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Real class and our economic aristocracy

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | September 21, 2010

I want to reflect a little on the idea of class, and the difference between having any and being in one. The reflection is motivated by the explosion of really unclassy behavior that besmirched the comment threads following various posts on the Reality Based Community site and elsewhere about who is really rich.

Like many in my generation, I first met social class distinctions growing up, in my case in New York as a red-diaper baby, in a family with the kind of unusually diverse associations the city facilitates, and that a ‘mixed marriage’  between the son of midwestern English-Scotch-Irish socialist leaders and a Polish Jewish immigrant who was the first in her family to go to college especially accretes.  Accompanying my father to print shops, binderies, machine shops and other places where things were made I had some contact with blue-collar workers, but I mostly associated with the children of solidly middle-class business people and professionals; and because of summer camp friendships with well-cared-for private-school girls from quite wealthy families, mostly but not entirely Jewish, got to dance at coming-out parties.  I had some sense of the  fading war between the German Jews of the first immigration wave and the mittel-europa avalanche that followed and so scared them when they came off the boats in rags, barely literate, and went into the sweatshops.

Then I went to Harvard and met (for example) perhaps the tenth Protestant of my life followed by zillions more, and more important, people from an real American upper class.  At that time, Republicans were the liberals in New England politics, and the WASP aristocracy constituted a confident, stable, enduring society, even as it fairly gracefully ceded political power to the Irish and Italians – yes, and even as it was sometimes insouciantly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.  I know a lot of these families made their fortunes in the slave trade, but a lot of them were also abolitionists and one of them (for example) was Robert Gould Shaw and another was Oliver Wendell Holmes and still another was OWH Jr. and still another was Joseph Welch. While I could immediately see that many of them wouldn’t have had a chance academically in my high school (the Bronx High School of Science),  I had a persistent sense that many of them had, and almost all valued as a conscious part of their social capital,  something important that I had met more randomly distributed in my prior life but never quite distinguished or identified.  A memorable flash of this came when I was at a party at the home of an Adams and observed that a lot of the pictures on the wall were framed political handbills and posters going back to about 1800, all attacking one or another Adams candidate for office ruthlessly and viciously.  Another, of course, was the number of old Yankee names associated with this or that charitable gift of a building or setting up a foundation.

What they often had and usually respected was class in the “other sense”, as in, Donald Trump ain’t got none, or “doing that shows real class!”  One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company.  This is harder than it looks, because getting self-confidence mixed up with arrogance or pride, or dissembling actual membership in the group you’ve fallen among, are both fatal. A real lady or gentleman adds value to any group without taking it over or getting lost in it, including groups of peers. Such a person is welcome back again, and does not have to hide out in a gated community. Julia Child had class that sat on her like a halo.

Noblesse, famously, oblige.  But it’s not the only thing: richesse oblige aussi, and sagesse, and instructionOblige quoi, though: what are the duties of aristocracy whether of position, or wealth, or knowledge and capacity to create value?  Well, the first criterion of being classy in my book is benchmarking against your own most recent other-regarding enterprise and exceeding it, and not benchmarking against other people’s positions however marked.  One of the great gifts to those Yankee families was the Calvinist idea of an elect that you might or might not be in, and couldn’t attain by works, but that was particularly not a matter of being as rich as you could get: because you might not be in it, it would not be classy to swan around showing off.  Boston leadership was expected to acquire a fortune large enough for security and some charity, and then take on responsibilities for the common weal.  (For a fascinating discussion of why Boston and Philadelphia are the way they are, even after their local WASPs were displaced by immigrants who took on Calvinist and Quaker culture respectively, see Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia.)

As I recognized this, I realized I had seen it in people I admired across all socioeconomic divisions, and that I had seen plenty of people who lacked it across classes as well. It wasn’t a monopoly of those Yankee WASPs, and it didn’t immunize them against bad behavior, but respecting it and hoping to display it was a distinctive part of their norms.  Some people are just classy by family upbringing, or maybe they won the genetic lottery, and others with every advantage aren’t, like Larry Summers.  I think people in the latter category sort of realize this and it hurts them, but the pain often stimulates maladaptive behavior that makes it worse.  In any case, I think the right social conventions in your upbringing improve the odds.

Having good manners is an excellent strategy. This can easily go rancid, when people with no class use specific learned routines, or the lack of them, as social sorting tests, but people with really good manners have no problem learning to accept a business card with two hands in Asia or arriving at 10 for an “8 PM”  dinner in Mexico; people who think etiquette is a stick to beat their lessers with, on the other hand, don’t travel well.   A classy dresser contributes to a social occasion by showing respect for, and improving, the whole visual experience of the other guests without trying to draw a spotlight. A classy dresser is not an egotistical showoff, neither in a track suit at a formal dinner nor in a swimsuit on a red carpet.

