Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 1

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Part 2 is here.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.

1. What the book is

Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.

It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.

Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version. 

The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.

I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?

2. Why I read it:

I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.

Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.

In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.

Was the book effective?

I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)

This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices. 

One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.

When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)

Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.

Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.

Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.

A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.

There have been a lot of riots in US history, eg, 159 race riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Detroit Riot was the biggest of these:

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“.[2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[citation needed]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[84]

Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.

I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:


Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:


In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.

The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.

Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.

Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.

As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.

The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).

At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.

Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.

I propose that we reduce paperwork.

Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.

Paperwork is the goddamn devil.

Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.

In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.

This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.

Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.


One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.

Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.

I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.

If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.

drug graphdrug graph4Drug graph3

drug graph5
Source: USA Facts

The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.

Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:

In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues,[4] violent crime decreased,[5][6] and an increase in homeless population.[7] One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.[8]

Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014.[9] Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.

Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.

Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.

As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.

So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.

Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.

Mental Illness:

Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)

Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.

Cabrini Green

As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.


School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.

In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.

As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.

One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.

There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:

African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.

Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.

Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:

I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.

I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.


I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.

Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.

This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.


source: Audacious Epigone

Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?

I recently happened upon Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s paper, Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes (h/t Alexander Berger):

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.

This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.

After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.

I think that’s enough for now; I want to get this post up on time, so we’ll continue with our discussion on Monday. Edit: Part two is now up. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read the book or would like me to discuss something in particular, I’d love to hear your opinions over the weekend.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL

Note: Today we have a guest post, contributed by Monsieur le Baron. Please be polite and welcoming. 

Dearest fr-

Wait. Wrong blog.

Time for Anthropology! I’m your guest host, some asshole. But you can call me Lord Asshole.

Today, we’re going to talk about SWPLs. A decent amount of America only sees the rich from the outside, either on fakey fake reality TV, fakey fake fake Instagram, or real but incomplete glances at the coastal elite bumming around the coasts (the common sense sayings of proles are usually rooted in truth). This segment of society is understudied by academics because academics generally come from the SWPL class and fish don’t know what water is.


Now, time has passed and many of those things have become less fashionable because proles do them now. More importantly, these posts don’t necessarily reach at the underlying principles governing SWPL behavior. I have some books here, which I will quote liberally to disguise my own lack of insight, as well as anecdotes to share, because I firmly believe the plural of anecdote is data.

Well, let’s begin.

First, proles frequently believe that the upper classes are afflicted by all sorts of weird problems, from degeneracy, to drowning in student loans for stupid degrees, to being unemployed. Short version: That’s projection. Long version: Read Murray. Or, if you’re libera-ahahahahahahaha!

Yeah, okay. If you’re liberal, read Putnam, which is like Murray, but every five minutes he stops to reassure the reader that the proles are not inherently bad because there’s nurture ‘n stuff.

Go read one of those books if you haven’t, then come back to me. Or, more probably, go read the Wikipedia synopsis and call it good enough. Ready? Good.

Governing this analysis and little walkthrough will be three main concepts. The first is something I paraphrase as “The Baron’s Race”, which is basically the distinction-making taste process of Bourdieu and the cultural lifecycle. The second is the idea of the Otium, or the intellectual leisure of the aristocracy. The third is a surprise.

Enter the Bobo.

From Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks:

[…]if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity – your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church.

You need some of the crap I see on Facebook advertisements. You need a modular desk – what the fuck’s a modular desk? Great question! It’s a desk you can reconfigure to your needs as you desire… aka blocks of wood. You need a beer jacket, which is a jacket full of beer, which is sort of like a beer hat but infinitely more pretentious and infinitely less practical and also marketed as a natural weight jacket for the autistic, because what the world needs is drunk autistic SWPLs. You need an activated charcoal toothbrush, and, uhhh, what the fuck is activated charcoal? You need a machine that turns tap water into bleach because… really, why would anyone want this? But some SWProles have them and they’re drinking it, with predictable results. And, of course, you need a Harvard MBA.

You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

Brooks then spends several pages sucking off the UMC and bashing the WASPs. Retch. The key point is that the upper stratas (UMC, UC) define themselves by their taste. Because there are no longer formal markers of class, one must turn to signals to gatekeep class. Note the conflation of intellect and taste. That’s important. Remember that.

Today’s establishment is structured differently. It is not a small conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

It is a large conspiracy of well-bred men with interlocking family and school ties who have enormous influence on the levels of power.

The members of this class are divided against themselves, and one is struck by how much of their time is spent earnestly wrestling with the conflict between their reality and their ideals.

Well put, David. Let’s see some of these earnest wrestlings now.

From Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman:

Nadine said, ‘I don’t shop, you know? I wear the same stuff pretty much every day. I wear the same pair of shoes every day.’ Several women mentioned buying clothing at inexpensive stores such as Target, Kohl’s, and Costco or at discount outlets.

Most of my clothing is from Walmart or Costco, but if you’re very rich, high end tailors will give you a custom fit specifically designed to look like you got it at Walmart while being the apex of luxury. That’s class.

Other respondents gleefully recounted bargains they had picked up. Wendy, a corporate lawyer, had snagged a used $1,000 stroller for $100, which she ‘felt good’ about; Beatrice, a nonprofit executive, had gotten a $20,000 dining table for $6,000.

My Elizabethan table was *only* $6,000. We’re trying to stay frugal, you know. #saving #broke

David, an interior designer whose clients were of the same class as my respondents, told me, ‘Always, for every job, I always throw in Ikea and Crate and Barrel pieces. They love that. It makes them feel better.’

Life is eternal grad school, which is why you must always have grad school IKEA furniture.

Nicole said, ‘We don’t take fancy vacations. We’re pretty frugal about, kind of, everything. You know? We don’t buy stuff.’ Paul described his wife as ‘the woman who will price check, and this is not an exaggeration, Target versus Costco. It’s what she does. And so while she comes from money and likes nice things, she’s very prudent[…]’

And what sort of nice things?

high-end stoves, ovens, and refrigerators[…] necessary for resale value, even when they had no plans to sell the property.

Of course.

