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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Class Autobiography

Bryan Caplan writes:

My Future Class History, by Bryan Caplan: Class Action challenges visitors to write a Class Autobiography: "Write your 'Class Autobiography.' A powerful way to reflect on class is to take an hour and write the story of your upbringing in relation to money and class." I had a lot of fun writing my Intellectual Autobiography, so I'm intrigued enough to give Class Autobiography a try. I'll probably post it in a few days. Any other bloggers care to join me?

Bryan's class essay is here. I decided to take up the challenge. I'm kind of nervous about this, it's self-centered, whiny, all sorts of stuff, I'm not sure how it reads, so I won't be the least bit upset if you decide to skip this post. But what the heck, here it is:

My mom's family is Mormon, something that ended with my grandmother, and they helped to settle the area where I grew up. My mom was born in the town I grew up in, a town of 3,500 people in California in a place called Colusa. It is named after the Colus Indians. Her dad sold farm equipment for the Caterpillar dealer in town and they were lower middle class, though she describes it as being very poor - getting a pair of socks for Christmas, that sort of thing.

My dad grew up on a small farm just outside of Yuba City, California near a one store town called Tudor. His family was lower middle class at best, though poor might describe them better. During World War II he also lived in San Francisco (briefly) while my grandfather worked in the shipyards.

Most of my family on my mom's side is involved in farming in one way or another, and as I just noted my dad grew up on a farm. Because of that background, education wasn't important. Until my generation, there is only one relative I know about who graduated from a four year school, and that was probably because he played football there.

My parents did attend college briefly, a community college, and that is where they met. I think my dad was there just to play football, and I'm not sure what my mom's goals were, but I do know they both dropped out before graduating at age 20 when I was born. My dad went to work for a tractor dealer selling tractor parts, and my mom held brief peach cannery, telephone company, UC extension, and so on kinds of jobs. They tell me it was a struggle financially. My having surgery a couple of days after I was born didn't help (without modern technology, I would have died).

I was born in Yuba City where the community college was, then we moved to Colusa when I was one, then back to Yuba City when I was four, back to Colusa again at 12 where I stayed through high school. I hated moving. I grew up in working class neighborhoods with a lot of freedom. From the time I was six or seven years old, I could pretty much do as I pleased so long as I stayed out of serious trouble, and I mostly managed to do that. I hung out with what I would think of now as "the tough kids" when I was in Yuba City, but somehow avoided any serious trouble. I was the instigator - the one who got other people to do things but would not do them myself.

Once I moved back to Colusa when I was 12, the groups changed a bit. Because the town is so small, there is only one school at each level so it wasn't possible to sort by income as much as it was in Yuba City which is bigger. My social group cut across social strata and the groups stayed together from kindergarten through high school pretty much, even after high school. Because all social groups were together in the same school, I also began to see the differences in ways I had not seen before. For example, there was a nine hole golf course in town and a tennis club with a swimming pool and there were two groups of kids - those who belonged to the tennis and golf club, and those who did not.

I did not and I began to feel the exclusion. A lot of my friends spent a lot of time at the golf course (one would turn pro later and it was the gathering place for the "top" social group). I could never go. Same with the tennis club. We'd all be together having fun, they'd go to one place or another and I'd go home. I hated it.

I did solve the golf course problem by getting a job there in junior high school. I picked up range balls, washed clubs, that sort of thing. The pro, Bob Billings, was unbelievably good to some of us. In exchange for working, he paid us of course, but he also let us play free whenever we wanted, gave us free lessons, and so on. There were several of us who worked there. Because of the pro, we had the best, or near the best, golf team in the state. And that was among all schools, not just small ones (though I played baseball instead of golf). If you didn't have money, sports was another way to get noticed and have the privileges of money. My brother, a scholarship football player for Oregon State after high school, took advantage of that.

Back to my being a bad influence, and I probably was. I didn't have a curfew in high school, I could drink all I wanted and not get into trouble, etc. There was one mom in particular who wouldn't let her son hang out with me. His dad was an eye doctor (not sure which kind) and they lived in the small enclave of the well-to-do in town. I wasn't good enough for her son. That pissed me off, still does to this day, but I owe where I am to people like her.

At some point I made up my mind that I would prove that someone with my background, my lack of social graces, with my lack of money, etc., could kick their butt. It was a determination that's hard to describe, though the language I slipped into there is revealing. As I said, all the exclusion based on class, all the small town crap that goes on, all of it served to make me want to prove people wrong. It was a small town, a place where those with power and money (for the small pond called Colusa) persist for generations.

