A Queens’ Marxist in the Lions’ Court

When I first walked into the conference room, two other girls were already there. One of them caught my eye and with a friendly nod indicated I should take the seat next to her. I did and then observed the girl on the other side of the table.

She was quite striking, well-dressed in the trendiest fashion, and clearly intelligent, but she exuded an agitation and antagonism that clashed with the sleepy serenity of the room and our own quiet desire for friendship. As our other six classmates trickled in, the Girl across the Table never relaxed and though she responded correctly to any friendly overture, she did so with an attitude of suspicion. Puzzled but too preoccupied to give it much thought, I turned my attention to the department chair who was opening orientation.

For the first couple of weeks I was much too in awe of my new surroundings at this Ivy League university to concern myself with anything more than adjusting as quickly as possible. Only one of us had attended an Ivy for undergraduate and she was one of the nicest people in the class. Recognizing how intimidating the new environment could be, she went out of her way to demystify the place for us, and with her help we soon realized that the tranquil, yet demanding, atmosphere of the first day was genuine. We were meant to become our best selves, not to compete insanely with each other. About three weeks in, our entering cohort of nine had settled into a social and academic routine with everyone participating in a cordial, collegial manner, everyone except one: the Girl across the Table – hereafter called GatT. 

Her hostility from the first day was unabated, and now we were its direct target. During lunch, if someone suggested a book, she had a snarky putdown, even if seconds later she would be raving about another book by the same author. One evening a group of the classical music lovers took advantage of free tickets from the school to go to the opera. GatT came with us. Stretching our legs at intermission time devolved into standing in  a circle and listening uncomfortably as GatT made snide comments about how everyone in the lobby was dressed. As we turned to go back in, I heard her mutter something about “bourgeois” under her breath. A light went on in my heard: GatT was a Marxist – puzzle solved! The next morning, GatT publicly avowed her Marxist leanings during a seminar discussion. 

The mystery of her hostility solved, we moved on with our social lives and pretty much managed to maintain a state of cautious détente with GatT. She made her desire to lead a jacquerie against us fairly clear a couple of times a week. This became funny once a casual lunch conversation revealed that eight of the nine of us had some familiarity with firearms; I commented to the friendly girl from the first day that this particular jacquerie wouldn’t end the way GatT thought. Eventually we became accustomed to her outbursts, and it took one of extraordinary absurdity to elicit any reaction from us. The closest anyone came to snapping at her was the time she claimed that our completing assignments on time was an act of class oppression against her. 

One of the other students was the daughter of two economists who had became ardent free-marketeers after spending their youths as equally ardent Marxists; consequently her grasp of both arguments was comprehensive. After losing a verbal bout with her, GatT refrained from practical arguments and retreated to social commentary. One day during our daily class coffee gathering, she proclaimed that if she had known our school was an Ivy, in order to show support for the proletariat, she would not have applied. As the “discussion” continued, she branded us as privileged elitists. Meanwhile, we quietly drank our cheap coffee and pondered the fellowships that made this our most affordable option. 

The remainder of our graduate studies passed in the pattern of endless writing and studying, intense debates on all sorts of topics, excursions to museums and evenings at the theatre or concerts, and of course simply socializing with each other. We tuned out GatT’s insulting nattering and someone always ensured she received an invitation to whatever activity was scheduled. Despite her clear resentment, she usually came. 

In the final term, when the course load was intentionally light to leave room for writing the Masters thesis, GatT disappeared for a few weeks. We learned through her social media that she was participating in anti-austerity protests in Europe and was immediately sprayed with tear gas during a raucous demonstration. Soon after she returned to school, I ran into her. She told me that she hadn’t started writing her thesis yet: the submission deadline was three weeks away.

I haven’t seen GatT since that last meeting, but the rest of us stay in touch. During a dinner with some of the gang a few months ago we tallied where everyone is now. GatT was the only one we couldn’t account for; because of her propensity for agitating, we suspect she might be locked away in a third-world prison somewhere. We also wonder if she ever managed to complete her thesis.     

2019: Year in Review

It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.

As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.

Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.

Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”

Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.

Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.

Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.

Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.

Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.

Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.

Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.

Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.

Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”

Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.

Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.

Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.

Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.

Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.

Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.

Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.

Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).

Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!

I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.

Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.

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?

Bourgeois III: Values in real-life

Today, there is a rising commercialization, a commodification of the character traits of the bourgeois. This in turn is leading toward a worldview in which bourgeois behavior is a “privilege,” instead of simply being an expectation of a civilized society. As part of such a change, the bourgeois, the real middle-class as exemplified by a set of genuine values and behaviors, not just income or the terrible Marxist clichés from authors such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), have moved from being the group of idealized role-models to being portrayed as a slightly deviant clique. Now, words such as “censorious,” “sanctimonious,” “privileged [again],” “hectoring,” and “judgmental” are routinely thrown around concerning those of bourgeois persuasion by pundits and the commentariat on both sides of the political aisle.  

In 1960, psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel led the famous (or infamous depending on social leanings) marshmallow experiment. A young child, observed by researchers and parent(s), was left alone in a room deliberately devoid of stimulation outside of a candy marshmallow. The researcher who took the child into the room would tell the child he/she could eat the marshmallow but would promise a gift of two marshmallows if upon the adult’s return two minutes later, the original piece of candy was uneaten. Needless to say, once the researcher left the room, the majority of children promptly ate the thing. 

Mischel checked on them when they were teenagers and then located a smaller segment when they were almost 50 – those who had displayed deferred gratification had more successful lives than those who had gobbled the first marshmallow. Starting in 1990, when Mischel published the results of both the original test and the teenage checkup and revealed that those with self-control had achieved higher SAT scores and therefore received admission into the best universities, his work came under fire from the social justice coterie. The reason was that the results were an indictment of the difference in the parenting style of the majority, i.e. the single marshmallow gobblers, and the disciplined minority. In a logical world, the results should be cause for celebration because the two-marshmallow children came neither from a racially homogenous group nor from elite backgrounds, though the fact that the majority had one professional parent has formed a large part of “but the experiment is socially discriminatory” argument. 

The crux of the rejection is the evidence that the two-marshmallow children entered the experiment room having already learned self-control from their parents, while the candy wolfers had not. In an attempt to debunk Mischel’s study, a group of psychological researchers redid the experiment, publishing the results in 2018, with a larger sample and a thorough study of the home environments of the subjects. Instead discrediting Mischel, the second study upheld the macro principles of his work; those who did best on the “new and improved” version were children who came from homes with large numbers of books and had very attentive, responsive parents. In other words, two-marshmallow children came from a different type of family than was, or is, standard. Crucially, the study found that the culturally impoverished, those with money and possibly advanced degrees but no books, did not do significantly better than those from financial poverty, with both groups producing marshmallow snatchers. On an interesting side note on the book divide, parental attention did not seem to make much of a difference, though it is possible that this is because the book-readers were also the better parents – the language is a little ambiguous on this point. 

The Atlantic, for example, more or less gloated that Mischel and co.’s unconscious snobbishness had finally been unmasked to the world:

There’s plenty of other research that sheds further light on the class dimension of the marshmallow test. The Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir wrote a book in 2013, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, that detailed how poverty can lead people to opt for short-term rather than long-term rewards; the state of not having enough can change the way people think about what’s available now. In other words, a second marshmallow seems irrelevant when a child has reason to believe that the first one might vanish. [….]

These findings point to the idea that poorer parents try to indulge their kids when they can, while more-affluent parents tend to make their kids wait for bigger rewards. Hair dye and sweet treats might seem frivolous, but purchases like these are often the only indulgences poor families can afford. And for poor children, indulging in a small bit of joy today can make life feel more bearable, especially when there’s no guarantee of more joy tomorrow.

It is important to note that Mischel’s critics completely distorted his findings. At no point did he claim one group was superior to the other in any sense. Nor, did he claim, as is often misrepresented, that “character was everything.” These were all things impugned to him by opponents. All he did was prove that patience and self-restraint at age five (the approximate age of his subjects) tended to translate into disciplined, high-achieving high school students.[1]

The real rub of the marshmallow test is that it forced recognition of the fact that different child-rearing methods convey value sets, and that these values can be a determining factor in success or failure. They have the potential to translate into material, cultural, and social capital, or to reveal the lack of these things to the world. To make things worse, from a social justice standpoint, the experiments appear to demonstrate that values of the upper echelons are better because they have consistently produced the same results. 

