the unskilled oil workers of Peterson’s youth, discovers that its values are defective and that the signs its members believed to be markers of status are liabilities. Eventually the price of the decisions built on these misplaced values and symbols must be paid. In order for the payment to occur in a way that does not unjustly burden the rest of society, we must recognize that the scarcity experienced by the indebted subgroup lies more in their contempt for the genuine capitalist way of life than in any wrong society has inflicted upon them.


[1] Despite attribution to Seneca, I have been unable to find this aphorism among his works currently in my library, and I would be very appreciative if someone could tell me in which work he wrote this phrase (if indeed he did).

[2] Interesting which of the two movements gained enough political clout to have its agenda inscribed in the Constitution.  

Perspective and riches

Sometimes working in the arts can be quite disorienting, especially in terms of what comes out of the mouths of colleagues. For example, a close friend was in rehearsal and an ensemble member, having spent the first hour staring at her, suddenly demanded: 

“Are those real diamonds [pointing at a simple crystal strand bought at H&M]?” 

“What?! These?! No.”

“Oh, okay. I was trying to figure out how rich you are.” 

There were so many things wrong with this actual exchange that it is hard to know where to start. The main, collective reaction was: “Who openly admits to sitting there thinking things like that?” The episode embarrassed everyone except the person who asked the offensive question. Aside from the immediate disruptive effect it had, the incident was indicative of a greater socio-cultural problem, a shameless voyeurism that, while not new, has reached a fevered pitch today.

While one could easily say that reality TV and Instagram are primary causes, there are plenty of examples which predate these media, most memorably Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and its prescient view of tabloid and celebrity culture. What is new, though, is the idea that the envious and their curiosity have any legitimacy. We have come from Flaubert’s view that Emma Bovary was a colossal idiot to articles published by the BBC lamenting “invisible poverty.” The BBC writer’s examples of “invisible poverty” were an inability to afford “posh coffee,” a qualifier which he declined to define, and neighbors wondering if a “nice car” was bought on auto loan or owned outright. Like the question about diamonds, not only should such matters be outside the concern of others, to think that they are appropriate, or even a valid source of social strife, is disgusting and disturbing. 

In his book Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell complained about being sent to Eton, where he spent his school years feeling as though everyone around him had more material wealth. The essence of his lament was that he wished his parents had sent him to a small grammar school where he could have been the richest student. He also claimed, in a wild generalization, that his feelings on the matter were universal through the British upper-middle class. Further, he said that it was his time in secondary school, not as commonly claimed his time as a civil servant, which fueled his turn toward Marxism, following the traditional logic of grabbers – “they have so much and therefore can spare some for me.” 

The most baffling part for Orwell was the way that the upper-middle class, which included his family, was willing to move to far-flung corners of the globe and live in conditions the lowest British laborer would not accept in exchange for educational opportunity for their children and a high-status, reasonably wealthy retirement for themselves. For a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of self-sacrifice, its role in the development of capitalism, and why only the century upper- and upper-middle classes were the ones willing to make such exchanges, see Niall Ferguson’s Colossus

It is important today for us to become more critical regarding complaints about society and anecdotes that are presented as proof regarding unfair societal mechanisms that prevent social mobility. An example of the reason we must be careful is art recent article published by written by a Cambridge undergraduate for The Guardian, who identifying as working class and having many problems along those lines, cited as her biggest complaint the Cambridge Winter Ball. Her problem was not that she hasn’t been able to attend, but that she had had to work for an hour in order to get into the Ball for free. This is a questionable example of social immobility. Her complaint about the Ball was that there were others who could pay the £100 entrance fee upfront. From this, she assumed a level of privilege that might not necessarily exist, i.e. “the other students could part with 100 pounds.” 

Another example of failure to understand the availability of resources and extrapolating a false conclusion of social immobility is the Columbia University FLiP (First-generation, Low-income People) Facebook page, which was, through 2018, their primary platform. In response to Columbia University’s study on their first-generation low-income population, many of the complaints related to books and the libraries. FLiP students didn’t know that books were available in the library, and so they had purchased study materials while their “wealthier” peers simply borrowed the library copy or spent the necessary number of hours in the library working. Ironically, this complaint is not valid if you also consider that Columbia does an immersive orientation in which new students are taken into the libraries and are shown the basics of the book search system, card operations, checkout procedure, etc. In response to the publicity surround the FLiP drive[1] the university opened a special library for these people where there is no official checkout; all loans are on the honor system. On a hilarious side note, in the middle ages libraries would chain books to lecterns to keep the students from walking away with them.

