Chris Christie and Subjective, Very Subjective, Social Class

April 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Christie’s net worth (at least $4 million) is 50 times that of the average American. His household income of $700,000 (his wife works in the financial sector) is 13 times the national median.  But he doesn’t think he’s rich.

 “I don't consider myself a wealthy man. . . . and I don't think most people think of me that way.” That’s what he told the Manchester Union-Leader on Monday when he was in New Hampshire running for president.

Of course, being out of touch with reality doesn’t automatically disqualify a politician from the Republican nomination, even at the presidential level, though misreading the perceptions of “most people” may be a liability.

But I think I know what Christie meant. He uses the term “wealth,” but what he probably has in mind is class.  He says, “Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways . . . ”  No, Chris. Wealth is measured one way – dollars. It’s social class that is defined in a whole bunch of different ways.

One of those ways, is self-perception.

“If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?”

That question has been part of the General Social Survey since the start in 1972. It’s called “subjective social class.” It stands apart from any objective measures like income or education. If an impoverished person who never got beyond fifth grade says that he’s upper class, that’s what he is, at least on this variable. But he probably wouldn’t say that he’s upper class.

Neither would Chris Christie. But why not?

My guess is that he thinks of himself as “upper middle class,” and since that’s not one of the GSS choices, Christie would say “middle class.”  (Or he’d tell the GSS interviewer where he could stick his lousy survey. The governor prides himself on his blunt and insulting responses to ordinary people who disagree with him.)


This  self-perception as middle class rather than upper can result from “relative deprivation,” a term suggesting that how you think about yourself depends on who are comparing yourself with.* So while most people would not see the governor as “deprived,” Christie himself travels in grander circles. As he says, “My wife and I . . . are not wealthy by current standards.” The questions is “Which standards?”  If the standards are those of the people whose private jets he flies on, the people he talks with in his pursuit of big campaign donations – the Koch brothers, Ken Langone (founder of Home Depot), Sheldon Adelson, Jerry Jones, hedge fund billionaires, et al. – if those are the people he had in mind when he said, “We don't have nearly that much money,” he’s right. He’s closer in wealth to you and me and middle America than he is to them.

I also suspect that Christie is thinking of social class not so much as a matter of money as of values and lifestyle – one of  that bunch of ways to define class. To be middle class is to be one of those solid Americans – the people who, in Bill Clinton’s phrase, go to work and pay the bills and raise the kids. Christie can see himself as one of those people. Here’s a fuller version of the quote I excerpted above.

Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways and in the end Mary Pat and I have worked really hard, we have done well over the course of our lives, but, you know, we have four children to raise and a lot of things to do.”


He and his wife go to work; if they didn’t, their income would drop considerably. They raise the kids, probably in conventional ways rather than sloughing that job off on nannies and boarding schools as upper-class parents might do. And they pay the bills. Maybe they even feel a slight pinch from those bills. The $100,000 they’re shelling out for two kids in private universities may be a quarter of their disposable income, maybe more. They are living their lives by the standards of “middle-class morality.” Their tastes too are probably in line with those of mainstream America. As with income, the difference between the Christies and the average American is one of degree rather than kind. They prefer the same things; they just have a pricier version. Seats at a football game, albiet in the skyboxes, but still drinking a Coors Light. It’s hard to picture the governor demanding a glass of Haut Brion after a day of skiing on the slopes at Gstaad, chatting with (God forbid) Euorpeans.

Most sociological definitions of social class do not include values and lifestyle, relying on more easily measured variables like income, education, and occupation. But for many people, including the governor, morality and consumer preference may weigh heavily in perceptions and self-perceptions of social class.

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* An ealier post on relative deparivation among the rich is here.

Good Time Charts, Bad Time Charts

April 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you graph data to show changes over time? You might make “years” your x-axis and plot each year’s number. But you’re not the Washington Post. If you’re the Post Wonkblog (here), first you proclaim:
Here is that single chart.

(Click on a chart for a slightly larger view.)

The data points are years, but the seem to be in no logical order, and they overlap so much that you can’t tell which year is where.  Even for a point we can easily identify, 1987, it’s not clear what we are supposed to get.  In that year, the average income of the lower 90% of earners was about $33,000, and the average for the top 1% was about $500,000. But how was that different from 1980 or 1990. Go ahead, find those years. I’ll wait.

