Friday, November 11, 2011

Class vs. Income

Recently in the United States there has been much talk about class warfare.  As disturbing as the concept is, I am more concerned about a fundamental distinction that has been lost in modern America: the difference between class and income.

This is due in large part to the success of the US in allowing people to change their circumstances.  Class used to have a far different meaning.  When you were born into the slave class in nineteenth century America, not only did you remain a slave for the rest of your life, but your children were similarly condemned.  If you were born into the aristocracy in sixteenth century England, you remained an aristocrat, no matter how much a fool or scoundrel you were.

These class distinctions were maintained by law, and thanks to the struggles of those who came before us, they are largely gone.  The term "middle class" still exists, but the way it is used now, people only mean "middle income", between "rich" and "poor".  The distinction between them is rather arbitrary; for example, "the poor" are those who earn less than the "poverty level".  This arbitrariness makes it easy to go from rich to poor and possible to go from poor to rich.

Even though we don't have the same kind of legally enforced class system as in the past, I think it is still a useful concept.  We still have mental and cultural barriers that keep people in their same circumstances.  I define the middle class as those who work for a living; the lower class does not work, and the upper class has others work for them.  As a further gradation, the upper middle class work for themselves, and the lower middle class work for someone else.  This is a completely separate dimension from wealth and poverty; each class has rich and poor members.  The importance is that members within each class have more interests in common than they do with people of equal income in other classes.  For example, the lower middle class still has to show up for work every day, whether they are flipping burgers or starring in movies.

It is important to understand that no class is better than the other.  All are necessary, or at least unavoidable.  (Even if we work until the day we die, no one works from the day they are born.)  Each class requires different strengths.  We just need to think clearly about our circumstances.

If you are confused about which class you fit in, you can easily get lost on the Long Ascent.

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