While we may have moved away from a society that encouraged living modestly to avoid arousing the envy of one’s neighbors, we now live in a culture in which our neighbors’ jealousy is too easily aroused. Chaos is the natural resting state of existence, but people have lost the ability to construct order for themselves out of it. It is possible to argue that modern people have not been taught to do so; after all, no one comes into the world knowing the underlying skills that are the foundation of the “invisible poor” complaints, e.g. social interactions, sartorial taste, self-sacrifice, etc. To tell the truth, mankind’s natural state is closer to the savages of the middle ages whose covetous inclinations necessitated the chaining of library books. On the one hand, we have progressed tremendously past such behavior and in doing so created order from chaos; but on the other hand, the external signs of progress are now under fire as symbols of privilege. Chillingly, the anti-civilization narrative, because that is ultimately what it is, is being incorporated into an anti-capitalist agenda through the conflation of “civilized” with “privileged,” which in turn is conflated with “rich.” 


[1] It is also revealing that the sign off for these people while the drive lasted was FLiP [school name]. Yes, one must wonder if even the acronym was picked for its stunning vulgarity. 

Early 20th century socio-economic commentary: history in the making

Several years ago, I used to watch the television show Bones. The only quote I remember from that show was surprisingly pithy given its origins. Regarding a serial killer the team has finally tracked down and neutralized, the resident psychologist, Dr. Lance Sweets, says: “I was right. He was nobody – angry at history for ignoring him.” Contemplating the second part of the quote, one realizes that the potentially histrionic line holds some alarming applicability today.

Tom Palmer wrote a magnificent article, “The Terrifying Rise of Authoritarian Populism,” which he examined the way that failed individuals and communities turn to a collective identity to bolster their self-esteem, which in turn creates a dynamic conducive to populist ideologies of all stripes. The pressing question is: Why does the majority feel entitled to dictate to the minority, in a form of mob-rule wrapped in the husk of democracy? In order to understand, though never to solve, this question in America, the one country whose founders openly designed it specifically to avoid tyranny, both of the majority and the minority, one must look to a mixture of factors.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, there is a snippet of story about the history professor “who couldn’t get a job because he taught that the inhabitants of slums were not the men who made this country.” Quite literally because none of the Founding Fathers came from insignificance, outside of Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a Scottish gentleman, a man who was rather blatantly waiting around for a woman of rank to become available and who didn’t leave his son any of his extensive property.[1]Given that Hamilton’s early promise belied his later invention of the early federal reserve and his apologetics for tariffs, the suspicion of historians – and Hamilton’s own peers if private letters among Jefferson, the Adams, and others are to be believed – that he had some bitterness toward the propertied class on the basis of his childhood is justifiable. Benjamin Franklin was very proud of the fact that he managed to make his own fortune – having parted acrimoniously with his solidly middle-class extended family. To be fair, Franklin never claimed to be “self-made,” just to have had to be self-reliant at an unusually young age for a man of his class. There is much to be admired in Franklin’s rigidly honest self-definition, especially today. To return to the quote from Rand, the idea expressed was not a comment upon the literal Founding Fathers but rather upon the building of identities and the falsity contained therein. 

The visualization graphic linked from FEE shows clearly the extent to which incomes have increased over the years. The discontent connected and displayed through dramatic claims about “shrinking middle-class,” “stagnant wages,” “1 percent,” etc. was predicted in 1907 by economist Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) in his study “Influences Affecting the Development of Thrift.” Starting with the question:

If it is proposed, through legislation, to liberate a given social class from some of the uncertainties and hardships of the laissez-faire regime, one of the first questions to be raised is: “What will be the effects upon the habits of saving of the class concerned?” 

After laying out in great detail why redistributive policies were bound to fail fiscally and socially, Johnson took direct aim at what he perceived to be the source of the problem:

To-day the working class is rising into an autonomous position. The workingman of to-day repudiates the term “the lower classes.” His position is not the same as that of the property owner, but it is not in his opinion inferior. It follows that any line of conduct rising normally out of his position as a wage earner will be held in honor by him. It is pertinent, therefore, to inquire what attitude toward thrift the exigencies of his situation lead him to adopt. 