[Miranda] explained that they had put [the elevator] in partly so older family could visit them (a “basic” need) and so they could locate the guest room where they wanted it instead of on a lower floor. She also mentioned that the elevator was ‘not that expensive’ because they were renovating anyways. Sensing that she might feel embarrassed about it, I asked, ‘Are people like, ‘Oh my God, you have an elevator’?’ She responded, ‘Yeah, it seems a little-yeah. That’s why I have that little line, ‘You know what? If you’re doing that much work, an elevator isn’t that expensive.’

I walk up and down my house the same as everyone else, two feet at a time, via my private elevator.

’If I buy something, if I buy, like, clothes in the store, I take the tag off. I mean, we’re not talking about – I take the tag off of my Levi’s jeans. I mean, it’s not like it’s a mink coat or something. I take the label off our six-dollar bread…. I think again, for me, it’s a choices thing-the choices that I have are obscene. Six-dollar bread is obscene.’

Whenever I see a SWProle with their avocado toast and their VOSS water, I foam at the mouth a little. It is disgusting how luxuriously live when I had to save the latter for a very, very special occasion. I am, I admit, jealous, even if it is an irrational jealousy, since I know these things are paid for by debt.

My boss wears clothing with holes in it to help pay for the sentimental childhood vacation home his wife loves and for his childrens’ tuition, my mother won’t stop wailing at me that she’s broke, and the parents of one of my friends curse this blasted economy that won’t allow for a secure retirement, even though they have a middle seven figure net worth. I am often shocked by the money attitudes of the proles, who I am now geographically adjacent to.

It’s very different.

And this isn’t just idle posturing. Many of the surveyed families had domestic strife and some behavior that might be called abuse over beauty expenditures on things like haircuts and dye. It was viewed as unnecessary extravagance that might break the bank and then they’d be broke and woe upon them! So the wives learn how to Brazilian wax themselves. Besides, the wives agreed too. Beauty expenditure is vanity and hard to fit into that tight budget, while doing it yourself was artisan and necessitated learning a new skill, both good things. People admire their Calvinism.

For reference, one family earned $2 million a year, before accounting for their passive income.

David, the interior designer, confirmed that this practice was common. During renovations, he said, ‘Things come in with big price tags on them. They all have to be removed, or Sharpied over, so the housekeepers and [staff] don’t see them.’

If you ever want to deflate your view of the elite, imagine a Master of the Universe furiously Sharpieing a price tag off his IKEA furniture to ease his guilty conscience.

From Bobos in Paradise:

Specifically, the members of the educated-class elite feel free to invest huge amounts of capital in things that are categorized as needs, but it is not acceptable to spend on mere wants. For example, it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Similarly, it is acceptable to spend hundreds of dollars on top-of-the-line hiking boots, but it would be vulgar to buy top-of-the-line patent leather shoes to go with formal wear. It is acceptable to spend $4,400 on a Merlin XLM road bike because people must exercise, but it would be a sign of superficial nature to buy a big, showy powerboat. Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch.

You can spend as much as you want on anything that can be classified as a tool, such as a $65,000 Range Rover with plenty of storage space, but it would be vulgar to spend money on things that cannot be seen as tools, such as a $60,000 vintage Corvette. (I once thought of writing a screenplay called Rebel Without a Camry, about the social traumas a history professor suffered when he bought a Porsche.)”

This is SWPL frugality, the art of saving money by not buying things that you wouldn’t have bought anyways, and then status signaling about it. Would David Brooks have ever bought a powerboat? Probably not. The expenditures that provoked worry were ones that were hard or impossible to justify as practical luxury. The UMC+ cannot signal using things, because resources are abundant, unlike the situation of the prole. Instead, they must signal by taste. Buying things which are pure luxury is signaling by expending resources, not by showing taste, which is inescapably prole and vulgar.

In short…

Bobos don’t want gaudy possessions that make extravagant statements. That would make it look like they are trying to impress. They want rare gadgets that have not yet been discovered by the masses but are cleverly designed to make life more convenient or unusual […] it’s charming to start a conversation about the host’s African-inspired salad serving forks.


Rule 5. The elites are expected to practice one-downmanship. Cultured people are repelled by the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. Nothing is more disreputable than competing with your neighbors by trying to more effectively mimic the style of the social class just above you.

How fortunate for our Bobos that they have no one above them to disreputably imitate.

They do drugs too. Brooks says this is done in the most boring way possible. For instance, I have been offered cocaine.

As a study drug.

Nootropics r gud 4 u.

Speaking of which, one of my tenants, all of his high school friends have overdosed. I don’t know anyone who has. Funny, that.

Instead, as members of the educated class, you reject status symbols in order to raise your status with your equally cultivated peers. Everything about you must be slightly more casual than your neighbor. Your funishings must be slightly more peasanty. Your lives should have a greater patina of simplicity.

Which means what matters is to examine taste.

But now it is the formidable French places that have had to adjust. The restaurant La Fourchette has changed its name to the less pretentious Fourchette 110.

Less pretentious?

The Great Harvest Bread Company has opened up a franchise in town, one of those gourmet bread stores where they sell apricot almond or spinach feta loaf for $4.75 a pop. This particular store is owned by Ed and Lori Kerpius. Ed got his MBA in 1987 and moved to Chicago, where he was a currency trader. Then, as if driven by the inelectuable winds of the Zeitgeist, he gave up on the Decade of Greed stuff so he could spend more time with his family and community. So he and his wife opened this shop.

They greet you warmly as you walk in the door and hand you a sample slice (I chose Savannah dill) about the size of a coffee table book. A short lecture commences on the naturalness of the ingredients and the authenticity of the baking process, which, in fact, is being carried out right there in front of you.

Rich people love their obscene bread. It’s not only obscenely expensive, but obscenely delicious. And smart! That’s important.

To the west of town, there is a Zany Brainy, one of those toy stores that pretends to be an educational institution. It sells lifelike figurines of endangered animals, and it’s driven the old Wayne Toytown, which carried toys that didn’t improve developmental skills, out of business.

Everything is education. Everything is of the intellect.

