The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S.

Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class. I’ll attempt to explain how this three-ladder system works, what it means, and also why it is a source of conflict. The ladders I will assign the names Labor, Gentry, and Elite. My specific percentage estimates of each category are not derived from anything other than estimation based on what I’ve seen, and my limited understanding of the macroeconomics of income in the United States, so don’t take them for more than an approximation. I’ll assess the social role of each of these classes in order, from bottom to top.

This is, one should note, an exposition of social class rather than income. Therefore, in many cases, precise income criteria cannot be defined, because there’s so much more involved. Class is more sociological in nature than wealth or income, and much harder to change. People can improve their incomes dramatically, but it’s rare for a person to move more than one or two rungs in a lifetime. Social class determines how a person is perceived, that person’s access to information, and what opportunities will be available to a person.

Underclass (10%). The underclass are not just poor, because there are poor people on the Labor ladder and a few (usually transiently or voluntarily) on the Gentry ladder who are poor. In fact, most poor Americans are not members of the Underclass. People in the Underclass are generationally poor. Some have never held jobs. Some are third-generation jobless, even. Each of these ladders (Labor, Gentry, Elite) can be seen as an infrastructure based, in part, on social connections. There are some people who are not connected to any of these infrastructures, and they are the underclass.

The Labor Ladder (65%). This represents “blue-collar” work and is often associated with “working class”, but some people in this distinction earn solidly “middle-class” incomes over $100,000 per year. What defines the Labor ladder is that the work is seen as a commodity, and that there’s rarely a focus on long-term career management. People are assessed based on how hard they work because, in this world, the way to become richer is to work more (not necessarily more efficiently or “smarter”). The Labor ladder is organized almost completely based on income; the more you make (age-adjusted) the higher your position is, and the more likely it is that your work is respected.

Secondary Labor (L4, 30%) is what we call the “working poor”. These are people who earn 1 to 3 times the minimum wage and often have no health benefits. Many work two “part time” jobs at 35 hours per week (so their firms don’t have to provide benefits) with irregular hours. They have few skills and no leverage, so they tend to end up in the worst jobs, and those jobs enervate them so much that it becomes impossible for them to get the skills that would help them advance. The reason for the name Secondary in this class is that they are trapped in the “secondary” labor market: jobs originally intended for teenagers and well-off retirees that were never intended to pay a living wage. Wages for this category are usually quoted hourly and between $5 and $15 per hour.

Primary Labor (L3, 20%) is what we tend to associate with “blue-collar” America. If by “average” we mean median, this is the average social class of Americans, although most people would call it working class, not middle. It usually means having enough money to afford an occasional vacation and a couple restaurant meals per month. People in the L3 class aren’t worried about having food to eat, but they aren’t very comfortable either, and an ill-timed layoff can be catastrophic. If the market for their skills collapses, they can end up falling down a rung into L4. When you’re in the Labor category, market forces can propel you up or down, and the market value of “commodity” labor has been going down for a long time. Typical L3 compensation is $20,000 to $60,000 per year.

In the supposed “golden age” of the United States (the 1950s) a lot of people were earning L2 compensation for L3 work. In a time when well-paid but monotonous labor was not considered such a bad thing (to people coming off the Great Depression and World War II, stable but boring jobs were a godsend) this was seen as desirable, but we can’t go back to that, and most people wouldn’t want to. Most Millennials would be bored shitless by the jobs available in that era that our society occasionally mourns losing.

High-skill Labor (L2, 14%) entails having enough income and job security to be legitimately “middle class”. People in this range can attend college courses, travel internationally (but not very often) and send their children to good schools. Plumbers, airline pilots, and electricians are in this category, and some of these people make over $100,000 per year. For them, there must be some barrier to entry into their line of work, or some force keeping pay high (such as unionization). Within the culture of the Labor ladder, these people are regarded highly.

Labor Leadership (L1, 1%) is the top of the Labor ladder, and it’s what blue-collar America tends to associate with success. (The reason they fail to hate “the 1%” is that they think of L1 small business owners, rather than blue-blooded parasites, as “rich people”.) These are people who, often through years of very hard work and by displaying leadership capability, have ascended to an upper-middle-class income. They aren’t usually “managers” (store managers are L2) but small business owners and landlords, while they’re often seen doing the grunt work of their businesses (such as by running the register when all the cashiers call in sick). They can generate passive income from endeavors like restaurant franchises and earn a solidly upper-middle income standing, but culturally they are still part of Labor. This suits them well, because where they excel is at leading people who are in the Labor category.

The Gentry Ladder (23.5%). England had a landed gentry for a while. We have an educated one. Labor defines status based on the market value of one’s commodity work. The Gentry rebels against commoditization with a focus on qualities that might be, from an extensional perspective, irrelevant. They dislike conflict diamonds, like fair-trade coffee, and drive cultural trends. In the 1950s, they were all about suburbia. In 2012, they had the same enthusiasm for returning to the cities. They value themselves not based on their incomes but, much more so, on access to respected institutions: elite universities, leading technology companies, museums and artistic endeavors. Labor aspires to occupational success and organizational leadership, while the Gentry aspires to education and cultural leadership.

Before going further, it’s worth noting that the typical socioeconomic ordering would have each Gentry level two levels above the corresponding Labor level in social standing. Thus, G1 > G2 > (G3 ~= L1) > (G4 ~= L2) > L3 > L4.

Transitional Gentry (G4, 5%) is the lowest rung of the Gentry ladder. Typically, I think of community colleges when trying to explain G4. It’s the class of people who are coming into the Gentry, usually from L2, and most people in it are looking to attain G3 (and many do). Since the Gentry is defined by education, culture, and cultural influence, earning a four-year degree (which about 20% of American adults have) will usually put a person solidly into G3.

Mobility between G4 and L2 is common, and G4 is a “young people” class, because people who don’t keep abreast of politics, current events, and at least the “upper-middle-brow” culture of shows like Mad Men [0] tend to return to L2 (which is not an inferior class, but an approximately-equal one with different values). Those who keep up tend to progress to G3.

[0] A couple of people have emailed me to ask why I “knocked” Mad Men. That wasn’t my intention. It’s an excellent show. “Upper-middle-brow” is not panning. I’m lower-middle-brow on a good day.

Primary Gentry (G3, 16%) is what Americans think of as the cultural “upper-middle class”. They have four-year college degrees and typically have professional jobs of middling autonomy and above-average income, but usually not leadership positions. Incomes in this class vary widely (in part, because the Gentry is not defined by income) but generally fall between $30,000 and $200,000 per year. People in this class tend to be viewed as taste-setters by Labor but are viewed as gauche by the higher-ranking G1 and G2 classes.

High Gentry (G2, 2.45%) tend to come from elite colleges and traditionally gravitated toward “junior executive” roles in medium-sized companies, innovative startups, management consultancies, and possibly investment banking (which facilitates the G2-E4 transition). But G2’s wouldn’t be caught dead in jobs that seem perfectly fine to G3’s, which they view (often rightly) to be dead ends. Having interesting, respected work is important to G2’s. To a G2, being a college professor, scientist, entrepreneur, or writer are desirable jobs. Creative control of work is important to G2’s, although not all are able to get it (because creative jobs are so rare). David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise captured well the culture of G2’s in that time. Members of this social class aggressively manage their careers to get the most out (in terms of intellectual and financial reward) of their careers, but what they really want is enough success and money to do what they really value, which is to influence culture.

G2 is my native social class, and probably that of most of my readers.

Cultural Influencers (G1, 0.05%) are the pinnacle of the Gentry. Jon Stewart is a classic example. He probably makes a “merely” upper-middle-class income working for the notoriously cheap Comedy Central, but he has the most well-regarded members of the intelligentsia on his show every night. For G1, I’m not talking about “celebrities”. Celebrities are a bizarre and tiny category that mixes all three ladders (I’d argue that they’re the upper tier of L1; most lack the power of Elites and the refinement of the Gentry). Rather, I’m talking about people who are widely recognized as smart, knowledgeable, creative, and above all, interesting. They tend also to have access to other interesting people. G1’s are not “famous” in the celebrity sense, and most of them aren’t that rich. I’d guess that their incomes vary mostly from $100,000 to $1 million per year, which is low for a social class that is so difficult to enter (much harder than E4, and possibly E3, to get into).

It’s quite likely that G1 is expanding, and it was probably much smaller in the past. The internet is allowing more people to become well-known and have some degree of cultural influence. Many bloggers have entered G1 without relying on established institutions such as publishers or universities (which used to be the only way). That said, G1 requires reliability in attention; people having their 15 minutes don’t count.

The Elite Ladder (1.5%). This is an infrastructure “at the top of society”, but many of the people it includes are in many ways nowhere near the top. People complain about “the 1 percent”, but the reality is that most of that top 1.0% are nowhere near controlling positions within society.

Not all of the Elite are in the top 1% for income, but most will have the opportunity to be. The Elite includes everyone from billionaires to out-of-college investment banking analysts (who earn a middle-class income in one of the most expensive cities on the planet). What they have in common is that they are exerting themselves toward ownershipLabor provides the work and values effort and loyalty. The Gentry provides culture and it values education and creativity. The Elite owns things and values control and establishment.

As with the Gentry and Labor, when comparing these ladders, one should consider an Elite rung to be two levels above the corresponding Gentry rung, so in terms of social standing, E1 > E2 > (E3 ~= G1) > (E4 ~= G2) > G3 > G4.

The Strivers (E4, 0.5%) are another transitional class that is generally for young people only. They aren’t actually Elite, but they might, if lucky, move into E3. Junior investment bankers, law firm associates, and young startup entrepreneurs are in this category. They’re trying to “break in” to something rich and successful. If they get in, they’ll become solid E3. If they fail in doing so, they usually return to G2: upper-middle-class professionals not strongly bound to the Elite infrastructure. G2 is usually a happier place than E4, but E3’s and E4’s tend to deride this transition. In startups, a business move favoring this step (toward G1-2 upper-middle-class stability) is derided as a “lifestyle business”.

