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« "Civil war" in Iraq? | Main | The hex on Rex »

Friday, December 01, 2006

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ben

It's not just the manly conservatives who want to avoid discussion of class. My experience in liberal academia (at least the religious version of it) is that liberal academics only want to talk about race and gender. Talking about class muddles discussion of racism and sexism and homophobia. Who is "oppressed" and who is "oppressor" (favorite liberal categories) when the black son of a tenured university professor disagrees with a working class white dude from north Alabama who is struggly through seminary on scholarship after hearing a "call to preach?"

I would argue that Democrats also made an error by emphasizing race rhetoric so much that working class whites were left to wonder, "So who cares about me now?" Certainly, racism is a factor among some of these folks, and their move to the right is usually linked to religion and social issues. But I think their sense of political abandonment - at least in political rhetoric - also plays a role.

Daniel

Agreed. My line some months ago was that the Democrats should nominate Bruce Springsteen for President. I wasn't being serious (or literal -- don't freak out, Mr. Will!), just pointing out that the party should be more attentive to its working class, blue-collar roots.

Basically, I just want to know why it's so wrong to "bring class into it again." I'm not trying to be divisive or a smart-ass at the moment, either. Class animates all our lives to one extent or another. I don't think openly discussing the subject is the same thing as "openly formulating class warfare."

Tim

Dan,

Sometime you ought to read what Greenberg actually said about Reagan Democrats and the shift back in the 90s.

Daniel

Reagan Democrats have shifted, to varying degrees, in every election cycle since 1992. What's new in 2006 is that "liberal" isn't quite the epithet it's been since Reagan came along.

Call it a hunch, but I suspect part of what we're witnessing at the moment is that some of this cultural code is back in flux. Not overt political values, but the stuff beneath it.

Thanks for the link to Greenberg. I didn't know who he was.

Tim

re: cultural code is back in flux

I do think Webb's Rumsfeldian style will change the truthiness of political stereotypes.

Tim

re: Greenberg

Your welcome. I also thought this was a worthwhile pre-election column.

janet

i liked his book, you Scots-Irish-hating girlie man.

chip

I think thou doth protest too much, Dan.

Just because his picture might be taken with the President does not obligate him to hang it on his wall, so he's just being contrary.

My opinion regarding the infamous "GAP" between rich and poor- what happened to people wanting to be rich? Why be focus anger on the haves? Why not focus that energy on actually becoming a have, instead of insisting that they should be punished for the behavior that makes them successful? And why do we reward behavior that makes people poor?

janet

Mostly, humans just like feeling superior. If we don't have something obvious like skin color, we move on to economics, religion, education, type of job, neighborhood, scrunchies, etc.

It's complex: We are pattern-seekers and thus categorizers. We are social, we like to belong to groups where we feel accepted, which usually means with people who are like us. So divisions aren't necessarily negative.

And it's hard to divvy up Americans nicely. What is "upper class," "middle class" or "working class?" Is class defined solely by wealth? Is it family status? Power and position? If so, which positions? Government? Corporate? What about education? Are all college graduates intellectual elites or only Ph.Ds? Is race or sex a factor? Manners? If so, as defined by whom? Do I have to know what a pickle fork is or can I just chew with my mouth closed?

In rigid societies, one always knows one's place, however unsatisfied one may be with it. Here, because our idea of "class" is so vague, we are free to discriminate and be discriminated against at will.

It's not just about money, rich and poor. That's far too simplistic, no matter how much people want to paint it as financial jealousy. We only get riled up when we begin to feel that another division or "class" is somehow restricting our group, be it professionally, socially or financially.

George Will isn't saying Webb is just a jerk who shouldn't have said what he said. He's implying that Webb's behavior is evidence that Some People are just not the Right Kind.

This makes Some People feel as though the Right Kind are suggesting only they should be allowed to be in government and thus Some People should kick their ass, which would put Some People in the Manly Man category and the Right Kind would be relegated to Wimps, which, I think, by law would preclude their Right Kind membership.

So I'm really asking: What are we talking about when we say "class" in America? Can we agree or does it matter?

Tim

"What are we talking about when we say 'class' in America?"

Not what, but whom: the The Joneses.

The only time I ever have a problem with discussions of economic class in America is when someone raises the topic: "How do we redistribute wealth?"