The ABC Carpet & Home store on 19th Street and Broadway in New York endorses Keats’s dictum ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.’ I don’t know what that means, but it sounds elevated. …

The enlightened Williams-Sonoma catalogue doesn’t try to flog us morally neutral sausages. The sausage links it advertises derive, the catalogue informs us, from the secrets of curing that Native Americans taught the first European settlers in Virginia (the mention of Native Americans gives the product six moral points right off the bat). The ‘sausages are made from pure pork and natural spices, using family recipes passed down through the generations.’ …

We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence: turn-of-the-century carpentry tools, whaling equipment, butter churns, typesetting trays, gas lamps, and hand-operated coffee grinders. Lightship baskets made from rattan with oak bottoms now sell for between $1,000 and $118,000. We can appreciate the innate wisdom of the unlettered seaman and the objects he created.

If only they could appreciate the deplorable seaman himself.

To calculate a person’s status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes.

What’s the unifying theme of upper caste luxury? Taste. And not just taste, but taste intertwined with intellect. Why?

What is good taste? Good taste is the art of puzzling out depth. That which is prolish is that which is shallow, something which is good on its face and which has no nuances beyond that. For something to be fitting for the Otium (to be covered more in part 2), it must occupy the MIND. The more complex something is, the longer the mind is occupied. Having good taste is thus a g-signal. Example?

From Privilege by Shamus Khan

“Grace, who used to drop by my office to talk about violin (she and I both played), stopped by to ask about something quite different. ‘Mr. Khan, um, have you ever heard of DMX?’

‘You mean, ‘It’s dark and hell is hot’ DMX?’

‘Um…’ Grace had no idea what I was talking about, when referring to an old album.

‘The rapper?’


‘Sure. But not in a while. I don’t really listen to rap.’ After I said this, Grace looked at me, slightly disappointed. Though I was a young faculty member, I felt, at that moment, old.

‘I just got Grand Champ!’

Grand Champ?’ I wondered out loud.

‘His new album!’

‘I guess I’m out of it.’

Taking an opportunity to bring me more up-to-date, Grace told me, ‘You should check it out.’ I was surprised by our conversation. For Grace, a girl from suburban Boston, this seemed an unlikely-and sudden-transformation.

It did not stick. Within a couple of months Grace and I were back to talking about violin repertoire and technique. Yet Grace had tried hard-core rap, with great enthusiasm. Months later I asked her why she had bought that album.

‘I don’t know. I mean, I guess, you know, I went to the first dance here and I didn’t really know any of the songs. In middle school I totally did. And it was fun. So I guess I felt left out. And Amber-in my dorm-she listened to DMX all the time. And so I guess I just wanted to learn it. I don’t really listen to it that much anymore. It’s weird. I mean, I still kinda like it. I don’t know.’

Months after this conversation I chapered a dance and there was Grace, singing along to DMX, jumping up and down, her hands bouncing from her shoulders to knees-mimicking the movements of the latest hip-hop video.


All three learned from older students how to transform themselves into a more appropriate ‘Paulie’.


Though Michael, Ken, and Grace each were elites before they entered St. Paul’s, they still had to learn from the ground up-their homegrown ease did not suffice.”

DMX? Ah yes, DMX. My favorite is X Gon’ Give It To Ya, a postmodern deconstruction of the anxieties of the late capitalist gig-economy and the psychic tolls it exacts on its deliverymen, who are forced to shuttle anonymized packages-merely it-for many years at a time, in lieu of a stable career, a man alienated from his own labor, who, regardless, refuses to give up.

So today a ‘Days of Rage’ T-shirt can be worn by health-conscious aerobicizers.

But wait, doesn’t say these shirts are for badwhites? Very perceptive!

As seen at St. Paul’s, the taste of the elites is culturally promiscuous. And this has long been documented by Bourdieu, who noted, in his distinction, that the highest strata individuals liked every presented picture. How does this play into taste as g?

The ability to make a competent argument for ANYTHING as meaningful is an exercise in verbal IQ. It’s g-weighted. The highest example of this is enjoying modern art, which is inherently meaningless without the smart person to give it a strong argument as meaningful. The more transparently meaningless something is, the more honorable it is to make a solid argument that it is meaningful. A person who does this successfully, like Brooks’ arguments about how great Montana is, gains much favor among his peers. A fashion then spreads, as Bobos use it to augment their status. But as it spreads, more and more MC aspirants notice it. For early adopters, using the cultural signal may work to secure status, but the MC won’t understand why it works, and as more and more MC flock in to imitate this success, the fad is abandoned as uncool. It is no longer signaling g, but an attempt to signal status, misunderstanding it was a g signal that brought status. It becomes middlebrow, something adopted by the MC to signal their own sophistication, which is a misunderstanding of the original fashion.

Behold the Baron’s Race, the life cycle of cultural trends.

The speed at which the Baron’s Race occurs depends on the inherent g-weighting of the underlying activity. Wearing clothing takes no g at all, so it is easily adopted once noticed, so fashion must fashion extremely quickly, so quickly that it may be a meaningless signal for most articles of clothing (except big brand names, which are always prole). Whereas multilingualism and classical music have remained fashionable for CENTURIES because of how difficult they are to properly appreciate. That’s why the stuffwhitepeoplelike actions are only trying to learn a second language and trying to like classical music. The original SWPL described is a hybrid creature – sometimes he is self-confidently affluent, and sometimes he is a middle-class pretender anxious about his own good taste.

And what is one’s reward for mastering these complex signals?

For the most striking thing about Latte Towns is that, though they are havens for everything that now goes by the name ‘alternative’-alternative music, alternative media, alternative lifestyles-they are also fantastic business centers. […] Ben & Jerry’s, the most famous company in town, is not even among the 20 largest employers. People with Burlington mores now apparently feel comfortable working at IBM[…], General Dynamics, GE, Bank of Vermont, and Blodgett Holdings. And business is chic in Burlington. There are four local business publications that heavily cover the town, and sometimes you can read two or three sentences in a row in each of them before some executive says something about the need for businesses to practice socially responsible investing. […] Today’s Latte Town mogul remembers that business is not about making money; it’s about doing something you love. Life should be an extended hobby. …

This is Bobo capitalism in a nutshell. College, learning, growth, travel, climbing, self-discovery. […] Don’t care call it a sweatshop. It’s a sandbox! This isn’t business. This is play!

