Front Row v. Back Row

Allow me to introduce you to Chris Arnade (@chris_arnade), a photographer, writer, and sometime philosopher. I learned about his writing through Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien) on Twitter. (Both are worth a follow if your interest runs to no-nonsense, well-grounded factual story telling and commentary. They work in the non-bullshit zone.)

Here’s a six-minute read by Chris summing up his take on our culture and the politics it has engendered. It’s a quick read and so very worthy of your time, because it hits the bullseye, or better, it hits one of the bullseyes answering the question, “how did we get here?” There is no single answer. This clicked for me, though.

A few excerpts stand out, but this is definitive of his thesis:

We are an extremely divided and unequal country. Divided by race, income, and politics. This election is just another example of that. Yet I believe the most overlooked inequality in our present society is education [emphasis mine – AJR].

How much education you have is a huge factor in how much money you will make. The difference is larger than that though, driving many social differences. As Dr. Andrew Cherlin, professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins, and an expert on Families says, “If there is a class dividing line with respect to families in America is is the four-year college degree.” Put generally, college graduates have more successful and stable marriages, and their children are born into them. Those without college degrees far less so.

The result is two very different ways of living and seeing the world. And very different politics. Education was the biggest driver where Trump over performed.

That last link leads to an unambiguously enlightening report by Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.

Unemployment among those with at least a four-year degree at the height of the recent Great Recession, when headline unemployment (the U4 measure) peaked at 10%, was 4.9%. Note the green line in that graph. It shows U4 peaking at 11% for those with only a high school diploma, higher than the national average for the out-of-work.

U4 typically runs at around 4% for all working-age people over non-recession periods. For those with a degree it jumped 0.9%. For those without it jumped 7%. Higher education in large measure saved your job, if you had it.

Education drives every aspect of life, extending to diet, exercise, health, and mortality.

I have written a lot about this divide, calling those with a four year college degree or more the “Front row kids” and those without much or any college education, the “Back row kids.”

I have also talked about how the divisions between the two groups are not just superficial, but indicate two different ways of finding meaning,

The front row kids (who live in big cities and university towns) primarily find meaning through their careers, and hence through their education. It defines who they are. Their community, and their neighborhoods, are global. They moved towns often for their careers.

The back row primarily finds meaning through their local community, and its institutions like church and sports. They live in places they have long lived in, and their families have lived in. They didn’t leave for education, didn’t leave for jobs.

And, I’d add, in large number the back rowers don’t have much of the former, and are losing the latter.

That, in a nutshell, guided a desperation vote to shake up the American body politic last year. How disappointed and further alienated these voters will be when they learn they hired a grifter, the epitome of what they value least.

Continuing with Chris,

The back row finds valuation less from money and more from the “decency of hard work.” They do this partly because it empowers them, since they don’t have a lot of economic success.

Yet it goes deeper than that. The “decency of hard work” is how the back row defines morality [emphasis mine – AJR], determining who they see as just and who isn’t.

Now to the front row. And here I will use my experience from getting a PhD (Physics) and having lived 20 years in Brooklyn and having working in banking for twenty years (Salomon Brothers bond trader).

In this world valuation primarily comes from education, expertise, and cleverness. The more you know about something — and can prove you know it — the better compensated you are in money AND status.

Put another way, the front row kids reward (to a level of making it “more meaningful”) a life devoted to the intellect.

This isn’t necessarily bad at all, and it doesn’t have to be a source of conflict with the back row [emphasis mine – AJR]. Generally the bulk of the front row kids also value the decency of hard work, and also contribute to making a healthier, just, and better society as defined by the back row. Like Doctors. Engineers. Biologists. Teachers. Etc.

However this obsession with valuation through education/intellect has gone too far, and the front row has become corrupted by a minority who abuse this. That minority is the front row of the front row and hold the most power (think Ivy League, or someone with a post graduate degree.)

In the very front row, valuation of intellect has drifted into including worth through cleverness, for the sake of cleverness alone — regardless of its contribution to society.

Think of financial sector workers, but not the rank and file as much as those who directed the industry. When the crap hit the fan they and their employers were largely saved by golden parachutes and a massive, if necessary to the greater economy, taxpayer funded bailout. The shame wasn’t so much the size of the bailout as the fact that it saved the guilty while so many Americans lost their homes, their wealth, their jobs and health insurance and, in some cases, their lives.

The coup de grâce:

Now there are plenty of front row kids outraged by this. Many doctors, teachers, biologists, etc. People who themselves fully value working hard and playing by the rules.

Yet overwhelmingly the politicians they support — Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio — have accepted (and in most cases promoted) this intellectual grift.

Those of us sneering at the repeated misdirection over Hillary Clinton’s private email server and the attack on our Benghazi diplomatic compound (both of which Republican-led Congressional committees and the FBI cleared her) missed this. Bernie Sanders’ supporters didn’t. The rest threw their vote to a grifter disguised as a man of the people.

Read Chris’s piece on its own, without my commentary. Read more of him at The Guardian.

Also a worthy read: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. This is the largely unknown (by white America) story of American blacks leaving the South in fits and starts, and finally in droves beginning around World War I, then tailing off in the mid-seventies. It’s the story of three emigres, one each from the Twenties, the Thirties, and the Fourties, the harsh squalor they escaped, the hopes they held for their future and where and how they ended up. As compelling as her narrative is Wilkerson’s tone, her care for these people, their story and how they are each depicted within the context of their time.

I’ve also been recommended Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance. It’s a close examination of who we’ve come to refer to, in the wake of our recent election, as those “left behind.” It’s next on my reading list.

#politics #election #trump #gop #democrats #frontrow #backrow #education #jobs #economy #culture

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