On Not Being Worldly (and Why It Matters)

Update 3/26/14  7:00 AM:  
     BUMPED this blog post because of the excellent comments thread.  Go read it (grumpyoldswitch’s final postings are in reverse order).  I wish my blog had more than 8 readers.    I invite anyone who has an opinion to weigh in.  You may comment anonymously.

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 Both of my parents grew up in poverty that would be nearly unimaginable today.  When I hear that the Germans had the best education system in the world at that time, I am a little skeptical, because my grandparents were pretty uneducated, parochial, and suspicious of anything cosmopolitan.  I mean, decades in the US and they wouldn’t try to eat spaghetti or a fucking taco. I am surprised the US let them in.

     My father was sensitive about being a poor boy and tried to become middle class.  For a while, he even succeeded.  He had a lot of native intelligence and graduated college.  After the Army and the Peace Corps, he taught History and German while studying for an advanced degree.  Readers will know that teaching would not be the best fit for Franz Adler’s, uhh, personality.  That didn’t work out very well. Then the wheels started to come off when he was about the age I am now.  He couldn’t hold it together.  He became homeless for a time and was institutionalized.  We were on welfare.  When I was old enough to work, I supported him.

     My mother got a decent job and worked very, very hard.  She now enjoys a modest but comfortable retirement.  She does not discuss her childhood.  There are no pictures of it in the home and I don’t know my grandfather’s name or what he looked like.  I do know that my mother, like her many siblings, was born at home.  

     I’m very well-educated and my parents taught me good manners, so I can pass myself off as being middle-class, but, really, I’m not.

     My Ph.D. program was full of comparatively rich kids and the professors were pretty well-off, too.  My best friend there was a fellow hick from the provinces.  We had many long conversations discussing culture shock.  Then I started working at my secret job and I met the Surgeon, and I started spending a lot of time with rich people.  Rich men, specifically.  

      It was an interesting experience.  Rich people never intimidated me, because I am educated.  But one thing that struck me, over and over again, was just how little I knew about the things that these men took for granted. 

       The Surgeon grew up upper-middle class and he’s an insane social climber.  Now he has millions of dollars.  He was constantly shocked at all the things I didn’t know.  He thought it was funny, but it also concerned him, actually–he was frightened for me at times–and he started going out of his way to teach me things that he thought I needed to know about the world.  

         The first time I got a nice suit, I thought that the pockets were fake.  I was actually complaining about it at school (“$200 for a suit, and it doesn’t have pockets!”) and one of my professors pulled me aside and gently showed me that the pockets were there, they were just sewn shut. 

        The first time I flew on an airplane, I took out my wallet to pay for the meal.  This was when meals were inclusive.  The stewardess looked at me like I was crazy.

       I did not know what a Roth IRA was.  I did not know how the stock market worked.  I did not know how to buy a stock.  I was completely ignorant of all banking terms.  I understood the primary mechanisms of capitalism because I’d read a lot of Karl Marx.  It was all theory.  I had absolutely no practical experience with anything involving money. If you handed me $200,000 in cash and told me that I had to buy a house, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do or where to go.

       One thing that made me angry during the housing crisis was seeing all these rich priviliged blowhards on TV screaming and complaining about all the stupid poor people buying houses they couldn’t afford.  What they don’t understand is that when you’re poor, nobody ever teaches you this stuff.  Fixed or adjusted rate mortgage?  What?  Three-quarters of Americans don’t graduate from college.  We are a nation of innumerates.  Really poor people can’t even read a bus schedule.  How the fuck are they supposed to avoid getting taken advantage of by a credit card company?

       Another thing you have to remember about growing up and living poor is that you are absolutely at the mercy of the institutions that control your life.  Cops tell you what to do, the courts tell you what to do, the welfare office tells you what to do, schools tell you what to do, the banks tell you what to do, the IRS tells you want to do, and, of course, your boss and the church tells you what to do.  You get used to it.  One thing that shocked me–astonished me, really–about observing the behavior of wealthy people, or even middle-class people, was their contempt for authority, and they way that they felt free to do whatever the fuck they wanted.   Cause they do.  They don’t ask for permission to do things a million times a day.  They certainly don’t have to ask their boss at work if they can take a bathroom break.  It’s easy to be powerful in the world if you have that mindset.  The Surgeon was absolutely gobsmacked at the way I would calmly accept it when someone told me “no.”  Can I get a late check-out at the hotel?  No?  Oh, all right then.  I wasn’t used to fighting for things, or getting what I wanted, with the exception of my academic success.  All the cultural factors and institutions in my upbringing socialized me to work hard to earn what I want, and to be obedient, and to respect authority.  When you’re poor and vulnerable, resistance means that you’re out of a job or you’re in jail.  

