Discussions of class in America typically focus on income. The lower class has less money than the middle class which has less money than the upper class. But the world starts to make a little more sense if you think of class as less about income and more about taste, attitude, values, and culture. Class prejudice is at least partly involved in terms like ‘redneck’, ‘coastal elites’, ‘white trash’, ‘ghetto’, ‘deep state’, or any time someone in the media would ridicule Donald Trump for eating his steaks well-done or with ketchup. I read Paul Fussell’s 1983 book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, a couple of years ago, and it’s great, if outdated. But it’s worth skimming through. You might come away enlightened, embarrassed, or both. Recently I read a review of the book that serves as a good summary if you don’t want to read the whole thing.
Many of my opinions, values, and judgments are probably a product of the class-culture I grew up in rather than any objective understanding of the world. Why do I think vacation cruises are lame? Why do most of my friends and family agree? For whatever reason, realizing that disagreements with my wife about the lawn (Why cut the grass if it just grows back?, I wonder), placement of the clothesline, and desirability of personalized stationery are at least partly both of us acting off of a slightly different class-script. If you read Fussell’s book or any of the links below, you might start to see that lots of disagreements about aesthetics, diet, hobbies, television shows (or opinions about watching television at all), news consumption, etc. reliably fall along class lines or are in some sense reflective of class. For whatever reason, understanding this has made me more self-conscious about and less invested in these types of arguments. Anyway, some select quotes from the book:
The upper-class living room is very likely to have an eleven-to-thirteen-foot ceiling, to contain wasteful curves—moldings on baseboards, door panels, and the like—and, if wood is visible, to feature dark rather than light wood (more archaic-looking). There must be a hardwood floor—parquet is best-covered, but not entirely, with Orientals so old as to be almost threadbare, suggesting inheritance from a primeval past. (On the other hand, a new Oriental, no matter how visibly expensive, is an all but infallible middle-class sign.)
Another sign of class desirability might be the absence of facilities for bowling. I say that because Richard Boyer and David Savageau, in their Places Rated Almanac (1981), have found that the following places provide the best access to bowling alleys, and we can't fail to note what regrettable places they are:
Approaching any house, one is bombarded with class signals. The serious student will not panic but will take them one at a time. The lawn first. Its very existence is an announcement of Anglophilia, England being the place where the lawn came into its own. Finicky neatness here is usually a sign of social anxiety, a tip-off that we are approaching middle-class premises. If there's no crabgrass at all, we can infer an owner who spends much of his time worrying about slipping down a class or two, the lawn being, as Brooks notes, "a crucial arena for classical predatory invidiousness and its concomitant, anxiety." Neglect of one's lawn in middle-class neighborhoods can invite terrible retribution. "The sanctions are not obvious," says William H. Whyte, Jr., "but the look in the eye, the absence of a smile, the inflection of a hello, can be exquisite punishment, and they have brought more than one to a nervous breakdown." If you keep an animal to crop your lawn (only the upper class does this), it's essential that it not be something useful in other ways like a sheep or cow or even a goat, creatures which, as Veblen says, have about them "the vulgar suggestion of thrift," but an animal of a more wasteful and exotic kind, like a deer, something "not vulgarly lucrative either in fact or in suggestion," and thus a happy emblem of "futility. "
Links on Class:
Book Review: Fussell on Class (Scott Siskind, Astral Codex Ten)
Staying classy (Scott Siskind, Slate Star Codex) A good overview of the two links directly below.
The three-ladder theory of social class in the US (Michael O. Church)
A large excerpt of Fussell’s book Fun to skim through.
The premium mediocre life of Maya Millennial (Venkatesh Rao, ribbonfarm) This gets at class and economic success through an exploration of the avocado toast and other phenomena
Class dismissed (The Atlantic, 2009) In the last chapter of Fussell’s 1983 book, he describes a mysterious Class X which seemed not to clearly fit within the hierarchy he spent the rest of the book describing. A look at what happened to them.
Making policy for a low-trust world (Matt Yglesias) Highly recommended.
The Sperm kings have a problem: too much demand (New York Times) The sperm banks are empty and couples are turning to Facebook.
Journalist covering Martin Shkreli, aka Pharma Bro aka hedge fund manager who jacked up prices on obscure off-label pharmaceuticals and went to jail for securities fraud, falls in love with him, leaves job and husband (Elle) A follow-up with said journalist
WebMD and the tragedy of legible expertise or, Dr. Fauci is the WebMD of People (Scott Siskind, Astral Codex Ten)
Racist police violence reconsidered (John McWhorter, Quillette)
The Lab-leak hypothesis (NY Magazine) Good history of research and engineering of infectious diseases, the numerous warnings in pieces by the New Yorker, New York Times, etc. and then, when a unknown virus exploded in a Chinese city with the only high risk infectious disease lab and the virus genetically most similar to one that they studied, the strong condemnation over voicing the repugnant conclusion.
Books I’m Reading
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor (Tad Friend) A book about what it’s like to grow up as a Wasp. Pretty good writing. One thing I’ve learned: if you’re going to be a Wasp, you need a good nickname that sounds like a young child mispronouncing your name e.g., Wassa, Boop, Cootie, Oatsie, or Daya.
The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action (Donald Schon) A website I was reading described this book as the closest thing there is to a guide on meta-rational thinking. My best description so far might be an exploration of how and why the problems one encounters in a formal degree or professional program (Engineering, MBA) differ so much from the problems we encounter in practice. And how professionals actually solve problems in practice. In school, the problems are mostly a given. We just need to choose the right process to solve them. In a real engineering work, like building a road maybe, the problem is not given but distilled from a complicated and messy situation that involves geography, soil composition, drainage problems, financial considerations, broken equipment, and politics. The techniques for solving the latter are much different than the techniques for solving the former.