James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Self-pity and its discontents

  • Back to the Whiny Law Professor!

    More lessons from the sage of the University of Chicago

    So much has come in, knitting the various themes of: self-pity among the rich; the elements of mutual social connection (tax, public service); how a country looks from outside; what constitutes "satisfaction," and the rest.

    A few installments here. First, on the "those wacky foreigners!" front, an item from the BBC last year on how the Whiny Law Professor's continental counterparts view the tax issue:
    I know, I know, Germany is not America. One of my maxims as an editor and occasional writing-teacher is that any sentence about American politics or society that begins with the words,  "In Sweden, they... " should instantly be cut. Same rule applies with Germany. Notwithstanding my friend Tom Geoghegan's wonderful book on the theme of "In Germany, they...."   Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?. Still...

    Now, back to some all-American views, on the universal question of how money relates to happiness. From another reader:

    >>1. I am in the U.S. military; I would prefer that you not use my name.  I am enjoying your thread on the poor wealthy.  They are to be pitied - for their lack of imagination.....

      My wife doesn't like it when I make this argument, but it's basically true:  We have a roof over our heads.  We have food.  We have drinkable water.  We have clothes to keep us warm.  No one is actively trying to kill us.  Therefore, we have no real problems.  Everything after that is gravy.

      2. The focus of your thread is on money - in my experience, good health is far more valuable than money.<<

    After the jump, several more on the relationship among health, money, happiness, experience, service, and so on.

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  • Wealthy Whiners: The Institutional Perspective

    "Where fun goes to die"

    Fair warning: this is not a "serious" addition to consideration of the "whiny law professor" syndrome. But I found it droll to compare two notes about the specific institutional background of the complainant. First, a University of Chicago graduate writes to say:  UChicago.jpg

    I don't think anyone has mentioned the one reason for Professor Henderson's revelations that would be obvious to any U of C Alumni: The University of Chicago is a horrible place that makes people unhappy. See this.
    Filled with smart people, but not very keen on the social skills.<<

    To which I say: Now, now, now... I taught a writing class there this spring and adored (in the right sense!) the students I worked with. But even they joked about the "where fun comes to die" U of C school spirit. To be more precise: the graduate students joked. Some of the undergraduates said, What's so funny?

    Then, an administrator at Harvard wrote in umbrage about an item that I had called "Self-Pity of the Harvard 'Poor,'" because I was quoting a Harvard College/Harvard Law graduate on financial resentments as he had observed them among his peers. From the administrator:

    >>I'm sure there are whiners around Harvard, too, but the headline for that post isn't right when the self-pitier [the law professor] is a Princeton undergrad / Chicago law grad. (And from his bio I was pleased to see there's another place that refers to "the Law School.")<<

    When I wrote back saying, Lighten up! Using "Harvard" as a metaphor!, he expressed relief and returned to the policy high-road:

    >>I hope progress can be made in getting people to appreciate how the growing concentration of income in the top 0.1% is very unhealthy for the country.<<

    So far, a tactful silence from Princeton. Back to "serious" stuff shortly.

  • The All-American Virtue of Self-Pity

    What makes America tick? An entrepreneur says: The universal sense of being picked on.

    Why am I running so many items on this theme? I don't actually care* about the person who will always be known as the "whiny law professor" from the University of Chicago. (Sadly, that name works better than "the Marie Antoinette of the Midway Plaisance.") But his story -- income in the top 1% of everyone in America, accompanied by a keen sense of being put-upon and very little evident awareness of good fortune -- seems to be a trigger for a lot of concerns about the shape of American society these days. The distributions of wealth and income are becoming more polarized; people have fewer and fewer opportunities to deal with those unlike them as real people (and not "the man who cuts the lawn"); it is harder and harder to talk about public goods or public projects, starting with public education.

    I keep receiving an absolute torrent of really interesting responses on this theme. As I can, I'll keep sorting them into rough groups and sharing them. Today, a stand-alone about why self-pity is actually The American Way. This one is also timely because of the Rick Sanchez and Social Network pegs:

    It seems to me that, just as the movie "The Social Network" suggests, everybody in America (except perhaps the direct descendants of the Mayflower crowd) thinks that they are the outsiders, the discriminated and the disadvantaged, and therefore deserving of pity. Witness the radio broadcast outburst of Rick Sanchez that costs his job: can you believe that a man who became the day-time anchor of CNN can claim that he was discriminated against because of his race? Similarly, my multi-millionaire Jewish friend keeps obsessed about how fellow Americans "don't like them".