    (Incidentally, I think one of the reasons rich people hate the IRS and paying taxes so much is that they HATE the idea of an institution forcing them to do something, or having power over them.  They HATE that shit.  That is how used they are to having power in life.  Remember that hilarious scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, when DiCaprio throws the Federal Agents off his yacht and throws lobsters at them?  The Surgeon would definitely throw a lobster.  Definitely. If a Federal Agent knocked on my door, I’d have a heart attack and tell him whatever he wanted.)

Wow, look at all the stuff I can write when I’m not drunk.

16 thoughts on “On Not Being Worldly (and Why It Matters)”

  1. I don’t get the wall street types, they make nothing except money, what is the point? when I hear them complain about how put upon they feel , I have to laugh..I watched “the wolf of wall street” I don’t get the mind set, some of our best students are drawn for the bucks but it seems it’s a pact with devil.

  2. Rick: There are jobs that pay you to think and jobs that pay for your muscle or physical labor. Thinking jobs pay more. Wall Street jobs are thinking jobs. Not everyone can do those jobs. Wall Street allows other companies to exist and grow. It helps provide governments and businesses with the money they need to pay for things, invest, and grow. Without investors, large ships can’t be made, nor bridges, nor large companies. McDonalds needs investors, so does Coke, etc — Wall Street makes that happen. Trillions of $ flow through it every year, so even a tiny slice (fractions of a %) add up to big money.

    Wall Street is not a pact with the devil. There have been abuses and crooks, but the vast majority of Wall Street guys I know are decent, hard working family guys, or young professionals. If you met most of them, you’d like them. Some are full of themselves, but you have to have a big ego to believe that $1 billion are best left in your hands; that the next $200 million trade is going to go well because you say it will, or that you can gty a company $2 billion of funding that you have to hope you can sell (for a profit) to other smart investors. These men and women are very smart, very fast, often charming (though not always), and are 1 or 2 bad trades away from unemployment. Wolf of Wall Street in not indicative of 99% of the investment industry.

    1. Hi Downlow. I was going to respond to this yesterday, but the magnitude of labor involved in deconstructing or correcting your, uh, analysis was just too much. I could go through this thing line-by-line, but I feel like I ought to be getting paid for that, so I’ll just throw out a few things:

      Classifying jobs as being “thinking jobs” or “physical labor (jobs)” is simplistic, unhelpful, and, frankly, offensive. Most importantly, it is also wrong. People who work in so-called “unskilled” jobs are not automatons; they think plenty and exercise personal judgement and discretion throughout the day. The most difficult job I ever had was fast food worker. It was intellectually boring, but my mind was constantly busy multitasking and dealing with assholes and my healthy teenaged body was ready to drop dead after an 8-hour shift. It paid only slightly less than I am making now in academia as a professional intellectual.

      “Not everyone can do these jobs”: well, yes, but that is true of many professions, and I get the impression that you are using this as a justification for the utterly obscene salaries found in the finance industry, which are incommensurate to skill, outcome, or services rendered.

      Wall Street doesn’t “allow” American economic success, it impedes it and profits from it. Those smart, successful Wall Street guys sure were successful, all right: with the help of Alan Greenspan, they managed to deregulate the derivatives market, pass off crap loans at AAA-rated investments, and create HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF $$$ in shit, unsound mortgages which were then sold off to pension funds, unions, insurance companies, and a bunch of other hapless suckers. These assholes crashed the housing market, the credit market, and the stock market, and they did it because they didn’t give a shit about anyone but themselves. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing they deserve is a blindfold and a final fucking cigarette for what they’ve done to this country. They are not patriots and they are not invested, financially or morally, in the prosperity and well-being of this country or any other country.

      When I think about the sheer magnitude of the horseshit they put out, my mind reels. I know what a CDO-squared is.

      As individuals, I am sure some of them are decent people, but it is completely possible for decent individuals to work in corrupt, destructive, and even, dare I say, evil institutions.

      I have to get ready for work now, so I’ll wrap it up, but I also want to point out that if you think their behavior was okay because it “wasn’t illegal,” well, I’m afraid that I can’t help you. You sound like an opportunistic lawyer trying to negotiate the weaknesses in a contract.

      They’re “charming.” So are salesmen, sociopaths, and con men.

