Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My Class Autobiography

Warning: This is a long one!

Bryan Caplan has suggested that people do this somewhat silly bit of introspection -- here's Bryan's story.

Is it me or does everyone think that they're middle class, yet we're supposed to believe that the middle class is shrinking? I mean, I think of myself as middle class. I bet you, whoever you are, think of yourself as middle class. Maybe, maybe, you're one of these people who is self-pitying enough to think you're poor. Very few people consider themselves rich. Very few. It's an easy answer for me: Am I rich? Well let me see, my net worth is negative, so I guess I'm not rich. I must be middle class, because, you know, it's not like I'm homeless or making soup out of ketchup packets.

Ah, but are my parents rich? Well, no, duh, they're middle class. My mom works for the Social Security Administration, and has for the past 30? years. My dad, for most of my childhood, was a stay-at-home dad. There were a couple of years where he taught high school when I was very young. We lived in a narrow three-story brick house in South St. Louis. I'm not going to bother with inflation adjustments, but I know they sold the house in 1994 for $25,000, so we're not talking about a great house in a desirable neighborhood. I'm the oldest of five children, and we all went to a private Catholic school in the neighborhood. I have no idea what tuition was, I don't think it was much, but I know my parents made a lot of sacrifices to afford it. We qualified for reduced price school lunches, I think instead of six dollars a week per child my parents paid $1.25 a week. We're talking about a fairly large family with a tight budget, as you can tell. My grandmother, who maybe considers herself upper class, I don't know, likes to tell the story of my mother buying a coat for my sister for 25 cents at the thrift store and bragging about it. More on the grandparents later.

There's so much "class creep" going on that it's hard to throw around terms like "lower-middle class," etc. but I would say that for most of my childhood in terms of income per capita in the household we were lower middle-class. But it's hard to say, because I have no idea how much of my parents' thrift was necessary and how much was pathological. I mean my dad will still drive 20 miles when he's out of town to save a $2 ATM fee. I don't know how much a chicken cost in the 80s at Schnucks, but there were tight controls on how many pieces you got at dinner and who got what piece. My dad finally broke down when my brothers and I became teenagers and started cooking two chickens instead of one for seven people. I mean, doesn't a chicken only have eight pieces, not counting the back (which my dad insisted is a piece worth having)?

Some of us can infer a bit about class from cars. If you divide my childhood into thirds, the family cars were: a Plymouth Valiant, a Dodge Dart, and a Buick Station Wagon. All were more than a little used when purchased. When I was in high school at some point the Buick went belly-up and was replaced by a Chevy wagon that was almost new. Like only one or two years old, purchased from Enterprise as a former lease or rental car, I don't remember. Anyway we thought it was great to have such a nice car at the time, even if the third seat did face backwards.

But yes, my parents were educated. My mom had a BA in English, and my dad was ABD is some kind of English Lit/Language history stuff, at Washington University. My dad's parents were not college-educated. His father died when I was two, at age 51 from early-onset Alzheimer's. He worked at Wash U., which meant free tuition at the time for my dad (he went there as an undergrad also). I'm still not clear on what he did, some kind of electronic fix-it man or something. When he was sick, my grandmother had to take a job to support the family (my dad is also the oldest of five), and she worked as a support/nurse (not an RN) type person at a nursing home. They didn't call it Assisted Living or whatever the term is now.

My mom's parents are the other story. Her father was a medical doctor, who got part of his training or maybe all of it in the Navy during WWII. He had a small internal medicine practice in Belleville, IL. My grandmother was a housewife who was active in charity, politics, etc. Some stupid people think, "ooh a doctor," but as my mom has pointed out to me recently he never made more than $25K in a single year of his life, and when he had to close his practice in 1987 (before he died), that's simply not upper-class money. They weren't sitting on any wealth to speak of. But they had two Mercedes Benzes (15-20 year old cars when I was a kid) with leather seats, and they had soda, which we never had at our house, so we the kids thought they were rich. Or actually for most of my childhood I had no such thoughts. Other kids in my neighborhood had no such thoughts. But my cousins, who lived in Nashville, would say things about how my grandparents were well off. And then they would make comments about my parents house and our neighborhood -- like it was obvious that we weren't so well off. I had no idea until I was 10-12 years old.

I went to high school at a place called St. Louis University High School, where I got a considerable amount of need-based financial aid. For instance, in my freshman year (1987-88) tuition was $2500, but I got $1800 in total aid (including work-study), so my parents only had to pay $700 for that first year. Tuition went up while I was there, and in my last two years I think my aid fell a bit, maybe because of my mom's promotion. Sorry, I'm too lazy to do the inflation adjustments, these are all nominal figures from those years.

My grades through most of that time were mediocre. I got better as high school went along, and I found high school much more interesting than gradeschool. This is probably because SLUH was and is a strong academic high-school with competitive admissions. I was challenged, and I was no longer the smartest kid in the class (usually, maybe always the case in grade school).

