What’s in a sneer? Part 3: The Status Quo

“We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work [sic] hard, and earned it.”

This quote comes from a well-off person annoyed at the inconvenience of having homeless people show their faces in public. As I read those lines I couldn’t help but notice that the language mirrors the fictional accounts I have described in this mini-series of posts: It is the attitude of the Salary Class towards the Wage Class but in a more advanced state. It’s the natural progression of the mentality which arises when a group finds itself in a position of superiority relative to another.

The quote is taken from the moving story of a member of the Wage Class trying desperately not to slide into outright poverty in the US and is well worth reading in its entirety.

Such stories are not uncommon these days. They describe very accurately the plight of the Wage Class as a group. There is no shortage of statistics to back up these accounts. Even using the official figures, which are systematically distorted to make the results look as good as possible for the government, the middle and lower class has been going backwards for at least two or three decades in the US. The bailout following the GFC further exacerbated this and the failure of the US government to reign in the excesses of the banks has seen income disparity get steadily worse and worse. Couple this with the loss of manufacturing, increasing automation, the increase in part-time work etc. and there is absolutely no doubt that the standard of living of many millions of people has gotten worse. Even life expectancy in certain demographics is falling for the first time in generations.

Given these facts, the rise of a “populist” like Donald Trump doesn’t seem very surprising. In fact, it seems overdue. But it certainly has come as a big surprise to many elites. Jeb Bush’s feeble campaign is one of the great examples of a man who woke up one day in a world that bore no resemblance to the one he knew. I suspect a similar revelation is waiting around the corner for Hillary Clinton. But elites are very far removed from the realities of everyday life and their ignorance is not all that surprising. What is more noteworthy is the reaction of one of the groups relevant to my theme: the Salary Class. Their attitude to Trump could best be described as irrational loathing. Trump has managed to trigger a deep emotional response from the best educated and supposedly most rational group in society. Why is this so?

In previous posts, I have explained how both the economic winners (Salary Class) and losers (Wage Class) make up stories to explain their relative positions. I tried to show how the stories of both groups have their roots in the attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance felt when there is an unanswered question of economic justice. In this post, I will refer to a set of related stories: the stories that make up the wider political discussion in society. I see these stories as a natural extension of the stories told at the individual level.

One of the most important of these is the State of the Union address. I recall one that Obama delivered a few years ago which had as its core message the idea that America was back on track. The GFC was history. Just a little blip on the radar. Everything was returning to “normal”. The middle class was back on its feet. The economic numbers were going in the right direction. A big deal was made about how the US was still making forays into space and was even seeing a resurgence in fossil fuel extraction as the fracking boom kicked into gear. In a strange way, it was a big song and dance trying convince the public that it was the early 80s all over again. This kind of story is the one that has become generally accepted in the public discourse in the years since the GFC.

The Salary Class had no problem with the story. It pretty much described their condition. Maybe a few bankers lost their jobs for a while after the GFC. Maybe there were some layoffs in other professional services, but they quickly bounced back. It was indeed business as usual.

For the Wage Class it was very different. Their jobs did not bounce back. Their conditions did not recover. Reality for them just continued the same downward slide that they had known for decades.

Not only had the economic reality steadily declined for the Wage Class but the offical public discourse had ceased to discuss their problems. It is not hard to see how this state of affairs would exacerbate an already increasingly tense situation. Levels of anxiety, anger and resentment among the Wage Class grew as they not only saw their life prospects get worse but were told by politicians and the media that everything was just as it should be. As more and more people found themselves in precarious economic straits, the number of people disenfranchised by this state of affairs grew.

The same dynamic caused a hardening of attitudes among the Salary Class. As the Salary Class find themselves better off relative to the Wage Class, it’s natural that they explain this in the same way they explained their original ascendance: by reference to intrinsic merit. As income inequality increases, the Salary Class feel themselves more entitled. If the reason they got ahead in the first place was because they were smarter and more hard working, it logically follows that the further ahead they get, the more smarter and hard working they must be. The flip side of the equation is that the Wage Class must be getting stupider and lazier. So stupid and lazy, in fact, that they lost their jobs altogether. The official discourse further reinforces these attitudes. If everything is just as it should be in society, then the people who cannot get by must have something wrong with them.

It is for these reasons that the number one sneer by the Salary Class against Donald Trump and his supporters is that they are stupid. That attitude does not come out of nowhere. It has been around in some form for a long time and a few decades of rising inequality has strengthened it. The relationship between economic reality and the official narrative created a positive feedback loop whereby the latent and not so latent differences between the two classes become further hardened and entrenched.  This is the natural outcome when both the economic reality and the offical discourse are skewed in favour of the Salary Class (or any class for that matter).