    However, also as the movie suggests, I believe it is this endless chip-on-the-shoulder feeling that drives American entrepreneurship.

    At the very least, it drives my own entrepreneurship. I felt oppressed the day I landed on Wall Street. As a homosexual, an Asian, a geek, an unpolished new arrival to the country who still speaks with heavy Cantonese accent and has no connections whatsoever, I had every reason to feel self-pity. And indeed I didn't feel that I fit in at all on the trading floor of the august banks and hedge funds that I worked in. But hey, they hired me despite all my shortcomings! After a few painful years, I finally quit, without acquiring much wealth from the industry, and became a finance entrepreneur. Like everyone else, I started writing a blog. And quite to my surprise, large publishing houses came to me with book contracts, New York Times called for my comments, CNBC interviewed me, people out of nowhere wanted to be my clients, and I acquired influential partners beyond my imagination a few years ago. I still speak my heavy Cantonese accent, and still am not wealthy, but I no longer feel self-pity. On the other hand, I now recognize, self-pity is what makes America ticks!

    * OK, to be honest, it would be interesting to listen in on his classes this semester -- or hear from him why his years as a corporate lawyer before joining academia, plus his other years with McKinsey, hadn't made a bigger dent in the student loans. But, it's not really about him, which is why I haven't been using his name.

  • Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor: The Fancy-School Factor

    The context, of course, is the University of Chicago law school professor who feels hard pressed near the top of the income distribution. (Whole series here; kick-off installment here.)

    GatesHarvard.jpgWhen the whiny law professor went through the household budget, major expense items were for education: still-unpaid student loans for him and his wife, who is a doctor; private school expenses for their kids. ("Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school," he explained in his famous original post.)

    Several readers on this theme. First, about the education-bubble phenomenon in general:

    >>A common theme in the whines of the wealthy is the high cost of elite education. Speaking as a card carrying member of the 200K + club, there's no way we can afford private schools for our kids. We need to save about a trillion dollars to fund the extended dementia my wife and I are looking forward to - after we lose our grocery bagging job in our 80s. (At least we didn't inherit any debts.)

    If our kids go to an elite school they'll either need some pretty sweet scholarships or grad school stipends. For our part we did Wellesley and Caltech, funded in one case by unwise parents and the other by poverty. Tough luck for my kids, we are neither poor nor foolish -- and we know the limited value of elite undergraduate institutions.

    Snark aside, America is clearly at the popping end of a huge education bubble -- one that's been inflating for 20 years. Once it blows the whining may tail off a bit.<<

    Next, a woman who did not go to a name-brand college writes:

    >>The thing that I find most fascinating is that some people seem to forget an important fact: most people don't go to private schools and most people don't go to Ivy League or otherwise prestigious universities. And yet, some of us even turn out to be successful :-)

    I chose schools with generous scholarship programs and graduated with no debt. (It's a not-so-well kept secret that many small private schools cost well below the "sticker price" - my last year, there were only 15 of 1800 students paying full tuition.) In lieu of an expernsive education, my parents have spent 29 years giving me things that cost them so little but have been invaluable to me in my success thus far:  
        -a sense of humor
        -months of help with 6th grade math homework (I'm a math-hater turned economist, go figure)
        -problem-solving skills
        -a Brit-rail pass when I worked in London
        -an intense (and possibly embarrassing) inability to procrastinate
        -strong ethics
        -organizational skills
        -good-natured bossiness
        and so much more...
       I wouldn't trade any of that for a $200K, big name education. Not in a million years.<<

    Another reader says:

    >>If no one else says this, or no one says it more succinctly, could you please incorporate into the discussion the implicit idea that extends across pretty much all of the posts? It basically goes like this: "once professional success is achieved, life isn't supposed to be hard or uncertain anymore". It's there in the original post and it's there in the backdoor-trickle-down economics of the east-coast lawyer. Somewhere along the last 50 years our "meritocracy" started to incorporate the idea that once you achieved a certain amount in life, you wouldn't have to try anymore.

