Saturday, January 28, 2012

Upper Middle Class Disconnect

In Charles Murray's new book "Coming Apart: The State of White America" much is being made his concept of the new upper middle class in America. In the past the folks that ultimately reached the upper middle class were still affected by the quintessential American experience. These people created small businesses or fought their way up the corporate ladder and by the sweat of their brow became successful. Murray submits the notion that this is largely gone today, disappearing over the last 50 years as America becomes more socialist, more European.

As the decades since 1960 passed a child from a middle class or an upper middle class family where the traditional patriarchal structure put them through college (or handed them the business outright) never experienced normal rites of passage. From getting one's hands dirty working for minimum wage to partaking in traditional activities like hunting or even fishing are largely foreign to the yuppies of the day.

Personally it's a bit more complicated in my mind than pitting the often liberal, well educated, well off segment of Urbana against the notions of 1960's America. I haven't read the book yet - I don't think it's been officially released yet - and I'm sure Murray treats it as such, but the book's little survey to do just that demands some examination.

Here are the questions (my response and comments in bold red)

1. Have you ever worked on a factory floor? NO
By 1981 when I entered the work force factories were closing on a daily basis, young men need not apply
2. Have you ever held a job that caused a part of your body to hurt at the end of the day? YES
3. Have you seen last year's mega-hit movie, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? NO
Crap movies are crap movies, this means nothing
4. Can you name this NASCAR champion? NO
NASCAR may be a massive sport, but I've got better things to do with my time, for God's sake there's paint drying and grass growing somewhere
5. In the past five years, have you been fishing or hunting? YES
Not nearly often enough
6. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian?YES
7. During the past year, have you stocked your own fridge with domestic mass-market beer? NO
My wife and I don't drink. This question is designed to see if you are an import snob. Bogus on the face of it. Mass market beers were all there were in the 60's and 70's, today there are many domestic and import beers that are far better
8. Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreement? YES
Several. This question wants to declare that  hard core liberals will not fraternize with sub-human conservatives. This may be so???
9. Have you eaten at an Applebee's, TGI Friday's, or Outback Steakhouse in the past year? YES
Apparently to the upper class snooty types these restaurants are far too pedestrian. Bogus question
10. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? NO
A minivan, yes. A pickup truck is next to mother and apple pie, you are just not American if you don't have one.
11. Have you ever attended a Kiwanis or Rotary Club meeting, or a gathering at a union local? NO 
Fraternal organizations and even unions are waning in America and many think it's because government has stepped in and usurped these functions, there may be truth in that. Clubs in general have diminished and big time sports and sports bars may have had a lot to do with it
12. Have you ever participated in a parade that did not involve global warming, gay rights, or a war protest? NO
Do Tea Party rally's count as parades? I went to one of them
13. Since leaving school, have you worn a uniform as part of your job? YES
I was an installer of voice and data cabling
14. Have you ever ridden on a Greyhound or Trailways bus? NO
I have traveled by Amtrak - buses suck
15. Did you ever watch an "Oprah" show all the way through? GOD, NO
Shouldn't the question have been about Jerry Springer? 
16. Did you or your spouse ever serve in the armed forces? NO
When the Vietnam war ended the draft was long gone and the military had a terrible reputation. Very few of us went that way in the late seventies/early eighties
17. Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial position or high-prestige occupation (defined as dentist, physician, architect, attorney, engineer, scientist, or college professor)? YES
If you lived in a home with college educated parents then the expectation to go to college was high, there was no such expectation in my home. Oddly all seven of us attended some college, technical school, or higher education - eventually 
18. Have you ever lived for at least a year as an adult in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your nearest 50 neighbors probably did not have college degrees? YES
Still do
19. Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard? YES
Do not even understand the relevance of this question
20. During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? YES

One commenter on added these questions which in many ways are more honest and to the point:

Do you think New Yorker cartoons are funny? NO
Playboy cartoons are funny
How many different labels of wine have you drank in the last 30 days? NONE
Wine knowledge fascinates me, being a teetotaler I just can't get into it 
How many times have you been to a theme park for vacation? NONE
How many polo matches have you attended in your life? ONE
Was at a work convention and this was one of the planned offsite activities  - it was a blast
Can you find the plumbing section in a Home Depot or Lowe's without asking someone for help? YES
How many quarters of NFL football did you watch last season? A LOT
How many hours of NPR do you listen to each week? SEVERAL
Here's the deal about NPR - once in a while you will be informed if you keep your liberal bullshit filters up. And you won't be assaulted by commercials at 120db's between obnoxious conservative platitudes (yes, conservatives spew bullshit too at times)
Can you identify the architectural style of your home? NO
Have you ever flown in a private jet? YES
A corporate jet w/8 seats, very, very cool.
Have you ever changed a tire? YES
If not your are either non-mechanical or you can afford a service that does it for you  - either way you should be ashamed, right?

I scored 10 of 20 on the first set of 20 which put me on the cusp of this new upper middle class in America (the only thing keeping me out was the "upper" part). I think it's flawed to certain degree because things other than creeping socialism and crony capitalism have changed the landscape - technology being chief among them. It just reinforces the notion that the vast middle class is under assault in America. A robust middle class is the one thing that is absolutely historical about the American experiment. Never before has there been anything like it. I think Charles Murray will pointing that out with this book, looking forward to reading it.