Why non-quantitative public commentary talks about race & gender (& religion)

One of the major problems with the intellectual commentary class is that 90% of them are college-educated (about half probably have some graduate education). In contrast, about 1/3rd of the public is college-educated. About half the employees at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are graduates of elite universities.

This isn’t that much of an issue when you think about who consumes a lot of this public commentary: the subscriber to The New York Times is much more similar to the commentariat class than the American public. The problem is when there are non-quantitative attempts to understand general society. The recent feature on “middle-class” families in The New York Times is a case in point. The families in question had household incomes which ranged from $100,000 to $400,000 per year. The census will tell you that the median household income in the United States of America is $59,000. The median household income in the New York City area is $50,000 (the feature was more about the lower end of the upper-middle-class).

From what I can tell the pundit class and pundit adjacent class have a weak “feel” for this reality of the median American. The successful ones make considerably more than the median and feel under-compensated in relation to other professionals of similar education or stature. Those starting out or marginally employed aspire to career peak salaries higher than the American median and mean per capita of $30,000 and $50,000 respectively.

Though on some level you can judge someone’s income by the type of car they drive, where they live, and the clothes they wear, it is not as visible and present in the room as someone’s race or gender. When I was in graduate school many years ago people who were from lower to lower-middle-class backgrounds would sometimes gripe to me privately about the tone that some of their peers took toward the stipend and benefits of Ph.D. students. In this case, it meant a stipend somewhat higher than $25,000 a year, with relatively good health insurance. Obviously everyone wants to make more money to study what they love, but students from upper-middle-class backgrounds, in particular, expressed total contempt at the level of the stipend. Students from lower to lower-middle-class backgrounds, in contrast, came from families where their parents may not even have made as much as their graduate stipend (with minimal to no benefits). The students from less economically advantaged backgrounds were more dependent on their stipend for obvious reasons (e.g., no family support), but they also felt somewhat aggrieved with the way that those from more affluent backgrounds talked about the money as if it was less than nothing.

The issue here is that graduate students dress and live in a particular way that is not very class differentiated, and class origin is not a visible characteristic. In the United States for various reasons, it is not common to speak openly and frankly to non-intimates about your class background, past or present. At academic seminars, a lack or skew of racial or gender diversity is immediately obvious, even if unspoken. In contrast, the very likely fact of skew of class or social origin is not visible. There are cases where two people are peers, and one of them is married to a professional (e.g., I knew a graduate student married to a CPA), and the other is also married, but has a stay at home spouse with a child (again, I knew people like this). These two peers have very different lives in terms of the economic resources available.

Going back to the bigger picture, the reason that the American pundit class doesn’t talk about class in a non-parochial manner is that it’s not salient. Even though much of the pundit class lives a racially self-segregated life (for example, most of the weddings on The New York Times announcements are racially endogamous), they are self-aware of this fact more or less. They have a feel for how self-segregated they are because the public spaces they often transit through are diverse in a way that their social or professional lives are not.

In contrast, struggling writers in New York City have less of a visceral feel for the reality that their existence as someone who graduated from a selective university and has some family resources to “jump-start” their career by doing things like put down a deposit on an apartment in an expensive area is not typical (writers from deprived backgrounds may not talk about it, especially with their colleagues who talk about their parents’ summer homes). Very atypical in fact. Intuition derives somewhat from experience. Without the experience the intuition is just off.

12 thoughts on “Why non-quantitative public commentary talks about race & gender (& religion)

  1. I can just agree with what you wrote, but would like to add that not all of this people are “off” because they just don’t know better.
    Some really want to affirm their readers attitude and ideological stance by wilfully ignoring the social (and other) reality.

    By “playing stupid”, if being caught or driven to the point where they can no longer deny facts, they can fall back to “oh, if we just would have known”, while trying to twist facts another way than before.

    Dont expect people to be that innocent. A lot of them are “political priests” for their audience or just mercenaries.
    And a lot of the more honest guys and girls wont make it to the top and will always have a chief editor in charge which will select if necessary.

    But yes, there are those clueless people. Among politicians which decide about wages and social care there are enough funny people who dont even know what a blue collar worker earns or what daily needs and products in the supermarket cost. If you ask them which price bread or cheese has, you might get very funny answers, because they never go shopping by themselves or don’t care.

    And between clueless and bad intentions are those which might know and feel guilty for undeserved privileges, but react with some sort of counterattack and search for the bad in those which came from a worse background.