It is the self-serving and self-reinforcing nature of this dynamic that led to the inability of both the elites and the Salary Class to see what was coming. Because the official story happened to suit their economic interests, they never questioned it.  It never occurred to them that the same discourse was progressively alienating a large proportion of the voting public. When Trump came along and so expertly manoeuvred into the sweet spot where the beliefs of millions of disenfranchised people lay, they were simply not ready for what happened next.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the stories of the different classes happen to align with their economic interests. These narratives are just post hoc rationalisations of reality and not actual attempts to understand or predict reality. The difference is that the Wage Class has been increasingly disenfranchised while the Salary Class and elites have been happy to sit back and allow that to happen so long as their piece of the pie did not contract. When all’s said and done, it’s still just the economy, stupid.

What we are seeing in this election campaign is exactly what democracy is supposed to achieve. When the direction of the country no longer works in the interests of the majority of the citizens, those citizens should be able to choose a new direction. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.  It’s a feature that Donald Trump is currently exercising to maximal effect. It’s because of this feature that democracies tend to last longer than the alternatives. If democracy were not allowed to right the course of the country, some other release valve would need to be found for these grievances. The most educated members of society appear to be unable to see that. They appear to be unable to see beyond their short-term economic interest. That is the spectacle that Trump has given us and it is a valuable one to understand.

What’s in a sneer? Part 2: The Salary Class

You are hired by a scientific researcher to help out with an experiment. Two people will be brought into a room and will answer a series of pattern recognition problems. The participants will carry out the test on separate computers. They will be asked the same question at the same time and will have a fixed time to answer. They should not collaborate with each other. A light is set up in front of each candidate. It will flash green if they answered correctly and red if they didn’t. Your job is to see who gets more green lights and record the results.

Now, let’s imagine one pair of participants. Candidate 1 gets every question right. Candidate 2 gets every one wrong. Candidate 1 is clearly the better of the two and you record that result. But now something funny happens. Candidate 2 gets upset. She starts calling Candidate 1 an idiot. She calls the questions stupid. She even turns and accuses you of being dumb before storming out of the room. Whatever you think of her and her attitude, you don’t take her outburst seriously. She can’t be so blind not to see that Candidate 1 totally outperformed her. For every question she got wrong, Candidate 1 got it right. Her claims are ridiculous.

This story is analogous to what has occurred on both social and traditional media throughout the current US presidential campaign. As I write this, Donald Trump has just won with a double digit spread in the South Carolina primary after what is now a good 7 or 8 months of consistent performance in full view of the public. Despite Trump’s outstanding results in the polls and at the ballot box, there are still no shortage of people saying how dumb he is. He’s still just one “mistake” away from losing the race. When the Pope comes out with a criticism, even died-in-the-wool atheists implore that THIS time Trump’s done for. These same people have been making these same claims since the beginning of Trump’s campaign. Time after time they have got it wrong while Trump has gone from strength to strength.

The kind of behaviour displayed by both Candidate 2 and the people who are still mocking Trump is symptomatic of cognitive dissonance. When “the real world” contradicts our mental model of it we experience something that is very similar to physical pain. Just like with physical pain, we take action to try and avoid the feeling. As cognitive dissonance is a mental phenomenon, our reaction usually takes the form of thoughts and words. Individual responses to cognitive dissonance vary, but lashing out and blaming others is certainly common. We’ve all met the person who takes out their frustrations on those around them.

In my post prior to this one I outlined what I believe is a case of systemic cognitive dissonance. I made the claim that the sneering of the Wage Class was rooted in a fundamental unanswered question of economic justice that occurs at the heart of modern organisations. A question about “undeserved” rewards flowing to the Salary Class at the expense of the Wage Class. The uncertainty caused by this unanswered question causes cognitive dissonance which in turn finds an outlet in mockery directed at the Salary Class.

Knowing that the sneering of the Wage Class is rooted in cognitive dissonance, we can apply the same method to track down the root cause of the sneering of the Salary Class.

Let’s go back to the example I presented in the last post. Tom has been freshly promoted to the Salary Class. I made the claim that Tom would not be able to explain his promotion in economic terms. He wouldn’t be able to answer the challenges of his old workmates that the Salary Class are “overpaid latte drinking bludgers”. No doubt, as Tom begins his new role he will be very curious to find out whether it is true that his new job is cushier or whether he and his workmates had been wrong in their judgement. Maybe they had missed something. Maybe the Salary Class do in fact work harder.

