Divide and conquer with aggregate statistics
The Atlantic has long been on my list of faux left publications. Nevertheless, because it was getting a lot of comment, I read the piece by Matthew Stewart, The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy
I found it to be a blatant attempt to divide the leftwing, and to give more credibility to rightwing stereotypes about "liberals", by using aggregate statistics. That is, using averages and correlation to imply causation and intent.
This is the way the widely derided neoclassical economists think. Their DSGE model reduces the entire economy to one rational worker.
The DSGE model populates its simplified economy with exactly one single combined worker, owner, consumer, everything else who plans ahead carefully, lives forever; and one important consequence of this representative-agent assumption is that there are no conflicts of interest, no incompatible expectations, no deceptions. This all-purpose decision maker essentially runs the economy according to its own preferences—not directly, of course, the economy has to operate through generally well-behaved markets and prices.
Robert Solow, Building a science of economics for the real world
This is exactly what Mr. Stewart has done. He has used statistics to create an "average" professional worker, and then he imputes motives and agency to that statistical construct.
The goal of the article is to blame the so-called 9.9%, which I will refer to as the "professional class", for failing to stop the machinations of the 0.01% ("the elites"). The purpose of the article is to crack the 1%-99% meme, to break the solidarity that threatens the the elites. The very use of "9.9%" is an unsubtle reference to the meme under attack. It would be very good for the elites to have the working class hate the professional class - instead of the elites who are the driving force behind the inequality. It would be "let's you and him fight".
In fact, historians and statisticians have long noted that 90-10 distribution pop up in many places in all kinds of societies. For example, there was actually a 90-10 rule put in place with the original GI Bill. In Victorian England, the "middle class" was 10% of the population, the same collection of doctors, lawyers, and bureaucrats that Mr. Stewart cites. 90-10 (sometimes 85-15) class divides seem to be a sociological law of nature. Instead, in his title, he conflates being a well-paid house
n***** servant of the aristocracy with being the aristocracy.
People on this site are well aware that it took the active involvement of the government to create the very large middle class of the New Deal/Great Society era. Now that the neoliberals have trashed government, society is reverting to the 90-10 Victorian distribution. Mr. Stewart wants to blame that on the professional classes, instead of the elites who dynamited our government.
Mr. Stewart's goal is to impute malign agency to what is merely a sturdy statistical fact. If you are at all math oriented, you have heard of the "unfair subway" problem. (If not, read the two paragraph problem/answer here.) Mr. Stewart wants the reader to blame the professional classes for working within the constraints of the train schedule written by the elites.
Mr. Stewart sounds like a Republican when he goes after "tax breaks", again blaming the professionals while ignoring the massive tax giveaways to the rich and to corporations.
Our false protests about paying all the taxes, however, sound like songs of innocence compared with our mastery of the art of having the taxes returned to us. The income-tax system that so offended my grandfather has had the unintended effect of creating a highly discreet category of government expenditures. They’re called “tax breaks,” but it’s better to think of them as handouts that spare the government the inconvenience of collecting the money in the first place. In theory, tax expenditures can be used to support any number of worthy social purposes, and a few of them, such as the earned income-tax credit, do actually go to those with a lower income. But more commonly, because their value is usually a function of the amount of money individuals have in the first place, and those individuals’ marginal tax rates, the benefits flow uphill.
Let us count our blessings: Every year, the federal government doles out tax expenditures through deductions for retirement savings (worth $137 billion in 2013); employer-sponsored health plans ($250 billion); mortgage-interest payments ($70 billion); and, sweetest of all, income from watching the value of your home, stock portfolio, and private-equity partnerships grow ($161 billion). In total, federal tax expenditures exceeded $900 billion in 2013. That’s more than the cost of Medicare, more than the cost of Medicaid, more than the cost of all other federal safety-net programs put together. And—such is the beauty of the system—51 percent of those handouts went to the top quintile of earners, and 39 percent to the top decile.