The excuse-seeking used by The Atlantic author, such as hair dye and sweets, is recognizable to anyone who has read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier because the logic’s template is his chapter on the dietary habits of the northern English working-class in the 1930s. What isn’t shown is Orwell’s own honesty. While he gave his subjects a pass on spending eight pounds[2] on sugar, as the only affordable indulgence, he excoriated them for spending on tinned corn beef and dried milk when fresh meat and dairy was both readily available and were much, much cheaper. For him, it was one of the little ironies in the social fabric that the middle-class, who preferred fresh products, lived cheaper and better than the working-class, whom he suspected bought canned meat and desiccated milk out of some misplaced notion that this was what the middle-class ate exactly because cans and boxes were more expensive.     

In his book The Wealth of Humans: Work and Its Absence in the Twenty-First Century, journalist-economist Ryan Avent wrote on the subject of social capital:

Wealth has always been sociable. The long process of cultural development that eventually yielded the industrial revolution was in many ways the process by which humanity learned ever better ways of structuring society in order to foster the emergence of complex economic activity. Wealth creation in rich economies is nurtured by a complex system of legal institutions (such as property rights and the courts that uphold them), economic networks (such as fast and efficient transportation and access to scientific communities and capital markets) and culture (such as conceptions of the ‘good life’, respect for the law, and the status accorded to those who work hard and become rich). No individual can take credit for this system; it was built and is maintained by society.

Avent is absolutely correct, especially in terms of this as the essence of a capitalist society. To return to the marshmallow test and its subjects, if one divides society into snatchers and waiters and then looks at Avent’s behavioral traits, such as “respect for the law,” or values – “property rights” – one immediately sees that one of the two groups is going to fare much better than the other. This is not because one group is inherently superior to the other; no, the difference is that one group received the value system, and therefore social capital, necessary to function acceptably in a capitalist system. The other did not. 

Training the values to be functional in a capitalist system has nothing to do with society at large, and everything to do with the family. That said, society does play a role in terms of upholding bourgeois values, but modern American society has, as previously indicated, not only disincentivized such values but has come to stigmatize them as unacceptable. Up next: examples of the bourgeois family!  

[1]Officially, he has not directly published the results of his check up with the available subjects at age 49; however, the APA report, hyperlinked above, indicates that the two-marshmallow children honored their potential and became successful, fulfilled adults. 

[2]He either observed that they spent eight pounds money, or that they bought eight pounds in weight; he was not clear in his wording.

Bourgeois II: place in the world

Quite recently, I was reading musicologist Martha Feldman’s book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, which is, unsurprisingly, a study on the castrato and the music written for the voice type during the 17thand 18thcenturies. The concept is exactly what it sounds like – a male singer whose physical development was surgically ended in order to preserve his access to the high soprano range. The surgery in theory created an ideal singer because his head and ribs continued to grow to normal male size, creating someone with tremendous lung capacity and also large head space which created greater resonance. 

For anyone who might be wondering, no, castrati did not sing female roles; the type was still male in identity and was often associated with nobility or demi-gods in character casting. Incidentally, the practice of castrati eventually led to the operatic custom, beginning in the late 18thcentury, of mid-range female singers (mezzo-sopranos) singing the roles of young males because as religious and civil laws cracked down on the creation of castrati, this particular type of singer gradually disappeared, even as the music written for them increased in popularity. By the time Mozart wrote Le Nozze di Figaro(1785 – 86) and La Clemenza di Tito(1789), the roles of the junior males, Cherubino and Annio respectively, were written for women singers from the outset. 

The aspect that was, for me, quite interesting about the castrati was the level to which a concept which musicians more or less take for granted stemmed from larger social, legal, and cultural changes in Europe in the late 1500s. Explaining the castrato’s history in Italy, where the practice originated, Feldman mentioned philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas and his work, particularly on the “weakening of industrialization and the refeudalization of Europe” following the Renaissance. More directly related to the trend of castrati, Feldman wrote:

Most of the time first sons were excluded (from castration in order to make a castrato) because primogeniture was the rule in Italy, hence first sons were heirs, breeders, and eventual legatees, though very poor or very ambitious families sometimes did have first sons castrated, including the family of Handel’s principal castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi), whose older brother was a castrato, and first son Gaetano Berenstadt (1687 – 1734), of Tyrolean descent, who ended up caring extensively for his family’s needs (Feldman, 13).

