Tuesday, May 17, 2005

An autogyro in every hangar?

Battlepanda, Delong and Matt Yglesias all discuss this NYT article about the growing inequality and what the Times writer calls decreasing appearance of class.

What all miss is that the metric of class is the degree of independence from the larger society that individuals are allowed. Looking back at the Gilded Age / Edwardian period, few inventions were not widely available shortly after becoming baubles of the rich. Electrification and telephone networks were initially available in urban centers and available to wide swaths of society, much like today’s cellular and high speed internet networks. However, you would be about as likely to get electrification or long distance telephone service in Ogallala Nebraska in 1905 as Mike Jones would be likely to be able to text message from his T-Mobile Sidekick™ or download his album over high speed lines in 2005. You would be able to buy a Victorola for $15-$300, or about $300-$6,000 in 2005. In addition, like today, luxuries were widely available in smaller quantities. While the rich would have a private fireworks display, performance by musicians or actors, or displays of novelties such as quack science or motion pictures, the public could enjoy similar experiences in public displays or by renting the experience, as in the case of the selling of individual photo portraits, plays on a juke box record player, or purchasing tonics to participate in the latest quack medicine fad.

This difference was especially notable in transportation, where the ability to afford a team of animals to pull a coach for only one person or perhaps a family could be approximate to the ability to afford a private jet or helicopter in 2005. While a middle class individual could possibly afford to rent such a conveyance, he could not afford to purchase for personal use. Before the socio-economic leveling that was the result of WWII, autos were definitely the playthings of the wealthy and not the means of commute for factory workers. There was nothing preventing a worker from buying a house with a yard instead of row house ten feet from the street except that to do so would require moving too far from the rail lines that take him to work. (So maybe the next step is an autogyro in every hangar?)

The bottom line is that the rich did not have any really exclusive experiences except scale, but because of that scale, the rich were able to construct a bubble around themselves, a sort of alternate society where they could live free of the restrictions that were increasingly necessary to impose on the rest of society due to the growing resource consumption of the top. While the Edwardians were busy nailing actresses behind the backs of the Victorian morals enforcers, the common people could not afford such indiscretions. While the Gilded isolated themselves from the rest of society, social ills like police corruption and environmental pollution became the problems exclusively of the poor as the rich could isolate themselves with private security and better transportation (to the country estate). Looking at the situation on the Isle of Manhattan, where a person educated on the luxurious consumption of wine can make more then a middle class family in Philadelphia, it seems a new bubble has formed. Indeed, is it more likely that video tape duster is able to enjoy a few “bowls” without fearing a piss test or the “Chet” that does the I-Banking for Blockbuster? Is it more likely that you, dear reader, or Paris Hilton, a nubile young female whose nakedness has already been exposed to the world on several of the internets, will suffer the indignities of a strip search in the name of Fatherland Homeland security on a trip from the East Coast to the West Coast?

This is not to say that there is a hard and fast line. There is a sliding scale from less police harassment and better schools to walking around the metal detectors. Does this imply that there are no class distinctions? Maybe. But it certainly suggests that income inequality is problematic even if there do not exists rigid discreet segments of society with widely divergent experiences.


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