Tom will almost certainly find that salaried work is indeed easier. He will realise that his new position does in fact require less (real) work for more pay. The unanswered question of economic justice will remain and it will cause cognitive dissonance for Tom just as it had for his workmates. Just like them, we can expect Tom to try to alleviate this cognitive dissonance.

There is, however, a crucial difference between Tom and his old workmates: Tom’s economic interests are now aligned with his new role and new identity. He has already been promoted and can expect further promotions and pay rises if he performs well and pleases his new colleagues and superiors in the Salary Class. Tom is therefore predisposed to find a narrative that puts a positive spin on events. That narrative will need to explain why he “deserves” the rewards that have been bestowed on him. He will tell himself that he is smarter or more skilful or more hard working than the others. It is because of those factors that he got promoted.

[At this point I should note that there is no reason why this story can’t be true. Maybe Tom is smarter and more hardworking. Maybe he isn’t. The point is simply that neither Tom nor his workmates are primarily concerned with the truth. Their stories are designed to alleviate cognitive dissonance. Those stories “work” to the extent that the cognitive dissonance is overcome].

At this point we can see the origins of the Salary Class sneer. Tom’s story is that he is smarter or more capable than the others. It logically follows that they are dumb(er) and less capable. This latent factor will probably remain dormant until such time as Tom is provoked by the others eg. when they mock him for being a bludger. Furthermore, his workmates now have a different explanation of his promotion than he does.  More importantly, it is a story that undermines his position, his identity and his economic interests. It’s a story that Tom cannot agree with. Therefore, they must be dumb. That is what dumb people do: they come up with stories that don’t fit the world. This all follows quite naturally from the situation as described. It is from these origins that the ideological sneer of stupidity arises.

Of course, not every individual case of class distinction is formed in such a “natural” fashion. Over time these distinctions harden into institutions and cultures which perpetuate the story. One of the most important of these is education. An entire system set up to rank people with the “best” jobs as incentives to those who play the game well. However, as G K Chesterton pointed out, the origin of our education system was also economic in nature. In the late 1800s, the number of jobs was shrinking and children and teenagers were increasingly unable to find work. This was causing social unrest and compulsory education was a way to keep kids off the street (and also reduce the influence of the church). Ivan Illich has also pointed out the ideological underpinnings of education. Indeed, it’s probably not too far fetched to say that the education system is the primary ideological battleground of our society.  It also play a key role in perpetuating the economic underpinnings of the class system.

In any case, there is a conclusion: the root cause that gives rise to the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction is economic. Out of the unanswered question of economic justice and the cognitive dissonance that it engenders, two very different stories arise and eventually become entrenched. This state of affairs can continue on for a very long time. In the more fatalistic cultures it can even be reified into religion. But just as these stories began from the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, when those stories are publicly challenged the gates of cognitive dissonance are re-opened. The clue that this is has happened is to be found in outbursts of sneering, mockery and condemnation. Just as Candidate 2 lost the plot in our imaginary story, so the Salary Class has lost it over Donald Trump.

I’ll return to this point in the third (and final) post of this series.


What’s in a sneer? Part 1: The Wage Class

Our myth of social class in Australia is that, if class exists at all, it’s something you can move through freely. We regularly hear of the aspirationals who want to rise through the classes (never of people who drop back down). The implication is that class is something you choose, not something you’re born with. That is the myth.

In this post I want to write about class but not in the usual terms. Instead of defining class by how much you earn, I’m going to define it by how you earn. And instead of discussing the usual factors related to class, I’m going to talk about a very specific behavioural characteristic that has no necessary connection with class but which I think illuminates something important about it: the act of sneering.

Both of these distinctions are inspired by a recent blog post by John Michael Greer. Greer cites four basic ways to earn your income: wages, salaries, investments and government welfare. In this post, I’lI limit my discussions to the two of these that I have the most experience with: wages (the Wage Class) and salaries (the Salary Class).

In his post Greer also remarks about how much of what counts for political discussion in modern America is nothing more than sneering. That has certainly been true of Trump’s candidacy. The sneering and mockery on twitter and even from supposedly reputable news services has been a sight to behold. Otherwise intelligent people have gone to town with such a variety and volume of ad hominem attacks that would have had Aristotle crying into his soup. This public mockery reminded me of something similar I had heard before in the workplace and that is what got me thinking about the Wage Class and the Salary Class as they relate to sneering. I want to suggest the following distinction:-

  • When the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class, it is almost always on economic grounds.
  • When the Salary Class sneers at the Wage Class, it is almost always on ideological grounds.