And further explained,

If some form of patriarchy had long been the rule, patriliny by contrast took root in a historically precise way only around 1570, as we have glimpsed above [a preceding paragraph on the combination of increased lifespan and the introduction of estate entail in Italy]. Prior to that time the ideal had been to marry off all or most sons to increase a family’s power not just vertically but horizontally, within a wider network of kin, with the goal of fortifying the clan as a whole. With the marrying off of first sons only, a situation arose in which younger sons were typically consigned to military or ecclesiastical careers and thus formally speaking to legal or effective celibacy at the same time as most upper-class daughters entered convents. Both strategies intensified with the severe economic crisis of the seventeenth-century, but the practice continued afterward, albeit with increasing tendencies toward diversification (45).

Before 1570, the law of entail was not prevalent in continental Europe, which also tended to include females in the line of succession – Salic law applied only to the throne in the case of France, so noble women could and did inherit their parents’ property. Since one of the central points of the Counter-Reformation was ending the abuse of Catholic religious facilities, either as retirement homes for dowagers or as cold-storage for spare heirs once their elder brother fulfilled his duty, convents, monasteries, and the priesthood quickly became unviable career options, at least for the aristocracy. 

This little tweak to Canon Law had two effects: 1) the Catholic clergy gradually ceased being a profession as such, which resulted in an increased number of non-elites joining voluntarily and rising to high places, and 2) the performing arts, particularly music, exploded as the young men enrolled in ecclesiastical preparatory schools and originally destined for careers in the Church had to find new avenues for their skills. On a side note, the struggle to enforce the new regulation took centuries, was closely related to the battle for separation of church and state, and it is a story for another time.

The point to this tale is the response of the younger sons to their change in fortunes and status. Being in cathedral schools, and even more impractically in music-specialist cathedral schools, at first glance there was not much use for what these young men could do in the secular world. They were fluent in Latin, usually had a good command of Greek, frequently had a solid understanding of modern European languages and literature in general, and they were competent musicians. In a world that not only was still largely agrarian but was also “refeudalizing” into a system where they were, on the one hand, very much locked into the expectations of their caste – an impoverished younger son was still an aristocrat – while simultaneously being locked out of any claim to family property, the position of these men appeared hopeless. 

Instead of giving in to the circumstances, though, these men went out and turned their skills into an industry – classical music as we know it. They taught it, wrote it, and developed it into a dominant art form. Some found multivariant use for their “irrelevant” skills. For example, the castrato Carlo Broschi (1705 – 1782) didn’t use his real name out of respect to his aristocratic family, performing under the name Farinelli. However, his birth and skill with languages also caused him to be appointed a diplomat-at-large and it was not uncommon for him to be in cities, such as London or Madrid, for opera engagements and be suddenly called upon to go to the royal court and help sort out a diplomatic issue. When he died at the unusually old age of 77 (a perfect example of Jonah Goldberg’s point about Second Sons as both victims and beneficiaries of the upper-classes having better medicine), he left behind a fortune, which in a delightful ironic twist bailed out his elder brother’s family.[1]What is remarkable is not that he did this, but that he was only slightly unusual in terms of his financial success. 

In her book The Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey argued, rather controversially, that all movement, no matter how organic, comes top down in terms of the social pecking order. In the case of capitalism, the movement occurred, in part, because the group whom Goldberg termed “Second Sons” and McCloskey “bourgeois” had a particular knack for both recognizing and creating markets, even in very negative situations. The resilience evinced in the story of the castrati and their role in the history of music is a type of proof that McCloskey’s thesis is correct. 

[1]In fairness to the elder Broschi, he was a well-regarded musician in his own right and had a strong career up until he inherited the estate and, following convention, retired to it to become a penniless landed gentleman, rather than a wealthy performer, like his younger brother. The suspicion is that Farinelli covered most of his brother’s family’s living expenses; it is known that he paid for the education of his nephews and niece. 