Elite Servants (E3, 0.8%) are the law-firm partners and senior investment bankers and corporate executives that might be called the “working rich” and they comprise what was once called the “white-shoe” culture. They’re quite well-off, as far as servants go, often earning incomes from $200,000 to $5 million per year, but their social standing is conditional. They serve the rich, and the rich have to keep finding them useful for them to maintain their place. It’s not an enviable place to be, because the social expectations associated with maintaining E3 status require high spending, and even the extremely well-compensated ($1 million per year and up) E3’s rarely have the savings to survive more than a year or two without a job, because of the need to maintain connections. E3’s tend to have as many money problems as people in the lower social classes. E3’s also suffer because they live in a “small world” society driven by reputation, long-standing grudges and often petty contempt. E3’s still get fired– a lot, because the pretense that justifies E3-level status (of a large-company “executive”) requires leadership and many don’t have it– and when it happens to them, they can face years during which they can’t find appropriate employment.

People tend to think of face leaders (politicians and CEOs) as belonging to a higher social class, but most are E3. If they were higher, they wouldn’t have to work so hard to be rich. Examining our most recent presidents, Barack Obama is G1, the George Bushes were E2, Bill Clinton was E3, and Reagan was in the celebrity category that is a hybrid of E3 and L1. John Kennedy was E2, while Lyndon Johnson was L1. Most CEOs, however, are strictly E3, because CEOs are “rubber gloves” that are used for dirty work and thrown aside if they get too filthy. There’s too much reputation risk involved in being a corporate CEO for an E2 to want the job under most circumstances.

National Elite (E2, 0.19%) are what most Americans think of as “upper class” or “old money”. They have Roman Numerals in their names, live in the Hamptons (although they’ve probably stopped using “summer” as a verb now that “the poors” know about it) and their families have attended Ivy League colleges for generations. They’re socially very well connected and have the choice not to work, or the choice to work in a wide array of well-compensated and highly-regarded jobs. Rarely do they work full time under traditional employment terms– never as subordinates, sometimes as executives in an apprentice role, often in board positions or “advisory” roles. It’s uncommon that an E2 will put a full-time effort into anything, because their objective with work is to associate their names with successful institutions, but not to get too involved.

To maintain E2 status, being wealthy is required. It takes about $500,000 per year, after tax, in income at a minimum. However, it’s not hard for a person with E2 status and connections to acquire this, even if the family money is lost. The jobs that E3’s regard as the pinnacle of professional achievement (the idea that such a notion as “professional achievement” exists is laughable to them; paid full-time work is dishonorable from an E2 perspective) are their safety careers.

Global Elite (E1, ~60,000 people worldwide, about 30% of those in the U.S.) are a global social class, and extremely powerful in a trans-national way. These are the very rich, powerful, and deeply uncultured barbarians from all over the world who start wars in the Middle East for sport, make asses of themselves in American casinos, rape ski bunnies at Davos, and run the world. Like the Persian army in 300, they come from all over the place; they’re the ugliest and most broken of each nation. They’re the corporate billionaires and drug kingpins and third-world despots and real estate magnates. They’re not into the genteel, reserved “WASP culture” of E2’s, the corporate earnestness and “white shoe” professionalism of E3’s, or the hypertrophic intellectualism and creativity of G1’s and G2’s. They are all about control, and on a global scale. To channel Heisenberg, they’re in the empire business. They aren’t mere management or even “executives”. They’re owners. They don’t care what they own, or what direction the world takes, as long as they’re on top. They almost never take official executive positions within large companies, but they make a lot of the decisions behind the scenes.

Unlike the National Elite, who tend toward a cultural conservatism and a desire to preserve certain traits that they consider necessary to national integrity, the Global Elite doesn’t give a shit about any particular country. They’re fully multinational and view all the world’s political nations as entities to be exploited (like everything else). They foster corruption and crime if it serves their interests, and those interests are often ugly. Like Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, their reason for living is to create monuments to nonexistence.

For the other social classes, there’s no uniform moral assumption that can apply. G1’s are likable and often deserving cultural leaders, but sometimes foolish, overrated, incompetent, infuriatingly petty, and too prone to groupthink to deserve their disproportionate clout. G2’s tend to have the best (or at least most robust) taste, because they don’t fall into G1 self-referentiality, but can be just as snooty and cliquish. As “pro-Gentry” as I may seem, it’s a massive simplification to treat that set as entirely virtuous. Likewise, the lower elite ranks (E2, E3, E4) also have their mix of good and bad people. There are E2’s who want to live well and decently, E3’s trying to provide for their families, and E4’s trying to get in because they were brought up to climb the ladder. On the other hand, E1 is pretty much objectively evil, without exceptions. There are decent people who are billionaires, so there’s no income or wealth level at which 100% objective evil becomes the norm. But if you climb the social ladder, you get to a level at which it’s all cancer, all the way up. That’s E1. Why is it this way? Because the top end of the world’s elite is a social elite, not an economic one, and you don’t get deep into an elevated social elite unless you are very simliar to the center of that cluster, and for the past 10,000 years the center of humanity’s top-of-the-top cluster has always been deep, featureless evil: people who burn peasants’ faces off because it amuses them. Whether you’re talking about a real person like Hitler, Stalin, Erik Prince, Osama bin Laden, or Kissinger, or a fictional example like The Joker, Kefka, Walter White, or Randall Flagg; when you get to the top of society, it’s always the same guy. Call it The Devil, but what’s scary is that it needs (and has) no supernatural powers; it’s human, and while one its representatives might get knocked off, another one will step up.

Ladder conflict. What does all this mean? How do these ladders interrelate? Do these three separate social class structures often find themselves at odds and fight? Can people be part of more than one?

What I’ve called the Labor, Gentry, and Elite “ladders” can more easily be described as “infrastructures”. For Labor, this infrastructure is largely physical and the relevant connection is knowing how to use that physical device or space, and getting people to trust a person to competently use (without owning, because that’s out of the question for most) these resources. For the Gentry, it’s an “invisible graph” of knowledge and education and “interestingness”, comprised largely of ideas. For the Elite, it’s a tight, exclusive network centered on social connections, power, and dominance. People can be connected to more than one of these infrastructures, but people usually bind more tightly to the one of higher status, except when at the transitional ranks (G4 and E4) which tend to punt people who don’t ascend after some time. The overwhelmingly high likelihood is that a person is aligned most strongly to one and only one of these structures. The values are too conflicting for a person not to pick one horse or the other.

I’ve argued that the ladders connect at a two-rung difference, with L2 ~ G4, L1 ~ G3, G2 ~ E4, and G1 ~ E3. These are “social equivalencies” that don’t involve a change in social status, so they’re the easiest to transitions to make (in both directions). They represent a transfer from one form of capital to another. A skilled laborer (L2) who begins taking night courses (G4) is using time to get an education rather than more money. Likewise, one who moves from the high gentry (G2) to a 90-hour-per-week job in private wealth management (E4) is applying her refined intellectual skills and knowledge to serving the rich, in the hope of making the connections to become one of them.

That said, these ladders often come into conflict. The most relevant one to most of my readers will be the conflict between the Gentry and the Elite. The Gentry tends to be left-libertarian and values creativity, individual autonomy, and free expression. The Elite tends toward center-right authoritarianism and corporate conformity, and it views creativity as dangerous (except when applied to hiding financial risks or justifying illegal wars). The Gentry believes that it is the deserving elite and the face of the future, and that it can use culture to engineer a future in which its values are elite; while the upper tier of the Elite finds the Gentry pretentious, repugnant, self-indulgent, and subversive. The relationship between the Gentry and Elite is incredibly contentious. It’s a cosmic, ubiquitous war between the past and the future.

Between the Gentry and Labor, there is an attitude of distrust. The Elite has been running a divide-and-conquer strategy between these two categories for decades. This works because the Elite understands (and can ape) the culture of the Gentry, but has something in common with Labor that sets the categories apart from the Gentry: a conception of work as a theater for masculine dominance. This is something that the Elite and Labor both believe in– the visceral strength and importance of the alpha-male in high-stakes gambling settings such as most modern work– but that the Gentry would rather deny. Gender is a major part of the Elite’s strategy in turning Labor against the Gentry: make the Gentry look effeminate. That’s why “feminist” is practically a racial slur, despite the world desperately needing attention to women’s political equality, health and well-being (that is, feminism).

The Elite also uses the Underclass in a different process: the Elite wants Labor think the Gentry intends to conspire with the Underclass to dismantle Labor values and elevate these “obviously undeserving” people to, at least, the status of Labor if not promoted above them. They exploit fear in Labor. One might invoke racism and the “Southern strategy” in politics as an example of this, but the racial part is incidental. The Elite don’t care whether it’s blacks or Latinos or “illigals” or red-haired people or homosexuals (most of whom are not part of the Underclass) that are being used to frighten Labor into opposing and disliking the Gentry; they just know that the device works and that it has pretty much always worked.

The relationship between the Gentry and Elite is one of open rivalry, and that between the Gentry and Labor is one of distrust. What about Labor and the Elite? That one is not symmetric. The Elite exploit and despise Labor as a class comprised mostly of “useful idiots”. How does Labor see the Elite? They don’t. The Elite has managed to convince Labor that the Gentry (who are open about their cultural elitism, while the Elite hides its social and economic elitism) is the actual “liberal elite” responsible for Labor’s misery over the past 30 years. In effect, the Elite has constructed an “infinity pool” where the Elite appears to be a hyper-successful extension of Labor, lumping these two disparate ladders into an “us” and placing the Gentry and Underclass into “them”.

Analysis of current conflict.

Despite its upper ranks being filled by people who are effectively thugs, the Elite isn’t entirely evil. By population, most of them are merely E3 and E4 stewards with minimal decision-making power, and a lot of those come from (and return to) the Gentry and maintain those values. On the other hand, Elite values tend to be undesirable, because at that structure’s pinnacle are the E1 crime bosses. There are good people within the Elite, even though the Elite itself is not good.

For virtue, the Gentry does better. I don’t want to fall into the American fallacy of conflating “middle class” with virtue, and there are some awful and good people in all social classes, but I think that the Gentry is a more inclusive and reflective elite– one of ideas and values, not based on exclusivity.

One Gentry stronghold for a long time has been high technology, a meritocracy where skill, know-how, and drive enabled a person to rise to technical leadership of increasing scope and eventually business leadership and entrepreneurship. This created the engineering culture of Hewlett-Packard (before Fiorina) and the “Don’t Be Evil” mantra of Google. This is Gentry culture asserting itself. Be ethical, seek positive-sum outcomes, and win by being great rather than by harming, robbing, or intimidating others. It’s not how business is practiced in most of the world– zero-sum thuggery is a lot more common– but it’s how great businesses are made. This weird world in which self-made success was regarded higher than entrenchment, symbolized in Silicon Valley, enabled people from the Gentry to become very rich and Gentry ideas to establish lasting success in business.