Who's we? What makes Some People the Right Kind to take wealth from the Wrong Kind and give it to the Right Kind?

Although I agree in principle with a progressive tax code, I also find it troublesome. Government is increasingly owned by those paying the most taxes. Does that make them the Right Kind or Wrong Kind in the eyes of politicians who formulate policy?

Of course, you'll only find this kind of concern in girly-man magazines: The Rich Get Richer

Having even more wealth than they had before, the very rich can thus buy even more government supports and giveaways and acquire even more wealth, enabling them to buy even more government supports and giveaways. And so on. The result of great wealth buying public policies is a positive feedback loop, or perhaps a vicious cycle, which transfers ever greater wealth and power to the very rich and away from everyone else.

janet

Exactly. Categorizing any talk of class as a discussion on "redistributing wealth" instantly shuts it down for most. What we are talking about really is redistribution, or an equitable distribution, of power.

I don't care how much money Bill Gates has or Bill Frist or Tom Cruise(and those are just names) or how they spend it except when they are able to buy law changes (lobbyists) or enforce unfair business practices (monopolies) that deny me the same route (more or less) to success (unfair tax laws or hiring practices or wages, closed-door deals, etc.)

It's not the money or the cars or the private clubs or diamond jewelry .... Look at the Hollywood/star athlete strata; I don't hear much talk about their "right" to be rich. Instead we like TV shows about their fabulous lifestyles.

The fact is that having LOTS of discretionary funds brings enormous power. What gets done (or what is perceived as getting done) with that power that fuels class tension.

Tims asks: What makes Some People the Right Kind to take wealth from the Wrong Kind and give it to the Right Kind?

This sums up both permutations:
1. Some People are the unRich who want to take money from the few, the proud, the billionaires.

2. The billionaires are the ones setting up the system that takes wealth, or at least the opportunity to accrue it, from the Wrong Kind.

It's not just about money, it's about a perception that one side or the other is entitled to make the decisions because of innate superiority of birth or education or smarts or good looks or whatever.

It's not the big castle that pisses off the peasants: It's that they can't live there and never will.

A central American tenet is that even peasants can someday own a big castle. When that isn't true, for whatever reason, the peasants get restless. If they believe that it's because the game has been rigged, and things get ugly.

Daniel

Chip: I can't see how your comment is in reply to anything I wrote.

Tim and Janet: Redistribution of wealth via government rule goes on all the time, but we only think of it as "Redistribution of Wealth" when the money is being taken from the upper class and given to the other people. Corporate welfare is redistribution of wealth. The bankruptcy "reforms" enacted by Congress are redistributing the wealth of working families that lose income due to downsizing or illness.

America was based in part upon the idea that class boundaries would be permeable here, that one could rise and fall on one's merits. Our discussions about class should be about making class more mobile and less relevant, not about maintaining one group in luxury and another in poverty.

One of the biggest barriers to opportunity is the cost of college. I got a college degree 16 years ago because of two government policies that enabled me to afford it: the federal GI Bill and North Carolina's excellent taxpayer-supported network of state universities. Thanks to various factors, which generally relate to taxpayer support, tuition and fees at state-supported schools have been rising far faster than inflation, so that even those low-income high school students who opt for cheaper state schools now face tough decisions about debt.

If we were really talking about class in a constructive way, we would recognize that it's a good thing for society that our universities produce quality graduates who are able to compete for quality jobs. We would recognize that it's a bad thing to have so many of them so saddled with student loans that they begin their adult lives already trapped in the debt cycle.

Is taxing people more in order to lower tuition at public universities and tech colleges a transfer of wealth? Yes. Is it a valuable transfer for America's economy, not to mention society? What's the best way to manage such a policy? How much money would an effective policy cost? What would be the best way to spread out those costs across the tax base? What should we expect in return from the students who benefit from the extra taxes we pay?

We could talk about all sorts of things in terms of class. That's just one. But the important first step is acknowledging that economic self-interest is as meaningful for the lower and middle classes as it is for the upper class. Otherwise, the upper class pursues its class interests while the working classes chase around after cultural proxy issues and have their pockets picked.

Here's Thomas Franks writing about his father in the intro to his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

"His superaverage midwestern town, meanhwile, has followed the same trajectory. Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city's industries, unions, and neighborhoods, the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues... Today the town looks like a miniature Detroit. And with every bit of economic bad news it seems to get more bitter, more cynical, and more conservative still."