When you have real class, you can accept compliments gracefully, neither deflecting nor expecting them.  When you have real class, you can set good things in motion and step out of the way so your group carries it forward and doesn’t depend on you more than necessary.  Real class is not whining and demanding rights but looking for duties and seeing them as a piece of good fortune.  It involves a fair amount of turning the other cheek, and is much more easily displayed going to bat for the people who aren’t as rich or smart or lucky as you than by standing on your rights and privileges. Henry Lee Higginson subsidized the Boston Symphony for years (and didn’t ask to have its building named Higginson Hall): that’s class.  Speaking of the symphony, another indicator of class (not dispositive, Goering scarfed up paintings all over Europe) is engagement with demanding, complicated, art.  Lots of people are on museum or opera boards who have no clue, but they at least know a sane society respects artistic sophistication and they try to manifest it … sometimes even try to actually get it.

Real class is what the economic aristocracy of our country has almost entirely lost. The American rich are wallowing in a moral slough, grasping for more and more money they have no clue what to do with, and venting their frustration that climbing over each other to new heights of wretched excess brings no satisfaction by lashing out at every social institution, and at a government whose largesse is never enough for them. Andrew Carnegie may have had his miners shot at Homestead, but he came to regret it and he also said it was sinful to die rich. He walked the talk; there are Carnegie libraries, a university, concert halls, and more all across America, still creating value.  (All the Vanderbilts, not so much.)  But Larry Ellison has his name on nothing and for all his billions, has absolutely no class and no idea that he lacks it, and a whole class of cowboy millionaires and billionaires have the fatal idea that he is a target to emulate. No, money isn’t a way of keeping score; great schools and passing laws that make us all better off and building a subway system for New York and a high-speed rail line in California is a way of keeping score. Anyone who thinks he’s self-made, and single-handedly created all the value he’s come to possess, has no class, no more class than a Gulf sheik who thinks the accident of living on top of an oil pool makes him admirable and distinguished.  Keeping track of (and taking care of) all the people without whose labor and pioneering you couldn’t have done anything, that’s how to keep score.

I am ashamed of  my university when I consider that its rich alumni who wouldn’t pony up for a new art museum are expected to buy enough football stadium seats to cover a half-billion-dollar sports venue.  There’s nothing wrong with sports, playing or watching, but this is a university and we do not study javelin heroes of ancient Greece, or even Pheidippides’ gait: we study the Parthenon and Aeschylus and red-figured vases.  Real class is building something that lasts, not a house bigger than all your neighbors’ houses put together – yes, I’m talking to you, Bill Gates – and it’s not buying a Maybach because you can (it might be learning to actually drive a race car; Paul Newman had class).

The really classy guys among my peers are the ones who make their students and their colleagues smart.  They tend to be the last authors listed on their papers and they ask really good questions more than they pronounce really true truths.  I wish I had more class; I certainly had ample opportunity to learn it.  But I’m sure I know what it is, often I can tell when I’m getting closer to it and when I’m not, and it’s not what I’m seeing in our upper class today. High wealth and low class: it’s ugly and it’s dangerous.

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community.

Comments to “Real class and our economic aristocracy

  1. Kurt:
    YOUR SEPT 22 POST I FOUND concise and to the point.You zeroed in on the true focus all of us should rally around,find a way to make the new Robber Barron’s pay their stinking way!Wall Street is the enemy,as much as the military industrial complex that Dwight David Eisenhower warned us about.
    Eisenhower saw the inherent collision of a self serving group of industrialist,and a Republic style Democracy,and raised taxes on the wealthy to 91% visionary.When leaving office warned us of the perils of deficit spending on military projects, that could lead to domination of our fragile Democracy by a Elite group”here we are” America spends 50% of GDP on Military R&D,and fields 50% of the Military power on the PLanet

  2. Many people try to pass of their attitudes as classy when all I can see is pure arrogance and an annoying attitude. The way I see it, people are becoming posers and are forgetting the true meaning of class.
    James Locke

  3. You took the thoughts from my head exactly. Many people nowadays who got rich have a false sense of class which they project as arrogance and too much pride.
    James Locke

  4. Professor O’Hare,

    Great piece.

    However, unless I didn’t understand the criticism, I’m not sure you gave Bill Gates a fair shake. He has promised most of his wealth to charity, and has devoted his entire retirement to improving health around the world, especially among the impoverished. Unlike a lot of donors, he takes a very active role in his foundation. Yes, I’m still mad at him for decades of shoddy operating systems and some abusive business practices, but he seems to be pursuing class rather aggressively these days.