Middle-class: questioning the definitions

  Vestis virum (non) redit

                                                                                    ~ Latin proverb

As Brexit drags on, there is a reassessment occurring of Margret Thatcher and her legacy. After all, in addition to being a stalwart defender of free markets, free enterprise, and free societies, she helped design the EEC, the precursor to the EU. So in the process of leaving the EU, there is a lingering question regarding whether the referendum is a rejection of Thatcher’s legacy. Those who equate the referendum with a repudiation of Thatcher offer explanations along the lines of: “Thatcher destroyed the miners’ way of life [NB: this is a retort spat out in a debate on the freedom-vs.-welfare split in the Leave faction; it has been edited for grammar and clarity.].” Sooner or later, Thatcher-themed discussions wend their way to the discontents of capitalism, especially the laissez-faire variety, in society, and the complaints are then projected onto issues of immigration, sovereignty, or globalism. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker Carlson’s January 2 polemical monologue contained similar sentiments and provoked a response that proved that the same issues have divided America as well. Much of Carlson’s complaints were predicated on the concept of “way of life,” and here lies a dissonance which has meant that swaths of society talk without understanding: merely possessing a way of life is not equal to having values. In all the discussion of the “hollowing out of the middle-class,” one question is never raised: What is the middle-class?

It is only natural that no one wants to ask this question; modern society doesn’t want to discuss class in a real sense, preferring to rely on the trite and historically abnormal metric of income. To even bring up the C- word outside of the comfortable confines of money is to push an unspoken boundary. Although there is an exception: if one is speaking of high-income, or high-net-worth individuals, it is completely acceptable to question an auto-definition of “middle-class.” Everyone can agree that a millionaire describing himself as middle-class is risible. 

It is the income dependent definition that is the source of confusion. The reality is that modernity has conflated having middle income with being middle-class. The two are not one and the same, and the rhetoric surrounding claims of “hollowing out” is truly more linked to the discovery that one does not equal the other. 

In his The Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg wrote on the subject of the back history of the Founding Fathers:

[….] British primogeniture laws required that the firstborn son of an aristocratic family get everything: the titles, the lands, etc. But what about the other kids? They were required to make their way in the world. To be sure, they had advantages – educational, financial, and social – over the children of the lower classes, but they still needed to pursue a career. “The grander families of Virginia – including the Washingtons – were known as the ‘Second Sons,’” writes Daniel Hannan [Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2013)]. [….]

In fact, Hannan and Matt Ridley [The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper, 2010] suggest that much of the prosperity and expansion of the British Empire in the eighteenth century can be ascribed to an intriguing historical accident. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the children of the affluent nobility had a much lower mortality rate, for all the obvious reasons. They had more access to medicine, rudimentary as it was, but also better nutrition and vastly superior living and working conditions than the general population. As a result, the nobility were dramatically more fecund than the lower classes. Consequently, a large cohort of educated and ambitious young men who were not firstborn were set free to make their way in the world. If you have five boys, only one gets to be the duke. The rest must become officers, priests, doctors, lawyers, academics, and business men.

Goldberg concisely summarized the phenomenon which Deirdre McCloskey argues created the original middle-class. But more importantly, Goldberg’s history lesson emphasizes that the origins of America, from an idea to a reality, have a deep socio-cultural angle, one that is tied to status, property rights, and familial inheritance, that is often lost in the mythology.

As Goldberg explained, the complex, painful history of disenfranchisement due to birth order was the real reason the Founding Fathers both opposed the law of entail while simultaneously focusing almost myopically on private property rights in relation to land. As Hernando de Soto studied in his The Mystery of Capital, George Washington, who held land grant patents for vast, un-surveyed tracts in Ohio and Kentucky, was horrified to discover that early settlers had established homesteads in these regions, before lawful patent holders could stake their claims. Washington found this a violation of both the rule of law and the property rights of the patent holders and was open to using military force to evict the “squatters,” even though to do so would have been against English common law which gave the property to the person who cleared the land (Washington was no longer president at that point, so there was no risk that the aggressive attitude he expressed in his letters would lead to real action.).   