    This idea is, from my point of view (as a 30-something professional who anticipates that retirement will become an antiquated concept by the time I reach such an age) grandfather to the current state of affairs in which high school and college students expect grades to symbolize the extent of their effort rather than the quality of their work. As Clint Eastwood said snarled in "Unforgiven": "deserve's got nothing to do with it". How about we agree on this: if you need to ask yourself if you are rich (or better yet mount some kind of argument about how you aren't rich), then you probably are in fact rich.<<

    And from a relatively recent name-brand-school graduate:

    >>I wonder if part of the issue stems from the fact that there seems to be an implicit promise that attending one of these top schools will inevitably make you rich.  I went to Stanford, and from the very beginning we were reminded of all the luminaries who also hold Stanford degrees (or at least attended classes).  Larry Page came and gave a speech during freshman orientation, and Phil Knight and Jerry Yang both donated buildings while I was there.  Part of the selling point of these universities is the idea that all of these great, successful, rich people went to this school, and it impacted them so profoundly that they have donated millions of dollars for its improvement.  Even if you are making $250,000 or $500,000, it really doesn't seem like all that much when compared to what the people who are getting their names on the buildings make.  Presumably working at a university makes this even more evident.

    And in the end, you still have the same degree as these people who are actually rich.  Who's to say you won't someday get there yourself?  Why would you want to punish your future self with higher taxes?<<

    After the jump, a way to think about student loans.

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  • The Opposite of Self-Pity: Neil Alan Smith

    Life on the other end of the income distribution

    A reader in Dallas sent this note:

    TPM this morning led me to this obituary of a man who is near the other end of the wealth bell curve from the University of Chicago Prof recently discussed at length.

    I'm generally too old and cynical to tear up. But the obituary moved me quite considerably. I understand that it is not a complete picture of the life depicted, just as the Professor's comments about his personal finances are probably (hopefully) not a fair window into his worldview. But I find it of immense spiritual benefit to set these two portraits against one another.

    I agree. This case has been discussed many other places, for example by David Gura at the NPR site, but seemed worth mentioning for those who might be interested. As the reader points out, it's not as pat as "well-paid person greedy; poor person virtuous." But the juxtaposition of two contemporaneous American stories is striking. The deceased, Neil Alan Smith at work as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack, from Tampa Bay Online, below.

    Also, this interesting note from a commenter at the St. Petersburg Times site:

    This story is a poignant example of why we as a society continue to need solid daily newspaper journalism. It's a reminder that we all have value, and that low pay and a humble way of living are not at all incompatible with kindness, decency and self-respect. This piece is a respectful tribute to a proud working man. Well done, Andrew Meacham and the St. Petersburg Times.
  • Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor: The International Perspective!

    Where do "upper middle class" Americans stand, on a worldwide basis?

    This is interesting: a site that lets you enter your annual income and then see where you stand among the world's six billion people. GlobalRichList.png
    True, it doesn't appear to be an absolutely precise measurement device. Eg, its upper range seems to be pegged at $250,000 per year -- any income above that, from $250,001 to $10,000,000 seems to rank as the 107,565th richest in the world, in the top 0.001% of the overall income distribution. But (a) below that the gradations are quite fine, and (b) $250,000 is an interesting threshold, since the whole "poor little rich boy" phenomenon started with someone who makes much more than that and feels put-upon.

    On the same theme, a reader in Washington DC writes:

    A couple of observations:
    • The poverty-to-riches scale expands when you step outside of the US. To an African farmer - or even a low-level civil servant - the complaints of America's "poor", with their cars, TVs, running water, etc., are just as mystifying as the Law Professor's whingeing is to us.
    • In that context, and along the lines of "move to a poor neighborhood": Much of my life, both growing up and as an adult, has been spent in poor countries in Latin America and Africa. I can attest that much of the appeal of the expat life is that you always feel wealthy (and are wealthy, in practical terms - you can afford gardeners and nannys and drivers). I have many friends in international development circles who are reluctant to come back to the US, because it makes them feel poor to live here.
    • Besides the clear point that frame of reference is everything, I'd add the well documented finding that, dollar for dollar, we hate losing assets more than we love acquiring them (cf Loss Aversion, Endowment Effect). The Whiny Law Professor may have a lot, but it's all spoken for; and anything that's taken away will require him to give something up. I'm sure you could go even further up the scale and find millionaires who don't feel like they have any financial slack. Check out The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook. This is a very readable book-length exploration of the money-can't-buy-happiness phenomenon, not only across social scales but historically (increased material prosperity from generation to generation hasn't made us happier).