What has made America great, especially from 1933 until now, has been the self-assertion of the Gentry following the defeat of the Elite. The first half of the American Era (1933 to 1973) utterly emasculated the Elite. Their rapacious greed and world-fucking parasitism was repaid with 90-percent tax rates, and they told to consider themselves lucky that it wasn’t full-on socialism (or a violent revolution in which they all died, Paris-1793-style). The so-called “WASP culture” of the E2 class derives many of its norms from the paranoia of that period (when the global elite was very small, and they were the “robber baron” elite). For example, the demand that a house not be visible from the road comes from a time in which that was physically dangerous. This four-decade curtailment of the American Elite, and the more resounding destruction of the European ones, was one of the best things that ever happened to the world. It made the golden age of Silicon Valley possible.

There are a lot of reasons why this “golden age” of a disempowered Elite was able to occur, but World War II was the biggest of all of them. Future historians will probably regard the two World Wars as one monstrous conflict, with a period of crippling, worldwide economic depression between them. Few disagree with the claim, for example, that the resolution of the First World War led inexorably to the evils of totalitarianism and the Second of these wars. This giant and largely senseless conflict’s causes seem complex– historians are still debating World War I’s inception– but the short version is that the world’s Elites did that. There was a 30-year period of war, famine, poverty, racial pogroms, and misery that existed largely because a network of high-level obligations and horrendous ideas (especially the racism used to justify colonialism, which benefitted the rich of these societies enormously, but sent the poor to die in unjust wars, contract awful diseases for which they had no immunity, and commit atrocities) set the conditions up. After about a hundred million deaths and thirty tears of war, societies finally decided, “No More”. They dismantled their Elites vigorously, North American and European nations included. This became the “golden age” of the educated Gentry. In the U.S. (for which the 1950s were a decade of prosperity; in Europe, it was a period of rebuilding and not very prosperous) it was also the “golden age of the middle class”.

However, the Elite has brought itself back to life. This Gilded Age isn’t as bad as the last one, but it’s heading that way. It started in the late 1970s when the U.S. fell in love again with elitism: Studio 54, cocaine– a drug that captures the personality of that cultural change well, because its effect is to flood the brain with dopamine, causing extreme arrogance– and “trickle-down economics”.

Assessing the present state of conflict requires attention to what each party wants. What does the Gentry want? The Gentry has a strange, love-hate relationship with capitalism. Corporations are detested (even more than they deserve) by this class and most people in the Gentry want the U.S. to look more like Europe: universal healthcare, decent vacation allotments, and cheap, ecologically sound high-speed trains. This might give the impression of a socialist bent, and that impression’s not wrong. Yet their favorite places are New York (the center of capitalism) and Silicon Valley (also fiercely capitalistic). Although left-leaning, the Gentry are strong champions for non-corporate capitalism. There is no contradiction here. European social democracies have also managed to create hybrid systems that combine the safety and infrastructure of socialism with the innovation and individual liberty of capitalism: the best of both worlds.

For a contrast, what the Elite has been pushing for is the worst of both worlds, at least for average people. The truth of corporate “capitalism” is that it provides the best of both systems (socialism and capitalism) for the Elite and the worst of both for everyone else. It’s a welfare state in which only very well-connected people are citizens, it favors command economies (which are what most corporations are, internally) and it stifles the positive-sum innovation that is capitalism’s saving grace. The upper tier of society wants social stability for themselves (to stay in and keep others out) but they favor extreme economic variability (also known as “inequality”) because it gives them more opportunities to exploit their social status for economic gain (read: private-sector corruption).

Air travel in the contemporary U.S. is an illustrative example of this “worst of both worlds” scenario: the pricing is erratic, unreasonable, and even a bit mean-spirited, which shows the volatility of capitalism, while the low quality of service and the abysmal morale of the industry feel like direct transplants from the Soviet Union.

The future.

A major battle is coming, with all three of these categories (Labor, Gentry, and Elite) involved. The Gentry and the Elite are at fundamental opposites on the type of society they want to see and, for decades, the Elite has been winning, but their victories are becoming harder to win as technology opens up the world. Labor might seem like a nonparticipant in the ideological battles, but they comprise most of the casualties, and they’ve seen shells land in their backyard (especially if they live in Detroit). Not only are they losing their jobs and social status, but their communities have been demolished.

Something else is happening, which is relevant both in a macrohistorical sense and to the U.S. in 2012. One way to divide human history is into three eras: pre-Malthusian, trans-Malthusian, and post-Malthusian. I refer, of course, to the prediction of Thomas Malthus, early in the Industrial Revolution, that population growth in contemporary societies would lead to a catastrophe because population grew exponentially, while economic growth was linear. He was wrong. Economic growth has always been exponential, but for most of human history it has had a very slow (under 1% per year) exponential curve– slower than population growth, and slow enough to look linear. His mathematical model was wrong, but his conclusion– that population grows until it is checked (i.e. people die) by disease, famine, and war– was true in nature and of almost every human society from the dawn of time to about 1800. He was wrong that it would afflict England and the richer European countries in the mid-19th century– because the Industrial Revolution accelerated economic growth enough to prevent a global Malthusian crunch. On the other hand, there were local Malthusian catastrophes. Ireland endured severe poverty and oppression, colonialism was deeply horrible and did, in fact, represent many of the vices Malthus warned about.

The world was pre-Malthusian when societies were doomed to grow faster in population than in their ability to support it. This led, over the millennia, to certain assumptions about society that can be categorized as “zero-sum”. For one tribe to take care of its young, another tribe must lose wealth or be destroyed. For English to be rich, Irish must starve. For Southern whites to live well, blacks must be slaves. For capital to be profitable, labor must be exploited. If Catholic Spain has one colony, Protestant England must have more. For the German people to have “lebensraum”, Central European countries must be invaded and their inhabitants killed. “Medieval” horrors were an artifact of the Malthusian reality of that time, but such atrocities continued even as the long-standing Malthusian inequality (population growth being greater than economic growth) reversed itself.

We are now in a trans-Malthusian state, and have been for about two hundred years. Global economic growth is now over 4% per year, which is the fastest it has ever been, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. The world has a lot of problems, and there are pockets of severe decay, corruption, and poverty; but on the whole, it’s becoming a better place, and at an accelerating (hyper-exponential) rate. The world is no longer intrinsically Malthusian, but pre-Malthusian attitudes still dominate, especially at the pinnacles of our most successful societies. This shouldn’t be shocking, because the very traits (especially, low empathy and greed) that would be required to succeed in a zero-sum world are still strong in our upper classes. This legacy won’t go away overnight. The people haven’t changed very much. Pre-Malthusian fearmongering is also very effective on less intelligent people, who haven’t figured out that the world has changed in the past two hundred years. They still believe in the zero-sum world wherein, if “illigal” immigrants “take all the jobs”, middle-class white people will starve.

The trans-Malthusian state is, I believe, intrinsically more volatile than a pre-Malthusian one. Technology is causing the job market to change faster, but this paradoxically makes individual spells of unemployment longer. Another thing is that we’re seeing something that pre-Malthusian economies didn’t have to worry about: economic depressions. This is not to romanticize pre-Malthusian life or societies. They would experience famines, wars, and disease epidemics that would kill far more people than any economic depression, but those had natural or historical causes that were not intrinsic and desirable. We’ve been able to eliminate most of these evils from life without losing anything in the process. These depressions, in my view, come from economic progress itself (and moreover, our inability to manage growth in a way that distributes prosperity, rather than displacing people). The first quarter of the 20th century saw unprecedented advancement in food production– a good thing, undeniably– which caused agricultural commodities to drop in price. This caused small farmers (who could not partake in these advances to the same extent) to fall into poverty. Without the small farmers, towns supported by them weren’t doing well either. Poverty isn’t a “moral medicine” that clears out the bad in society. It doesn’t make people better or harder working. It ruins people. It’s a cancer. It spreads. And it did. Rural poverty was severe in the United States by 1925, before the Depression officially began. Urban sophisticates and elites were OK in 1925, hence this era is remembered as being prosperous. In 1933? Not so much. The cancer had grown. Throughout the 1930s, the rich were terrified of an American communist revolution.

We don’t want another Great Depression, and what’s scary in 2012 is that it seems like what happened to agricultural products in the 1920s is now happening to almost all human labor. We’re outsourcing, automating, and “streamlining”, and all of these changes are fundamentally good, but if we don’t take steps to prevent the collapse of the middle class, we could lose our country. This will almost certainly require innovations that the right wing will decry as “socialism”, but it will also involve techniques (such as crowd-funding and microloans for small businesses) that are far more capitalistic than anything the corporates have come up with.

We are trans- (not post-) Malthusian because we live in a world where scarcity is still in force (although often artificial) and zero-sum mentalities dominate (even though they’re inappropriate to a technological world). If Mexican immigrants “take the jobs”, formerly middle-class white people will be without healthcare. What’s required is to step away from the zero-sum attitude (expressed often in racism) and recognize that no one of any ethnicity, jobless or employed, should be without healthcare. Ever. Technology is great at helping us generate more resources and make more with what we have, and we have to accept that it will “unemploy” people on a regular basis, but the bounty should be distributed fairly, and not hogged by the fortunate while those it renders transiently jobless are allowed to fall into poverty. “Collateral damage” is not acceptable and, if the 1920s and ’30s are illustrative, it can’t be contained. The damage will spread.

What does this have to do with the ladders and their conflict? Labor is a trans-Malthusian social category because it lives in a world that values fair play (a positive-sum, post-Malthusian value) but that is constrained by artificial scarcity. The Elite is pre-Malthusian; they are obsessed with the zero-sum game of social status and the need to keep themselves elevated and others out. The Gentry, although not without its faults, is properly post-Malthusian. Their values (political liberalism, individual freedom, enough socialism to ensure a just society, positive-sum outlook, and a positive view of technology) represent what it will take to evolve toward a post-Malthusian state.

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115 thoughts on “The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S.

