Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Aristocracy of Morality

I am rich.  My parents are rich.  We are members of the upper class.  My memories may be wrong, but I recall that I realized this before they did, and that it took me a little time to convince my parents that we were rich and not middle-class.

Their reluctance to face this fact was understandable.  We are not made of money.  My father is a teacher and my mother is a nurse.  We live a modest lifestyle in a small house.  We routinely shop at thrift stores and discount stores.  We drive unpretentious economy cars.  We do not purchase any luxury goods, with the possible exceptions of health food and craft items from local artists.

When I was young, we were certainly not rich.  But over the years, something happened.  Habits of industry, frugality, and thrift began to pay their rewards.  My parents paid off the mortgage and all of their debts, and accumulated enough savings to be secure against anything short of a catastrophic medical crisis.  They started buying their cars by writing checks instead of signing up for payment plans.

I have picked up these good habits.  I have not inherited any substantial amount of money, but I have worked and saved, and learned how to live a good life without spending money.  The interesting paradox of money is that once you get in the habit of not spending it, once you train your mind to be thrifty, you quickly end up with so much money that you do not have to worry about it at all.  But the habits remain, and the savings accumulates.  I bought my first car by swiping my debit card, and I have never paid any interest in my life.  I earn more in interest on my assets each month than I spend on food.

In the past, being a member of the aristocracy was based on the financial wealth of your ancestors.  Nowadays, inheritance of physical wealth means less than it used to.  It is easier than ever before to build a fortune, or to dissipate one.  By historical standards, ownership of physical wealth is now very fleeting and tenuous.

But we are beginning to see the emergence of a new kind of aristocracy, one defined by the new constraint of our age.  Physical resources are not the constraint on the good life that they once were.  You can be poor and happy, or rich and miserable.  The ability to live a flourishing life now depends almost entirely on your attitudes, beliefs, character, wisdom, and morality.  In the past, these kinds of standards were much more uniform, with minimal standards enforced by both physical necessity and social norms.

But today, in a land of vast wealth and social permissiveness, new divisions are emerging in society.  Education and culture no longer unify our character traits, and the laws of natural selection have been superseded by our system of social welfare.  In the absence of these unifying constraints, character traits like self-control and long-term planning are determined mainly by parents and peer groups, and your parents usually determine your peers.

It is a well-known fact that there exists a 'permanent underclass' of people born into poverty and bad social conditions, who them go on to have more children in the same conditions.  But I have seen very few people comment or speculate on a 'permanent overclass' of people who are born into emotionally and financially secure households, and go on to create the same kinds of families.  Their children will be in the upper class not because they inherited physical assets, but because they inherited the beneficial character traits of their parents.  Call them the 'Aristocracy of Morality'.

The Aristocracy of Morality will continue to dominate the world, or at least live a good life, and its existence will become more and more obvious over time.  This is because they posess something that, unlike money, cannot be transferred.  As the behavioral standards of the rest of society decay, they will remain, growing ever more rare but wielding ever more wealth and power in consequence of the rarity of their character.  Many members will drop out of the Aristocracy, and a few will manage to join it, but membership will be based mainly on the accident of birth.

This article illustrates what I am talking about, and it was the inspiration for this post.  I will quote the relevant facts:

"The illegitimacy ratio for the white underclass is probably now in the region of 70 percent. I think that the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent—a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.

The white overclass? They're still living in the 1950s—their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent tops."

Their definition of class depends entirely on education and money*, because that is what is easiest to measure.  The study shows a very strong correlation between money and behavior standards.  Correlation is not causation, of course, and we cannot be sure if the money leads to good families, or if good families lead to wealth.  My life experience seems to suggest the latter.  Numerous studies show that being born into a wealthy family improves life outcomes, and they conclude that wealth leads to good families.  I argue that that good character leads to good character directly, and that wealth is just a symptom.  The recurring failure of wealth transfer programs to improve social conditions supports this claim.

It is theoretically possible to greatly expand the membership of the Aristocracy of Morality, so that most of society could gain the benefits of membership.  A few changes to our education system, cultural messages, and legal institutions could work wonders.  But I do not see this ever happening.  For various reasons, our society has lost the ability and/or willingness to attack self-destructive behavior patterns.

This is understandable.  It is not fair to punish people for failing to follow rules they never learned and never had a chance to learn.  I would never support such harshness; I am not nearly as cruel as Nature.  It is also true that people sometimes fail for reasons that have nothing to do with their actions or character.  But there must be some way to maintain a social safety net without allowing moral standards to fall so far that only a small Overclass retains the character traits that generate wealth, success, and the ability to live a good, flourishing life.

However, I do not think that this trick will ever be accomplished.  It is a sad fact of history that societies will always purchase as much decadence as they can possibly afford.  And our society can afford a lot.

*Technically, the linked study would not classify my family as 'Overclass' because my parents have no postsecondary education.  But we do fit the household income requirement, and we certainly have the morality and worldview that the study identifies as 'Overclass'.


R.I.P. said...

Actually, from the way I read the study you reference, the classes are defined only by the educational level of the woman, and then by the family income.

As a woman with 18+ years of education myself, I wonder how much the overall birth rate among women in this "overclass" compares with those of the other defined classes? Though it may not be considered often, or at all by my male peers, completing that level of postgraduate education requires a serious time commitment. And whether or not it is acknowledged, women making that commitment are often required to sacrifice their most healthy and fertile years on the altar of higher education.

Yes, these women of the overclass are more highly educated and financially secure. Have they traded their ability to have healthy biological children in order to do so?