    2. miss margo, i agree with you. the grumpyoldswitch’s comment deserves a spotlight but your comment is every bit as worthy.

      not a lot that i can add but i’d like to recommend Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States by Charles Derber. i’m just on chapter 4 and it is a FANTASTIC READ!

      this is a topic of special interest to me and i always appreciate your take on it. The Wolves of Wall Street will be in mailbox today. that’s how i will be spending my evening.

  3. This is an interesting comment, but with respect, it does contain some assertions which deserve to be debated and indeed contested.

    All those muscle jobs used to pay a lot more in real terms when the balance between labour and capital was not skewed by globalisation, neoliberalism, and ferocious union-busting. They deserved to be well-paid. Those muscle jobs built America. They built the roads and the railways that the smart guys travel on, the skyscrapers that they sit in, the airports they fly from, the power stations that supply the electricity that runs the computers they work from.

    Thinking jobs may pay more, but quite frankly, Wall Street thinking jobs are not rocket science. They require a good degree in maths, stats, or computing, and a certain amount of training. As for the bloated salaries now trousered by ‘the smartest guys in the room’, they don’t even represent the law of supply and demand. My daughter is a highly-paid fund manager who also has responsibility for recruitment in her company. Recently there were 20 applications for every post on offer. And those 20 were filtered from hundreds of applications from people with good degrees, but who had not gone to a top ten university – Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.

    As for Wall Street ‘allowing’ companies to exist grow and government to function – this is a gross misreading of the social contract that holds society together. The relationship between capital, commerce and industry, and government is symbiotic. No one stakeholder in the system can claim all the bragging rights. Wall Street’s activities couldn’t exist without government underwriting the whole of the financial system that the smart guys crashed just eight years ago. That’s why Hank Paulson literally went down on bended knee to Pelosi and begged for government intervention when the smart guys fouled up.

    As for those Wall Street (and City of London) guys being decent, honourable, family men, I’m sure they are. But they work in a sector which is systemically corrupt and indeed criminal, even though no one, as far as I know, has gone to jail for – in no particular order:

    – interest rate rigging
    – robo signing and false foreclosures
    – narco terrorist money laundering
    – epic mis-selling of known dogshit financial ‘products’
    – insider trading
    – ponzi operations
    – deliberate bankruping of viable small and meidum-sized businesses the better to asset strip them
    – defrauding of municipalities by rate manipulation
    – false accounting
    – volatilising (theft) of depositors’ accounts
    – price fixing
    – tax dodging to the tune of trillions
    – lack of due diligence
    – ruthless lobbying and wholesale bribery to buy government complicity
    – intimidation of those regulators who could not be bought

    And by the way, Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg, and the whole of Wall Street and the City knew that he was dodgy. In short, scandal after scandal after scandal. If we (and I include myself) weren’t such dumb, apathetic schmucks, there’d have been a revolution by now. They may not be aware of it, but those smart guys are just the mercenary foot soldiers in a class war being conducted by the 1% against the rest of us. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Warren Buffett.

    As for those smart guys’ jobs being precarious, we’re ALL precarious now thanks to globalisation and neoliberalism. There are a million people in the UK working zero hours contracts, and you don’t get more precarious than that. I’m sure it’s comparable in the US. Christ on a bike! Ask Margo!. She’s on what is in effect just such a contract.

    At least when the smart guys lose their jobs they’ve been so well paid that they should have been able to put plenty by for a rainy day. Instead of which, they whine and engage in egregious special pleading that conveniently ignores the utter wretchedness of the lives of all those deluded but honourable working men and women who used to believe in the American dream.

    1. All that this outstanding comment needs is more profanity and the avocation of public executions. If I wasn’t in public, I’d be fapping to it right now. I wish that my blog had more than 8 readers; I’d publish this comment at the top. I still might do it anyway, where it can be enjoyed by sex worker twitter, all of whom are infinitely more honest and possessed of more integrity than the Wall Street whores eviscerated in your comment.

      Thanks for posting.

  4. Unskilled labor is paid the least, skilled labor more, and thinking jobs the most. You can rail on about “what should be” or all the past accomplishments about how built America, but the facts remain the same. Labor, when possible, is being replaced by machinery or moved to the least costly manufacturing centers. You can decry it and look for who “deserves” what if you want, but it won’t change the facts on the ground.

    No one “should” be paid more than teachers or soldiers but, in fact, those jobs either don’t pay that well or pay only moderately well. Why? Because they are cost centers, not money makers. Should a BMW salesman (or Chevy salesman) earn more than a teacher or soldier? No! But they do because they bring in profits, not produce costs. We can agree it’s not “right”, but that’s the way it is.