Here’s the same data,* different graph.


The point is clearer: beginning in 1980 or thereabouts, the 1% started pulling away from the lower 90%. 

A graph showing the percentage change shows the historical trends still more clearly.


From the mid-40s to 1980, incomes for the lower 90% were growing more rapidly than were incomes for the 1%. This period is what some now call “the great compression,” when income inequality decreased. Since 1980, income growth for the 90% has leveled off while incomes for the 1% have risen dramatically.

(The Post acknowledges that it got its material from Quoctrong Bui at NPR. But the NPR page (here) has two graphs, and the one that is similar to the one in the Post has an time-series animation that shows the year to year changes.)
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* The data set, available here , comes from the Paris School of Economics. Presumably, it contains the data that Thomas Piketty has been working with.

Odd “Even”

April 10, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Mad Men” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image shows how scrupulously Matt Weiner and company sought historical authenticity. They are proud of their period-perfect props, objects that we will glimpse for a split second or not at all – the lunches in the office fridge, the driver’s license in Don Draper’s wallet.


Why, then, does nobody check the script for linguistic anachronisms? I’ve noted some of these before (here). In this seventh and final season, “even” has popped up ahead of its time.  In an episode before the mid-season break, Bert and Don have this conversation. The year is 1970.


                                               
Here’s the transcript:
Bert:  You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis and we'd pull you off the bench, but in fact, we've been doing just fine.
Don:  So, why am I even here?

To my ears, that “even” sounded odd, a bit too recent.  Mark Liberman at the Langauge Log agrees. In a 2011 post (here) on the history of “even,” he says that this use of “even” for emphasis is very recent.

The specific phrase "what does that even mean?" has become fairly common in the news media and in books, but most of the hits are from the past decade. . . . I don't remember this expression from my youth, and I can't find any convincing examples before 1993.


Google nGrams too shows that the sharp rise does not begin until after 1980.


In another Season 7 episode, teenage Sally, briefly home from boarding school, has a confrontation withe her mother. Echoing Dad she says, “Why am I even here.”



For the final episodes, Weiner has brought legendary screen writer and screen doctor Robert Towne on board. Towne was born in 1934, and he has an ear for dialogue. Maybe he will be able to keep the language suited to the historical period.

My Handshakes Bring All the Boys to the Yard

April 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Handshakes are important. They can make a difference.

After Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the semis Saturday night, several of the Wildcats started off the court, skipping the handshake line.The Kentucky coaches managed to round up some of them, but three of the Kentucky stars shook no hands.* 

That was now. But this Kentucky-handshake contretemps seems to be history repeating itself, albeit with some color reversal.

In 1950, for post-season basketball, the NCAA had a close rival in the NIT. The “I” stands for “invitational,” and Kentucky, always a basketball power, easily won an invite. City College was a bit iffier, but they too were invited, and in the second round they matched up against Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

Part of the Rupp legend was racism.  According to journalist Marvin Kalb, Rupp had been quoted saying he’d never coach a team with “kikes” and “blacks.”  This was still in the days when Southern universities were segregated. The Kentucky squad was all White, all Christian, something of a contrast to the City College starting five – three Jews and two Blacks.

As the game was about to start, the City College coach Nat Holman told his players to show their sportsmanship and shake hands with their Kentucky counterparts. The City College players went to their positions for the opening tip-off and, following coach’s orders, each extended a hand to the Wildcat standing next to him. Before a crowd of 18,000 at the Garden, the Kentucky players turned away. No handshakes from the Wildcats.

The scenario had the effect Holman had intended. The City College players were, to say the least, fired up. Final score: City College 89, Kentucky 50. That may still stand as the worst loss in Kentucky’s history.

Sure there are differences – the no-handshake before rather than after the game, the players doing the snubbing Black, the snubbees mostly White. But the similarities – Kentucky, no handshake, loss to a Northern team – were a thematic echo I found too intriguing to pass up.
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* Some observers lumped this unsportsmanlike conduct together with Andrew Harrison’s comment about Wisconsin’s center Frank Kaminsky. In a post-game team interview, when a reporter asked a question about Kaminsky, Harrison, thinking he was off-mike, muttered, “Fuck that nigga.” I see this less as poor sportsmanship than as grudging admiration. If I were Kaminsky, I wouldn’t be offended. I’d be flattered.