  1. Pingback: Shaken but never Stirred: Depression, Despair, Destruction sharpen the value of becoming something more | The Wise Me - Personal Finance News/Business Launch Updates

  2. Small Typo. “Teh cancer had grown.” Otherwise great article, I usually despise political and socioeconomic analyst (see “Capitalism: a love story”) but this was tasteful and interesting.

  3. Indeed artificial scarcity is the unfortunate state of the world currently imposed by those who do not know the meaning of scarcity as they have never felt it.

  4. Spot on, although among the Gentries who are more able to feel it, there is a need to realize somehow we are all in together. This feeling should be shared by the Gentries on an individual level and not as a vague aspiration pushed forward at the class level.

  5. I was surprised that you depicted and organized some of my thoughts so clearly. It is some time since I am saying that E and L collide to take G hostage (at least that´s true here in Spain).

    A couple of side notes though. I guess you want to say “thirty years of” instead of “thirty tears of” which could be metaphorically descriptive but I think that was not your primary intention. Also, if I am not wrong the 0.01% that you allocate to E1 would roughly make for around 700,000 people worldwide instead of 60,000. So you are probably thinking of something more like a 0.001% or 1 in every 100,000 people.

  6. The gentry isn’t “left-libertarian”. They are left-liberal. There is a huge difference. The rest of your post about conflict is based on the idea that the gentry is something it isn’t. It’s how the gentry likes to see themselves, as opposed to how it actually is.

    • I think I see where the difference comes from. Your a computer programmer, possibly in silicon valley. That environment is probably more left-libertarian. The majority of the gentry is not like that.

      • I suspect the difference is he means libertarian in the traditional, older sense, not the American contemporary capitalist sense,

  7. Great class categories but comically, even embarrassingly poor analysis in the last two sections. asdf has your number.

    The reason European social democracies are so great is because, wait for it, wait for it, Europe is full of conscientious, high IQ EUROPEANS.

  8. This was like reading two separate articles. The elite classification was interesting, particularly the top global elite. “The future” and digression on malthus rang hollow, like a watered down version of the singularity.

  9. Where do people like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston, or George Soros fall in your hierarchy? Being elite, billionaires, they would seem to be E1. But they all tend towards liberal politics.

    I think the characterization of E1 being authoritarian/reactionary/conservative seems incorrect. For instance, of those with more than $30 million in net worth, 2/3rds voted for Obama ( ). In many ways, E1 members can be more politically liberal than G2 members. E1 members already have got theirs, and even a “millionaires” tax will still leave them as being fine, thus they can afford to support higher taxes and more government programs. The most reactionary people are E3 and L1 – they are the ones who entire ethic revolves around building one’s personal status via the acquisition of wealth and climbing the hierarchy. E1’s can also afford to be more socially liberal, because their wealth allows them to escape the problems of crime or family breakdown.

    “The Gentry, although not without its faults, is properly post-Malthusian. Their values (political liberalism, individual freedom, enough socialism to ensure a just society, positive-sum outlook, and a positive view of technology) represent what it will take to evolve toward a post-Malthusian state.”

    The fatal problem with gentry values are that they are long term self-descrutive. Current feminist ideology causes woman to place a higher emphasis on career over raising a family, which causes the birth rates to be significantly below replacement. The social-liberal philosophy works for people who have a strong parental upbringing to compensate for the lack of discipline via institutions, but the legal changes that destroyed the old institutions (weakening classroom discipline, no fault divorce, no more in locos parentis, etc ) are causing those without a strong, parental upbringing to slip further into a more awful underclass.

    “historians are still debating World War I’s inception– but the short version is that the world’s Elites did that.”

    I think the opposite hypothesis – that democracy caused it – has just as much validity. Elites existed long before 1914, but democracy was new. Every country involved in the conflict had a universal suffrage legislature that approved the war. Every country had active political agitation and ministers and/or royalty that had to pay very careful attention to public opinion. My summary of the pre-World War I environment was that you had a half dozen powers, with populations that treated politics and international relations as modern people treat sports – with all the vitriol and partisian hatred that entails. The newspapers of all countries were filled with articles about the arms race, about support co-ethnics in other countries, about power struggles, etc. And the politicians played to these passions as they tried to elected.

    • “Current feminist ideology causes woman to place a higher emphasis on career over raising a family, which causes the birth rates to be significantly below replacement. ”

      This is incorrect. Fertility rates are lower in countries that are developed and yet have low female participation rates in the work force than they are in countries that have high female participation rates in the workforce. The Anglo states, France, Netherlands and the Nordic states have higher fertility rates than Southern and Eastern European states, Japan and South Korea. See this picture:

      Before you object that this is due to immigration, you might notice that the dark green areas on the map are not necessarily the most immigrant-heavy areas. Additionally, you might also notice that there are certain immigrant heavy areas in low-fertility states that don’t have the equivalent high levels of fertility.

      • @Anon666 – Check the out-of-wedlock birth rates because in France it’s near 40-50% and the same thing in Great Britain (Anglo country). It’s the working-class women who are having babies. Babies is apparently a working class thing. Go figure. It’s not the high-status women having children. Don’t be fooled.

      • Anon666-

        Even states like Poland or Japan are feminist by historical standards. Those countries have very high rates of women going to college, and the colleges generally teach that a career is a more worthy goal than being a baby-maker. They also have full exposure to Western media and culture that places an importance on feminism.

        The only groups that have pro-replacement fertility are the groups that are fully non-feminist by historical standards – mormons, the Amish, many third world cultures.

        The worst case for fertility seems to be a feminist education plus a traditional adult social structure, as in Japan. The women are guided towards careers during their education, but the social structure still does not permit having both a career and children, and so women just opt out of marriage and children.

        Maybe it’s true that if there even more pro-natalist, feminist reforms such as expanding paid maternity leave, that fertility can be pushed up to replacement level. But I’m skeptical, because even the countries with these policies are still below replacement, and as Stacy points out, the feminist, G2 segment of the country tends to be even below the already low average.

        • I don’t think that ideologies impact behavior to the extent some believe. When I visited Poland, I talked to a couple of girls who expressed vocal support of feminist ideology, and yet seemed rather unaffected by it in terms of their behavior. Unlike American feminists, they had a very femin*ine* style and demeanor — very sweet and affectionate personalities, combined with a focus upon dressing as femininely as possible. My explanation is that people are affected more by their tangible options in life than they are by ideologies. In Eastern Europe, even university educated women find that the best path to economic security is to be as attractive as possible for men. In North America, where female participation rates in the work force are much higher. The incentive structure is different, and consequently, even women who do claim not to support feminism act like feminists.

          Ironically though, the “feminist” countries — i.e., the ones with high female participation rates in the work force — have higher birthrates, the most obvious explanation being dual income. I think feminism is a silly ideology, but I’m not sure that it matters. The factor that’s far more important in relation to fertility rates is that children are an economic liability in an urbanized environment, and that they are less of a liability in two income households than they are in one. We aren’t going to have a mostly urbanized country with a TFR of 4.0, regardless of what the prevailing ideology is.

          • Feminism is about equality for men and women, which includes freedom of choice. The notion that you have to dress butch to be a feminist is a distortion, though it is one that many soi-disant feminists used to support.

    • Where do people like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston, or George Soros fall in your hierarchy? Being elite, billionaires, they would seem to be E1. But they all tend towards liberal politics.

      They’re not E1. A mix of G1 (Page), E2 (Gates) and E3 (Zuckerberg, Soros). Not all E1 are billionaires (although they’re all very rich) and not all billionaires or E1. What defines E1 is social connection to a like-minded and small set of people obsessed with dominance. Making more money is an E3 obsession, and “blue blood” and noblesse oblige are E2. E1 is all about dominance for it’s own sake.

      • Well, you labeled “E1″ as “Global Elite”. If a billionaire who goes to Davos is not “global elite”, than I do not know who is. I cannot think of a definition of global elite – whether it be via money, influence, or social connections – that does not include George Soros. It’s seems like your usage of E1 is “Elites who are Repugnant People”.

        • If you go to Davos, you’ve definitely gone over to the dark side, because most of the people there are objectively evil. However, that does not necessarily make a person E1. E1 gatherings have their hangers-on. (I’d imagine the Koch brothers are hangers-on, because they became too visibly associated with the Tea Party movement, and have fallen into E2-3. They’re still evil.)

          It’s a subset relationship. Very rich people <: evil, very rich people <: E1.

          • So are Larry Page, Bill Gates and Soros all evil because they’ve been to Davos?

            My sense is that the more politically active billionaire elites tend to be progressive (obviously there are many exceptions, such as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch). The rich elite in developed countries who care only about money and domination tend to just avoid politics and spend their money on sports or other frivolities, as do Larry Ellison, Paul Allen, Boone Pickens, John Henry, etc, etc).

            Can you name a half dozen examples of Americans that you would classify as E1? Can you name specific policies or specific actions that you think have occurred via E1 action? How was the E1 power manifested?

            In my observation, most of the examples of corrupt corporate influence (Wall St. bailouts, various tax breaks, tax cuts, deregulation), did not come about because of any behind the scenes E1 influence. They came about via standard, fairly open lobbying of the E3 executive-servants. The servants masters were not any E1 people, they were simply trying to drive up their companies share price to get more money. Congress and regulators listened to these E3 servants because a) campaign funds b) the possibility of a lucrative job in industry later on c) Congressman are not experts, and because E3’s can be quite chummy and quite knowledgable, they defer to their expertise, in the honest belief that what is good for business is good for America d) even if the industry is bad for America, the particular regulation might be quite good for the workers and economy of the Congressman’s district.

            • There is definitely a conspicuous lack of a well developed conception of the “liberal” or “gentry leaning” E1. I think a definite case can be made for this, and Devin is obliquely naming some of its features. For example, the postmodern development of identity politics: the NAACP’s ambulance-chaser style advocacy of issues and indifference to generational problems in “underclass” black communities, many veins of “bourgeois” or corporate feminism, the adoption of certain zero sum logics that abandon the classical liberal notion of universal equality for the tribalism of interest groups, the inversion of gay rights into a cisgender validating obsession with middle class trappings (marriage benefits/tax/property rights).

