In discussion of Occupy Wall Street, McMansions seen as part of the culture war

As part of a larger fascinating discussion about who the members of Occupy Wall Street actually are (the almost-elite versus the elite?), Megan McArdle suggests McMansions are part of the larger culture war in the United States:

Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen. And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people. I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.

Some of my former classmates now live in flyover country, of course, but mostly, I think, they just didn’t care. No one seemed very interested in the culture war.

So why does that same culture war seem so important to so many of the people that I know in New York and DC? (“The intellectuals”, as one of my classmates laughingly called us, when I started dropping statistics in the middle of cocktail chitchat, and then lamely explained that this is kind of what passes for fascinating small talk in DC.)

It’s not entirely crazy to suspect, as Orwell did, that this has something to do with money. Specifically, you sneer at the customs of the people you might be mistaken for. For aside from a few very stuffy conservatives, no white people I know sneer at hip-hop music, telenovelas, Tyler Perry films, or any of the other things often consumed by people of modest incomes who don’t look like them. They save it for Thomas Kinkade paintings, “Cozy cottage” style home decoration, collectibles, child beauty pageants, large pickup trucks***, and so forth.

It is fascinating to think about the comments that McArdle describes: in some circles, there is a different set of profane objects while such objects barely rate as topics among “average” people in middle America. Being in academia also leads to hearing more of such comments. I would add Walmart in as another significant “cultural signifier” in these conversations.

McMansions is an interesting addition to this group. There is often quite a bit of scorn intended when using this term. Of course, most people in flyover country don’t own McMansions (though perhaps they aspire to own them) but many communities allow them. I have found that the use of the term McMansion is often tied to sprawl, another issue that can separate the big cities from flyover country. McMansions are often seen as a part of the larger package of sprawl which includes an emphasis on cars, big houses, a waste of natural resources, and a lack of beauty and quality.

I don’t know if she knows it but it sounds like McArdle is making Bourdieu’s argument: those with more education look at aesthetics and a deeper understanding of objects while those with more money purchase for functionality. Take a McMansion: someone with more education might note its lack of quality, its contribution to sprawl, and wish for an architect-designed home. Someone with more money might note that you can have eight family members easily fit in the home and each can have their own bedroom, bathroom space, and play space.

A side note: I did have to laugh when McArdle suggests that dropping statistics into conversation is also a signifier. If so, I am guilty…

(A caveat: these sorts of flyover country/big city or red vs. blue state dichotomies are always more complex than they are commonly presented in public discourse. But just because they are broad terms describes tens of millions of people doesn’t mean that there isn’t necessarily some truth to them.)

David Brooks: blue inequality versus red inequality (exemplified by places like Naperville)

David Brooks approaches inequality in America a little differently than the 1% vs. 99% of Occupy Wall Street. He suggests that there are two big kinds of inequality and the suburban/smaller city kind is more important:

In the first place, there is what you might call Blue Inequality. This is the kind experienced in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and the District of Columbia. In these places, you see the top 1 percent of earners zooming upward, amassing more income and wealth…

Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It’s between those with a college degree and those without. Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible…

[Compared to the attention paid to the wealthiest 1%], the fact is that Red Inequality is much more important. The zooming wealth of the top 1 percent is a problem, but it’s not nearly as big a problem as the tens of millions of Americans who have dropped out of high school or college. It’s not nearly as big a problem as the 40 percent of children who are born out of wedlock. It’s not nearly as big a problem as the nation’s stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.

Interesting analysis. Some quick thoughts:

1. Though I didn’t quote it above, Brooks argues further that getting mad at the 1% is easier than dealing with issues like family and education that affect so many people. Brooks is probably right here. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people shouldn’t be upset about the top 1%  but Brooks is suggesting they could do much more good focusing on the bigger, yet more difficult to deal with, issues.

2. Is Brooks dealing with the same kind of concerns expressed in the Moynihan Report that was vilified for years?

3. If Brooks thinks that college is the answer, I’d be interested to see his plan of action in order to pay for all of this and provide the educations necessary to getting to a college experience. Brooks is not alone in suggesting college is the answer but this is not an easy plan to accomplish either.

4. It is interesting that Naperville is mentioned among other Red State cities. Naperville is located in a clearly Republican county (though the Republican lead isn’t what it used to be) but is also in a state that consistently has gone Democratic in recent years. Additionally, Naperville is wealthier than the other cities Brooks lumps it in with: the median household income is just over $100,00o in a city of over 140,000 people . Within these red states, Naperville would be a good example of a place that has thrived with college educated residents with many of them working in professional or high-tech positions either in Naperville or nearby suburbs.