Let me give an example to demonstrate the first point. While I was at university I took some part-time labouring work in a small manufacturing company. Throughout the day, deliveries and pickups of various items would be made. Usually this was done by couriers and truck drivers but occasionally a smartly dressed type would come by to drop off or collect some smaller item and have a chat with one of our salaried people. One particular workmate of mine, let’s call him Bob, would never fail to make some kind of derogatory remark about the new arrival. One of Bob’s favourite epithets was “arse scratcher”. “Better go help this arse scratcher unload his ute” he might say.

Although Bob was more enthusiastic in his mockery than most, his remarks were in no way uncommon. Go to any factory floor around the country and you won’t have to wait long to hear something similar. The attitude of the Wage Class to the Salary Class can be summarised as “latte drinking overpaid bludgers.” The Salary Class sit around talking and drinking coffee instead of doing “real” work and they get paid more than they deserve. Contribution versus reward. This equation is a fundamental of economic justice and this is what I mean when I say that the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class on economic grounds.

Now here’s the key point: the Wage Class are perfectly entitled to raise this issue of economic justice. There is a lot of prima facie evidence on their side.

Shuffling paperwork, sending emails and taking phone calls is quantitatively less (real) work than lifting, moving, grinding, painting, sanding, drilling or whatever tasks get done on the factory floor. This is true in the physics sense of Force being applied to Objects. Less energy is expended by an office worker than by a labourer or skilled tradesman. There is a basic, everyday sense in which office work simply requires less effort.

This point is uncontroversial. The next point is not.

In a small manufacturing company, the office work is subsidiary to the factory work.

A manufacturing business does not make its money from shuffling paperwork and sending emails. It makes its money from manufacturing stuff. That happens on the factory floor. The workers on the factory floor understand this perfectly well. They are entitled to wonder why it is that one gets “promoted” to a job which appears to generate less value for the company.

These are the issues which lie behind the sneering of the Wage Class. There are important unanswered questions of economic justice that lie right at the heart of the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction and these occur right down the factory floor.

Because these distinctions have been entrenched in society, the original issues are no longer openly discussed. It is this obfuscation which allows the system to be perpetuated. The following thought experiment should demonstrate how this happens:-

Let’s assume there are five guys working together on the factory floor in wage class jobs (I’m going to keep this example to males because I think the kind of behaviour I’m describing is more typically male and it also allows me to sidestep the messy issue of entrenched sexism).

One guy, let’s call him Tom, gets a promotion.  He’ll now move to a managerial position overseeing factory operations (eg. a foreman). He gives up his work on the tools and starts organising, reporting and otherwise supporting the others on the factory floor. What will be the response from Tom’s four workmates to his promotion? I can say with absolute certainty from my experience that Tom will be on the receiving end of some (mostly) good-natured mockery. The more office-like the new job, the more mockery he can expect. And if Tom shows up in a shirt, pants and leather shoes, he can expect a double helping. This mockery will take the form I have described above. Tom is now one of the latte drinkers and he can expect to hear about it in no uncertain terms.

How will Tom respond to their mockery? Will he defend himself? What arguments would he make in his defence?

The key point to be made is that he won’t defend himself. He’ll just take it on the chin. He might make some kind of deflecting statement such as “well, it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it” or “if you guys pick up your game you might be able to follow in my shoes one day.” But what he won’t do is tell his old workmates that they are wrong. He won’t claim that he will now be working harder and that his new job will be more important than theirs.

It is this obfuscation, this refusal to address the underlying issue that perpetuates the system. Even Tom, a guy who only recently would have joined in the mockery of the Salary Class, will not address it. Even if he wanted to defend the promotion, he probably wouldn’t know how.  He might try to quote some economic theory or other to justify it but it is highly likely that he simply couldn’t explain it if he was asked to do so.  It is because the underlying issue of economic justice is not addressed that Bob will go on referring to anybody in a suit and tie as an “arse scratcher”. It is why you can go on to pretty much any factory floor and feel a constant undercurrent of resentment. It is why the Wage Class sneers are almost always economic in nature.

As for Tom, from now on his career prospects are decided by how well he answers to his superiors in the Salary Class and not by whether his old Wage Class friends respect or support him. You can expect his relationship with them to weaken and, if he handles it clumsily, may deteriorate to outright animosity. This is something I have seen with my own eyes. Eventually, Tom may take up a firm identity as a member of the Salary Class and, according to my claim above, he will begin sneering back at the Wage Class on ideological grounds. How this journey happens is something I will address in my next post. In doing that, I hope to come back around to Greer’s point and shed a bit more light on why Donald Trump has tapped into such a rich vein of frustration among the Wage Class in America and why he consistently draws such outright mockery from the Salary Class.