How do these firms hire? Per Pedigree (by Lauren Rivera), “interviewers were hoping to find ‘buddies’”, people they could spend late nights with. This sounds really interesting, with booze and delivery sushi, but I have been with SWPLs for long nights and we talked about the French Revolution for several hours. So it’s really only interesting if you’re the kind of person who finds that interesting.

And uhh… play. Right. Well, it’s not play, but as my coworker said, “If they never invented computers, we’d have to do real work.”

Now, you may object that this is only the highest class SWPLs. But the highest class SWPLs set the agenda. To see what the SWProle will do, take Bobo-SWPL behavior that’s out of date a few years and add unironic poverty.

Oh, bah. Fine. Next time, we shall cover The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, and the subjects of nerds, SWProles, and the Otium.

Please buy these books if you’re interested. Wizard Academic needs fancy bread badly!


Some Migration-Related Studies

I have too many tabs open on my computer, so here are some studies/writings which all touch on migration/population movements in some way:

Biographical Memoirs of Henry Harpending [pdf]:

The late Henry Harpending of West Hunter blog, along with Greg Cochran, wrote the 10,000 Year Explosion, did anthropological field work among the Ju/’hoansi, and pioneered population genetics. The biography has many interesting parts:

Henry’s early research on population genetics also helped establish the close relationship between genetics and geography. Genetic differences between groups tend to mirror the geographic distance between them, so that a map of genetic distances looks like a geographic map (Harpending and Jenkins, 1973). Henry developed methods for studying this relationship that are still in use. …

Meanwhile, Henry’s Kalahari field experience also motivated an interest in population ecology. Humans cope with variation in resource supply either by storage (averaging over time) or by mobility and sharing (averaging over space). These strategies are mutually exclusive. Those who store must defend their stored resources against others who would like to share them. Conversely, an ethic of sharing makes storage impossible. The contrast between the mobile and the sedentary Ju/’hoansi in Henry’s sample therefore represented a fundamental shift in strategy. …

Diseases need time to cause lesions on bone. If the infected individual dies quickly, no lesion will form, and the skeleton will look healthy. Lesions form only if the infected individual is healthy enough to survive for an extended period. Lesions on ancient bone may therefore imply that the population was healthy! …

In the 1970s, as Henry’s interest in genetic data waned, he began developing population genetic models of social evolution. He overturned 40 years of conventional wisdom by showing that group selection works best not when groups are isolated but when they are strongly connected by gene flow (1980, pp. 58-59; Harpending and Rogers, 1987). When gene flow is restricted, successful mutants cannot spread beyond the initial group, and group selection stalls.

Genetic Consequences of Social Stratification in Great Britain:

Human DNA varies across geographic regions, with most variation observed so far reflecting distant ancestry differences. Here, we investigate the geographic clustering of genetic variants that influence complex traits and disease risk in a sample of ~450,000 individuals from Great Britain. Out of 30 traits analyzed, 16 show significant geographic clustering at the genetic level after controlling for ancestry, likely reflecting recent migration driven by socio-economic status (SES). Alleles associated with educational attainment (EA) show most clustering, with EA-decreasing alleles clustering in lower SES areas such as coal mining areas. Individuals that leave coal mining areas carry more EA-increasing alleles on average than the rest of Great Britain. In addition, we leveraged the geographic clustering of complex trait variation to further disentangle regional differences in socio-economic and cultural outcomes through genome-wide association studies on publicly available regional measures, namely coal mining, religiousness, 1970/2015 general election outcomes, and Brexit referendum results.

Let’s hope no one reports on this as “They found the Brexit gene!”

Can you Move to Opportunity? Evidence from the Great Migration [PDF]:

The northern United States long served as a land of opportunity for black Americans, but today the region’s racial gap in intergenerational mobility rivals that of the South. I show that racial composition changes during the peak of the Great
Migration (1940-1970) reduced upward mobility in northern cities in the long run,
with the largest effects on black men. I identify urban black population increases
during the Migration at the commuting zone level using a shift-share instrument,
interacting pre-1940 black southern migrant location choices with predicted outmigration from southern counties. The Migration’s negative effects on children’s
adult outcomes appear driven by neighborhood factors, not changes in the characteristics of the average child. As early as the 1960s, the Migration led to greater white enrollment in private schools, increased spending on policing, and higher crime and incarceration rates. I estimate that the overall change in childhood environment induced by the Great Migration explains 43% of the upward mobility gap between black and white men in the region today.

43% is huge and, IMO, too big. However, the author may be on to something.

Lineage Specific Histories of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis Dispersal in Africa and Eurasia:

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) is a globally distributed, obligate pathogen of humans that can be divided into seven clearly defined lineages. … We reconstructed M.tb migration in Africa and Eurasia, and investigated lineage specific patterns of spread. Applying evolutionary rates inferred with ancient M.tb genome calibration, we link M.tb dispersal to historical phenomena that altered patterns of connectivity throughout Africa and Eurasia: trans-Indian Ocean trade in spices and other goods, the Silk Road and its predecessors, the expansion of the Roman Empire and the European Age of Exploration. We find that Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia have been critical in the dispersal of M.tb.

I spend a surprising amount of time reading about mycobacteria.

Stereotypes, Expertise, and Class

Tom Nichols’s book, The Death of Expertise, has a passage that inspired a tangent that I’d like to discuss separately from my main review:

“You can’t generalize like that!” Few expressions are more likely to arise in even a mildly controversial discussion. People resist generalizations–boys tend to be like this, girls tend to be like that–because we all want to believe we’re unique and can’t be pigeonholed that easily.