As a great American once wrote: "A government based on the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul can always rely upon the support of Paul." Just don't assume that always means that Paul is a working man.

chip

I was commenting on your commenting about Will commenting that Webb was rude. Which he was.

Then I commented on my opinion of the class struggle in this country, which was highlighted in the comments.

And I'll continue, based on additional comments.

I agree that poverty in this country is not defined by actual need, but more often by want. There are some genuine poor people, and they deserve a chance to make a better life for themselves. America provides that chance for any person of ability, wouldn't you agree? Life, however, isn't easy, or fair. No amount of government intervention will make it that way.

But we try. It's better than most countries in this world. Look at the majority of European countries, which have created grand socialist states that now languish in unemployment because they are now less able to compete in a global economy. Some of our industries are now facing the same problems, because of union power. Particularly the automotive industry. Contrast that with Wal-Mart, a company started from a odds and ends store in Bentonville, Arkansas, that now nearly spans the globe. You can demonize Wal-Mart if you like, but whose system works better? Who provides more value for more people? Who is a better savior to poor people?

Regarding college education, is it better to have an education or not? You can say that providing a free college education is a good thing, but I could point to the way we educate high school students and show you why that's such a bad idea. The reason that college costs more and more is that we expect so much of them. We expect them not just to educate, but to become research centers as well. I agree that they should be, but that stuff costs money. And the more federal money that goes to research, the less available for education. You've got 2 dogs chasing one tail. We need to evaluate who it is that benefits from the research conducted at our universities, and get them more involved in paying for it directly.

Also, we need to evaluate what we are teaching students at universities. Is it really necessary to teach golf and ballroom dancing? Should we have faculty for this purpose? My point is, it's no good to complain about the cost of higher education if you don't scrutinize where that money gets spent.

Tim

Dan: "Thanks to various factors, which generally relate to taxpayer support, tuition and fees at state-supported schools have been rising far faster than inflation, ..."

Dan: "Is taxing people more in order to lower tuition at public universities and tech colleges a transfer of wealth? Yes."

Let's make Rangel happy. Two year scholarship to any college/university for 4 years active duty service enlisted, or 3 years active duty commissioned with 5 additional years Reserve.

Four year scholarships for 6 years active duty enlisted or 5 years commissioned with 3 years Reserve.

Tim

You might also enjoy this P.J. O'Rourke rant: Closing the Wealth Gap

Tim

You might also enjoy this P.J. O'Rourke rant: Closing the Wealth Gap

[Fixed link.]

Daniel

Chip: I didn't say a word about free college education. I didn't suggest it, I don't support it, and I don't know how that comes into play on this subject. And while it's true that how we manage and define college relates to tuition cost, it's also true that one of the reasons it costs more to go to a state school these days (at least in North Carolina) is because state-taxpayer support for higher education isn't the same commitment that it used to be. Focusing on a golf phys-ed elective instead of acknowledging the larger financial trends involved in college funding is the same thing as politicians who act as if there's an endless supply of "waste, fraud and abuse" that can be reformed to pay for whatever cut they want to make from the budget.

If we want to discuss a new approach to public support for higher education that's going to be a complex discussion, and it isn't aided by introducing straw-man arguments about things like "free college tuition."

Tim: I like the idea that the country rewards the young people who serve in the military by helping them pay for college. But I don't want that to be our only way of sending middle class kids to school without driving them and their families into debt.

Tim

Ummm, OK, I don't know how the Webb-Will spat got turned into a referendum on NC higher ed costs, but just so I can seem like I care ...

2006 Trends in Higher Education Series: Student Debt

Student borrowers graduating in 2004 from for-profit colleges had the highest median debt of $24,600, private nonprofit college graduates at $19,500, and public four-year college graduates at $15,500.
Tuition hikes smaller than in past years
Tuition at the University of North Carolina system has increased so much – 71 percent from 1999 to 2004 – that a recent report said it is inviting a lawsuit for possibly violating the state’s constitution, which mandates free tuition “as far as practicable,” according to the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.
State Higher Education Finance
Finding and sustaining adequate public funding higher education is not likely to be solved by relying solely on additional financial contributions from taxpayers or from students and their families. Nor is it realistic to expect public colleges and universities to educate increasing numbers of students to world class standards with continuingly declining resources. Increased productivity, increased public investment, and increased private investments all will be required to meet the nation's need for higher education. The solution must be in how these potential resources are tapped and blended.

chip

"We would recognize that it's a bad thing to have so many of them so saddled with student loans that they begin their adult lives already trapped in the debt cycle."

