Recently we had a campus visit day, the highlight of which is watching high school students try to act cool while walking around campus with their parents. As this is scientifically proven to be impossible, hilarity ensues.
As I walked to my car I saw a group being led around by a student tour guide who I recognized from class. I said hello and made some sort of PG joke like, "You didn't show them the dorms with the mold problem, did you?" Oh, Ed. You card. She explained to the group that I was one of her professors last year.
Side note: I have a pretty swell car. It was not terribly expensive (more on that in a minute) but I take exceptional care of it. Having just spent the Labor Day weekend working it over with an orbital buffer, it currently looks like it just rolled out of the factory. Eyeing the car, one of the parents said "Well I guess that's why tuition is so high!" Ha ha ha. Good one. Laughs all around. Here's the thing. Two, actually.
First, it's ridiculous to assume that I bought the car new. I bought it used after stalking it on eBay for six goddamn months and getting the dealer to agree to a ridiculous deal. I paid less for a used BMW than, for example, a new compact car like a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. If I was getting into a 2013 Honda Civic, would anyone be making jokes about my extravagant Professor Lifestyle?
Second, although it was clearly intended as a harmless joke, parents (and students) are constantly telling us we make too much money. To our faces. Students will flat-out tell us, "Tuition keeps going up because of professor salaries." This is not only beyond inaccurate – tuition increases are happening because of the money schools spend on 1) administrators and administrative salaries, which have increased five-fold since 1990, and 2) infrastructure. The money essentially goes to people the students never see and to their fancy new gyms and dorms and classrooms and all the other stuff they demand to turn college into the four-year middle class kids' vacation that it is becoming.
The implication is that I don't look poor enough. As a professor, if they see me in anything other than a Carter-era sportcoat as I load my dilapidated briefcase into a 1983 Volvo station wagon, then clearly they're being ripped off. If I can afford anything other than tuna and ramen, then obviously the school needs to pay me less. Professors shouldn't have anything new or fancy-looking; those are our tuition dollars!
This is a mild version of something I see and hear constantly – complaints that The Poor don't look sufficiently poor. God help you if you're within earshot of a Hard Working American when they see a poor person with an iPhone or a fresh hairdo. WHY ARE YOU SPENDING MY HARD EARNED TAX DOLLARS ON BLAH BLAH BLAH. Maybe her friend did her hair for her, or maybe she bought the iPhone second-hand or received it as a gift. But the point is, this poor person does not look sufficiently poor. If you're on food stamps or Medicaid or anything that even tangentially involves a tax dollar, Americans want to see you wearing rags, smeared with dirt, and eating gruel. How dare anyone who's poor try to have some self-respect and look decent.
Certainly I have things a lot easier than the poor people everyone loves to judge as a spectator sport. But the principle at the heart of this kind of self-important behavior is the same: that people should look a certain way based on their perceived status. How dare poor people wear, eat, or own anything nice. We don't just want people to be poor, we want them to look poor so we can feel better about our own status. Everybody just loves a good bitch-and-moan about what the undeserving Others are doing with their Hard Earned Money.
It never occurs to them that I also have to work hard to earn money (conservatives in particular believe that they personally invented the concept of hard work and nobody except them has ever done a day of hard work worthy of the compensation received) or that I might not be as well-off as something superficial like the brand of car I drive suggests. It never occurs to them that maybe my income is pretty modest but I happen to have no dependents, a low cost of living, and a fondness for ludicrously fast German sports cars. No, it must be that my nonexistent Professor Union guarantees me a six-figure salary that necessitates annual tuition increases.
But that's where we're at after thirty years of lurching to the right as a nation. We see public employees attacked for having pensions and insurance, as anything other than a subsistence wage for people who take Our Hard Earned Money is too extravagant. How it must please our financial elite to see us shrieking at our peers for earning too much money like crabs pulling one another back down into the bucket.