What most people usually mean when they object to “generalizing,” however, is not that we shouldn’t generalize, but that we shouldn’t stereotype, which is a different issue The problem in casual discourse is that people often don’t understand the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, and this makes conversation, especially between experts and laypeople, arduous and exhausting. –Tom Nichols

Nichols brings up a good point, but is wrong about stereotypes–to generalize, most stereotypes are true, and people object to stereotypes and generalizations for the exact same reasons. Or as Psychology Today puts it:

“Stereotypes” have a bad name, and everybody hates stereotypes. But what exactly is a stereotype?

What people call “stereotypes” are what scientists call “empirical generalizations,” and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. … 

SAT scores by race and parental income

We only call them “stereotypes” when we don’t like the information they convey. “African Americans have more melanin, on average, than non-African Americans,” is not a controversial statement; “African Americans score worse on the SAT, on average, than non-African Americans” is controversial, even though both are empirically true.

Nichols grasps for this false distinction between “generalizations” and “stereotypes” because Nichols sees himself as a Good Person, not an Evil Racist, and only Evil Racists use stereotypes. (We know that because the liberals said so.)

Except for the uncomfortable fact that most stereotypes are basically true, otherwise people wouldn’t bother to have them. This leaves Nichols in the uncomfortable position of eternally trying to explain to people why it’s okay when he, an expert, says mean things about the Russians, but totally not okay when ordinary people say mean things about the Russians.

I can almost hear Nichols objecting, “It can’t be racist if it’s true,” to which I raise the average Somali IQ:

In the US, the cutoff for “mental retardation” or “intellecutal disability” is set at an IQ of 70 or below. The averaged measured Somali IQ is in the low 70s. Almost half of Somalis would be, in the US, legally retarded.

The only way to dull the sting of this statement is to note that 1. of course the majority of Somalis aren’t retarded; 2. Somali migants are heavily selected from the smarter end of the Somalia, because they’re the folks who were clever enough to escape; 3. Somali IQ is probably being depressed by terrible local conditions. Still, if you work for Google, I don’t recommend writing any memos trying to give a nuanced version of “Somalis have low average IQs.” For that matter, I don’t recommend writing that if you work anywhere except in an explicit IQ-related job. If your coworkers are IQ-experts, they might already be familiar with Somali IQs; otherwise you will get sacked immediately for being racist.

Everything is fine for experts if they promote ideas that people already believe or want to agree with. Saying that “Fast food is bad for you,” raises few hackles. Everyone knows that.

The findings of the now-discredited Implicit Association Test were widely touted because people wanted evidence that “everyone is a little bit racist,” (or at least that whites are all subconsciously racist, even the ones who say they aren’t.) The IAT was obviously bogus from the start, but confirmation bias and wanting it to be true led people to latch onto it.

When experts and common wisdom agree, all is well.

It’s when experts and lay-people disagree that problems arises. If the matter is purely scientific–What is the atomic weight of cesium?–people will usually defer. But if the matter is personal or involves deeply held religious beliefs, people resist. (We evolutionists have been dealing with this for a long time.)

Nichols gives the example, “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians.” It’s absolutely true, unless we’re using some strange definition of “corrupt.” And Nichols, a guy who speaks Russian and has been studying Russia for decades, has the relevant expertise to make such a judgment. But normal people who don’t know anything about Russia (or Norway) get their hackles up because the statement sounds mean and contradicts their deeply held belief that all groups of people are morally and intellectually equal.

If the only difference between a stereotype and a generalization is that a stereotype offends the hearer, then “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians” is a stereotype.

Life is hard for experts if they contradict things people deeply believe, but it’s even harder if they contradict things believed by their own social class.

Scientists studying evolution face criticism and disbelief from people who believe that humans were created by God from a ball of dirt on the sixth day of creation, but evolution is a “high class” belief and creationism is “low class,” so scientists face no loss of social standing by advocating for evolution and generally don’t even associate socially with creationists.

By contrast, a geneticist like Harvard’s David Reich, who recently admitted in the New York Times that “race” is biologically, even genetically real, is contradicting the beliefs of his own social class that “race is a social construct.” Harvard is full of people who believe creationist nonsense about the biology of men, women, and racial groups, but since these are high-class religious beliefs, Reich faces a loss of social standing by contradicting them and will have to actually deal with these people in real life.

Slate Star Codex recently posed, “Can Things be Both Popular and Silenced?” a discussion of whether authors like Jordan Peterson, who has received a ton of media attention lately and sells millions of books and is doing quite well for himself, can be accurately described as “silenced” in some way.

SSC briefly touches on social class and then moves on to other important matters, but I think social class really ties matters together. Peterson is a book-writing professional with a medical degree, (I think. I haven’t read any of his work,) that is, an academic intellectual. Reich is a Harvard professor doing ground-breaking, amazing work. James Watson won a goddam Nobel prize. Bret Weinstein was a professor at Evergreen State. Etc. These are high class academics in conflict with the rest of their social class, which can cause a great deal of anxiety, the loss of friends, and outright conflict, as when students at Evergreen college literally tried to hunt Professor Weinstein down with bats and tazers for the crime of not leaving campus on “no white people on campus day.” (Relevant posts on Weinstein and Evergreen; See also the James Damore incident at Google and the Christakis incident at Yale.)

A conservative person living in a conservative part of the country probably doesn’t lose much social standing for criticizing stupid things liberals believe, but someone in a liberal profession or social environment will. Even if he is actually an expert who is actually correct, he still faces hoards of ignorant people who are socially more powerful than he is and will happily punch him silent in defense of their religious beliefs. (The same is probably also true in reverse; I wouldn’t want to be openly pro-choice in a highly conservative workplace, for example.)

A lot of what gets called “silencing” is just class insecurity or conflict. Fox News rails against “the media” even though it is the media; more people watch Fox than listen to NPR, but PR is high-class and Fox is low-class. It’s not that “the media” is liberal so much as that the upper class is liberal and the lower classes don’t like being looked down upon.

You can rail against Fox News or Infowars or whatever for being stupid, but this is a democracy, so if one side tries to be objective, correct, or have high-status experts, then the other side will rail against all of that. If one side tries to promote cute puppies, the other side will become the anti-cute-puppies party.