              When you adopt a more critical eye toward the “liberal/progressive” trappings of the Gentry, say, more the criticism you might hear from an anarchist or classical marxist thinker (lefties, socialists, and anarchist being the classic non-reactionary critics of liberals) you start to see the scale tip toward an equilibrium between the “Elites” that you characterize as reactionary/conservative, and any other. There are *definitely* Elites that have recognized the Gentry and its cultural affinites as just another constituency, just another demographic to sell politics to.

              If the Obama campaign, the cults of Zuckerberg and Jobs, or the strange Walmart Feminism of Hillary Clinton aren’t brilliant examples that make apparent the existence of just such a “progressive” version of the “reactionary” elite, I don’t know what would… not that Liberals and even progressives aren’t remarkably “reactionary” in more ways than not, but that’s also something that’s hard to see if you identify with this political culture more than you criticize it.

              Otherwise, brilliant post Comrade Church. I will be thinking about it and referencing it for a long time to come. Thank you for this!

        • To quote Michael “the top end of the world’s elite is a social elite, not an economic one”; that is to say, power is power is power. Not pop culture influence (Stewart), certainly not a “nouveau riche” guy like Zuckerberg – not even heads of state here count as nouveau riche. They are the ones who have converted their work ethic / cultural / monetary / social influences into raw, transnational, cross-industry power. Larry Page is arguably converting his monetary prowess into transnational power at a bad exchange rate.

          Soros is a better example, considering how his wealth was made. Though, I assume to truly see how well someone is influencing transnational entities, one has to be in either E2 or E1. I assume that excludes most people commenting on thread and it’s unlikely their names are known to the general public.

      • Where do people like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston, or George Soros fall in your hierarchy? Being elite, billionaires, they would seem to be E1. But they all tend towards liberal politics. …E1 is all about dominance for it’s own sake.

        You are the one stipulated the ludicrous and false idea that E1s do not espouse liberal politics. E1s are liberal exactly because liberalism is all about dominance for its own sake.

        • I’m sorry but you sir are a moron. Liberalism is the state of being liberal. True liberals believe in the individual freedom of expression which is secured by the government. It has NOTHING to do with dominance. A true liberal would want to help as many people as possible to express themselves in a way desired by that individual. And no, that does not mean that they would allow or agree to an individual practicing intrinsically immoral behavior such as murder. Although some of them might, the idea that all of them would is ludicrous.

    • ““The Gentry, although not without its faults, is properly post-Malthusian. Their values (political liberalism, individual freedom, enough socialism to ensure a just society, positive-sum outlook, and a positive view of technology) represent what it will take to evolve toward a post-Malthusian state.”

      The fatal problem with gentry values are that they are long term self-descrutive. Current feminist ideology causes woman to place a higher emphasis on career over raising a family, which causes the birth rates to be significantly below replacement. The social-liberal philosophy works for people who have a strong parental upbringing to compensate for the lack of discipline via institutions, but the legal changes that destroyed the old institutions (weakening classroom discipline, no fault divorce, no more in locos parentis, etc ) are causing those without a strong, parental upbringing to slip further into a more awful underclass.””

      I’m sorry but I think the point the author was trying to make was that if the Gentry were in fact in control, and did in fact hold true to the criteria listed to call them Gentry, that it would NOT be self destructive in the long term. Upon the accomplished goals of the Gentry, society would then have to change slightly more in order to continue in a positive direction for the benefit of every single person within that society. In terms of the lack of discipline among people, laws would have to implemented in order to avoid citizens simply living off the system without their own personal contribution to society. For example, if one is being provided a place to live, food, and clothes but then refuses to work for and contribute to society, then you limit their freedoms. A.K.A, place them in the jail system where they will still have their basic survival needs met, but must continue to work for and contribute to society anyway, only now they must do so full time. If they still refuse then you gradually take away their means of survival. Begin to give them less food. I think most people would at that prefer to contribute rather than not and die of starvation. If they are that stubborn, then it is their own choice to die of starvation. Point being, there are fair and just ways society can help individuals overcome laziness.

  10. “zero-sum world”

    We will always live in a zero sum world. Leaving aside the natural resource issue or the fact that we can’t currently provide a first class living standard to the entire worlds population there is a much deeper problem. Human beings mostly compete over status. It’s always been that way. It will always be that way. And status is, by definition, a zero sum game. It hierarchy by its very nature.

    • Just as Karl Marx said, communism cannot simply be implemented, it must be achieved through capitalism. Steps must be taken in order to allow this country’s (United States) citizens to all have a “first class living standard”. The first thing that needs to be done is the over excessive living styles of the Gentry and Elites need to be significantly lowered to that of a “middle class” citizen with the money then given back to the “lower class” citizens in forms of basic living necessities (home, clothes, & food). In exchange for this the “lower class” must then attend secondary education in a field of their choice, or primary if it had not previously been completed, followed by secondary.

  11. But a lot of why we’re no longer caught in the Malthusian trap is the demographic transition — lowering reproductive output rather than raising economic output; a cultural change. Of course, it seems to result from having access to such things as modern medicine, which requires the rising economic output, but it’s not like we’re just outpacing the old exponential; we’ve actually reduced it.

    • I agree. We’ve undergone a transition from high population growth and low economic growth (hence, a Malthusian world) to low population growth (and likely to turn negative in the future) and high economic growth. This is a good thing because the planet just can’t support 20 billion people; it’s having a hard time with 7.

  12. I think a lot of cultural conflict comes from the “two step ladder different between classes).

    I think a lot of G3, G4, or sometimes even G2 are very very sensitive about their status relative to L2 and L1 (or even L3 if their earnings are very low). How does a struggling journalist with student debt making $35,000 a year (or zero in an unpaid internship) possibly say they have higher status then someone working for a living and pulling down high five or six figures. How does the middling state beauracrat claim to be higher status then the small business owner. This leads to a lot of flippancy and status whoring.

    Some of this is a little outdated too. The gentry has expanded as “everyone should go to college”. There is a lot more mediocrity in the gentry today, and a lot of them will never find secure careers or middle class incomes. This is a lot of the anger behind the occupy movement.

    Everyone is getting squeezed. Labor that gets squeezed so they form the tea party. I’d say the spiritual core of the tea party is L1/L2 (I say spiritual core as opposed to organizational core (Es hijacking it) or much of the bulk numbers you get to march and such at rallies (L3). Occupies spiritual core is (G4/G3), with most of the boots on the ground being the lower end of G4 and the organization core (to the extent it exist) being some mixture of G2/G1/and various Es (who are funding it, sometimes directely and sometimes though the fact that their activists kids are living off their trust funds).

    While the interest of both groups vis a vis exploitation by Es is the same, they care far more about their status vis a vis each other. This makes some sense. They are in direct competition with eachother for status (since they are close in status) whereas Es inhabit some completely other out of sight world.

    Take something like student loan forgiveness. Maybe a good idea, maybe not. But its mainly framed in a status struggle way. As long as Gs are burdened by debt it lowers their status relative to Ls that didn’t take on debt. The fact that elites are getting rich off this is a sideshow to the main status conflict.

    There are also lots of direct conflicts between these groups. Lots of Gs are seen as busybodies that get in the way of L3, L2, and L1 making a living or living life. I think a lot about the kind of tribulations that say Hank Hill on “King of the Hill” deals with in some episodes due to various liberal busybodies. This is much of the the difference between “left libertarian” and “left liberal” I outlined from earlier. Left liberals make it their job (sometimes it is their whole job) to insert themselves into the lives of others, often with bad results.

    And I don’t even want to get into the other marketplaces for status (sexual, etc) that have been turned upside down and the conflicts therein.

    • Concurrent, I think the L2/L1 vs G3/G4 conflict is the prime conflict in the culture. These groups are close in status and make up large parts of the population. L2/L1 often gets L3 to side with them because they share the same values and culture, and they are less condescending. While they have higher status is seems earned (since they are just better versions of L3s), versus undeserved (since G3s and G4s often do busy work of dubious value to L3s). Also, L3s primary goal is to physically isolate themselves from the completely dysfunctional and dangerous L4, which is an ally of the Gs. This was most noticeable over the issue of segregation, since L4 was mostly black and segregation kept them away from L3s. With overt segregation gone the only segregation left is economic, and L3s often don’t earn enough to do so.

      G4/G3 often ally with G2 and L4. They look to G2/G1 for leadership/legitimacy/power and L4 for votes. Unlike the relationship between higher and lower Ls (one mostly marked by individuality) high Gs and their lower allies are mostly marked by a roman style patronage relationship.

      Of course Es will win either way since they are organized and have resources. Actual policies and cultural trends will be shaped in such a way to benefit them, often in a “devil’s in the details” manner. It’s hard to describe Es as “allies” of either of these two classes because they only exploit them, but some Es tend to gravitate towards one of the other group because their interest tend to ally (resource extraction owners to Ls, law firm owners to Gs). I’d say Gs get a lot more trickle down from their Es. For example Es that get rich off a crooked government contracts will often throw some crumbs to the naive Gs that advocated for the program. Es for Ls often flat out try to crush the very Ls that “vote” for them.

    • I think a lot of G3, G4, or sometimes even G2 are very very sensitive about their status relative to L2 and L1 (or even L3 if their earnings are very low). How does a struggling journalist with student debt making $35,000 a year (or zero in an unpaid internship) possibly say they have higher status then someone working for a living and pulling down high five or six figures. How does the middling state beauracrat claim to be higher status then the small business owner. This leads to a lot of flippancy and status whoring.

      I was thinking the same thing. There’s a lot to like about this model; for instance, it helps explain why intellectuals (the “gentry”) often resent prosperous blue-collar business owners for being “the type of person who doesn’t doesn’t deserve to be successful”.

      This also bears on your comment above about portraying the gentry as something it isn’t. The “gentry” would like to think of themselves as gracious, kind, virtuous, etc. In reality, all too often they are sniveling, back-biting, insipid status whores. It reminds me of the way that Half Sigma is always belittling the proles who, all things considered, are really better people than he is (high proles are, anyway).

  13. I like the model. It helps explain why people like me feel a continual inner tension: we grew up in lower-labour (L3, maybe L2) families, and vaulted through work ethic and education to G2. Sharing (and rejecting) values from both groups, we fit in nowhere. I don’t know how many of us there are, but evidently not enough to ever get included in these kinds of class schemas.