    Dave J

  5. It’s actually sad how people who use the internet are actually lacking in etiquette nowadays. And even when they are in their “real” offline lives, they show really bad manners which is now deemed as “cool”.

    James Locke

  6. Appreciate the post, Michael. I think it points out why ‘Miss Manners’ is kept busy advising people about graciousness…at the same time fake “reality” shows award million-dollar prizes to those who stab fellow show-mates in the back.
    My only other thought was that Ellison has put one of his names on something–Oracle Arena is still the home of the Golden State Warriors basketball team; he paid millions for naming rights years ago.
    However I believe the sports gods had it right when he was not chosen as their new owner, when the team was sold earlier this year.
    He may yet take his sign down and go home!

  7. The frustration of the Democrats over the ingratitude expressed by the “TEA PARTY” movement for Obama’s and the Democrats’ efforts to date to manage the country’s problems is a frustration born out of miscommunication, not out of disagreement. “Taxed Enough Already?” is clearly the fundamental bottom line question in both camps. With an average “$50,000 household income and $40,000 per capita federal debt heading rapidly to $80,000 per capita, which is owed in great part to the Chinese, understandably the average TEA PARTY person is responding to a legitimate threatening economic reality for which Obama and the Democrats to date, though very worried, have no answer. The inevitability and current evidence that the doomed average person will be drowned by government incompetence and government debt, that the buck will fall to the average Joe, goes unanswered to date.
    The miscommunication arises out of a taboo and silence over considering and discussing openly one circumstance in our economy. 20,000 people of the CEO class in the United States have incomes of more than $50,000,000 a piece annually. This small cadre of fortunate people have income means within their small group of more than a trillion dollars a year, sufficient to more than cover the whole annual deficit of the United States by themselves in these hard times, while more than covering living expenses of a million dollars a year left over a piece for their elite selves. The buck need not fall on the average Joe; indeed the average Democrat, the average TEA PARTIER, could never come up with the money for our government’s debt. But that specific class of 20,000 can. And if it were assured that the 20,000 are sharing and shouldering that burden, then the fear motivating the TEA PARTY would evaporate, would no longer be a worry of millions, but would be a worry only of the 20,000 who can afford it.
    The way to accomplish putting America’s mind at ease over debt is to take a page out of the book of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. He raised the top income tax rate on earnings over $1,000,000 from 25% to 63% in the middle of the darkest days of the Depression, when his government was called upon to do what private industry was failing to do, so that the government could afford to spend what industry was failing to spend.

  8. You definitely ‘hit a home run’ again. It makes me a little sick to think that our generation is attempting to close the door behind us and keep everything for ourselves.

    Coming from midwest Scotch-Irish roots as well, we were taught to mind our manners even when everyone else was losing theirs. Although so many of our leaders on every level are setting a poor example, there is still time to reconsider and change like Mr Carnegie.

    “While there’s life, there’s hope”
    Cicero,Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC – 43 BC)

  9. O;hare:
    Your humility is endless don’t feel like you have done something wrong,by virtue of being able to see it your at the top of the hill and you are in a position to influence the new idealists,which we sure need a lot of.Those who buy the Maybachs are classically immature if it give them a sense of self worth.Insensitivity and all the the foundation work doesn’t fool anyone.When your corporation behaves like business is WAR.Henry Kissinger was right,power is the last aphrodesia.

  10. Dear Prof. O’Hare,

    Thanks for this. Ah, Larry Summers. He often reminds me of my younger brother in his rough-and-tumble teenage years–everything he touched broke. Except that with Summers, the broken items are big and difficult to fix.

    This suggests another manifestation of the quality you are trying to describe. There are some people who join sports teams, workplaces or local boards, and when they are around, things just seem to work better.

    If we could only bottle that quality and ship it off to DC. For the Senate, it might require an IV drip…

  11. I completely agree that money should not be the determining factor of class. Heck, it doesn’t even assure happiness, and in many cases is the REASON for unhappiness. I know many saint-able poor people and quite a few evil rich ones. But I also know poor jerks and good rich people. It all comes down to who can wield the influence, and in our society, money talks. I don’t think that will change any time soon.


  12. Like you “I am ashamed of my university,” but for the fact that UC chose to profit from hydrogen bombs for over half a century, instead of producing controlled fusion that would have prevented the out of control global warming consequences and poverty humanity is suffering today.

    UC Powers That Be chose to be an aristocracy protected within their Ivory Tower while failing to protect humanity.

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