Divided by Morality?

Missouri River, Nebraska

We are an extremely divided and unequal country. Divided by race, income, and politics. This election is just another example of that. Yet I believe the most overlooked inequality in our present society is education.

How much education you have is a huge factor in how much money you will make. The difference is larger than that though, driving many social differences. As Dr. Andrew Cherlin, professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins, and an expert on Families says, “If there is a class dividing line with respect to families in America is is the four-year college degree.” Put generally, college graduates have more successful and stable marriages, and their children are born into them. Those without college degrees far less so.

The result is two very different ways of living and seeing the world. And very different politics. Education was the biggest driver where Trump over performed.

I have written a lot about this divide, calling those with a four year college degree or more the “Front row kids” and those without much or any college education, the “Back row kids.”

I have also talked about how the divisions between the two groups are not just superficial, but indicate two different ways of finding meaning,

The front row kids (who live in big cities and university towns) primarily find meaning through their careers, and hence through their education. It defines who they are. Their community, and their neighborhoods, are global. They moved towns often for their careers.

The back row primarily finds meaning through their local community, and its institutions like church and sports. They live in places they have long lived in, and their families have lived in. They didn’t leave for education, didn’t leave for jobs.

I want to refine this, and suggest that at its core the difference is about valuation. About how we value different things, and consequently how we create different moral frameworks.

The Sociologist Michele Lamont in the introduction to her book The Dignity of Working Men writes about the working class (a segment of the back row kids),

“Morality is generally at the center of these workers’ world. They find their self-worth in their ability to discipline themselves and conduct responsible yet caring lives to ensure order for themselves and others. These moral standards function as an alternative to economic definitions of success and offer them a way to maintain dignity and to make sense of their lives in a land where the American dream is ever more out of reach.”

Bingo. Exactly what I have seen. The back row finds valuation less from money and more from the “decency of hard work.” They do this partly because it empowers them, since they don’t have a lot of economic success.

Yet it goes deeper than that. The “decency of hard work” is how the back row defines morality, determining who they see as just and who isn’t.

Now to the front row. And here I will use my experience from getting a PhD (Physics) and having lived 20 years in Brooklyn and having working in banking for twenty years (Salomon Brothers bond trader).

In this world valuation primarily comes from education, expertise, and cleverness. The more you know about something — and can prove you know it — the better compensated you are in money AND status.

Lacoochee, Florida

Put another way, the front row kids reward (to a level of making it “more meaningful”) a life devoted to the intellect.

This isn’t necessarily bad at all, and it doesn’t have to be a source of conflict with the back row. Generally the bulk of the front row kids also value the decency of hard work, and also contribute to making a healthier, just, and better society as defined by the back row. Like Doctors. Engineers. Journalists. Biologists. Teachers. Etc.

However this obsession with valuation through education/intellect has gone too far, and the front row has become corrupted by a minority who abuse this. That minority is the front row of the front row and hold the most power (think Ivy League, or someone with a post graduate degree.)

In the very front row, valuation of intellect has drifted into including worth through cleverness, for the sake of cleverness alone — regardless of its contribution to society.

High finance is part of that minority. The out-sized role of banking in our economy is partly responsible for our massive income inequality. But it is how high finance makes its big dollars that also the problem.

Modern finance is less about lending to Main Street and more about clever money games. Finance is now floor after floor of traders sitting behind walls of computers, watching numbers flash, moving other numbers around spreadsheets, and betting on them all. It is building elaborate and complex financial games to exploit loopholes.

Money is made by playing intellectual games with limited social or economic benefit. Little good is being made or done. Widgets are not being made. Nor are Aps. Nothing is really being made. But it is clever. Very clever.

Put in geek language, it is a form of hacking the system. Put in simpler language, it is an intellectual grift, with the public as the marks.

This is a huge problem because the front row controls the political, economic and cultural capital. So their form of valuation — including accepting intellectual grifts —is accepted.

So at the top of our nation’s valuation framework is an industry contributing little of worth as viewed by the back row. Making it worse, when this industry collapsed, threatening to bring down everyone, the politicians rescued and bailed out the grifters.

Now there are plenty of front row kids outraged by this. Many doctors, teachers, journalists, biologists, etc. People who themselves fully value working hard and playing by the rules.

Lewiston, Maine

Yet overwhelmingly the politicians they support — Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio — have accepted (and in most cases promoted) this intellectual grift.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a valuation and morality built on intelligence, and a hierarchy built on education. Yet we have gone too far, giving huge valuation to cleverness for the sake of cleverness, even when it damages our broader culture.

There is also nothing fundamentally wrong with valuation and morality built on the hard work of manual labor. Clearly it can also go too far, such as when it belittles and demeans expertise.

But having our country divided into the two camps, and having both not understand each other. That is a problem.

Prior to this election, the front row kids held the power and their definition of valuation and meaning set the agenda. IMO they let that power be abused and corrupted. That is partly why we now have Trump.

And if the early signs are any indication, the intellectual grifting is going to keep on happening under Trump. Just dressed up a little different.

Maybe this time the front row AND the back row will realize it is in everyone’s interest to call out the grifting. But both will probably just keep beating the other side up while the grifting goes on and on..

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A simpler look at this: Divided by Meaning

My piece on banking: Bring broken windows policing to Wall Street

Yell at me on twitter here: Chris_Arnade

This piece lack nuance? Too oversimplified? Here are my longer pieces: Chris Arnade at Guardian