    • I’m the same case (where I grew up and where I ended up). It is very difficult to stand most gentry, and you have very little in common. I remember being at an event with my IB analyst class (60 people) and I was the only one who had ever been bowling in my entire life.

      There will be few of us because genetic heredity and other advantages of birth mean only a few lucky mutants really make the kind jump people like us make.

      Generally speaking I think being a mutant is very difficult. Those who are born and stay in one class at least know who they are and how to live. The deltas are happiest being deltas and such, Brave New World solved this problem by controlling every aspect of a classes genetics. The only mutant, the incomplete alpha Bernard Marx, was miserable.

      • Samson J, asdf, I am pure G2 of the left-libertarian sort and I agree that the top L status and low G statuses have a high degree of social overlap, and your perception of G social hyperconsciousness and emotionality.

        Nevertheless, I think some of the exasperation you have with the status-whoring has to do with the aforementioned invisibility of the E classes. Your comment on the IB analyst class? That’s a dead ringer for the E4 population.

        I think generational Gs are terrified about is the hijacking of the Tea Party types by the E2s, and what they see as the desire of the E types to totally crush G and L into oblivion. Many of them are of the honest opinion that Gs and Ls need to work together to curtail the sheer power of the Es, and want to ally with the L3s and L4s to do this, but find themselves constantly rebuffed by Ls as the “liberal elite”. Efforts to point out nefarious E string-pulling behind-the-scenes is dismissed as bleedin’ heart liberal shaming, which only serves to further erode the relationship between Ls and Gs. The disdain of G3s to L1s is definitely matched by the disdain of L1s and L2s towards G2s and G1s (which I am sure you have both experienced prior to mentioning your L2 family origins), and I would argue that low G2s – G4s often make the counter-error of mistaking L1s for E4s, whom they view as assholes and traitors.

        Since there is so much overlap these days between L1/L2 and G3/G4, I also wonder how much of it is playing out on a national stage what happens at a local and family level. I know a number of G3 transitional types who have fights with their L2 parents over perceived snobbery and vice versa in what would have been a relatively small matter in a monoclass family.

      • my husband and I also grew up in the labor families (me L2, he L1, albeit very wealthy L1, at least for a time). my current standing would put me at G2, his at G2 or E4-E3. we are constantly astounded at how little our current “peers” know about the lives of the working class. people act amused when you tell them that when you were a kid, your family vacationed in florida in the summer. or that your parents forced you to have a summer job during high school that had no educational value or pertinence to any future professional career.

        i am thankful that i found my husband because we have very little in common with the people who we’re currently around. there are superficial commonalities, but there’s a fundamental lack of awareness that is impossible to reconcile.

        i grew up as L2 in a suburban area mainly populated by G3. the G3 were very uneasy about their social standing, and many of them displayed very obvious distaste toward my parents because they didn’t graduate from college and had blue-collar jobs. very small gradations in income, educational status, etc were emphasized. (although many of them were not like this)

        is there an association between this type of ‘ladder jumping’ and being left-libertarian rather than left-liberal? we are both left-libertarian.

  14. Mav,

    This could get into any number of issues and I thought about how to address it. I think it requires its own post, but I will try to address a small part of it here.

    The problem with Gs and Ls aligning is twofold. First, there are very few libertarians, whether left or right. Most Gs are left-liberal. And liberals interfere with Ls lives a lot. On the lower end “knowing what’s best for poor people” is a whole entry on Stuff White People Like. Yet in my experience most Gs have very very little idea what actual poor and working class people need. On the high end many G programs make it hard for L2s and L1s to simply run their own lives and make a living. Take a disability troll. There are G lawyers whose sole job is to go around to small businesses looking for any of thousands of small violations of the Americans with Disability Act and then trying to sue businesses to make themselves rich.

    I’m finishing up a short stint in the civil service and I’m amazed how petty, incompetent, and corrupt the Gs working there are. These are six figure professionals that graduated from good schools and got good test scores, but they are complete assholes and incompetents. And yet they have been given incredible power over people, power they definitely don’t deserve.

    So there are two problems. First, Gs really do fuck with Ls lives, often in an attempt to justify their own status. Second, many Gs are wards of Es. Gs often give the Es the intellectual and social cover to loot. I know they are in my job right now. Knowingly, unknowingly, the effect is the same.

  15. In Australia in the 1970’s it was a mainstream view of both sides of politics that ‘boat people’, i.e., refugees from Vietnam, were deserving of asylum in Australia. Although there was a fair bit of open racism against these people they were generally welcomed and accepted. These people would be your underclass.

    The conservative government of 1996-2007 took a very different view about asylum seekers from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. They lied to the Australian public about ‘boat people’ throwing their children overboard in order to gain asylum, and generally demonized them as people to be afraid of (they’re all either queue-jumpers or potential terrorists, aren’t they?) Their policy was so successful that it still dominates the political dialogue to this day as the current centre-left government continually has to justify its policies on asymlum seekers as being as ‘tough’ as those of the now conservative opposition. Our E’s have found that boat people are a useful underclass to control our L’s and drive them against our G’s.

    The other issue that dominates our political discourse is climate change and our carbon tax (which is basically equivalent to the taxes levied in many European countries). You can basically tell if someone is L or G by listening to what they think about climate change.

    Of course we do have a media dominated by a certain well-known E1 who apparently has not just been pulling strings here but also in the UK and to a lesser extent the US.

  16. It’s true that G2s think G3 jobs are dead-ends, and so they are, but people who want to be G3s consider G2 jobs just too close to E3, and they want nothing to do with hiring and firing. (I’m a G3.)

    It may be true that in dollars there are two rungs between adjacent ladders, but in terms of boss/non-boss there is only one: L1 are bosses, G1 and G2 are bosses, E1, E2, and E3 are bosses.

    • Not having a boss is a major sign of class. That’s why L1s are in many ways higher class then G3. Even many L2 would counter that what Gs do is largely “corporate BS” while they have to accomplish objectives but are largely left alone to accomplish them. Perhaps a better measure is “how much ass do you have to kiss.”

    • This is a good point. It’s hard to sort this out precisely because age is a factor (peoples’ job titles go up over time according to a class-defined trajectory, but their social class, except in the x4’s, generally remains constant). I think that the boss/non-boss relationship goes more like this:

      E1: Owners.
      E2: Executives.
      E3: Managers (after mid-career; they start as grunts).
      E4: Transient workers who either make E3 or return to G2 if they don’t (because they usually have enough cultural capital to progress into management, but not necessarily on the Elite structure).

      E1-E2 usually own that role even as they start their careers, because their parents can buy them resumes. E3’s usually have to work their way up the corporate ladder, but they have a better path than most people.

      This is the typical corporate hierarchy with owners, executives, managers, and workers in that order.

      G1: High priests / pseudo-executives.
      G2: Lay priests / pseudo-managers.
      G3: Workers.
      G4: Workers.

      The Gentry is not as focused on, or as comfortable with, the Elite/Labor concept of “ownership”, but the G1 and G2 end up in roles that are effectively executive and manager-level by middle age.

      L1: Small-scale owners / “petit bourgeoisie”.
      L2: Front-line managers and upper-tier workers / specialists.
      L3: Workers.
      L4: Workers.

      L2’s can be bosses, but usually they’re assistant managers or front-line managers (e.g. department managers at grocery stores, retail managers). They’re managing the bottom of the labor pool and have no real autonomy.

      The mythology accompanying this is that, yes, on the E ladder you’re less likely to be a boss (if we accept the two-rung difference) but you’re in a “better” league. An E4 grunt is a medium-sized fish in a big pond, whereas if he transitioned to G2 or L1 he’d be the biggest fish. Whether this is accurate or useful is debatable, but it’s the psychology.

      • When your young being on a “good track” has option value. You could become a 1 or 2 in your track, and that possibility raises your status even before it happens. As you age though you are expected to either make it or not. A 40 year old striver isn’t going to be a real owner, that option is expired. I remember looking at 40 year old IB dudes that never cracked VP and didn’t have much money saved up and thinking their lives didn’t really turn out better then if he had gotten a gentry job and lived somewhere cheaper (maybe a few less ex wives too).

        So perhaps the “two step” rule varies based on age rather then being a constant two steps. Just like a woman dates a doctor in med school based on expectations. You wouldn’t date person starting med school at 40 though.

        Side note: L2/L1 I think tend to be conservative because they actually manage L4 /L3 people. Ironically they are in a much better position to “know what’s best for poor people” and yet they are far more humble in their suggestions.

  17. Michael, where would you classify US clergy in this system? Let me further distinguish them: the megachurch nondenominational pastor, the Catholic priest, the Catholic bishop, Episcopalian/Anglican priest, politically liberal Lutheran, and the conservative Reformed Protestant?

    Also, what would you say the is predominant religious affiliation of each social class?

    • Kahn: “Oh hey Ted. I haven’t seen you at the Buddhist temple in awhile.”

      Ted: “Oh Kahn. We’re Episcopalian now. It’s just good for business.”

      The simplest way to figure it out is ask what ethnic group the religion came from. The class of that religion will largely be based on its ethnic origins. Obviously the more progressive a church is the higher its status.

    • Clergy are hard-core Gentry is orientation, because the Gentry fills the role that priesthoods originally did: to influence culture, define values, etc.

      That said, I think the Gentry is less religious than Labor, obviously. There’s a mix in each category, but Labor is the most religious, Gentry is less religious, and the Elites believe they are God.

      • The gentry’s religion is secular, but religion is religion. They are far more puritanical then your average Sunday worshiper who attends out of habit and answers surveys a certain way but never actually acts on it significantly.

  18. Gatsby should be L1 (though he thought he was part of E), Tom Buchanan a firm E2. I don’t know where his most famous relative, Pat, stands ; I don’t think Pat belongs in E if he ever did.

    It is interesting that the leaders of Apple and Samsung will be in E2 at most , while Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are firmly in E1.

  19. “However, it’s not hard for a person with E2 status and connections to acquire this, even if the family money is lost.”

    Want to elaborate on this?

    • Board positions, executive jobs, advisory sinecures, management of real estate.

      There are plenty of 500k/year jobs that involve no thinking or responsibility that exist to give handouts and favors to well-connected people.

  20. Pingback: Class Structure in America « Make A Public Commitment

  21. asdf…

    how many people in the E classes are genuinely religious, in the sense that they really love God and want to experience the beatific vision in the afterlife, not merely attending religious events for social purposes?

