Thursday, October 20, 2011

Class warfare without Class and the Virtue of Laziness.

Time TV critic argues that class warfare has returned to TV by citing two examples: Two Broke Girls where two well off college educated girls live as broke hipsters in Williamsburg. You can tell they are hipsters because they constantly make fun of hipsters. The second example is Revenge, about an upper class girl who decides to take revenge on the upper class neighbors who destroyed her life.

To say these shows are about class is plainly absurd. In both cases, it is about upper class girls who happen to be without money at the moment, but not having money does not make them lower class. For Bourdieu, class is about habitus, or having the cultural capital to be able to move unnoticed in an upper class world. That is clearly true for Two Broke Girls (college by itself puts you in the top half of the income distribution and one went to Wharton), and that is the premise of Revenge.

In economics there is a similar concept when we speak of wages. People routinely mistake how much money you have for how well off you are. However, someone's wages are properly how much money they could be making, not how much they actually are. A fresh grad who turns down a $50,000 a year job doing something unpleasant like accounting, to get paid $10,000 making cupcakes or pickles in Williamsburg, is actually making $50,000 per year, its just $40,000 of that compensation is being paid in the form of the non-pecuniary benefits like hanging out with hipsters.

This is important because as Joel Stein noted in the same Time magazine issue, we as a nation have become generally more lazy. We are retiring earlier, we are asking for less responsibility on the job, we are willing to carry less. A farmer who decided to forgo Mexican guest workers to hire some of the many local unemployed had most of them quit the $10.50 an hour job in the first six hours.

Despite Obama complaining that we've been getting Soft, that's actually a good thing. I've calculated that I've turned down quite a substantial amount of money to have a job where I can set my own hours, work on the projects I want and live in an academic environment. It shows that we as a nation have gotten to the point where we appreciate that money is not the most important thing in the world.

What's important about this macroeconomically speaking is that these non-pecuniary shifts have largely gone unmeasured as we point to wage figures that appear to show stagnation. It's funny that those very people that complain that people care too much about money are also the ones who complain that wages are not growing fast enough.
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