Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blog Mirror: Harvard Business Review; What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class

 From the Harvard Business Review:
My father-in-law grew up eating blood soup. He hated it, whether because of the taste or the humiliation, I never knew. His alcoholic father regularly drank up the family wage, and the family was often short on food money. They were evicted from apartment after apartment.
Worth reading.

And why its worth reading:
For months, the only thing that’s surprised me about Donald Trump is my friends’ astonishment at his success. What’s driving it is the class culture gap.
Seems like I read that elsewhere. . . oh yeah.  Here.

And this:
“The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?” I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better.
Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that Democrats have so long ignored. Excuse me. Who’s stupid?
This article refers to a couple of books, Limbo and Hillbilly Elegy.  I'd only heard of one.  But there's something they are on to, even if I'd refine the thesis.  Here's the Amazon synopsis for Limbo:
In Limbo, award-winning journalist Alfred Lubrano identifies and describes an overlooked cultural phenomenon: the internal conflict within individuals raised in blue-collar homes, now living white-collar lives. These people often find that the values of the working class are not sufficient guidance to navigate the white-collar world, where unspoken rules reflect primarily upper-class values. Torn between the world they were raised in and the life they aspire too, they hover between worlds, not quite accepted in either. Himself the son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, Lubrano informs his account with personal experience and interviews with other professionals living in limbo. For millions of Americans, these stories will serve as familiar reminders of the struggles of achieving the American Dream.
And here it is for Hillbilly Elegy, which seems to take a darker view, but which is focused, really, on Appalachia, I think (based on an interview I heard of the author):
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
I don't agree, off hand, with all of the apparent conclusions of these books are, but there's something, well more than something, to the concept of the middle class having roots in a different world than the upper middle class does, and that's significant.  Part of it is for this reason, noted in the article:
“The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,” a friend just wrote me. A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Neither is minimum wage. WWC men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump promises that. I doubt he’ll deliver, but at least he understands what they need.
Right on point.  But there's another item here, where at least locally, I think she's off point, but it leads to a significant point nonetheless.
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
At least by my observation, blue collar people don't actually resent professionals uniformly, although they sometimes do as a class (particularity in regards to lawyers). They tend to think that professionals in some categories, well lawyers again, don't really work.  I had, for example, a really working class client I rarely do work for call up the other day and say, as a half joke, "well get your feet off the desk and get back to work. . . " when he called, a joke he repeats every time he calls.  But at the same time law and medicine have long been viewed as the escape hatch from the lower middle class to the upper middle class by lower middle class families.

But that element of struggle, noted immediately above, actually was and still sort of is there.  When I was young a huge number of the professionals I knew had parents who were very blue collar or had been farmers and ranchers.  And, in terms of outlook, those professionals really basically remained at or near those classes themselves.  This even went on to the next generation, and I'd put myself in that category and I'm not the only one I know.  It may seem odd, but there are a lot of lawyers my age, 50 and up, who tend to be more naturally comfortable in a social setting with farmers and ranchers rather than people who are in the high dollar business world, even if they work in the high dollar business world themselves (which doesn't mean they are uncomfortable with the latter).  And at the same time, more comfortable doesn't mean comfortable, as one thing that any lawyer, and I imagine doctor, finds out is that once you have obtained that status, you will never be looked at the same way again by your blue collar fellows.

Still, it's interesting to think that even now, and particularly for men my age and up, being a professional might still mean that your outlook on many things is defined by that and retains at least one foot there.  An odd example of that is in terms of automobiles.  My father always drove a pickup truck as his daily driver and I've always driving a four wheel drive.  I have two regular vehicles I use myself now, one being an old Jeep, and the other an aging Dodge D3500. That latter vehicle is my best one (I'm not counting the vehicle my wife drives, which I do not usually).  It's a 1 ton 4x4 truck.  I occasionally have younger lawyers express amazement at my driving it, but I use it for hauling horses and cattle as well, and I've never not had a fairly plain 4x4 truck.  And this isn't uncommon for older lawyers here.  I've always been amazed by the amazement, but when I look at what they're driving, I see they're driving something rooted in the more urban professional world than I am.

I note all of that as what I think this analysis lacks is that for a lot of people in the middle class the call is truly back to another world.  Just because the younger kids had to leave the farm or ranch doesn't mean that mentally they ever did.  The likes and dislikes of the sons of machinist and boilermakers often remains exactly what their parents were.  I once had a hugely successful Dallas lawyer lament his life and career there, then excuse his choice in the same manner that Arnold Rothstein did in the Godfather, "This is the life we chose".  But all of that may mean that the entire culture is looking back more than many suppose.

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