Experts run into troubl when their research leads them to believe things that fit with neither party, or only with the opposite social class from the one they run in. This is both very uncomfortable for the individual and hard to describe to outsiders.

Ultimately, I think class is far more important than we give it credit for.

I’m Bloody Tired of the Classism Inherent in the Election

Is the darn thing over yet?



American politics are deeply, fundamentally classist.

Those who want to sound high-class (or are) adopt the rhetoric of the liberals. The working class go Republican.

You know what? Screw it, I don’t even want to pull up data on this. If you don’t believe me, go stick your head back in the sand and believe whatever you want. Tell yourself that you despise conservatives because they are Bad People and not because they are Low Class and not Good People Like You. And conservatives can tell themselves that they hate liberals because liberals are Bad People who Hate Americans.

In reality, of course, most people are good people (except for the one who work in HR, who should all be shot–NAHRALT, of course.)

When people hear that I write about “politics” they tend to assume that this means that I enjoy reading/debating about electoral politics. The truth is that I basically hate electoral politics.

Most of what passes for “political debate” is really just tribal signalling. Tribal signaling need not be wise, thoughtful, or factually correct; it need only signal “my tribe is better than your tribe.” I might be able to stand this kind of inanity if I felt comfortably a member of one of the big tribes and basically hated (or had no friends in) the other tribe. Of course, I have to have friends from across the economic system.

Working class and prole whites are convinced that elite whites hate them. Elite whites are convinced that prole whites hate just about everyone. And blacks, Muslims, etc., are probably pretty concerned about proles hating them, too. Family members are voting for the people they think are on their side against those bad people on the other side. Friends are voting for different people whom they think are on their side against those bad people on the other side.

Almost no one I’ve talked to is voting for a particular side because they’ve undertaken a careful study of the particular issues under discussion and decided that one of the candidates has the best policies. How many Democratic voters agree with Hillary’s stance on the Iraq War? How many Republicans agree with Trump’s opinion on the same?

The most vocal Trump supporter I know was talking about how we need to do more for immigrant children coming from Latin America just last year, and has told me that they don’t actually want to see anyone deported. They just hate liberals, and they are voting for Trump to stick it to the liberals.

No matter how I vote, someone gets fucked.

Is Capitalism the only reason to care about Intelligence? pt 2

Continuing with yesterday’s discussion (in response to a reader’s question):

  1. Why are people snobs about intelligence?
  2. Is math ability better than verbal?
  3. Do people only care about intelligence in the context of making money?

1. People are snobs. Not all of them, obviously–just a lot of them.

So we’re going to have to back this up a step and ask why are people snobs, period.

Paying attention to social status–both one’s own and others’–is probably instinctual. We process social status in our prefrontal cortexes–the part of our brain generally involved in complex thought, imagination, long-term planning, personality, not being a psychopath, etc. Our brains respond positively to images of high-status items–activating reward-feedback loop that make us feel good–and negatively to images of low-status items–activating feedback loops that make us feel bad.

The mental effect is stronger when we perform high-status actions in front of others:

…researchers asked a person if the following statement was an accurate description of themselves: “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” Some of the participants answered the question without anyone else seeing their response. Others knowingly revealed their answer to two strangers who were watching in a room next to them via video feed. The result? When the test subjects revealed an affirmative answer to an audience, their [medial prefrontal cortexes] lit up more strongly than when they kept their answers to themselves. Furthermore, when the participants revealed their positive answers not to strangers, but to those they personally held in high regard, their MPFCs and reward striatums activated even more strongly. This confirms something you’ve assuredly noticed in your own life: while we generally care about the opinions of others, we particularly care about the opinions of people who really matter to us.

(Note what constitutes a high-status activity.)

But this alone does not prove that paying attention to social status is instinctual. After all, I can also point to the part of your brain that processes written words (the Visual Word Form Area,) and yet I don’t assert that literacy is an instinct. For that matter, anything we think about has to be processed in our brains somewhere, whether instinct or not.

Better evidence comes from anthropology and zoology. According to Wikipedia, “All societies have a form of social status,” even hunter-gatherers. If something shows up in every single human society, that’s a pretty good sign that it is probably instinctual–and if it isn’t, it is so useful a thing that no society exists without it.

Even animals have social status–“Social status hierarchies have been documented in a wide range of animals: apes,[7] baboons,[8] wolves,[9] cows/bulls,[10] hens,[11] even fish,[12] and ants.[13]” We may also add horses, many monkey species, elephants, killer whales, reindeer, and probably just about all animals that live in large groups.

Among animals, social status is generally determined by a combination of physical dominance, age,  relationship, and intelligence. Killer whale pods, for example, are led by the eldest female in the family; leadership in elephant herds is passed down from a deceased matriarch to her eldest daughter, even if the matriarch has surviving sisters. Male lions assert dominance by being larger and stronger than other lions.

In all of these cases, the social structure exists because it benefits the group, even if it harms some of the individuals in it. If having no social structure were beneficial for wolves, then wolf packs without alpha wolves would out-compete packs with alphas. This is the essence of natural selection.

Among humans, social status comes in two main forms, which I will call “earned” and “background.”

“Earned” social status stems from things you do, like rescuing people from burning buildings, inventing quantum physics, or stealing wallets. High status activities are generally things that benefit others, and low-status activities are generally those that harm others. This is why teachers are praised and thieves are put in prison.

Earned social status is a good thing, because it reward people for being helpful.

“Background” social status is basically stuff you were born into or have no effect over, like your race, gender, the part of the country you grew up in, your accent, name, family reputation, health/disability, etc.

Americans generally believe that you should not judge people based on background social status, but they do it, anyway.

Interestingly, high-status people are not generally violent. (Just compare crime rates by neighborhood SES.) Outside of military conquest, violence is the domain of the low-class and those afraid they are slipping in social class, not the high class. Compare Andrea Merkel to the average German far-right protester. Obviously the protester would win in a fist-fight, but Merkel is still in charge. High class people go out of their way to donate to charity, do volunteer work, and talk about how much they love refugees. In the traditional societies of the Pacific Northwest, they held potlatches at which they distributed accumulated wealth to their neighbors; in our society, the wealthy donate millions to education. Ideally, in a well-functioning system, status is the thanks rich people get for doing things that benefit the community instead of spending their billions on gold-plated toilets.