You said that. I know of no way for people who can't afford to get a college education without loans to get a college education, in the absence of scholarships. Grants and the like don't count b/c it's taxpayer money. How, then, do you suggest we lower the burden? It sounds like you suggest we shift the burden elsewhere.

You can't say that my argument is a straw man argument without acknowledging that I'm right. We fill students heads with crap they'll never use in the interest of making them well-rounded. I could have taught the golf skills class I took at Clemson, and in some cases did. It was an easy A and i needed the elective. How much did that cost the university and, by proxy, the state and federal governments? Why not eliminate wastefulness like that in the interest of LOWERING the taxpayer burden, or at least shift that money somewhere else where it can be more useful?

Why not try to make education more efficient? Why waste time teaching students history that care nothing about it? Why not take more time teaching them what they do care about, things that make them more able to be successful? Trust me, college students are interested enough in expanding their horizons without it being forced on them institutionally.

Daniel

Here's the way I look at it: One of the functions of tax money for public higher education is that it can be spent to keep tuition and fees down. When I went to UNC it was ranked in the Top 25 American colleges and universities, but my in-state tuition for a semester was just over the $735 monthly check I got for my GI bill (this didn't include fees and books and rent, etc.). We can spend higher education moneys in just about any combination that we wish, but I contend that making education affordable should be one of our top priorities.

You could do this on the front end, by using more tax money to pay more the expenses covered by tuition and fees, or you could spend it on the back end, by providing more tuition assistance. Either way has pros and cons. But the idea of raising taxes to reduce tuition costs to colleges and tech schools is a transfer of wealth, no matter how you slice it. I contend that sensible tax increases for affordable education are a good investment for our society and economy, though that's a debatable point with reasonable counter-arguments.

I don't like the idea of free tuition, because I think that people don't value what you give them for nothing. On the other hand, a kid who comes out of college with $15k in debt is -- no matter how smart and hard-working -- starting at an enormous disadvantage to the kid who got the same education and had it paid for by their family. These are practical class issues and the questions are open-ended.

Should we consider ways to make education spending more efficient? Sure. But I don't accept the notion that we'll roll back recent double-digit tuition increases by getting rid of frivolous courses. Do it in addition to, but not in lieu of, increasing our taxpayer support of higher education.

Now Tim, I know the students at your institution of higher education are all on full scholarship, and so it is difficult for you to care about this issue as it plays out in the Carolinas. But it's my favorite class issue because it cuts directly to ideas about meritocracy and mobility.

Tim

Ok, so you're a scholarship-envy Scots-Irish-hating girlie man.

Pennant

I think you people completely missed the point of view from Webb's side. Ever since the election, George Bush has claimed that he would work in a conciliatory fashion with the incoming Congress, while at the same time he re-submitted for approval some of his most conservative or controversial appointments: for judicial positions, for UN envoy. He also appointed a man who had worked for an anti-contraception organization to head the US agency in charge of overseeing the availability of contraception in the US. Those recommendations and appointments are his right as President, of course, but to claim he will be more conciliatory while performing those actions would rank among new heights of hypocrisy had he not already frequently trod those lofty peaks for the last 6 years.

I think Webb saw Bush's approach as an empty political gesture (an arguable case), and refused to thereby legitimize Bush's hypocrisy by going along with it. To do so would have weakened everything that he had stood for and run his campaign on and Bush knew that. Webb's intent not to play along was pretty clear on the first refusal, and while I wish Webbe could have been less abrasive on his second rebuff, Bush could have taken the first, relatively polite no for an answer. To not do so in this instance was as boorish as anything Webb did.

No matter how much you tell yourself and everybody else that you're such a swell guy, if your actions are those of a jerk, sooner or later somebody's going to call you on it. George W. Bush usually hides from that type of person but this time he went looking for it. Maybe he didn't take enough time to get a sense of Webb's soul.

It looks to me like Jim Webb would make a much better UN Envoy than John Bolton but, for some reason, conservative pundits praise the latter for the same characteristics they condemn in the former. I guess there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

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