    After the jump, one more in the same vein. Many additional followups in the queue!

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  • See the World

    Should Americans travel across their own country? Or around the world? Yes.

    We'll get back to the whiny wealthy poor in a moment. For now, let's consider a different kind of want -- the lack of experience in the wide world that, according to a reader message I quoted here recently, is where many Americans are impoverished. I said that I agreed -- and that my let's-improve-America plans all included getting more Americans to see the world (Peace Corps, teaching English, bumming around, whatever) early in life.

    A PhD candidate begs to differ:

    >>Your post bugged me.

    I'm an engineering student at MIT, and I haven't traveled much outside of the US, mostly because I've doubted the utility of doing so. I imagine it would be fun to experience different cultures, to discover how the French bake, or to wake up at a bed-and-breakfast in a foreign land. But how much does that help me? In the context of "fixing America," how much does it help America?

    I've witnessed friends who've gone off to do fellowships or study abroad programs in foreign lands that have amounted to glorified vacations. I stayed behind in America to do computer science research because I wanted to maximize my impact. I'm a little jealous of my friends. :-)

    Is there really value in exploring foreign lands? Or I have become a curmudgeon already?<<

    Short answer: Yes, and yes! For the longer answer, let's hear from a few other readers. First, this:

    >>I have many, many regrets in my thirty-five years on planet Earth. Near the very top of this increasingly long list is never having studied abroad. My wife, on the other hand, has always been more sophisticated than I, and she spent a semester in Australia. It was certainly one of the most formative experiences in her life. My younger sister, also more sophisticated, spent a semester in Florence. It made such an impact on her that nearly a decade later she got married in a Tuscan village (it was a destination wedding, she still lives here). My mother-in-law did a Peace Corps stint in Nigeria, and the zebra skin she came back with more than forty years ago still covers the floor in our family room.

    Three years ago today, I was wrapping up my honeymoon in northern Spain, and I probably think about it once a day. When I am not thinking about Barcelona or the trip to the British Isles my parents to me on after college, I am watching Anthony Bourdain or reading European history.

    The obvious point is that a trip overseas fundamentally changes who you are, and for the better. I listen to the news differently, read the news differently, taste food differently, and generally contemplate the world differently. Your point about getting younger adults overseas is a brilliant point, and should I have children I will encourage them to spend as much of their youth in a foreign place as possible. But let make a larger, perhaps naïve insight.

    I was, mostly, in favor of the 2003 Iraq War and believed strongly in our reliance on American militarism. Just a few weeks in Western Europe cured me of that. Imagine if I spent time in places where the people didn't look like me!! But when I reflected upon this evolution, it occurred to me that if in 2002 George W. Bush, whom I believe to be a good man, spent one season travelling with Rick Steves, we would have stayed out of Iraq. Americans who don't travel abroad are, inevitably, ethnocentric. Those of us who are fortunate enough to travel have a different appreciation for our world, and are far more reluctant to wreak havoc upon other cultures.<<


    >>I was just looking at the Foreign Policy's 65 Most Important Cities (or some such title) and feeling so grateful that I have visited so many of the cities. I am in my mid-50s and when I look back on my life my travels are the one area where I regret nothing and wouldn't change a thing (except perhaps to have traveled even more).

    Now I live in Nevada, known for Las Vegas, but in reality full of gigantic (someone familiar only with the eastern part of the country can hardly imagine how huge) swaths of empty land and rural towns. Many of the counties have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, suicide, and other misery indicators in the country. I look around these towns and counties and now know what it's like to live somewhere, especially as a teenager, where there is nothing to do and little hope of going anywhere but where you've been all your life.