So, growing up I had a chip on my shoulder, probably still do. I was lucky though for two reasons. First, no matter what I did or how much I screwed around (e.g. in class disrupting others out of sheer boredom), school came easy and I was always at the top of the class somehow. Second, from an early age my mom knew I could go to college and began putting that idea in my head. I never assumed anything else, going to college after high school seemed a natural progression.

I was thinking about this yesterday and it occurred to me that I read every book that was in our house at least twice (all 15 of them...). My dad cannot write or spell very well, and he never reads. My brother was diagnosed with dyslexia and I think my dad must have had similar problems growing up. But my mom was an avid reader. Unfortunately, they were mostly trashy novels. She always left them lying around while reading them or before giving them away, and she must have known that I read every one of them when she wasn't home. What if there had been real books in my house? Or if my parents had been educated enough to direct my reading? I don't blame them, they had no idea about books. I would have sponged up anything put in front of me, but maybe I was better off spending my summers getting on my bike and going and playing baseball or basketball and hanging out with friends instead. Who knows.

When the time came to leave Colusa after high school my choices were very limited, not because of academics, that would have gotten me most places, but because of resources. I was from the small town of Colusa, and from the other side of the tracks. A friend of mine growing up, the rich kid in our class whose dad was a big rice farmer in town, went to Stanford because a congressman got him in (I assume campaign contributions were involved - his grades and mine weren't that different).

Me, I had two choices, go to a junior college or Cal State Chico as it was called then. I chose Chico. I worked my butt off all summer after graduating from high school to save $1,400. The tuition was around $100 per semester and I had enough left over to pay the dorm bill (remember, inflation). My parents contribution, after negotiation, was $20 per month, though they did buy me a car and insure it. But mostly it was up to me. I did two things while there. I never missed a class, and I never missed a party. I did miss a day at work once though.

I did well at Chico, really well, but I was naive. This is going to sound dumb to all of you, but I really didn't understand the difference between Stanford, Berkeley, and Chico State. Where I grew up, there were two types of people, those who went to college, and those who didn't. It didn't much matter where, just going and getting a degree was enough. I suppose the "upper class" understood the difference, but in working class land where I grew up, such distinctions weren't drawn, at least not in my house. The Ivy league was for other people, and people either went to college or they didn't, to Chico, maybe to a UC if they could afford it. And those who went often never returned. When I hear Bryan Caplan say in his essay "What if I had grown up rich? ... I would have gone to the Ivy League instead of UC Berkeley, but it's not like Berkeley held me back," I have to laugh because to me, Berkeley was an elite school, a dream, not something I could ever do. My third year at Chico a faculty member took me aside and told me I needed to go to a UC school, Chico wouldn't do. I called my parents and told them, and they said, simply, that's not going to happen.

I had no idea how limiting coming out of Chico would be. I've seen a lot of graduate applications in my life, and mine was more than competitive as a math/econ/stat major with really good GREs and great supporting letters. But I was denied every place I applied and to this day I think that still affects my attitude about this profession. I can remember opening the letter with the last chance I had on my front porch and feeling crushed. I was going back to the tractor store just like my dad, brother, and grandfather. You can't get there from Chico no matter how good your record is.

Fortunately for me, I was working for a faculty member doing work for Medicaid estimating reimbursement levels for pharmaceutical drugs and he got to know me pretty well (he's president of a university now). When he found out I had been rejected everywhere, he made a phone call and got me into Washington State University with money, the place where he had gone to graduate school (in an afternoon - it wasn't until much later that I realized how much I owed him for doing that).

So, I went to graduate school at Washington State. It was a pretty easy program for me, I'm embarrassed to say I didn't work much on weekends my first year of grad school, so I took electrical engineering classes (graduate stochastic processes), graduate level math/stat courses, that sort of thing to try and fill in the missing pieces. That turned out to be a good decision.

It is considered a success if you move parallel when you come out of graduate school. If you come out of a 25th ranked school and can get a job at similarly ranked school, that is considered a success. Moving up is pretty hard (and, of course, harder the closer you are to the top) so where you go to graduate school can make a huge difference on where you end up. Coming out of graduate school, I went to UCSD and did a two year post doc kind of thing, I taught a grad course and took one at the same time. At the end of the two years, I went to the school with a graduate program that would (a) get me closest to my kids who were living in Chico, and (b) give two jobs since I was married at the time to an economist. Oregon was the best fit on both scores, and it was the time at UCSD, I think, that got the door open and got me here. This is a much, much better program than the one I went through at WSU. I don't think Oregon would have given me a good look coming straight from WSU, it was the time at UCSD that did it.