I didn't go to college after high school, one of the few who didn't from my class. I enlisted in the Army instead, where because of my unique job ended up meeting a lot of really smart college dropouts (Hi, Ron!). When I got out of the Army, I had been stationed at Ft. Meade, MD a while, and had friends in the area, so I worked for a couple of years at retail jobs before I eventually went to Towson University just outside Baltimore. Blah blah blah, economics became my life, I went to grad school at GMU, and in the Fall I'll be a professor at WCU.

So how did class affect me? I think it motivated me. I think if at any point in my life I'd felt like I could get by, enjoy the standard of living I want for myself, without working any harder, I would have. I didn't want to prove anyone wrong, and I didn't have any lofty expectations to live up to. But before I started at Towson, I just wanted to work and live a regular life. I didn't really want to go to college, except as a way to get a better job. But after working as a luggage salesman, motorcycle parts manager at a dealership, and clothing salesman at a department store -- and saw what the promotion opportunities were in those fields -- I said to myself that I've got to do better. Is that Caplan-like elitism? I don't think so. At the time (1995-96) I was renting a room in an unfinished basement for $185 a month. It leaked when it rained so that I would have to jump over a puddle on the floor in my room to get out. I did three things: work, watch TV, and read novels. I didn't have a car, I had a bus pass. I began to make calculations in my head; I simply didn't like those jobs enough to want to move up and slowly make a little bit of money. It was obvious that I'd have more and better opportunities as a college graduate. I sort-of knew it anyway -- the reason I started working in the area in the first place was to establish Maryland residency for in-state tuition. Like Mark Thoma, Berkeley (or in my case, Georgetown, UMD, whatever) was a dream. But maybe not. I was picking Towson based on its location, mainly. Once I started college at Towson, I felt so much more alive and happy, even though my income had fallen.

So what if I were poor? Well what the heck is poor, anyway? To me poverty in the first world takes some work. There are a lot of crummy jobs out there, and they're easy to get -- I know because I've worked at so many of them. I didn't mention waiting tables, selling cookware, or caddying. Yes, I felt poor when I relied on those jobs to feed, shelter, and clothe myself. But by any kind of global or historical standard I was doing pretty well, and I had a sense of that even then. So what if I had grown up poor? I would've gone to public school in St. Louis City and I would've learned very little. But I don't think I learned much in Catholic grade school, really. I learned far more from the outdated set of encyclopedias from my grandmother (not the rich one who wasn't actually rich, but the one who was a working mother widow). Really what Catholic school gave me at the elementary and junior high level gave me was a safer environment. The nuns and lay teachers meant well, but they still taught at the pace of the slowest student, Jennifer Hertel. God she was stupid. Anyway, even as a product of the awful public schools in St. Louis I hopefully would've gotten into a magnet school for high school based on test scores. The end result would've been the same: I would have joined the Army, and would've worked at crappy jobs, and gotten fed up with it and gone to some local college once I got out. I would still be a Cardinals fan and LOVE LOVE LOVE Albert Pujols. Excuse me. I mean to say he is a very fine player.

What if I'd been rich? There's a good chance that I would've gone to SLUH, only without the financial aid. I probably wouldn't have joined the Army, and instead gone straight to college. And here's the thing -- I would have dropped out, or done poorly anyway. I was just not ready at that time for college. But if I came from the same class and background that many of my classmates came from in high school, I would've felt like college was my only option. I'm sure those guys looked down on me a bit anyway because of my clothes, etc., but I didn't impress many of them by joining the Army instead of going to college. That's not something they or their parents would accept very well.

Is my success so far an accident? Partly, but more for not being rich than not being poor. I actually feel sorry for the pressures and expectations that children of highly successful parents feel. I mean, it's enough for my friends and family that I have a Ph.D. -- they're not wondering why it's not from a higher-ranked school, or asking where my dissertation will be published. Look, I know I'm not some big academic star, but it's hard for me not to be happy about the way things turned out. And whatever advantages I did or didn't have, my children will have more.

Mark Thoma wrote a great class autobio, but geez he sure sounds bitter for someone whose career has turned out so well. Aww, you're not at Harvard, poor baby. Aww, I'm not at Towson, poor baby (I interviewed at my alma mater, but wasn't even close to making the short list for campus visits).

I mean here's a guy (Thoma) who was bright and motivated and did very well for himself, coming from a modest background. How does this prove that class matters? It seems to show that ability and effort are rewarded, regardless of "class." I wonder if class isn't just something for people in the upper-middle class and upper class like to dwell on because they're pissed off about not being in the upper-upper class. For some reason in my little world it seems good enough to do well for your abilities and be happy about it.

By the way, just after I joined the Army my dad published a fairly successful series of books on home brewing (he had an unsuccessful book when I was a kid), and became some kind of beer geek guru. While I was in the Army he also took a job as a brewmaster at a brewpub in St. Louis, and then moved to one in Nashville, TN. And before you go calling him upper-middle-class or (if you're an idiot) rich, you should check out what brewmasters at microbreweries and brewpubs actually make. He's a celebrity among a tiny subset of nerds. Like Bryan Caplan. ;-)