    Forget London and Berlin and Paris. Take these kids to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or Acadia National Park. I am not trying to be patriotic, or parochial; I'm suggesting their poverty of experience is so severe that a trip a mere 200 or 2000 miles away, inside their own country, would do them a world of good.<<

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  • Now, More Criticism of the Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor

    More skepticism about the difficulties of getting by on $300,000 or so

    marie antoinette.jpgYesterday I posted some comments in defense of the "Whiny Law Professor" -- and similar families at the top of the US income distribution who find it hard to make ends meet. Now, for the other side of the story, a few of the (many) dissents. A reader writes;

    >>Why does every defense end up showing how out of touch these people are? The sympathy list they always go through are the costs of private schools, elite private universities, large mortgages, and large loans for graduate schools (I note the lack of large loans for undergraduate).  This just isn't even a concern for 97% of Americans.  And to say life is difficult if you send your kids to a nice public school in a nice suburb, go to a non-Ivy school, live in 10-20% less of a house or live without a graduate degree, is quite simply crazy and just goes to prove all the stats about how happiness doesn't increase with income.<<

    In the same vein:

    >>I don't have much pity for those that make $250,000 or more a year. My husband and I are both college educated. Together we barely break $100,000 in gross income. We put our 2 children through expensive (Ivy and private) colleges by taking every loan offered by "financial aid" packages and second-mortgaging our home. We make too much to get grants but not enough to afford sending our kids to the schools of their choice ($40,000 per year X2) without going into massive debt. Luckily our home has more or less held it's value and we can pay the mortgage, loan payments, insurances, and other bills.

    We live comfortably but not luxuriously in a high cost of living state. We have a roof over our heads and eat every day. Our home is a 40 year old track home. We drive our cars for 10 years. A dinner at a chain restaurant for a birthday is a splurge. I buy my clothes from the thrift shop or at deep discount. I buy one pair of shoes per year. And I think I have a good life.<<

    And from a reader in Arizona, under the header Whiny Professor & Occam's Razor:

    >>Perhaps the simplest reason for this guy's angst (and please recall that his wife* vehemently disagrees with him) is that his current professional perch gives him good access to really wealthy people (CEOs, Rich Donors, Inheritors, etc.). He can't help but compare his financial situation with theirs and so such comparisons become odious, making him blog in silly, yet self-revealing, ways.

    When I was a CFP and heard well-off clients complain about not having enough money, I'd tell them to move to the poor part of town and so feel richer beyond belief (or at least spend more time in those parts of town). They never did, of course, though that would have solved their existential drama.

    * the wife is a doctor, probably dealing with the whole social gamut in her workaday world. probably much different for the professor.<<

    One more after the jump.

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  • In Defense of the Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor

    A few voices in quasi-support of the misunderstood law professor

    In response to this recent item, plus this and similar previous posts, two readers empathize, sort of, with the put-upon University of Chicago law professor.

    First, from a reader an an east coast big city, defending the "policy" part of the law professor's original post:

    >>I am a partner at a law firm who makes far less than 250k, but a good salary nonetheless. People need to realize that a tax hike on those making more than 250k will ultimately be borne by those (like myself) making less than 250k. The equity partners (and other business owners) are going to take home "x" amount of money, no matter what. They are still going to have the same private school and mortgage payments to make. In order to take home "x" dollars at the end of the year, they are going to have give smaller bonuses and smaller raises. Maybe that file clerk doesn't get hired, maybe the associate's bump is put off, who knows, but at the end of the day, those making less than 250k will feel the brunt of the tax increase.

    This is a fairly simple concept to grasp for those working in small businesses (there are about 20 lawyers here), but likely applies in larger private sector operations as well. It's disingenuous to posit only those making above 250k will be impacted by a tax increase at that level; people in the private sector will feel that tax increase at all levels. My problem is that those opposing the +250k tax hike can't seem to articulate the facts of life I briefly outlined above.<<

    Drolly, the reader asks that I not use his or her real name: "My parents will be heartbroken to find out I make less than 250k. Ah, the pressures of being Jewish." The nice thing about the "Ah..." sentence is that it could also work if it ended with "an Ivy League grad," "Asian-American," "voted Most Likely to Succeed," "an Indian-American with a computer science degree," "a Rhodes scholar," "a McKinsey alumnus," etc.

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  • The Self-Pity of the Harvard 'Poor'

    How a meritocratic world view maximizes a sense of being shortchanged. Or, it's all Harvard's fault - and Princeton's, etc.

    Context is the ongoing discussion provoked by 21st Century America's Marie Antoinette, the University of Chicago law professor who worried how his family would survive if taxes on income above $250,000 went up. Original entry here and main update here.