    I suppose most Es reject religious faith, although they may be nominal affiliated with a particular, socially respectable domination, not from any abstract epistemological objections to the nature of religious belief, but due to religion’s association with the “prole” culture of the labor ladders.

    Do you agree with this, as Liu is suggesting that the elite ladder have more actual socialists, than the labor ladder. Perhaps Liu is an HBDer in the sense that he believes that socioeconomic status in the United States is largely meritocratic, and most people in the labor ladder lack the requisite intelligence to understand anti-capitalist and finance polemics; therefore, Liu concludes that the seemingly high intellectual barrier prevents most labor ladder people from attaining an understanding of socialism and embracing an ideology that supposedly advances their class interest.

    ” The structure of the economy is an expression of political power
    rather than economic rationale. The basic rules are politically written, all
    market participants must observe the rules in order to play and survive or
    prosper. Market participants do not necessarily support or believe in finance
    capitalism. Wall Street has its share of socialists, probably a higher
    proportion that the working class. Yet like members of the working class, Wall Street socialists toil in a system they hope (or the smart ones know) someday will fall. There are as many (if not more) rednecks in the US working class as there are in any other segment of the population. Socialism does not find the
    proletariat a fertile garden. Since it requires a certain degree of
    intellectual prowess to understand the system, members of the laboring class generally are too exhausted physically to devote much of their attention to the mechanics of finance. Yet the basic rule of finance capitalism is not too complicated or difficult to understand. It is to privatize profit and socialize risk.
    Structured finance is built on that principle, relying on the too big to fail
    syndrome. The biggest losers in the Eron bankruptcy are the employees who lost all their pension denominated in worthless Eron shares.”

    • Black_Rose,

      Few people of any class are genuinly religous. If the bar is thoughtful consideration of theological principals and then acting them out in real life to the best of ones ability your probably down in the single digits % wise for the whole population.

      Of course this failure is much more damning for the higher class. With the lower class I don’t expect them to understand nuance, but to at least try to live a generally “good” life. The upper class has the means, both physical and mental, to do more but they do less.

      “but due to religion’s association with the “prole” culture of the labor ladders.”

      Obviously. The world has more to offer those in charge. Contented worldliness is their greatest threat. For the most part they lose. Rejecting religion is just another tool in advancing their status in the material world.

      “the seemingly high intellectual barrier prevents most labor ladder people from attaining an understanding of socialism and embracing an ideology that supposedly advances their class interest. ”

      My grandfather was an electrician and then labor union leader who organized new unions. Really smart guy. He was also a card carrying communist for a few years when the union was officially communist (that still happened in the 30s). As he put it communism/socialism was, “idiotic thinking that has no understanding of human nature.”

      I believe intelligent people mostly use their intelligence to justify whatever things they already want to believe. This is the case for many socialists.

      The quoted persons remarks on Wall Street socialists doesn’t match up with my own observations from my time there.

  22. Michael,

    I’m a first time reader here. I must say, I’m really impressed with this analysis. It creates a sensible structure for thinking about social hierarchies where the more common models are obviously broken (and are broken intentionally, as you point out, by the elites’ attempt to hide behind the gentry when facing labor).

    That said, I wanted to comment on one thing you said when discussing the trans-Malthusian status of our culture. You said
    The world has a lot of problems, and there are pockets of severe decay, corruption, and poverty; but on the whole, it’s becoming a better place, and at an accelerating (hyper-exponential) rate. The world is no longer intrinsically Malthusian

    To which I must say, “yes, but…” The “but” is the fact that the vast majority of our progress over the last 200 years has been supported by ecological deficit spending: we have been liquidating our natural capital to generate wealth and prosperity.

    Unlike many people who will point this out, I don’t actually think that we have to be trapped in a zero-sum game. Deficit spending (either economic or environmental) can be good and sound: I may damage my atmosphere and my water supplies digging up and burning coal, but if I use the energy thus liberated to build wind turbines, I have achieved a positive-sum condition (because the lifecycle energy return ratio of big turbines is about 5:1, so that energy can be used to build more turbines, etc).

    However, when we use the energy thus liberated to build iPads, the benefit is less clear cut. When we use that energy to drive fast cars around in a circle, then we’re actually in the negative-sum realm (although it may not look like it, because our accounting system ignores most environmental externalities) because we are liquidating capital for no long-term benefit.

    Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, western civilization has been operating on a positive-sum basis on the timescale of an individual human lifetime. However, if you expand the scope of your analysis to look at the entire period plus, say, another 100 years in the future, the business-as-usual path we are on now is in fact zero (or negative) sum: when the bill comes due, it could (and on present course, will) wipe out all the gains of the last half millennium.

    I point this out, not to be a downer, but to emphasize an important context to this discussion: In order to create a true positive-sum game over the long term, we have to invest our resources carefully, and we have a limited period of time remaining in which to do so. Interestingly, it is primarily the elites who seem to be interested in keeping us on our current zero-sum path. They use labor as their cultural foot soldiers, but the leadership is definitely coming from those who value power-over above all else.

    • This is a really great point. Part of being trans-Malthusian is that we have the *opportunity* to become post-Malthusian… but we could also slide if we abuse the remaining fuels and resources.

      I don’t worry much about “peak oil” because the latest data seems to indicate that we’re not at the Hubbert Peak yet, although the oil we are getting out of the ground comes at increasing ecological cost. What seems likely over the next 20 years is that oil will remain fairly abundant, but at much higher cost and without the double-digit energy-ROI we’re used to seeing from it.

      I think humanity will prevail, but the possibility of violence and suffering before we get there is very strong. I feel like one major, worldwide class war is still in the cards.

      Class gives us a good view into the wars that we see already. I don’t think of 9/11 as an attack by Islam or Arabs on the U.S. or Christianity or Western Civilization. Very few Arabs or Muslims support that kind of violence. I think of it (and the subsequent illegal invasion of Iraq) as a part of the rich-poor war. Osama bin Laden is part of the global upper class– admittedly, somewhat of a black sheep on account of his violence being overt rather than subtle– and the victims of 9/11 were mostly middle-class office workers.

    • On a small enough timescale economic growth is driven entirely by technological breakthroughs. Oil extraction and use being the biggest one. Barring truly disastrous political policies that repress it to an incredible degree (like say communism) technology drives everything.

      And yet, technological innovation is incredibly difficult to forecast or effect. We may develop clean fusion tomorrow. We might run out of oil in 50 years time and revert to the dark ages. Who knows. I generally put as much stock in people’s predictions on this matter as I do those who thought we’d have flying cars and colonies on the moon by now.

      Since economic growth is therefore improbable to plan for or influence (except badly in the case of disastrous government) I tend not to concern myself with it. In the event that we solve the oil problem there is some other theoretical limit we could run up against. If we somehow escape the limits of our own world there is some limit to universe itself. On a long enough timeline Malthus is always true.

      So even if we limit ourselves to Malthus, there will inevitably reach that limit at some point. Is our society prepared to handle that? I think not, but that would take a whole book.

      And that assumes Malthus in the narrow sense of providing enough needed resources (food, air, water). Human wants are infinite. No amount of resources could never fully satisfy the worldly desires of even a single man. Mainly because most human wants are social, that is status based. And status is a zero sum resource whether energy is free or not. Economic goods should be viewed merely as tools in this zero sum status race.

      Economic growth, the increase in stuff, is merely the grease that makes the cogs turn in that status race. What is proposed as post-Malthusian is that technology will ensure an ever increasing quantity of grease to make a fundamentally insatiable machine keep working into perpetuity. However, given a long enough timeline, this can’t possibly work.

      • On a small enough timescale economic growth is driven entirely by technological breakthroughs.

        Two points:
        1) “Economic growth” as currently measured is a measure of activity, not quality. Cancer causes economic activity which increases GDP, for example. So in itself, it’s a misguided goal.

        2) Tech level is, and always has been, a modifier on accessible resources, which are the actual basis of real wealth. It works great when you have an expanding resource base, but at this point we are in a red queen’s race with respect to both natural capital and fossil energy sources.
        We are far, far more dependent on the reliable function of earth’s natural cycles than most people understand. Technology will not compensate for crashing food webs and multi-year drought.

        • #1 Is true, but so obviously not what I’m talking about in that post.

          #2 Again I make not effort to determine when or how Malthus is true or what the details of the matter are. All I know is that Malthus is true by definition, you just need a long enough timescale.

          The point I wished to address is that economic growth can have very little to do with whether you’ve got a “good” society. And I don’t just mean the mismeasurement sense of #1. If we take no steps to address fossil fuel usage, but some dude in a lab invents clean cheap fusion tomorrow, our sin of fossil fuel usage doesn’t matter. It’s my believe that the underlying culture is weak, but this has been masked by economic growth. I don’t know when that growth will end. Moreover, I don’t think that we can have as much effect on when it ends as people think (since it is all about unpredictable tech breakthroughs). Finally, I believe by definition there has to come a day when it stops.

          So my concerns are twofold.

          1) Even if it never stops, what are we really doing with it?

          2) When it does stop, what do we expect to happen?

          I believe the answer to both isn’t very good. I think the ever increasing amount of “goods” masks underlying problems. The only answer people can come up with to that problem is more goods. Whether they can or can’t provide this over this or that timeline I’m not too optimistic.

          • Ah, I see. I did indeed miss your point. I do disagree with your view on the role of technology, but that’s tangential to your point.

            So, to your point:
            Boom-bust is the inevitable consequence of the growth-oriented economy that we have, but it is not the only pattern available. In nature, some ecologies (specifically pioneer species) follow that pattern, but others (e.g. climax forest) are far slower to grow and more stable. These ecosystems end, because all things do, but they last tens or hundreds of times longer than a pioneer ecology. When they fail, it’s not usually a “bust” (i.e. overshoot) but a change in the environment that they cannot adapt to. So this is a possible alternative model for the economy which we could choose to adopt, that would allow the species to play a much longer game.