Lou said...

Hey Richard. Well put together article. I also read the original article you had set up to link to. No insights or input really on my part, just that your range of topics.....your alleged wisdoms bon mots, are a pleasure to read. Lou

Richard Bruns said...

The classes are determined primarily by income, but with an additional education requirement for the extreme classes only. In order to be overclass, you have to have both the education and the money. Middle class is anyone over a certain money amount not in the overclass. Working class is anyone less than the threshold not in the underclass. So if you had 18 years of education and a household income of less than $60,000, you would get classified as working class.

Now that I write that, I realize that there is a serious methodological flaw in the study. An educated woman making $55k who is married to a man making $45k or more will be 'overclass'. The same woman will be defined as 'working class' if she is not married. They are using household income as the independent variable, which is strongly influenced by marital status, and they are using the presence or absence of marriage at childbirth as the dependent variable. That is going to create serious identification issues, and possibly invalidate the study.

It is also slightly suspicious that they have both the education and income requirements. I'd like to see how their results are affected by alternate specifications. I would also like to see more details of how they assign people to the classes.

We know that well-educated women have fewer children, and take better care of the ones they do have. Any education or career will require a sacrifice. But I think that society will find ways to work around it. The biologically efficient thing to do would be for both men and women to take a few years after completing their undergraduate degree to have children and care for them as infants, and then continue college or careers with the young children raised mainly by their grandparents, who should be settled and prosperous by that point. But that would take a rather big shift in social mores and family structure.

R.I.P. said...

I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised by my own forceful and vehement reaction to both this study and your post. I suppose this is my own experience with the issue of the conflict between post-secondary education and potential motherhood.

The "Mommy Bias" still works against women who strive for advanced educational opportunities. In applying for PhD programs, I am seen as less worth the investment on the part of the University - because I would choose to have children and mother them, rather than put the education I am given to "good use." Therefore, it becomes nearly impossible for me to join the overclass - my mother faced the same problem in the '70s and again chose to be a full time mother my sister and myself.

I think you have to recognize that the lower birth rate among these overclass women is likely a profound and direct result of their education and wage-earning potential. After the wave of feminism in the '60s & '70s, women gained the right to work outside the home in any career they chose, or to be a working mom. But women, especially highly educated ones, who choose to be a stay-at-home Mom (who would fall into the middle or lower classes in this study) are also now seen as "wasting" their potential by doing so.

I've wandered somewhat off topic from your original discussion, but I think both the researchers and yourself have made oversimplifications in your interpretation.

Richard Bruns said...

Economists always recognize the effect of opportunity costs. If a woman is smarter and better educated, it will always cost her more in terms of lost wages when she has children. Therefore those kinds of women will always have fewer children. That's Econ 101.

Conversely, an education or career will always be more expensive for a woman to obtain, because it costs her more in lost family time. These are facts of biology and it will be very difficult to escape them and reach perfect equality.

The whole point of my post is that 'upper class' will be increasingly defined by education and character instead of resources. You clearly inherited something from your mother that is far more valuable than mere cash. Her efforts in raising you were certainly not wasted. Do you honestly wish that she had spent more time working and less time with you?

I suspect that you are already a member of the overclass, as is your mother. You may not have piles of money, but you have a collection of mental resources that are almost impossible to gain except by inheritance.

R.I.P. said...

I understand your argument from the scientific point of view.

I suppose I find myself frustrated in that I can't properly verbalize my differing point of view.

Suffice it to say that less educational opportunities are available for the intellectually capable woman, simply because of her biological ability-slash-imperative to be a mother.

Richard Bruns said...

I think the disagreement comes from fact that you are, like the study authors, are using education and wealth to define 'overclass'. Meanwhile, I am writing a post that says that access to the overclass is defined as the posession of mental faculties.

I assume that mental states automatically grant one access to the overclass, while you correctly state that existing patterns of discrimination prevent people with those mental abilities from gaining education and wealth.

Your statement is completely correct. I can easily use game theory to show how a tiny initial change in conditions between two otherwise identical groups (the need to bear children) can lead to a Nash Equilibrium of discrimination and low investment in human capital (education). It is perfectly rational for colleges and businesses to invest their time training a man rather than a woman, assuming equal skills, and it is perfectly rational for a woman of equal skills to forgo education. These effects keep reinforcing each other in a vicious cycle.

It is similarly easy to demonstrate that any law mandating extra benefits to women, such as maternity benefits, will cause either wages or employment of women to fall. In a competitive market, people will be paid the marginal value of their labor, or how much value they add to the firm. A firm that pays more will operate at a loss, and a firm that pays less will be unable to attract any workers. Given the fact that women add less value to the firm, because of their absence, they will end up being paid less.

The only way to generate true equality would be to somehow force men to take the same amount of time off work that women need, when a child is born. That way the relative value of men and women would be equalized. But accomplishing this would be very difficult and costly.

I really don't see how we disagree, once it is clear that I am proposing a new concept of Aristocracy that does not depend on money. Nothing we have said contradicts the position of the other.

I will grant that it was a mistake for me to link to a sloppy bit of research without properly critiquing it. I have contacted the author with my concerns.

I tried to use that study to support my idea, even though it used the very definitions that I was arguing to be irrelevant.

I will also grant that I may be a mite insensitive when discussing these things; it is a well-known occupational hazard :-)

R.I.P. said...

I can go along with your line of reasoning.

I think the whole subject just raises my ire. Living the injustice can do that to you...