Posted in Rants on April 2nd, 2012 by Ed

Being in higher education requires one to accept a strange relationship among status, social class, and income. Being a professor is theoretically a high status job, but the pay isn't stellar. Accordingly, we have to get used to the fact that most of our students have more money than we do. They drive nicer cars, go on two or three vacations per year, wear more expensive clothing, enjoy the family beach house on Tybee or Martha's Vineyard, and blow $500 on a night out at the bar without thinking twice. And most of them don't even work. But hey, this is the line of work we chose and we knew the limited income potential. It's just a reality we get used to. I hardly notice anymore.

Of course the preceding paragraph somewhat misrepresents the situation. The students themselves are not wealthy; the money is coming from Mom and Pop. And on my campus it seems that the recession has managed to miss many of the Moms and Pops. For example, the house across the street from me is occupied by three very nice female undergraduates. It has three cars parked in the driveway: a Range Rover (base price: $80,275), a Mercedes SLK ($54,800), and a Lexus IS350 ($42,480). I guess the latter girl's parents don't really love her.

This experience is not shared by every student – many of them are taking the bus and busting ass to pay rent – but it certainly isn't rare either. The parking decks at all three large state universities at which I've spent several years have been like exotic car showrooms. Or check out the parking lot at the frats and sororities. There's a lot of money being thrown around at these places.

Any head of a household, especially with children, understands that a very high income is necessary to afford buy one's 19 year old an $80,000 car (and if that's what Susie drives, what are mom and dad driving?). We're talking about real "one percenters" here, with household incomes most likely over $250,000. And I can never stop myself from wondering: What in the hell do all of these people do for a living? There can only be so many doctors in the world.

Now I have to make a confession – I grew up in a family and neighborhood with very limited imagination as far as career paths. Growing up, the two careers available in this country (as far as I knew) were Doctor and Lawyer. Girls could be teachers, nurses, or secretaries too. People who "weren't college material" became cops, electricians, low-skill civil servants, or meth addicts. This is not an exaggeration. I seriously had no idea what an MBA was when I got to college. "Banker" meant the guy who wore a tie and a brown tweed sportcoat at the bank in my home town. I had never met anyone who held a Ph.D. and professions like accounting, engineering, computer science, and so on were only vaguely understood. And it's not like I grew up poor – our family was well above average. But I was never exposed to anyone who told me that there were professions in the world other than Doctor and Lawyer. To this day, whenever I see or think of great wealth, that's what I assume wealthy people do. It's very naive and New Money of me, I know.

When I think about it, of course, I realize that not every family showering its college-aged children with money is headed by doctors and lawyers. I still can't tell you exactly what they do, though. I have a vague sense that people make a ton of money in "business" or "finance" but I'm short on specifics beyond that – lots of people must be working in generic offices in some sort of Executive Vice President in Charge of Administration type positions, at least as I envision it. All I know is that recession or not, 10% unemployment or not, there are a lot of these people out there, presumably in the Atlanta suburbs. There are far more poor people in this state, of course, but the absolute number of wealthy families is significant. And I'm teaching at the cheap public school – I can imagine what the student body is like at Atlanta's $40,000/yr private schools or the more academically demanding publics.

I think that one of the reasons that the children of wealthy parents tend to become wealthy too – aside from the obvious – is that they comprehend more career options. Poor, working-, or middle class kids tend to think of high paying careers in terms of the stuff they see on TV and they gravitate toward the most clearly defined paths. I certainly did, and I've had enough conversations with friends I grew up with to be confident that I'm not the only one who suffered this failure of imagination as I transitioned to adulthood. Perhaps there are more people than I realize taking advantage of the world's oldest method of getting rich – inheriting it – or maybe there really are that many doctors in this country. It is rare that I admit such all-encompassing ignorance, but all I know is that I am surrounded by a large number of the children of wealthy families and I don't fully comprehend where all the money is coming from.


Posted in Quick Hits on April 2nd, 2012 by Ed

In August of 2011, MSNBC personality Dylan Ratigan became a viral video star courtesy of a clip of him going on a loud, angry rant about the subservience of our elected officials to the financial sector. He makes some good points about the problems at hand, but I felt like his performance got silly in a hurry once his (taken aback) co-hosts asked him to propose a solution. His response began with "The President needs to give a speech…" and the first time I saw this, I was laughing too hard to notice that it went downhill from there. The twin assumptions that A) the president is not "bought" in the same sense as the Congress he lambastes and B) that a presidential speech could accomplish anything in contemporary politics except to give the talking heads a topic for a few days are both naive and ridiculous.

Last week I spent a decent amount of time prepping my "Last Lecture" – and incidentally, thanks for all the suggestions. I considered going the "This is what's wrong with politics and this is how you can fix it" route. The more I struggled to address the second half of that equation, the more Ratigan's lame response made sense. It was jarring to realize that for all the time spent pointing out what's wrong with the political process, economic system, and society as a whole, I have next to nothing to offer as a solution. I don't even know where we could plausibly start fixing this mess. Maybe Ratigan realized the same thing and that's why he was so angry. Maybe being forced to admit that we don't have any answers makes us feel like the designated mourners for a society that kills another piece of itself every day.

Sure, we all recognize things that could improve the political process; getting money out of elections is a popular suggestion (albeit one with some fairly obvious constitutional hurdles), for example. Would that really fix anything, though? If we draw the necessary distinction between incremental improvement and legitimate reform, it quickly becomes clear that there is no viable "solution." Our society has broken down since 1970 in ways that we spend our days cataloging: income inequality has exploded, public education has collapsed, the health care system is broken, Congress is barely functional, lobbyists are more powerful than elected officials, the media is a horrorshow offering everything from a milquetoast Beltway consensus echo chamber to Der Stürmer style propaganda and outright misinformation, unemployment is up and wages are down, job security and retirement are terms discussed only in history classes, and the military is both a budgetary and foreign policy behemoth draining away what treasure remains from the empire. And that list is just the tip of the iceberg.

Our problems are not insoluble, but they certainly are overwhelming. Clearly the world needs individuals with more vision and long term problem solving skills than either Dylan Ratigan or me. Or maybe our guess is as good as any other when facing an interwoven set of problems so big, complex, and deeply rooted that nothing short of detonating the building and starting over from scratch appears to have potential as a solution.