Published on Tuesday, July 29, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
The Class Wars: A Regal Obituary
by Sandra E. Jewell
A major city newspaper recently carried the family-placed notice of a young man's death. The bereft family's devastation seemed all but palpable through the fiber of the paper, but there was something else that was also nearly tangible. Right there, between the lines.
This man, barely into his 30's when he died of an undisclosed cause, had attended all the right private prep schools and they were all listed, right down to his high-prestige preschool. He was a vice-president and trustee of a family foundation; he had been the beneficiary of a plum international internship; he was a member of an exclusive country club; he served on numerous committees and nonprofit boards and enjoyed his family's sprawling ranch in another state. He died unexpectedly on the campus of a university that had named a building after him. Major achievements for one so young. One more thing was mentioned in the obituary: He was proud of his family's legacy.
Of course! That was it! The patina of entitlement. This was not just a death notice; it was a remarkable valedictory to the standards of the top tier of the upper-class from a family that prided itself on being one of them.
This obituary came to mind when a group of conservative students at UNC/Chapel Hill protested the summer reading assignment of 'Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America', by Barbara Ehrenreich. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0708-07.htm). The students said the book, which presents the lifestyles of minimum wage earners in several different jobs including one at WalMart, was one-sided and that the other side, apparently that of the super-rich, should also be required reading. As the appropriate antidote one student suggested the Sam Walton autobiography.
I have another idea. To give the students a real comparison of social extremes related to income the university could send them on field trips to the upper and lower class parts of town and have them analyze their experiences and the people with whom they come in contact. To get a true sense of the disparities they should look for homes of the upper one-tenth of one-percent whose average income is over $1,000,000 a year, the equivalent of the annual income of approximately 200 bottom ten-percenters. The less fortunate should be easier to locate because there are so many more of them, but the most fortunate are so ostentatious it may be a wash.
The students might spend a few nights at homeless shelters learning about the denizens: the homeless families, the single mothers and their children, the mentally ill, the down on their luck, the teenage runaways and throwaways. Who are they and how did they get there? They could take notes while they work at soup kitchens and interview street corner beggars to find out about the trajectory of their lives. They could spend time in any big city at the overworked and overrun hospitals and clinics catering to the medically indigent, meaning most of the 20% to 30% of the US population without health insurance, while they researched waiting times, causes of ill health and death rates which they would later compare with the same statistics from more upscale hospitals.
Next students can note the appearance and infrastructure of educational facilities at schools in poor neighborhoods. Since much less tax money is available to the states for education (and housing and health care) from the federal government these days, high numbers of students per teacher, tattered and unkempt appearing facilities as well as outdated textbooks are becoming the norm in many areas so should be easily available to the learner. For extra credit the undergraduate might spend a few days and nights with a minimum wage family who may be recruited by the university and paid a fee for their contribution to the education of an upwardly mobile student, a win-win situation.
Then, onward to the lush lawns, private schools, children with III and IV after their names, country clubs, exotic vacations, pretentious cars and gated mansions of those who know well their advantages and are fearful that someone less fortunate may try to even the score and take something from them. In some ways it will be easier to research the upper class. So much of them is already represented in our political system, on television and in print that students may start out familiar with their attitudes with no awareness of the bias in their own perceptions
Research on wealthy individuals should start at the beginning - by learning where the wealth came from. REALLY came from. Self-serving myths perpetrated by the wealth holder don't count. Getting this information can be tricky because few of the rich will readily admit that they have lots of money because their parents or grandparents left it to them, the estate tax no real problem at all. Or they might have to admit that their wealth was based on promoting morally questionable products, like guns, drugs or tobacco. Or quite often, that they became super rich, like, say, Bill Gates and Ken Lay, less because of any product they produced and more because they engaged in ethically challenged and illegal business practices. And, of course, no top tenth of one-percenter can be expected to admit that their financial status has been augmented and underwritten by contributions to politicians who obligingly reciprocated by shifting the tax burden to people with far fewer resources to offer candidates.
For research purposes the student might also look into the attitudes and concerns of members of each class. While the down scale, the minimum wage earners, may work two or three jobs and worry about raising their kids when they aren't worried about paying the bills, the up-scales worry primarily about keeping the advantages they already have. That's why their homes have gates that open with a card reader and why they're most comfortable when associating only with each other. Their sense of entitlement was personified for me when I visited an upscale bookstore and asked for a book about a local black community that was being squeezed out of existence by encroaching resort development. The well-coifed owner tried to interest me in safer, nicer books. Then, in one dazzling instant, she sped over the cliff of polite behavior and began screaming that the book I was looking for was designed only to incite problems for rich people. "That was the only reason it was written!"she shrieked. I'm not making this up.
It's important to note that many in this group are known for their philanthropy and this could be another useful investigation for the student. Persons residing among the top one-tenth of one-percenters sometimes establish self-perpetuating charitable foundations that provide well-paid employment for family members while dispersing the legal minimum in charitable funds. The public attaboys they get for their charity simultaneously deflects attention from and legitimizes their history and way of life. The public relations coup alone is worth every tax-sheltered penny that the family relinquishes each year.
There are exceptions, of course. The wealthy top tier is comprised also of individuals who are not society's takers. There are generous humanitarians and genuine heroes among the top tenth of one-percenters, like Warren Buffett and Oprah, and students would do well to become acquainted with their lives also. These folks have used their native abilities constructively and ethically to amass great wealth, have essentially no one else to thank for their success, and seem to recognize the huge role that raw luck played in their good fortune. They are generous donors and employers who don't lobby to keep the minimum wage at starvation levels or to repeal the estate tax. They seem to recognize the contribution that a stable government played in creating the opportunities that benefited them, and don't try to undermine that government by shirking their civic tax responsibility. They appear to have a deep belief in sharing and consequently no one seems to begrudge them their success.
Has anyone ever heard anything really negative about Warren Buffett or Oprah? Despite their riches, it seems unlikely, when the time comes, that the subtext of entitlement will be written between the lines of their lives.
Sandy Jewell lives in Atlanta and can be reached at email@example.com.