of sandwiches and cultural exclusion

David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)

Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:

I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.

But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.

Other points on the column:

  • It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
  • Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
  • To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
  • Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.

Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.

prestige trumps quality in faculty hiring? not so fast

This article (Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore. “Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks”) has been making the rounds lately. The article uses a network method to extract prestige rankings from the set of graduate degrees and faculty hires. It shows “that faculty hiring follows a common and steeply hierarchical structure that reflects profound social inequality.”

Blog posts, tweets, and stories about the article (e.g., this one from the Monkey Cage) have mostly picked up on the idea that the fact that prestigious departments generally hire Ph.D.s from other prestigious departments must mean that “academia is not a meritocracy.” While I would certainly not claim that academia is a meritocracy, I don’t think the Clauset et al. paper demonstrates that.

Continue reading “prestige trumps quality in faculty hiring? not so fast”

all persons are fictional

In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decisions, there have been renewed discussions of corporate personhood. The argument is relatively simple: the 19th century Supreme Court made a mistake when it created the legal fiction that corporations are persons. I don’t want to get into that argument here. Instead, I want to make a slightly different argument: all persons are fictions.

Continue reading “all persons are fictional”

no austrians near fiscal cliffs

The commonplace saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” — while probably technically false — seems apt to describe the so-called “fiscal cliff” situation the United States government finds itself in. Deficit hawks and Austrian economics purists ought to be happy, as the automatic cuts produce the first significant deficit reduction in 12 years and reduce government involvement in the economy more substantially than essentially anything since Bretton Woods.

But, with important exceptions, most commentators agree that the fiscal cliff is likely to lead to major economic problems because of the withdrawal of substantial government money from key economic functions and of tax rates returned to those that existed during the last economic boom. Let’s recognize this for what it is: an admission that government’s involvement in the economy actually does create jobs, Mitt Romney notwithstanding.

snarky qotd about voting and economics

The prize goes to Peter T:

[Steven] Levitt has millions of brain cells. The activity of any one of them cannot possibly matter. So he doesn’t bother thinking.

It’s all part of a(nother) post by Andrew Gelman on why it might be rational to vote if you care about the outcome because there’s a nonzero chance of your vote being decisive, estimated at roughly 1 in 10 million depending on what state you live in. Since the chance of being killed by a car on your way to voting is probably much higher than that, I think the rationality calculus is still way off, since there are very few people who would prefer dying in a car accident to failing to cast the decisive vote. But hey, I’ve objected to Gelman’s approach to this for a while.

FWIW, I voted Wednesday. Early. In a swing state.

nerd alert: krugman and the primacy of a concept

Paul Krugman writes:

It wasn’t until the Arabs invented Arabic numerals that the liquidity trap became a possibility.

Very erudite, very intellectual, very historically astute. But is it true? The liquidity trap describes a point at which a central bank’s infusion of cash into an economy fails to stimulate the economy because returns are already so low that people prefer to hoard cash. (Feel free to elaborate on, or correct, my amateurish description.) I’m very happy with the idea that the concept of zero has to predate economic behavior that worries about (sub)zero returns, but I would have thought economists would think it’s the actual existence of zero, not the concept of it, that drives the liquidity trap.

is pink slime a moral panic?

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries a story about defenders of so-called “pink slime,” the mixture of beef scraps disinfected with ammonia that has been the subject of major derision since Jamie Oliver “exposed” it on his show. Important elements of the story:

  • “lean finely-textured beef” (the technical identifier) has been used for a long time
  • the stuff is much less fatty than regular ground beef
  • it’s actually beef, not a filler, starch, etc., as some other meat extenders are.

So, is pink slime getting a bad rap just because of the name it’s been given? Is anybody really surprised that industrial food producers use every scrap of meat they can? Is anybody upset that higher-risk bits of meat are disinfected before entering the food supply? What unintended consequences will result from the moral panic surrounding the stuff?

I take for granted here that we are talking about an industrial food supply, and we can have a separate discussion about the virtues of organic, free range, etc., meat. But should consumers of industrial meat be surprised or upset at the presence and use of this product?