You may recall from “Slate Star Codex finds Aristocracy, doesn’t notice,” the quoted descriptions of social status among birds in “Contra Simler on Prestige,” (from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole):

The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.

When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. … Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …

Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …

Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.

And from Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.

Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure.  You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.

A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.

It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.

(Note, however, that magnanimity is not the same as niceness. The only people who are nice to everyone are store clerks and waitresses, and they’re only nice because they have to be or they’ll get fired.)

Most people are generally aware of each others’ social statuses, using contextual clues like clothing and accents to make quick, rough estimates. These contextual clues are generally completely neutral–they just happen to correlate with other behaviors.

For example, there is nothing objectively good or bad for society about wearing your pants belted beneath your buttocks, aside from it being an awkward way to wear your pants. But the style correlates with other behaviors, like crime, drug use, and aggression, low paternal investment, and unemployment, all of which are detrimental to society, and so the mere sight of underwear spilling out of a man’s pants automatically assigns him low status. There is nothing causal in this relationship–being a criminal does not make you bad at buckling your pants, nor does wearing your pants around your knees somehow inspire you to do drugs. But these things correlate, and humans are very good at learning patterns.

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Likewise, there is nothing objectively better about operas than Disney movies, no real difference between a cup of coffee brewed in the microwave and one from Starbucks; a Harley Davidson and a Vespa are both motorcycles; and you can carry stuff around in just about any bag or backpack, but only the hoity-toity can afford something as objectively hideous as a $26,000 Louis Vutton backpack.

All of these things are fairly arbitrary and culturally dependent–the way you belt your pants can’t convey social status in a society where people don’t wear pants; your taste in movies couldn’t matter before movies were invented. Among hunter-gatherers, social status is based on things like one’s skills at hunting, and if I showed up to the next PTA meeting wearing a tophat and monocle, I wouldn’t get any status points at all.

We tend to aggregate the different social status markers into three broad classes (middle, upper, and lower.) As Scott Alexander says in his post about Siderea’s essay on class in America, which divides the US into 10% Underclass, 65% Working Class, 23.5% Gentry Class, and 1.5% Elite:

Siderea notes that Church’s analysis independently reached about the same conclusion as Paul Fussell’s famous guide. I’m not entirely sure how you’d judge this (everybody’s going to include lower, middle, and upper classes), but eyeballing Fussell it does look a lot like Church, so let’s grant this.

It also doesn’t sound too different from Marx. Elites sound like capitalists, Gentry like bourgeoisie, Labor like the proletariat, and the Underclass like the lumpenproletariat. Or maybe I’m making up patterns where they don’t exist; why should the class system of 21st century America be the same as that of 19th century industrial Europe?

There’s one more discussion of class I remember being influenced by, and that’s Unqualified Reservations’ Castes of the United States. Another one that you should read but that I’ll summarize in case you don’t:

1. Dalits are the underclass, … 2. Vaisyas are standard middle-class people … 3. Brahmins are very educated people … 4. Optimates are very rich WASPs … now they’re either extinct or endangered, having been pretty much absorbed into the Brahmins. …

Michael Church’s system (henceforth MC) and the Unqualified Reservation system (henceforth UR) are similar in some ways. MC’s Underclass matches Dalits, MC’s Labor matches Vaisyas, MC’s Gentry matches Brahmins, and MC’s Elite matches Optimates. This is a promising start. It’s a fourth independent pair of eyes that’s found the same thing as all the others. (commenters bring up Joel Kotkin and Archdruid Report as similar convergent perspectives).

I suspect the tendency to try to describe society as consisting of three broad classes (with the admission that other, perhaps tiny classes that don’t exactly fit into the others might exist) is actually just an artifact of being a three-biased society that likes to group things in threes (the Trinity, three-beat joke structure, three bears, Three Musketeers, three notes in a chord, etc.) This three-bias isn’t a human universal (or so I have read) but has probably been handed down to us from the Indo-Europeans, (“Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of priests, a warrior class, and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Georges Dumézil has suggested such a division for Proto-Indo-European society,”) so we’re so used to it that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it.

(For more information on our culture’s three-bias and different number biases in other cultures, see Alan Dundes’s Interpreting Folklore, though I should note that I read it back in highschool and so my memory of it is fuzzy.)

c5933(Also, everyone is probably at least subconsciously cribbing Marx, who was probably cribbing from some earlier guy who cribbed from another earlier guy, who set out with the intention of demonstrating that society–divided into nobles, serfs, and villagers–reflected the Trinity, just like those Medieval maps that show the world divided into three parts or the conception of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.)

At any rate, I am skeptical of any system that lumps 65% of people into one social class and 0.5% of people into a different social class as being potentially too-finely grained at one end of the scale and not enough at the other. Determining the exact number of social classes in American society may ultimately be futile–perhaps there really are three (or four) highly distinct groups, or perhaps social classes transition smoothly from one to the next with no sharp divisions.

I lean toward the latter theory, with broad social classes as merely a convenient shorthand for extremely broad generalizations about society. If you look any closer, you tend to find that people do draw finer-grained distinctions between themselves and others than “65% Working Class” would imply. For example, a friend who works in agriculture in Greater Appalachia once referred dismissively to other people they had to deal with as “red necks.” I might not be able to tell what differentiates them, but clearly my friend could. Similarly, I am informed that there are different sorts of homelessness, from true street living to surviving in shelters, and that lifetime homeless people are a different breed altogether. I might call them all “homeless,” but to the homeless, these distinctions are important.

Is social class evil?

This question was suggested by a different friend.

I suspect that social class is basically, for the most part, neutral-to-useful. I base this on the fact that most people do not work very hard to erase markers of class distinction, but instead actively embrace particular class markers. (Besides, you can’t get rid of it, anyway.)

