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Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Here are two more class autobiographies. First, Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling:

A class autobiography, by Chris Dillow: Bryan Caplan is soliciting class autobiographies. Here's his. Here's mine.

I spent most of my first 18 years in the same terraced house in Leicester; it wasn't quite a 2-up, 2-down as it had a garden. Our neighbours were mostly working class - carpenters, mechanics - but increasingly Ugandan Asians displaced by Idi Amin.

Mum was a secretary; her dad was treasurer of a working man's club. Dad, and his dad, was a lorry driver. However, dad went to prison when I was five - after the contents of his lorry went missing - and mum and dad never lived together after then. I only saw him once a week. ...

We weren't poor - though I don't know how much money mum got from dad. ... We never went abroad. The first time I got on a plane was when I worked in the City, and had to fly to Scotland to give presentations to fund managers.

I went to the local junior school, passed the 11+ (the only boy in my school to do so) and got a place at a grammar school. I never wanted to go; it was two bus rides to the other side of town, and I thought it was posh; my mates (quite gently) took the piss out of me.

School wasn't too bad, except that it forced us to play rugby rather than football. I was quite a lazy schoolboy, but I got a bunch of O levels and ... chose to stay on to do A levels; mum seemed to welcome the extra child benefit.

By this time, our grammar school had been converted into a 6th form college, as part of comprehensivization. This had the effect of generating greater class divisions than existed in the grammar school. Our 6th form was split between working class kids who liked Kraftwerk and the Human League, and posh ones who still liked prog rock. I have retained a visceral hatred of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

I gave no thought at all to life after school until my history teacher, in front of a whole class, disturbed my reverie by telling me: "Oxford would have you like a shot" He was right. And I became the first member of my family for 500 generations to go to university...

So, what effect did this class background have on me? It didn't stop me doing well financially after university. But there's a big element of luck here. I was lucky enough to benefit from selective education, lucky to meet great teachers, lucky to go to university when few did and so had a strong signal of ability. And I was lucky that, as I left university, there was big demand for technical-ish skills as the City was expanding.

Had I been a few years younger, I'd not have had this fortune. In this sense, I disagree with Bryan when he says "differences in ability and character are the cause of class differences". I'd stress the role of luck.

My background has held me back in some respects. ...my upbringing did not give me expensive tastes. As a result, I've never felt the need to earn more than I have.

Also, I've never had the imagination to see that I could do jobs that posher people do... When I was interviewed for my current job, I was asked: "why didn't you become a journalist straight after university?" My instinctive reply was: "the thought never occurred to me." Even now, some jobs - the more mainstream media or politics - are mostly closed to people like me.

Probably the biggest effect, though, of my background is social. I've never felt that l fitted in, always feeling that I owe my place, wherever I've worked, only to my above-average intellect. People only want me for my brain.

Does this make me resentful, as Bryan alleges of the notion of class autobiography? No. Everyone is scarred by their upbringing. The only question is: how?

Next, Arnold Kling of EconLog:

My Class Autobiography, by Arnold Kling: Bryan is encouraging these things.

On both sides of my family, my grandparents were immigrant Jews who tried to make a living as merchants. My mother's family settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a declining steel town. My father's family settled in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Great Depression was hard on both families. It hit the steel towns particularly hard. Meanwhile, my St. Louis grandfather went bankrupt and lost his clothing store in 1937. The Depression was the biggest event in my parents' lives. They were frugal... But I did not grow up having to worry about money--my father's salary as a college professor seemed more than adequate for us.

The Depression also turned my mother and my father's older sister into Communists. My mother renounced her party membership in the 1940's, but my father's sister and her husband remained committed Communists until they died, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I gather that my uncle was a pretty effective union organizer, but he was kicked out of the unions when they purged their leadership of Communists. Their family lived in public housing in Chicago, since he had no source of income and she was often too ill to work.

Part of the post-1930's frugality was that we lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood until 1964, when I was 10. ... When I was 11, we moved to Clayton, Missouri, which was and is the richest suburb of St. Louis. Thinking that I must be uneducated (because I did not have the privilege of growing up in Clayton), the school district assigned me to the low math track and to take a double period of English. By the time I got to high school, that nonsense had been sorted out. But I took away a lifelong belief that affluent people think way too much of themselves, and they are way too condescending and patronizing to everyone else.

There is serious mental illness on both sides of my family. Those aunts, uncles, and cousins who were least affected by it are rather affluent. Those most affected by it are not. So I tend to associate poverty with mental illness. Perhaps I am overly optimistic about the economic prospects of those in good mental health. But my family's experience leads me to think that poverty in the United States is mostly a mental health issue. Leaving aside new immigrants, I do not see American poverty as being determined by social class.

    Posted by on Tuesday, May 30, 2006 at 01:21 AM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (18)


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    Bryan Caplan of EconLog has written his class autobiography. So has Arnold Kling, and Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling. All are worth reading (along with the comments and ensuing debate). But of the class autobiographies so far, I was most struck... [Read More]

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