Before repudiating Washington for his decidedly anti-liberty attitude on this score, we should turn to Deirdre McCloskey and her trilogy – The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of CommerceBourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, and Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions Enriched the World – for an understanding on why this might be important, and why conflating way of life with social standing and identity is both fallacious and dangerous. 

Part II coming soon!

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 13): The California Hourglass Class Figure

Discussions of the impact of immigration on native labor often have a 19th century, quasi-Marxist flavor. Implicitly, they seem to posit a large undifferentiated working class, on top of which sits a small middle, or professional class, itself crowned by a tiny capitalist class. (Today, it would be the absurd “1%.”) With this scheme, the capitalists, employers all, only want cheap labor, of course, and they keep importing immigrants to compete with native workers and thus keep wages down. In the meantime, the latter vacillates between resentment of foreign born wage competition and class solidarity cutting across nationalities and immigration statuses. The middle class, of course, opportunistically sells its political influence to one or the other main classes. Such a class structure is compatible with a good deal of hostility toward immigrants. The larger and/or the more organized, that native working class, the better expressed its hostility toward immigrants, the more likely that hostility will become institutionalized. At the extreme, it turns into the “Herrenvolk democracy” pioneered by the labor union-supported South African apartheid regime. (We are and were nowhere near that point in California. I evoke apartheid to indicate an extreme theoretical destination for such a movement, not by way of prediction.)

But when the class arrangements are not in such a conventional pyramid shape, attitudes toward immigration can be counter-intuitive. Imagine a society where the middle class is both very large and subjectively indistinguishable from a putative capitalist class because every member of the former sees himself as a good candidate for the latter (and correctly so, to a considerable extent). A society where the formal ownership of the means of production is widely dispersed through the mechanism of stock options gifted to employees. Imagine further that what remains of the old middle class has become numerically and socially insignificant. In particular, small merchants have nearly disappeared, replaced by salaried employees of large chains. The old professionals, doctors and lawyers, and the like, have lost their special standing in the close proximity of educated, prosperous mind workers.

At the same time, a combination of vertical mobility in the growth economy for some of the native working class, of physical movement out of the high rent areas associated with prosperity for others, and of increasing immigration, has created a largely foreign-born working class. The combativeness of this foreign working class is impeded  by its low cultural competence and by the fragile legal status of many of its members.

The remarkable thing about this scenario is that few of the remaining native-born appear to feel threatened by immigrant competition. Those who are actually in competition with low qualification immigrants are too immersed in the prominent issue of immigrant numbers to gain a coherent voice. The middle/upper class itself has an immigrant component but that component constructs itself slowly and at a predictable rate because the federal government easily limits via the granting of visas the admission of those not carried by family relationships. Note that this has been largely the case for immigrants from India, China, and Europe.

I am describing here a vertically asymmetrical hourglass class structure with a large upper component, a possibly larger lower component, and not many in-between. To the upper component, the lower immigration-based masses comprise so many hewers of wood and drawers of water. What’s more, they do not compete in the same rental markets or in the same leisure areas (In my local terms, the middle/uppers do mountain biking in the redwood forests while the working stiffs go to the Boardwalk.)

Some immigrants from poor areas bring with themselves a superior capacity for high density occupancy of humble housing premises, even for downright crowding. They don’t’ stop property values from rising. The more of them there are, the lower the prices of services that the uppers must consume in large quantity because they spend a great deal of time at work. The same work situation that motivates Google to offer its employees decent free food at all hours insures that there will be a high demand for providers of common services. Even low-level tech Google employees don’t do their own laundry! (Personal observation.)

In that labor situation, you would expect little prejudice against immigrants and a high willingness to open the gates to more of them. Note, that illegal immigrants, specifically, make the best helots because they are often in no situation to complain or to demand anything. Or, they are simply not clear as to what their rights are, or what’s prudent in this connection. A “sanctuary” state, promoting a defense of all immigrants couched in the language of generosity, is what you would expect to arise here, and even flirtations with the notion of open borders. I have just described northern-central California today, of course. Other high-tech nodules across the country conform.

[Editor’s note: In case you missed it, here is Part 12]