    If you think Wall Street jobs simply require a few math skills and some training to be successful, you’ve obviously never worked on Wall Street. Some of the “math” skills require PhDs, even those that don’t require the ability to bring many factors and data inputs together rapidly and correctly to make decisions. And they do go by supply and demand, it’s just that you are not assessing the those factors correctly. It doesn’t matter how many applicants there are, it matters who is evaluated as being future profit generator vs how many staff members can reasonably be carried. For instance, lots of guys want to play pro ball and many are very good, but the roster can only allow so many and decisions have to be made on who gets hired — same on Wall Street.

    It’s true that government, business, and labor have symbiotic relationships. But I’m not talking about that. What I was talking about was actually getting the money together, in great abundance, to get things done. Government is good at spending money it doesn’t have, but to actually arrange for that money requires a functioning investment market to raise it for them. As for business, if you want to build your next billion dollar auto factory, you need someone who can actually arrange that funding for you. If you want to arrange for thousands of auto loans so that people can buy the cars they need, you need someone who can turn those loans into cash funding. You need the money men, and the money men get paid.

    As for crimes, where appropriate, people either have been charged, or will be charged. But the fact is that mostly laws were not broken. Sorry to say, you need to have a broken law for criminal actions to be taken, and mostly, laws were not broken. Some regulations may have been violated, and heavy fines have been paid, and more are coming. I can debate you on many of the topics you list. For instance, robo signing is wrong, no doubt, but the underlying fact is that mortgages went unpaid for years. Are you disputing that? In many more cases, foreclosures haven’t happened that should have because the banks don’t want the houses they have to take on.

    Tell you what, pick two of the points you list and we can discuss them. Many are perfectly legal. Basically, I think you are making wide, generalizing statements without really wishing to consider the underlying facts. And, please don’t quote Warren Buffett to me; Warren is a prime mass-accumulator of wealth and no one played the game better. Old, rich men can talk about fairness and redistribution and look holier than thou, but he’d have to walk his talk first.

    1. Second part:

      No prizes either for the argument about candidates for jobs in finance. There are far more people capable of cutting it on Wall Street and in the corporate world generally than are admitted. And if these people are such geniuses, how come they collectively tanked the global economy and had to come begging to the rest of us to bail them out? Controlling vast capital flows is essentially a technocratic exercise that may well require specialised skills, but the system of remuneration is now little more than a farrago of perverse incentives.

      Organising loans for governments would not be necessary if the tax base had not been wilfully eroded since 1945 with economic justifications which have been demonstrated to be false. And as for that billion dollar auto plant, if it wasn’t for the labour that works in it making things that people want to buy, it would be just another empty shell. As for people needing loans to buy autos, if they were paid a decent wage, as that well-known socialist Henry Ford realised, they’d be able to buy the cars they make without going down the road of indebtedness. The reason why banks love indebtedness is so obvious it barely needs repeating here.

      Crimes for which top people should have gone to jail? Off the top of my head:

      – Narco-terrorist money laundering. (Wachovia and HSBC)
      – Complicity in Madoff’s ponzi scheme (JP Morgan)

      Fines were imposed in both cases. Imposing a fine on huge financial institutions for such crimes is like giving a serial rapist a slap on the wrist so long as he says ‘Sorry’. There’s an old saying that was given to me by my neighbour, a retired Swiss banker. ‘Fish rot from the head’. He should know. They might jail a few small fry, but the big beasts will sail away into sunset to the nearest tax haven with their ill-gotten loot intact.

      As for the ad hominem against Buffett. Fristly, ad homs don’t count. Secondly, this is a guy who has pledged to give away 99% of his not inconsiderable fortune. I’d call that ‘walking the walk’ big-time.

    2. Professor T-Rex beat up downlow.

      I’ll weigh in after my tutoring session. I have to teach a future Master of the Universe how to code STATA. Sir, may I please have a fresh piece of bread?

    3. Hi DL,

      I think in an era of derivatives and high-speed trading it’s hard to argue that Wall Street promotes an efficient allocation of capital.

      Politically I’m more on Margo’s side here than yours, but I get — although don’t agree with — the argument that the free market is the least bad option. But, especially following years in which banks have basically recapitalized due to the Fed’s opening the the discount window while not deploying capital to more constructive needs, I think it’s hard to be so Panglossian about the virtues of the Wall Street investment banks.