Gee, Mr. Stewart, maybe you should look at how rollback of government regulations created the real estate bubble and enriched the banksters, instead of blaming citizens for using tools that were created under different circumstances and frozen in their form by a completely dysfunctional, lobbyist-run government. Maybe you should look at how the deliberate lack of regulation has driven the price of drugs and surgery to ridiculous levels not found anywhere else in the first world, pricing insurance out of sight. Maybe you should consider that if the government hadn't allowed corporations to shirk their pension obligations through restructuring and bankruptcy, people wouldn't need to rely on IRAs.
But, no. Mr. Stewart blames the top bit of the former middle class for having sufficient means to use mechanisms that were long since in place. Mr. Stewart implies that what little is left of transfer payments from the elites should be eliminated. How Republican / Libertarian of him.
I will be honest. The article real set me off, because I felt that I was being caricatured, badly, by statistical gamesmanship. According to his statistics, before I retired, I was almost in his statistically defined professional class. Therefore, by his strawman "average" professional, I must have all the attitudes, biases, and greed that he imputes to the average.
In reality, I was a scientific professional, but I didn't make enough money by his definition. Of course, some coworkers and many bosses did meet them. I have acquaintances who live in Brookline; and, yeah, it is toney. But, other than the astronomical housing prices, the ambiance of the place hardly makes me run for torches and pitchforks. Its just a rich suburb where the roads are still well-paved, and the school system still works.
But to Mr. Stewart, its an evil "golden zipcode". To drive that point home, he adds "kitchen remodeler" to the "latte drinking, sushi eating, Volvo driving" smear of liberals.
If you do run into a neighbor, you might have a conversation like this: “Our kitchen remodel went way over budget. We had to fight just to get the tile guy to show up!”
Gee, thanks for caricaturing me. Any time I needed to remodel a thirty year old kitchen that was falling apart, I'm apparently an entitled asshole who is insenstive to the people he invites into his home. And, this is one of the few instances where Mr. Stewart actually deigns to offer us a (derogatory and imaginary) vignette instead of more statistical manipulation. With this attitude, its no wonder he stuck to statistics. Since Mr. Stewart goes into great detail about his family background, I would venture a guess that his sneering at professionals represents his own resentments, not mine.
Finally (and most people's eyes will glaze over), as a mathematically literate person, I recognize the game he is playing. He is taking advantage of the "cognitive illusions" uncovered by the famous psychologists, Tversky and Kahneman
Stewart repeatedly deploys the conjunction fallacy to impute more than the data implies. There are also many uses of "loss aversion" to rile up the losers in society. The constant use of these well known psychological games makes it difficult to directly target what is wrong with this article, and that is why it is so dangerous.
The problem with the article is not that the facts Mr. Stewart manufactures; its the motivations that he ascribes. He is busy blackening the name of ALL professionals, when many of them are of the anti-Hillary, progressive stripe. He trashes their concerns constantly as nothing more than self-serving hypocrisy.
With localized wealth comes localized political power, and not just of the kind that shows up in voting booths. Which brings us back to the depopulation paradox. Given the social and cultural capital that flows through wealthy neighborhoods, is it any wonder that we can defend our turf in the zoning wars? We have lots of ways to make that sound public-spirited. It’s all about saving the local environment, preserving the historic character of the neighborhood, and avoiding overcrowding. In reality, it’s about hoarding power and opportunity inside the walls of our own castles. This is what aristocracies do.
Wow, let's reinterpret every good intention of the left as nothing more than pretentious selfishness. Yeah, Climate Change is all about the "local environment". Stopping fracking is all about the local environment. What selective attention!
All in all, Mr. Stewart sets out to submerge any good intentions of parts of the so-called liberal citizenry in the worst babbitry of their suburban abodes. Given the length of the rebuttal needed to call him out, I would say he has succeeded in his goal.