This essay is supposed to talk about class and how it affected me. I am of two minds. I'm glad I grew up working class where baseball and football were as important as algebra. The kind of a background where we never once (or rarely) stayed in a motel on vacation, that was for rich people, we always went camping instead. Because of that, I am fluent in two worlds - I am always surprised when I go home how quickly my speech patterns revert. If I talked in class the way I talk to farming friends, I'd be fired pretty fast. When I'm at professional meetings or around school, my speech patterns are entirely different.

But there are still resentments hidden deep down because of the lack of opportunities I had. What if my dad had been the rich rice farmer instead of the guy selling him tractor parts and I was the one who went to Stanford rather than my classmate? On pure merit, we were equally deserving, so why did I have to go to Chico and work while attending? With the same record, would graduate schools have viewed me differently had my transcript said Stanford instead of Chico State?

I don't know if the people at the top schools really understand how they are viewed from the "lower" ranks. I think they would be quite surprised. We don't think the difference is purely merit based. It's not always a fair view, I acknowledge that, but little is done to change the impression by those at the top. We wonder how much of your success is really due to merit, and how much of it is because the editor of the journal was your dissertation adviser or buddy in graduate school, etc. There's a lot of "old boy" networks that serve to benefit a small number and if you are not on the inside from the start, it's a huge disadvantage. Perhaps it's hard to see from the inside.

My introduction to this was brunt. I went to UCSD out of graduate school and my first week there, at the Department party, another faculty member asked me where I was from. I said "Washington State." The response was "oh," in a way that made his opinion of that very clear, and the person turned, walked away, and never talked to me again. I even tried once a week or so later, but he didn't have time for me, even time to just be decent. If you aren't from the right place, there's is a lot of baggage to overcome, more than you think as a naive new Ph.D. from my background.

I used to go to NBER meetings, even presented at them, but I found it to be more of the same. I always felt on the outside and, though there were exceptions (and people I respect immensely because of it - they took a moment to be inclusive of someone from a lesser school - and I don't think I embarrassed myself when they did, I think I asked good questions, etc.), and I finally just stopped going. I was there to learn, not feel snubbed. It's less important now with the internet, but being from Oregon it was important to go to meetings to catch up with the latest research. But I never felt all that welcome, if that's the right word. That's too bad and there's really no reason to act that way.

So, yes, class affected me, still does. I carry resentments because of it, though when I see them I do my best to steer myself around them. As I look back at my life, going to a small high school, etc., the opportunities were different. When I write here, I find myself bristling against accusations of being part of the academic elite, one of those in the ivory towers. That's not how I see myself, not at all. I see myself as an outsider even here. The small town guy with the common sense that comes with that. One of my colleagues has a similar background, but mostly they don't. They are from the big name schools with big name advisers, their parents are professionals, etc. They grew up in a different world. My family is mostly working class with all the struggles everyone else has, and that's how I grew up. That's the identity I carry around.

But I also know how lucky I am to be here doing something I enjoy so much. I could never really complain wholeheartedly about salary, etc., not when you are from where I am from and feel as lucky as I do to be paid this much. Compared to waiting on farmers in the tractor store, well, there's no comparison.

Sometimes all of this can be used as an excuse, and it's hard for me to separate me and my choices from my environment. People at the fifth ranked school wonder why they aren't at the number one school and see the world as unfair because of it. People at Harvard wonder why they didn't win the John Bates Clark award and conclude it must have been politics, not merit. It's always easy to blame outcomes on the environment, on politics, etc., but still, I can't help thinking that while I might not have an entirely fair view of all of this, there are disadvantages due to class that are not easily overcome.

    Posted by on Sunday, May 28, 2006 at 01:46 PM in Economics, Miscellaneous | Permalink  TrackBack (7)  Comments (31)


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    » Class Autobio of Mark Thoma from EconLog

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    Economist Mark Thoma has posted his class autobiography. My favorite parts: So, growing up I had a chip on my... [Read More]

    Tracked on Monday, June 05, 2006 at 05:04 AM

    » Class Autobiography from The One-Handed Economist

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    » Class Autobiography from The One-Handed Economist

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    » Bloggers' Class Autobios from EconLog

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