    But clueless and intentional ignorance are the main issues.

  2. isn’t median income becoming meaningless in today’s America of whopping health, housing, and education expenses?
    If one’s income is hovering around the median but there is good health insurance / the house has been paid for / there are no steep tuition expenses then it’s likely that this family unit enjoys a middle-class experience. But add any of the above expenses, or also divorce / legal problems / elderly care, and it becomes a struggle paycheck to paycheck

  3. I have to make inferences about “some” incomes but yes, I know people in the 50 to 100 K income range who can’t save any money at all. Grad students on grants swallowing half of it, professionals in California with housing rentals taking up half of it, people with high deductible plans who skip care. Maybe that’s what middle class living standards should be, but intuitively IMVHO, if people can’t afford proper housing and good medical care, then it isn’t middle class. When I was earning $50K two decades ago, I got a suburban house and all the health care including vision and dental without hesitation, but the times are changing

  4. I think the net income is not such an obvious indicator after all, because it depends on the real local costs.

    For example in most of Europe anything above 50000 € would be a good net income of which you can make a good,even if not luxurious living. But you can’t but a larger flat/house in a good part of a city on credit with it, while a good sized house on the countryside is affordable.

    Prizes of houses are obviously very different in the US as well, but what about food and energy? How big are the differences for daily living costs between regions in the US? Especially between states/regions with huge income differences like between countries in Europe?

  5. wondering about $50K and below

    I may be misunderstanding your terse question again. How could one not know many people with lower than median income? It’s half of the country, literally! You probably mean “lower income AND some additional socioeconomic filter”?

  6. To answer my own question:

    So yes, net income is a very relative measure. Its like telling school children that people somewhere on the planet live from 1 dollar per day or something similar. Obviously nobody can survive with one dollar per day in an US city without help, but such comparisons are off.

    Similarly, small farmers in West Virginia able to live to high degree from their own products might have lower net incomes than factory workers in California, but are probably still better off.

    So nobody can use one number to fit them all, especially not in huge countries like the USA.

  7. How could one not know many people with lower than median income? It’s half of the country, literally!

    You could meet people like that all the time. It could be every order taker at a fast food place, every cashier in a store, every member of the wait staff in a restaurant. But you would only exchange a few words, and all in a provider/payer relationship. You wouldn’t “know” them.

    People in your neighborhood, in your kid’s school are probably all in the upper half, as might be all the people you work closely with.

  8. People in your neighborhood, in your kid’s school are probably all in the upper half, as might be all the people you work closely with.

    All of it “might be” true, “probably”, in the specific social junctions which are predefined by the location and the occupation rank, as you describe. And not true just around the corner. People at the lower ranks of your own work (ever supervised hourly employees at the lower end of the pay scale?). Not-so-lucky children of your better-off neighbors, your kids’ pals after school? Your own kin and in-laws, your own classmates and the old neighbors? And to step just one step further, to social and hobbyist organizations and volunteering, there one really meets people from all different walks of life.

    Of course if your preferred social pastime is golf and if you forget old pals the moment they become disadvantaged, then perhaps you may keep the bubble shining.

  9. @Dx: Agreed, but you wrote about social winners which come from a more average/working class environment.

    But think about real upper class people being raised and constantly move in a rather protected social environment largely unaffordable for average people.
    They have none to leave back other than some exceptional relationships they might have. Just think about elite preschools which are as expensive as many universities.

  10. social winners which come from a more average/working class environment

    You think that this was the gist of Razib’s super short question about people in “$50K and below” range? Do we know any of the “$49K people” who are doing OK, whatever it means?

    As I recall I knew of exactly two people who bought their houses despite lower incomes, and were happy. One, a junior researcher, got a subsidized townhouse and flipped it for a good profit. Another is a self-employed vet with a subsidized duplex, and an excellent VA health plan.

    I also closely know poor people from humble backgrounds who are moving up the professional ladder. A self-described hereditary redneck who just got an associate degree and a teaching job. A dreamer who is close to completing a degree.

    Do these anecdotal datapoints ascend beyond “trying to understand the general society by drawing examples from one’s own circle”? No, of course not. They aren’t even typical.. indeed, sad stories of disease, long-term care, dashed education hopes, and financial ruin seem to be more common. But I do disagree with the hypothesis that “our own circle” is equivalent to “upper middle class”


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