It is not all that hard to learn the norms and values of a different social class and strategically employ them. Black people frequently switch between speaking African American Vernacular English at home and standard English at work; I can discuss religion with Christian conservatives and malevolent AI risk with nerds; you can purchase a Harley Davidson t-shirt as easily as a French beret and scarf.

(I am reminded here of an experiment in which researchers were looking to document cab drivers refusing to pick up black passengers; they found that when the black passengers were dressed nicely, drivers would pick them up, but when they wore “ghetto” clothes, the cabs wouldn’t. Cabbies: responding more to perceived class than race.)

And yet, people don’t–for the most part–mass adopt the social markers of the upper class just to fool them. They love their motorcycle t-shirts, their pumpkin lattes, even their regional accents. Class markers are an important part of peoples’ cultural / tribal identities.

But what about class conflicts?

Because every class has its own norms and values, every class is, to some degree, disagreeing with the other classes. People for whom frugality and thrift are virtues will naturally think that people who drink overpriced coffee are lacking in moral character. People for whom anti-racism is the highest virtue will naturally think that Trump voters are despicable racists. A Southern Baptist sees atheists as morally depraved fetus murderers; nerds and jocks are famously opposed to each other; and people who believe that you should graduate from college, become established in your career, get married, and then have 0-1.5 children disapprove of people who drop out of highschool, have a bunch of children with a bunch of different people, and go on welfare.

A moderate sense of pride in one’s own culture is probably good and healthy, but spending too much energy hating other groups is probably negative–you may end up needlessly hurting people whose cooperation you would have benefited from, reducing everyone’s well-being.

(A good chunk of our political system’s dysfunctions are probably due to some social classes believing that other social classes despise them and are voting against their interests, and so counter-voting to screw over the first social class. I know at least one person who switched allegiance from Hillary to Trump almost entirely to stick it to liberals they think look down on them for classist reasons.)

Ultimately, though, social class is with us whether we like it or not. Even if a full generation of orphan children were raised with no knowledge of their origins and completely equal treatment by society at large, each would end up marrying/associating with people who have personalities similar to themselves (and remember that genetics plays a large role in personality.) Just as current social classes in America are ethnically different, (Southern whites are drawn from different European populations than Northern whites, for example,) so would the society resulting from our orphanage experiment differentiate into genetically and personalityish-similar groups.

Why do Americans generally proclaim their opposition to judging others based on background status, and then act classist, anyway? There are two main reasons.

  1. As already discussed, different classes have real disagreements with each other. Even if I think I shouldn’t judge others, I can’t put aside my moral disgust at certain behaviors just because they happen to correlate with different classes.
  2. It sounds good to say nice, magnanimous things that make you sound more socially sensitive and aware than others, like, “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” So people like to say these things whether they really mean them or not.

In reality, people are far less magnanimous than they like to claim they are in front of their friends. People like to say that we should help the homeless and save the whales and feed all of the starving children in Africa, but few people actually go out of their way to do such things.

There is a reason Mother Teresa is considered a saint, not an archetype.

In real life, not only does magnanimity has a cost, (which the rich can better afford,) but if you don’t live up to your claims, people will notice. If you talk a good talk about loving others but actually mistreat them, people will decide that you’re a hypocrite. On the internet, you can post memes for free without havng to back them up with real action, causing discussions to descend into competitive-virtue signalling in which no one wants to be the first person to admit that they actually are occasionally self-interested. (Cory Doctorow has a relevant discussion about how “reputations economies”–especially internet-based ones–can go horribly wrong.)

Unfortunately, people often confuse background and achieved status.

American society officially has no hereditary social classes–no nobility, no professions limited legally to certain ethnicities, no serfs, no Dalits, no castes, etc. Officially, if you can do the job, you are supposed to get it.

Most of us believe, at least abstractly, that you shouldn’t judge or discriminate against others for background status factors they have no control over, like where they were born, the accent thy speak with, or their skin tone. If I have two resumes, one from someone named Lakeesha, and the other from someone named Ian William Esquire III, I am supposed to consider each on their merits, rather than the connotations their names invoke.

But because “status” is complicated, people often go beyond advocating against “background” status and also advocate that we shouldn’t accord social status for any reasons. That is, full social equality.

This is not possible and would be deeply immoral in practice.

When you need heart surgery, you really hope that the guy cutting you open is a top-notch heart surgeon. When you’re flying in an airplane, you hope that both the pilot and the guys who built the plane are highly skilled. Chefs must be good at cooking and authors good at writing.

These are all forms of earned status, and they are good.

Smart people are valuable to society because they do nice things like save you from heart attacks or invent cell-phones. This is not “winning at capitalism;” this is benefiting everyone around them. In this context, I’m happy to let smart people have high status.

In a hunter-gatherer society, smart people are the ones who know the most about where animals live and how to track them, how to get water during a drought, and where that 1-inch stem they spotted last season that means a tasty underground tuber is located. Among nomads, smart people are the ones with the biggest mental maps of the territory, the folks who know the safest and quickest routes from good summer pasture to good winter pasture, how to save an animal from dying and how to heal a sick person. Among pre-literate people, smart people composed epic poems that entertained their neighbors for many winters’ nights, and among literate ones, the smart people became scribes and accountants. Even the communists valued smart people, when they weren’t chopping their heads off for being bourgeois scum.

So even if we say, abstractly, “I value all people, no matter how smart they are,” the smart people do more of the stuff that benefits society than the dumb people, which means they end up with higher social status.

So, yes, high IQ is a high social status marker, and low IQ is a low social status marker, and thus at least some people will be snobs about signaling their IQ and their disdain for dumb people.


I am speaking here very abstractly. There are plenty of “high status” people who are not benefiting society at all. Plenty of people who use their status to destroy society while simultaneously enriching themselves. And yes, someone can come into a community, strip out all of its resources and leave behind pollution and unemployment, and happily call it “capitalism” and enjoy high status as a result.

I would be very happy if we could stop engaging in competitive holiness spirals and stop lionizing people who became wealthy by destroying communities. I don’t want capitalism at the expense of having a pleasant place to live in.

Part 3 tomorrow.