    A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law who has chosen a comfortable-but-non-big-bucks career path writes in to say:

    >>Seems to me that one of the chief reasons that Whiny Law Professor has such a skewed view of his appropriate peer group has to do with a post-Carnegie* meritocratic brand of ethics, with intelligence substituted for business savvy, that is distressingly common. So it was interesting, and consistent, to see that the wealthier groups were OK with more inequality.

    Basic tenets (both fallacious in my view, but widely held) and notes on each:

        A. The good things in life should accrue to those who possess intelligence and have a generalized ability to succeed in a variety of professions (especially the more scholarly ones). High SAT scorers of the world unite!
         --yes these are virtues, but so are integrity, generosity, charity, family etc..., and these latter ones tend to be admired in principle by the meritocrats but discounted in practice (and there is of course a much longer discussion to be had on whether virtue ought even to be rewarded via socioeconomic factors, or whether virtue is properly its own reward)
         --a very Ivy League view of world
         --in tension with fact that many meritocrats knowingly (sometimes smugly) choose lower-paying jobs that are higher-prestige/more-interesting (professors, writers, government officials)
        - but this just exacerbates the resentment towards college classmates who, though perceived as no smarter or more successful, are making big $$ in boardrooms or on Wall Street

    B. Exaggerated sense of one's own intelligence/generalized-ability-to-succeed
        --caused by fact that life, for some Meritocrats, consists of swimming into smaller and smaller (i.e. more specialized) pools and then mistaking one's size in that pool for size in the much larger (but no longer accessible, as time goes by) general intelligence/general-ability-to-succeed pool.
       --i.e., good college student + really good law school student + professor at top 5 law school = I am not just in top 10% of relevant pool but am top .1% of relevant pool, and deserve to be living a very very special kind of life (but what about all those who became professors at top 5 medical schools, humanities departments, editors at Random House, partners at Cravath, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, holed up at Yaddo, etc....? Easy to forget they exist...)<<

    More to say on this later. I think the analysis rings true. 

    *For extra reference on the "post Carnegie" evolution of the professions, see of course Paul Starr's Social Transformation of American Medicine, plus this in The Atlantic 25 years ago.
  • More on the Wealthy Poor and a "Fair" Society

    People say 'life is unfair,' but they don't know the half of it

    The report I'm about to mention has been actively discussed in other parts of the online world, so by my normal triage rules I shouldn't say anything about it. But I hadn't heard about  it until yesterday, and on the chance that's true for others, I'll point it out.

    The context is the previous discussion, here and here, about the capacity for feeling short-changed and ill-treated, even among some of the most materially-fortunate people ever to live on Earth. No doubt it's a primal human trait, but for various reasons (as explained here) the ever-polarizing distribution of wealth and income in America has allowed more people to feel bad about their own situation by looking at the handful who are stratospherically better off.

    To some extent this is an "information" problem: people don't know where they really stand. A creative way to demonstrate that is with a forthcoming paper by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Daniel Ariely of Duke, which compares: (a) how wealth actually is distributed in America; (b) how people think it's distributed; and (c) how they think it should be distributed. The paper is available in PDF here.

    The chart below conveys the central point: people think the distribution of wealth is more equal than it actually is; and they think it should be much more equal than their already unrealistically-equal notion of its current state. Eg: the top 20% of the US wealth distribution actually controls nearly 85% of total wealth; people think the top 20% controls under 60%; and they think it should control just over 30%


    Similarly: people feel that the bottom 20% of the economic pyramid "should" have about 10% of the total pie; they think it actually has about 3% or 4%; in fact, its share appears to be too small to show up on the chart.

    After the jump, another chart showing how these misperceptions break down among income groups. The de-middle-classing of America is a familiar story, but since it will be seen as one of the huge trends of this stage of history it deserves even more attention than it gets.

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  • Memory Holes, Self-Pitying Professors, and Stoic Chinese

    What a law professor could learn from George Orwell

    (See correcting UPDATE at the end.) Last week I mentioned a post that was then in the process of becoming infamous, by a University of Chicago law professor lamenting how hard it was to make ends meet while being well into the top 1% of the U.S. economic pyramid.

