Mike the Mad Biologist

And ‘suburban’ is code. Monday, I responded to a rich twit’s complaint about how difficult his life was at $450,000 of annual income (Note: Since then, said twit has removed the post. Fortunately, Brad ‘Deling’ DeLong is aware of all internet traditions, and has saved the post for posterity). In that post, I wrote:

Perhaps Henderson’s outburst should be chalked up to the influence of degenerate white culture or our finishing school ‘elite’ educational system. But I digress.

Most readers got the snark, but the first commenter worked himself into high dudgeon over the degenerate white culture remark (erm, I am white…). Fortunately, ScienceBlogling Steinn rode to the rescue:

I think you will find MtM was making a not very subtle point about other peoples’ judgements with his “degenerate white culture” swipe. Namely, in case it has to be spelt out, that a lot of people do attribute all sorts of moral failings to “degenerate [ethnic] culture”. Kinda stings when the reverse case is made, however sardonically intended.

So, for what follows, keep what Steinn wrote in mind as I get snarky (and I’ll let you know when I stop being snarky, since some people apparently are snark-.

I have to admit when I wrote the quoted sentence, I was very…Tea Party. I, of course, meant ‘suburban’, not white.

See, starting back in the 1980s, the idea that there was a culture of poverty in our urban areas became very prominent (and was a misreading of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s work). Of course, this dysfunctional ‘urban’ culture didn’t refer to Hyde Park, Georgetown (D.C.), Beacon Hill (Boston), or Park Avenue. It was code. (And if you got a couple of drinks in people, ‘dysfunctional’ sometimes turned into degenerate; sometimes booze wasn’t even needed). Nope, urban referred to those people. As in:

Those people irresponsibly spend beyond their means by viewing luxuries as necessities.

Those people have more children than they can afford. (Can’t those people use birth control?)

Those people have an unwarranted sense of entitlement*.

Those people want other people to pay for their _____.

Those people engage in senseless violence. Those people kill each other over sneakers!

So let’s see how the Good Professor Henderson stacks up:

Those people irresponsibly spend beyond their means by viewing luxuries as necessities.

He has servants, although they’re not live-in servants, to do housework for his family. He also is upset that he can’t spend a lot on dinner. Let’s not forget that with $500,000 of student debt, he bought a million dollar house. Because that’s really essential.

Those people have more children than they can afford.

Henderson complains about the $20,000 per year per child spent on education. And obviously, kids have to be fed, as well as accoutred for the upper class way of life (see previous bit about luxuries). One way to cut those costs would be to have fewer children (those people….).

Those people have an unwarranted sense of entitlement*.

Who is he to demand that he can live like a millionaire? He’s only a demi-millionaire. If he just worked harder and made more money, he could afford these things. And regarding the $100,000 he socks away for his retirement, Social Security isn’t good enough for him? (very heavy on the snark here)

Those people want other people to pay for their _____.

The public schools are good enough for most Chicagoans. So why not cut back there, and then the few thousand in additional tax he would pay won’t be an issue?

Now, I have no reason to think that Professor Henderson is violent, but consider this story from the D.C. suburbs (Fairfax County, VA, one of the wealthiest regions in the country). A man, who already had a restraining order to avoid contact with a complainant, broke into the complainant’s house, tied him and his girlfriend up, and then murdered him.

Why?

Because the victim successfully managed to have a speed bump installed in front of his house.

Those people engage in senseless violence. Those people kill each other over sneakers! speed bumps!

There endeth the snark. I really don’t think suburbanites or white people are degenerates or dysfunctional as a group. Some of my best friends live in… But the speed bump incident, that’s defined as ‘crazy’–and it is. Something is very wrong with you if you murder someone over a speed bump. But when someone is murdered over a slight or for a pair of sneakers (and white people aren’t involved), that is seen as evidence for a dysfunctional ‘urban’ culture, whereas Speed Bump Murderer is not a sign of dysfunctional ‘suburban’ culture (although having driven in Northern Virginia recently….). ‘Urban’ murder is not seen as crazy and unrepresentative of that demographic group.

Put another way, most poor, non-white people, like the rest of us, don’t murder other people. And like the rest of us, they too can act irresponsibly. Like the rest of us, those people sometimes feel entitled to certain things.

But Henderson’s outburst does represent a complete abandonment of personal responsibility by the elite (and he is elite, both in terms of educational status and income). It demonstrates a galling lack of concern for others and society as a whole that borders on the narcissistic. It also demonstrates that our ‘elite’ institutions not only fail to inculcate ethics, but that they seem to equip their graduates with the mental flexibility to override personal responsibility. When there are no checks, external and internal, on those with power, corruption follows (and I mean corruption in the broad sense, not just the legal one). Consider this: if people like him cut back on his expenses, and paid more in taxes, we could put millions back to work. Surely, his personal irresponsibility has as much of a deleterious effect on the rest of us as do the failings of the poor, if not more.

Michael O’Hare describes this rather well (italics mine):

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.

History is repeating itself, although I’m not certain if it’s as tragedy or farce. Maybe both.

An aside: Whiny, well-paid professors have been around for a long time.

*The subtle stigma attached to the word entitlement is one reason why conservatives refer to the highly successful anti-poverty program known as Social Security as an ‘entitlement.’

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    September 23, 2010

    Mike, I think you’ll find that the attitudes about “those people” that you’re snarking about go back well before 1980. They were certainly around when I was in elementary school (this was in Florida, but I know it was also a big deal in Boston around that time). My family moved to a different neighborhood the summer before I started junior high so that my siblings and I could attend a “better” junior high school, and looking back on it, ISTM that a big part of why the junior high school that served our old neighborhood was considered inferior is that it was located in a neighborhood that, although suburban middle-class, was populated mainly by “those people”. Such patterns were visible throughout the county: although Florida law specifies the county as the smallest legal size for a school district in order to avoid the “separate but equal” scenario, some high schools in my county were identifiably white (including my high school, which was ~70% white/20% Hispanic/10% black), others identifiably Hispanic, and others identifiably black (including one school where more than 99% of the enrolled students were black).

    Today’s suburbs, especially the newer ones, are dysfunctional in many ways. The attitude of entitlement I am seeing among richer kids is part of it, but there are other issues, among them resistance to public transportation (again, it’s a service viewed in many places as being for “those people”). I am glad I escaped from suburbia, and I would not want to go back–I like having stores within safe walking distance and neighbors I encounter because they or I or both are walking somewhere.

  2. #2 groki
    September 23, 2010

    always a pleasure to read your takedowns, Mike.

    It also demonstrates that our ‘elite’ institutions not only fail to inculcate ethics, but that they seem to equip their graduates with the mental flexibility to override personal responsibility.

    it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  3. #3 Phil
    September 23, 2010

    I… wow. I tend to be fairly libertarian leaning, but even I’m astounded at the arrogance and sense of entitlement these poor little rich boys have been showing lately. There are large swaths of the government I’d like to see cut (can we start with the military industrial complex?), but come on, we do need public schools, roads, research funding… basically things that could not or would not be done in the private sector. I’m amazed when I hear people saying that the government doesn’t create value… sure, there’s a lot of waste and inefficiency that we could maybe get rid of, but saying it has no place is insanity.

    Or maybe I’m just a bad libertarian. :P

  4. #4 katydid13
    September 23, 2010

    @Phil — the defense contractors are retrenching at Gates talks about reigning in the military budget. Lockhead Martin just has about 1/3 of its execs (600 or so) take buy outs.

  5. #5 Ian
    October 29, 2010

    Building and running guillotines would put a lot of people back to work.

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