Question Tuesday: The Really Really Rich and the Really Really Not

I’m generally a David Brooks fan. I appreciate the perspective he brings, not only to the New York Times, but to my point of view as well. In his recent piece “The Great Divorce”, which I imagine is an intentional reference to CS Lewis, Brooks highlights a book which he praises for doing the leg work first and then telling the story about class divisions in America.

Here’s a short synopsis (though of course you should read the whole thing): According to Murray and Brooks:

  • The problem: The US is splitting faster and further into a “two-caste society” in which the lower caste lives isolated lives that encourage self and socially-detrimental behavior.
  • Why the divide (in economy, education, opportunity, and worst of all, according to Brooks, behaviorally) is growing so sharply and rapidly:  Isolation:

In 1963, rich people who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan lived close to members of the middle class. Most adult Manhattanites who lived south of 96th Street back then hadn’t even completed high school. Today, almost all of Manhattan south of 96th Street is an upper-tribe enclave.

Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.

  • The solution: according to Brooks, a National Service Program that encourages, Brooks even uses the word, forces, both castes to live together, or at least closer together, in some capacity.


Does Murray’s assessment of the issue seem accurate? Is it a helpful “middle way” narrative between Republican-Democratic party extremes?

Would Brook’s proposed solution be helpful/be a good solution? Is it a possible/plausible solution?

I’m hoping the conversation here will help me think through these questions myself. Okay, ready? Go.

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8 Responses to Question Tuesday: The Really Really Rich and the Really Really Not

  1. username_issues says:

    Are you thinking that “jamming the tribes together” would result in all or even most members behaving at or above the current upper tribe’s behavioral standards? Wouldn’t a middle ground be the more likely outcome? [So, 35% of all children would be born out of wedlock… etc.] Would you risk your child’s future in order to unite the tribes? Can society survive with no upper tribe and their behavioral standards? A restraining force if you will.
    …sorry – I only have questions – no answers for ya.

    • reneamac says:

      Yeah. Good questions. This is why I brought it up because for me too the article created more questions than answers. And that’s not necessarily a problem; that’s how good thinking usually goes.

      So the claim is, that in the past, when the upper tribe and the lower tribe lived in closer proximity, the result wasn’t mediocre morality, but instead everyone’s behavior was better (that is, behavior which establish individuals as productive members of society, such as working, staying healthy, making babies in relatively stable situations… as opposed to immoral behavior which can be generally compartmentalized from whether or not one is a constructive contributor to society, such as extramarital affairs, finding fiscal loopholes, cut-throat business dealings…); so, if we can create living situations where both tribes are in closer proximity, the lower tribe would once again rise up to a moral code in closer proximity of that of the upper tribe.

      I don’t know if that would happen or if your middle-ground scenario is more likely. That’s why I asked. (Though I usually do have my ideas to the questions I ask in my back pocket, this time I don’t. 🙂 )

      It does seem that such external behavior modification does take place for various reasons: peer pressure (pressure of social norms), for one. There are individuals who readily, even vehemently, buck social norms, but they are rare individuals. Most people conform to social norms, hence the rising of the lower tribe rather than the meeting in the middle (the upper tribe—those in power—define social norms by default). So when the lower tribe lives in isolation from the upper tribe’s social norms, they then are able to create their own social norms without the pressure of social norms which “work better” (because the tribe to whom those norms belong is more successful).

      Because this seems to be the nature of how social norms function, the jamming together of the two tribes wouldn’t endanger the children, though of course, that is always a large part of the motivation for cloistering, whether in economically wealthy enclaves or religious ghettos (education, entertainment, social engagement…)—-Dear God! Somebody think of the children!!

      Like I said, I’m not taking a position. I’m not advocating “jamming the tribes together”. I’m simply trying to think through it all. 🙂 What do you think?

  2. username_issues says:

    I spent a while deciding what approach to take with the article and your questions. Option one was to make some statements about the data presented and show that there might not be a wider divide than before. Option two was to accept some of the stats and run with the questions that they pose… I took option two in my first comment.

    Now for option one:
    “Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock…”
    Since the rules of the upper tribe mandate that people marry before the child is born, the numbers are skewed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a stat on how many marriages should have taken place in both tribes? I think we would then see that the tribes were/are not far apart on that stat.

    “People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married…”
    Again, how many marriages should have taken place in both tribes?

    “[lower tribe are] less likely to go to church”
    Attendance is a poor metric – how many are passionately living for Him in both tribes? Is attending church for the sole purpose of networking and/or climbing a social ladder a good thing?