    Soon afterwards he deleted the post and associated comments. He explained the decision here, in another post that I hope some novelist somewhere has copied down for story inspiration.  ("I stand by the posts, the facts in them, and the points they were making. The reason I took the very unusual step of deleting them is because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family. In retrospect, it was a highly effective but incredibly stupid thing to do.") This being the era when nothing ever goes away permanently, the whole original shebang -- initial post, farrago of comments -- is web-cached here.

    As a side note, it turns out that George Orwell's warnings about the "memory hole" were too optimistic. We have the bad side of the memory hole -- basic facts being purged, forgotten, or deleted. Eg, "Don't let the government get its hands on my Medicare." [For another instance, see below.*] But we also have exactly the opposite problem: the un-deletability on into eternity of information that has ever made its way onto the web. People can't remember anything about politics, history, or public life, but they can retrieve everything about someone's personal history.

    Back to the topic: two useful replies to the original "woe is me" post. One, by Brett Arends of the WSJ, is a list of actually-practical steps that the "wealthy poor" could take to avoid the constraints the professor complained about. Congrats to Arends for not just attitudinizing but taking the predicament seriously and looking for alternatives. And after the jump, one explanation for the typically low level of self-pity one encounters in modern China, where objectively there is a lot to complain about.

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  • Mauve Gloves & Madmen, 2010 Version

    Sociology told through household accounts


    [See update below] Self-pity is the great vice. Or entitlement, to give it another name. It's socially un-useful, in making people grasping and uncharitable. And it's personally bad too, in focusing attention on what's not there rather than what is. One of many things I enjoy about modern China is that the average self-pity level there is pretty low.

    The occasion for this homily is a modern counterpart to Mauve Gloves & Madmen. Thirty-plus years after I first read it, I vividly remember that short story of Tom Wolfe's. Its set-up was a stylish and popular and liberal-chic writer going through his checkbook and revealing his life through the deposits and the canceled checks. After the jump, a sample passage.

    Mauve Gloves was in the tradition of great realist or naturalistic fiction that presents character through material circumstances. And now we have an unintentional modern counterpart, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has (unwisely) taken to the internet to explain why, on a household income that must be substantially above $300,000, he is feeling put-upon and strapped.

    The details are here, in the original unwise confession; and here and here, in a merciless dissection by the economist Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley. (Earlier by Michael O'Hare here.) DeLong also very clearly explains how the ever-polarizing distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. makes it easier for everyone to feel deprived. Sample:

    >>By any standard, they [the law professor and his doctor wife] are really rich.

    But they don't feel rich.... Professor Henderson's problem is that he thinks that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month for the $200 restaurant meals, the $1000 a night resort hotel rooms, and the $75,000 automobiles. And even half a million dollars a year cannot buy you all of that.... [DeLong comes up with the $200 meal analogy etc; it is not in the original lament.]

    But why does he think that that is the way things should be?

    And here is the dirty secret: Professor Henderson thinks that that is the way things should be because he knows people for whom that is the way it is.... 

    Professor Henderson in 1980 would have known who the really rich were, and they would on average have had about four times his income--more, considerably more, but not a huge gulf....

    Now fast forward to today.... He doesn't say: "Wow! My real income is more than twice the income of somebody in this slot a generation ago! Wow! A generation ago the income of my slot was only twice that of somebody at the bottom of the 10% wealthy, and now it is 3 1/2 times as much!" For he doesn't look down at the 99% of American households who have less income than he does. And he looks up. And when he looks up today he sees as wide a gap yawning above him as the gap between Dives and Lazarus. Mr. Henderson doesn't look down.

    Instead, Mr. Henderson looks up....  He knows who the really rich are, and they have ten times his income: They have not $450,000 a year. They have $4.5 million a year. And, to him, they are in a different world....

    And this makes him sad. And angry. But, curiously enough, not angry at the senior law firm partners who extract surplus value from their associates and their clients, or angry at the financiers, but angry at... Barack Obama, who dares to suggest that the U.S. government's funding gap should be closed partly by taxing him.<<

    The original statement is worth reading, and has the chance to make the author's name live in a way he didn't intend. After the jump, some Mauve Gloves.

    UPDATE: As of September 20, the University of Chicago law professor, M. Todd Henderson, has taken deleted his posts and associated comments and critiques. Brad DeLong retrieves some of them from the web archives, and adds discussion, here.

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