Garden update: summer solstice 2015

First proper growing season for most of the new plantings.  Apples, pears and passionfruit by far the best performers.  The olives started to show growth after the solstice which is interesting.  The pinkalicous did most of it’s growing from late winter to mid spring while the A4 macadamia showed little growth.  The avocados have been disappointing as has the pineapple guava.

Solar Air Heater

I don’t know about other people, but generally I find a pattern with new things that I learn which goes something like this: 1) conceive the general idea; 2) do some basic research; 3) try something out; 4) find out 2 or 3 things you really wish you had known about at step 1.  I’m not sure that this pattern is inevitable. For example, if you have somebody experienced there to teach you, then it shouldn’t happen but that relies of having a good teacher. All too often, teachers don’t teach first principles and so you inevitably have to end up learning them yourself anyway.

So it went with the house renovation and specifically with the idea of energy efficiency. I had thought about that at the time, installed very good insulation, knew the place would be nice and tight at the end etc. Indeed, I had even thought about the attached greenhouse option as a way to add solar heating to the mix. Anyway, as winter started to kick in this year, the issue of heating came up. I should say at this point that winter is my favourite season in Melbourne and I like the cold. Left to my own devices, I don’t use heating. Nevertheless, I realise I’m weird in that respect and so I wanted to see what could be done for sustainable heating for the “average person”.

And so I got on to solar heating and, to cut a long story short, solar air heaters.  Air heaters have a few advantages. They are cheap and relatively easy to make with only basic DIY skills. They generate quite a lot of heat quickly because air heats up fast. And, when built correctly, can last decades and are therefore very cost effective.

There is heaps of info for solar air heaters here and here and I used these sites extensively when planning my build.  For the solar air heater, colder air will come in through the bottom and be pulled to the top via convection current. As it rises it will have to flow through a solar absorber of some kind. In this case, simple flywire screen is highly effective.  The hot air flows out the top and into the space you are trying to heat up.  Very simple idea. Here’s some pics of the build:-

air heater 1I picked up some old flywire screens from the tip shop for a couple of bucks. I thought they would make the job easier but I’m pretty sure just a roll of flywire would be just as easy. You have a strip of wood on either side that the flywire gets attached to. It slopes from front to back so that the air coming in the bottom must go through the flywire. Two or three layers of flywire is recommended. I went with two.

air heater 2You attach the wood strip to the frame and then the flywire to the wood strip.

air heater 3The dimensions are 1200 x 2400.  Glazing goes on the front to allow the sunlight through. I went with some polycarbonate greenhouse panels. The same type I had used to construct my greenhouse and which worked very well for that. On the back, I just put some panels of MDF. Some people like to put rigid fibreglass insulation there but most of those guys seem to come from northern USA where you probably want every drop of heat you can get in mid-winter.

air heater 4An old computer fan to pull the air out. This is one thing I still haven’t fully solved.  The heat gain you get is a function of the temperature rise in the air multiplied by the air flow. Thus, the size of the fan and the size of the outlet become important. With full sun, I get air coming out the top of the heater at about 45 degrees which is not optimal efficiency and means I could get more heat gain if I could increase the airflow.  There are passive designs for the solar air heaters but they require a lot of vent area at the top an the bottom which becomes problematic for attaching to a house.  This fan has a nominal CFM of about 100 so it might be the case that I need to adjust vent size or fan position. Need to look at that more.

air heater 5Speaking of attaching to the house, here it is. Drilling a hole in the wall of a newly renovated house took a leap of faith. In the end it went fairly smoothly.

air heater 6The heater was installed on the winter solstice, but we had beautiful clear skies all day. This was the result at 4.07pm. The heater faces about 15 degrees west of true north and on a clear day it definitely makes a real difference. Even with the right gear, it’s hard to get exact measurements of heat gain but I’m guessing I get about 3 degrees of heat gain to the front of the house.  Of course, that’s on a perfectly clear day and it just so happens that those are quite rare in a typical Melbourne winter. The heater will work in partly cloudy conditions but on heavily overcast and rainy days, it generates no heat.

In summary, this was a fun little project and I’m glad I did it. Since installing the heater and seeing the results, I’ve read up a lot more and done the maths on solar gain versus heat loss and how house orientation and other factors influence the possibility of solar heating of a house.  It turns out that given Melbourne’s solar radiation in winter, the orientation of the house, the shape of the house etc. etc. about the best I could hope for would be maybe 50% solar heating in mid-winter and that would involve having a couple of solar air heaters in addition to solar gain through windows. Ideally, I would have thought about this before doing the renovation as there were a couple of things I could have done to improve this.  But shit happens.  It serves yet again to the prove the truth of that T.S.Elliot line about returning to the place where you started and knowing it for the first time.