    “[lower tribe are] likely to be active in their communities”
    This is somewhat easier to measure but the root cause for the delta between tribes is very complex. Start with self-esteem. Does the lower tribe feel that they have something to offer others? Why would others listen to (or seek help from) them when they could listen/seek those who can also be philanthropic?
    Add in the amount of free time? Some of the lower tribe work two or more jobs rather than watching excessive amounts of TV. Members of both tribes seek to block out the day’s troubles. Doing so with TV takes a long time – the upper tribe’s recreational drugs are much more efficient… so the upper tribe has more time to volunteer 🙂
    But, notice that I said “This is somewhat easier to measure…” Could it be that members of the lower tribe volunteer in ways not easily measured (even by their own assessment)? Do they do a better job of helping their immediate neighbor vs. serving on committees, city council? Do such hours of service to immediate neighbors get logged or put on a resume? Do the surveys completed by the lower tribe get skewed because they don’t see meeting the needs of neighbors as “active in their community”?

    “[lower tribe are] more likely to be obese.”
    Easy to measure, hard to reduce to simplistic root causes. Education, time to prepare good food vs. fast food, self-esteem, will to live… Delayed gratification (be it in the area of food or consumerism in general) is a hard/tiresome lesson to teach a child. Some parents do not have the skill sets needed to teach that – so that parent’s two to five children may never learn and the problem multiplies with each generation.

    There are a few more divides that the article mentions and I’ll touch on them in a bit. My point in questioning the stats/conclusions is – if the info was viewed in a different light, one might find that the gap between the tribes has always been there. A few social constructs have been torn down, so now the behavioral gaps seem more vivid:
    For example, having a child out of wedlock. Society used to force a marriage… now only a portion of society does that. We do not know the number of premarital conceptions that took place in 1963 vs. those that take place today. So how can we say that the numbers differ between the two tribes or that they have shifted?
    Think about how an unemployed person “on the dole” was viewed in 1963 vs. today. The downturn in today’s economy has removed some of that stigma, thus making it much harder to resist staying unemployed.

    More in the upper tribe…
    …marry (more bad marriages?)
    …watch less TV (do more $socially acceptable drugs$?)
    …volunteer (networking? resume building? or altruistic?)

    As the “bad” behaviors of the lower tribe become more visible and the upper tribe find better ways to hide their bad behavior – greater physical segregation is required to keep up the appearances in the upper tribe.

    So, lets jam the tribes together and let the lower tribe learn how to get ahead via networking at church. That only certain types of volunteering look good on resumes. Teach them that there is such a thing as “socially acceptable – bad behavior”; it is not a dichotomy. 😦

    • reneamac says:

      Yeah. I ditto the appearances lament. Might there be benefits for the upper tribe that might bring substance to their own behavior when they are given the opportunity to see beyond themselves? Obviously I don’t think substantive morality (as opposed to appearances) can be forced (on either tribe). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide opportunity for transformation when we can. The article focuses on the potential benefits for the lower tribe, but it also seems to imply benefits for the upper tribe—that the insular nature of the both tribes is bad for both. Regardless of the “moral” benefits Brooks seems to focus on, isolation of “tribes” does seem to be a negative thing in general. Yes?

  3. Val says:

    This is a complicated issue, since it seems like often, when a civil engineer designs mixed income housing and neighborhoods, the area tends to go all one way or another (it gentrifies or the upper crust scram). Suburban Nation discusses this a lot, and optimistically too.

    My thought is that some built environments are conducive to safety, walking, working, kids playing outside, etc. (Narrow and short streets, sidewalks, residential and business zoned within walking distance of each other (instead of office parks and strip malls), other signs of civic flourishing like mailboxes, school zones, etc). These environments are often built around a town center, historically a church (instead of the church being a behemoth on a large highway only accessible by car). Public transportation is accessible and the nearest grocery store isn’t two miles away. There are small, local businesses that provide jobs. Street lights work and they’re on at 5:00 pm. And here’s the clincher: the world doesn’t revolve around cars in these neighborhoods. Citizens have the option not to drive, and the less traffic means fewer accidents, an increase in the feeling that you know your neighbors, and it’s not dangerous for kids to play street hockey.

    There are other factors, too. We’ve seen in Chicago the presence of cops walking the beat has a direct correlation to decreased crime. I think the same thing can be said of mailmen, street cleaners, snow plows, etc. That kind of activity in a neighborhood causes less opportunity for crime.

    Anyway, as far as designing an environment that can be a positive for a mixed income demographic as possible, I think there are some things we can do. But people are sinful; there’s only so much control you can have over their choices.

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