It is no part of the workingman’s view of progress that each individual should become the owner of a capital whose earnings may supplement those of his labor. No such supplementary income should, in the laborer’s view, be necessary; and the work- man who endeavors to secure it for himself, instead of bending his efforts to the winning of better conditions for labor in general, is likely to be blamed for selfishness rather than praised for self-restraint. […]

Light-handed spending in time of prosperity, mutual aid in time of distress- such appears to be the approved conduct of a permanent body of property-less laborers. And if this is true, we may be quite certain that such practices will in the end be idealized, and that middle-class schemes of cultivating thrift among the working classes will meet with increasing resistance. Already it is easy to find bodies of intelligent workmen who express the greatest contempt for the fellow workman who is ” salting down ” a part of his earnings. 

All of these factors, predicted Johnson, would lead to increase inequality, social and financial, and anger with the socio-economic system. The inequality would stem, not from literal economic inequality, but from the loss of the “laborers” to discern genuine investment, in self, family, and business, from mere consumption, leading to a knowledge- and know-how gap.

At the time Johnson wrote his study, the Progressive movement and its acolytes were running rampant in the US, promoting what we would call today a “soft” socialist state, and the campaigners were experiencing unusual popularity in response to an agriculture bubble due to subsidies that inflated land prices and a more general move toward socialism among urban workers. While the prototype socialists blamed consumption, adopting eagerly the vocabulary of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class(1899), Johnson rejected the idea completely:

“Conspicuous consumption” is a proof of economic success, and wherever it is the most telling proof, the standard of economic success is likely to be a standard of consumption. But wherever economic success is better displayed in some other way, as for example by increase in one’s visible assets or productive equipment, the standard of consumption exercises little influence upon economic conduct. A standard of conspicuous possession or of productive power takes its place.[2]

Instead, the root problem was a mass loss of will to be capitalists and to engage in and with the capitalist system. This in turn stemmed from a desire for dignity, a pursuit doomed to failure because it was built not on the dignity of work and the worthiness of independence but upon class identity. Exacerbating the situation, as Tom Palmer explored, is the fact that this identity is collective, which fits with a rejection of capitalist pursuit because entrepreneurship is inherently a singular, individual effort.  

Today, we are facing the consequences of the rejection of what Margaret Thatcher called “the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise.” Those who embrace this lifestyle ideal are the ones who have made and continue to determine history. While they may be mappable as a network or a general type of group, all of their achievements lie outside a collective identity. Any set of people can be distilled down to a select set of characteristics that give the impression of a collective unity; for example, one can make a blanket statement along the lines of “the majority of tech billionaires are Ivy Plus dropouts” which would be true in a literal sense and false in its reductionist view. 

The collective view of the social peer must fail of necessity. It is what Johnson meant when he mentioned the derision directed by working-men at those of their fellows who stepped outside a collective concept of “place” and tried to become capitalists through saving. The policing of the peer in America has failed miserably as Palmer described when he wrote of individuals seeking solace in the notion that their community is successful, even if they are not. The illogic of this position escapes them: it is impossible for a community of individual underachievers to become successful merely through combining into a collective. History shows many times over that such a situation only increases the multiplication of failure. And it is the inexorability of history – though not, heeding Karl Popper’s admonition, historicism – that is the source of the anger today. The collective from the slums does not make history, and those who make up the collective are now angry at history for ignoring them.        


[1]To be fair to Hamilton Sr., not much is known about the circumstances of his estate. It is perfectly possible that it was entailed and therefore could not be bequeathed at will. Hamilton Sr did pay for an elite, in a Caribbean-colonies context, education and funded his son’s early ventures in New York City. Also a good proof for the idea that the bank of mom and dad is NOT a Millennial invention.  

[2]Johnson is an American economist who really deserves greater recognition. He grew up on the Midwestern plains, and in these fairly isolated circumstances, he articulated a theory of economics which he later recognized as part of the Austrian School. He co-founded The New School in NYC and was single-handedly responsible for the university becoming a home to Austrian and other central European scholars forced to flee from the Nazis. 

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?