  5. The blog software won’t accept > 4096 characters, so here’s the first part of my reply.

    What you call the unchanging facts on the ground, are just a reflection of the way Chicago School ‘free’ market fundamentalism has reorganised capitalism (frequently at gunpoint) over the past forty years for the benefit of a tiny minority, and at the expense of democracy. It was not always thus. But we now live under corporate fascism, where the great river of capital is controlled, diverted, and channelled, by the few for the few. This control is exercised by a few hundred thousand people at the top of the 50 financial institutions and just over 1000 transnational corporations that have seized control of the world. The ‘smartest guys in the room’ are merely the technocratic valets of the 1%.

    Actually, the ‘facts on the ground’ argument, much beloved of neoliberals, is very weak. It’s largely ideology masquerading as empiricsm. The ‘facts on the ground’ that I remember, having lived under the New Deal and the post-war settlement in Europe were rather different, and better for most working class and middle class people.

    The ‘facts on the ground’ when people believed in the divine right of kings and the moral superiority of the nobility were different again. In fact if we had lived by those ‘facts on the ground’, if we hadn’t changed them, we’d still be touching our forelocks to the Duke of Westminster, and Americans would still be singing ‘God Save the Queen’ rather than the Star Spangled Banner.

    The ‘facts on the ground’ in the modern world involve the wholesale exploitation and oppression of women. They also involve 20 million people in slavery, massive amounts of child labour, 10% of global GDP being the fruit of organised crime, and the necessity of food charity in the US and the UK. Do we just shrug are shoulders and say with Donald Rumsfeld, “Shit happens.”?

    I’m not going to wander into an impenetrable thicket of wage-setting for different groups on the basis of relative merit. That’s a good way of not seeing the wood for the trees. But your statement that, for example, teachers are ‘cost centres’ not ‘money makers’ looks suspiciously like Chicago School baffle-gab. Given the fact that the people who proudly call themselves ‘money makers’ would be illiterate, innumerate members of the lumpenproletariat if some dedicated teacher somewhere had not taught them to read and do arithmetic, it behoves them to recognise that complex societies like ours have an equally complex division of labour. That means that anyone who works is a wealth creator, and therefore a money maker. The claim that only money manipulators create wealth is just daft.

    1. Its as if wall street makes and takes and generates money just for itself, it’s as if it exists outside of normal market and community functioning. This is not just stocks and bonds and shares of companies, which make sense. Wall street sells products and services that they create themselves and that nobody needed before. And they pay themselves whatever they want…I dont see the justification or rhyme or reason. Then they keep all the money they make. Its a black hole. I think if the entire wall street crowd and the financial service sector was moved to the moon everything on earth would be exactly the same. Only better, because they would be gone.

  6. you go grumpyoldswitch!,i remember when I graduated from college 1971, was living in a Midwestern city of about 250,000.. i was having a hard time finding a job and considered trying to get a factory job to hold me over. the jobs paid well and and had god benefits. i found something in my field and moved on. over these past years i,ve seen all those factories close, the jobs disappear. Since then i.ve seen the middle class eaten away slowly but surely. My student loans amounted to about 1 years salary, now kids are paying the equivalent of 3+ years of income. Now the attention of uber rich has turned to public employees, destroy teachers unions, destroy public employees pensions and benefits. Turn the people who have seen their wages stagnate and benefits destroyed against each other. Blame the poor for their poverty, deflect any criticism from wall street or the so called job makers. Keep the argument about one group getting something they don’t deserve. the phrase from “grumpyoldswitch” about money manipulators is so true , they create money from a game they understand and are able to manipulate. But what do they produce, what of lasting value,what are they contributing to our society? In my humble opinion nothing. grumpyoldswith presented the argument much better than i can ,and i fear for our future, i fear for my daughters future.

  7. When I got to college and made some friends from somewhat higher social class than myself I learned that there are so many things that people from a high social-economic class do to distuinguish themselves. Examples are the precise words one uses; they will always use one synonym and never the other unless they want to pass as lower social class. The way to hold a wine glass. The way that people from high class don’t know (or feign to not know) about certain sports.
    If you don’t know these things because your mom didn’t tell you when you were young you immediately stand out.

    As for the remarks about Wall Street. If they were so smart, then why did they not foresee this? The answer is kinda obvious, most were only interested in the short term and there is a reason some of them cashed out as soon as possible. Try and read Taleb’s books about math and economics.

    As far as the remark about smart people, the very smartest students in math want to be inside of academia and do math, it’s the second rate people who go to work for banks and such.

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