            What are we doing with it? Quite a lot, actually, and much of it good. In the context of a reasonably prosperous and stable culture, we’ve managed near equality for women, substantially rejected racism, and are making progress on tolerating sexual diversity. We’ve still got a long way to go, but if you look at the arc of recent history, we’ve come a very long way.
            Of course, lots of advances in technology. But also lots of advancements in pure science. If you believe that knowing and understanding our universe is a good, then we’ve accomplished a good deal of that.
            We’ve even reached the point where we can rationally design our own physical infrastructure (energy, food, water, shelter) for long term stability and abundance. We mostly don’t do it, largely because we’re hooked on the high of quick growth, but that the knowledge exists at all is both an accomplishment and a reason for hope.

            To your second question, I agree, that’s ugly. People do not do well with disappointed expectations, and the end of growth is going to be the ultimate in disappointment. Again, viable alternative models exist and can provide a good life for large fraction (larger than now) of the population. There’s even a minority of folks who understand this and are trying to push our culture in that direction. Mostly what’s keeping us away is a mixture of inertia and active influence by the E-ladder who recognize (rightly) that their exalted position would be lost in a steady-state economy – those cretins care about power-over and so would rather be kings over peasants than peers in an immortal galactic empire. Hard to know what the mix is (inertia vs active interference) but my guess is that it’s more the latter than the former.

            • “Quite a lot, actually, and much of it good.”

              Certainly some of it is good. I sometimes question that good and also worry about its fragility. Sometimes for similar but sometimes for very different reasons then Micheal.

              I often think that these things have come not from virtue, but from bribery (economic growth). If an ever increasing amount of stuff can’t be brought to bare for bribery would such shaky advances hold up?

              “Mostly what’s keeping us away is a mixture of inertia and active influence by the E-ladder who recognize (rightly) that their exalted position would be lost in a steady-state economy – those cretins care about power-over and so would rather be kings over peasants than peers in an immortal galactic empire. Hard to know what the mix is (inertia vs active interference) but my guess is that it’s more the latter than the former.”

              I think this is very prideful thinking.

              I’ve now read through all of Micheal’s posts and I’m left with an interesting conundrum. I agree with 99% of what he has written. And I agree with probably most of his policy prescriptions on economics (at least the ones he’s written about that matter to me. I have a sinking suspicion I disagree on ones he has not written about). Yet, his heroes are my villains.

              His villains are the elites (which no doubt have many villainous members and engage in much villainy). In this I don’t think our disagreement is that great, but I’m not so convinced of their omnipotence or intent as him.

              His heroes are largely progressive gentry, roughly the 85-99%. I consider these on net to be terribly villainous. I believe the difference between us on this matter goes back to pride.

              However, I doubt I could convince him of this (it is an incredibly strong part of his identity, and harmless enough as it goes). Ultimately I’m interested in whether he lives a good life. On his current path I see no reason for this difference of opinion to ever significantly matter to how he acts.

              I suppose it could be damaging to his soul, but given he already believes in God (the big step) I don’t think its so improbable that he will come to deal with pride in his own time, and I’m not sure I’d be much help on the matter. Both of us have been through similar trials but since his was focused around the elite, elite became his enemies. I have had trials with both the elite and the progressive gentry so my experience has helped inform me differently. I also have more experience with the laboring classes then he does in all likelihood. Without those experiences I’d be much like him.

              With experience he may come around, and if not he’s not really in a position to do much damage. On the matter of actual moral trials where he has some power virtue has been shown (at least the ones I’ve seen him write about).

  23. I agree that the classic “peak oil doomer” scenario where everyone starves because the trucks don’t run is inconsistent with the facts and unlikely to occur, and I agree that oil will continue to be available and continue to be expensive. (I don’t think the classic Hubbart curve actually applies to global production, because it’s actually driven by a series of these curves which are staggered; the result is a bumpy plateau, which is what we’ve seen.)

    But I suspect that you (and most people) underestimate the importance of a high energy return ratio or, to put it another way, the importance of cheap oil (the two being equivalent, in the context of a particular fuel).

    All things being equal, energy return ratio defines the upper bound of prosperity for a society, because it determines the amount of energy that is available to do everything else that a society might want to do, beyond merely gathering energy. (The apparent wealth of a society is going to have as much to do with how the surplus is distributed as the magnitude of the surplus. But the actual total prosperity will be a function of the available energy surplus.)

    Note that this is equally valid for a low-tech or a high-tech civilization. For a low-tech (or pre-industrial; or pre-fossil-fuel) civilization, the ERR that matters is the ERR of primary agricultural production. If it is substantially greater than 1, your society has extra food and potentially some liesure (depending on the surplus is distributed).
    When you jump to a high-tech economy with access to fossil fuel or other concentrated energy sources, your agricultural ERR doesn’t matter as much (America’s agricultural ERR is somewhere around 0.2); instead, the ERR of primary energy production becomes the driving factor.

    Declining ERR is a primary reason that we’re now seeing a lot of unrest in the developed world: when the pie is growing, it’s easier to ignore inequitable distribution. When the pie is shrinking, not so much. Even less so, when a large chunk of the remaining pie has been grabbed by elite fraud and thuggery.

    It’s also interesting that the peak of prosperity for the average American, which happened in the 70’s, also coincides with America’s domestic oil production peak.

    On the subject of peak oil (and energy generally) I recommend the writings of an engineer named Robert Rapier. In particular, check out what he has to say about what he calls “peak lite”. For example:

    For an interesting perspective on the relevance of energy return ratio to prosperity and social order, I suggest this essay by Nate Hagens:

    BTW, I tend to use ERR interchangeably with the more technically-correct term Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). If you’re getting down to numbers, there is actually a difference between these values, but conceptually they are the same thing. In the essays I link to, though, EROEI is the more common term.

    Also, just to be clear: energy is a major focus of mine, and a major part of the issue, but it is actually merely a subset of the larger problem. The larger problem is that we (humans) act as if we are not part of, or dependent on, a larger system of relationships (i.e. an ecology). Our energy problems are merely one manifestation of that error. Or, to quote Will Durst, “We’re probably known around the universe as that really noisy blue planet where everybody pees in their water.”

  24. Michael,

    Another question: You describe the upper tiers of the E-ladder as being, basically, pure evil. While this is an appealing characterization and is clearly true in some cases, I wonder if you are overgeneralizing.

    For example, Bill Gates: While he’s a total bastard for inflicting his crappy software on the world and prioritizing market share over product quality, he has used his fortune to support some very good work in the developing world. I’d argue that he’s clearly an E-1, if only on the basis of the vast resources he commands. He clearly shares the values of the elite – he wants to control things – but he also seems to sincerely want to make the world a better place.

    • The elite are human beings. One would expect to find complexity. See my above post.

      In my debate of whether to write a whole book or a short summary on the matter laziness wins for now. I have in my head the outline of several blog posts that would address the issue of pride in more detail. The main issue is that a satisfactory reading of the issue would require all sorts of dedication in the reader to first tackling all sorts of necessary precursor material. I don’t yet know how to handle that issue.

  25. Nice construction, but where is the military and police in all of this? Notice that even a lot of elite classes move in and out of the military (like the Bush clan), so there is a parallel structure there as well…

  26. @asdf:

    You seem to have as poor an understanding of the gentry as you claim the gentry have of labor.

    Also, I think you’re a little confused if you think socialism is actually a failed ideology. It is actually the dominant economic system in the western world, yes, including the USA. The secret here is not to mistake industrial corporatism for capitalism. There’s been an enormous PR/marketing campaign to make people think that the former is the latter, but industrial corporatism is actually a type of socialism — the “worst of both worlds” that michael mentioned in the OP.

    For example, the transportation infrastructure in the US is not the result of free and fair competition between entrepreneurs. Rather, industrial elites inheriting their power from the resource monopolies of the late 19th, early 20th centuries (think Standard Oil) lobbied, cajoled, and otherwise coerced the government into spending tax money from all classes on a highway system that disproportionately benefits fossil fuel companies and auto makers at the expense of essentially everyone else who would benefit from more efficient and less environmentally disastrous modes of transportation.

    These sorts of socialistic interventions in the construction of infrastructure determine the structure of the playing field in the “next level up” of capitalistic competition. For example, the success of UPS and Walmart are predicated on the transportation infrastructure; likewise, the failure of Amtrak is also determined by that infrastructure. We would like to think that capitalism allows for a true battlefield of ideas, but since infrastructure is largely the product of corporate socialism this really isn’t the case.

    “I believe intelligent people mostly use their intelligence to justify whatever things they already want to believe. This is the case for many socialists.”

    I would say the exact same thing about “capitalists”/libertarians. The problem with this “you literally don’t know what you’re talking about” style of argumentation is that it justified each side in ignoring the arguments of the other. I’m happy to listen to your arguments against socialism (I don’t actually consider myself a socialist, I just can’t justify libertarianism given my understanding of economic history); but please don’t tell me I only disagree with you because I’m deluded. (Your attitude sounds suspiciously like your caricature of gentry’s view of labor.)

    • I’m about as gentry and gentry gets. And probably a lot closer to political power then most here.

      Socialism and libertarianism is basically the same thing. They start from the same inititial assumptions and goals. That’s why Micheal can call himself a left-libertarian. The only question is one of method, and the debate over method is quite frankly not all that interesting. Depending on the methods chosen one will end up “left”, “right”, or inbetween like Micheal.

      If you really think they are that different watch how really skilled manipulators slide effortlessly along the left/right spectrum without changing any of their core. A good example of this is Christopher Hitchens.

  27. ” Barring truly disastrous political policies that repress it to an incredible degree (like say communism) technology drives everything.”

    Stalinism was terrible and the centrally-planned economy eventually fell apart under its own complexity but not before the Soviets hugely expanded the Russian economy, won three or four “space races” against the US, and generated a gigantic corpus of first-rate scientific research. We’re still using Soviet space craft to service the ISS while the space shuttle has already (wisely) been scrapped.

    This is why partisanship on “capitalism vs. socialism” — or anything else, really — is a bad idea. It blinds you to important evidence.

  28. On the Bill Gates question, I think there’s lots of reasons to believe he’s E2, not E1. The foremost is that you’ve actually heard of him. He and Buffet are the richest men in America largely because they don’t offshore their money, or at least not as much of it. They also spend that money directly on philanthropy rather than on lobbyists to push their pet projects through Congress — that’s the honest approach, and that’s what marks them as squarely E2.

    To get some idea of what E1 actually means (and why Buffet, Gates, and essentially every billionaire you’ve ever heard of aren’t in it) consider the evidence that Wachovia and BoA were laundering money for Los Zetas. Whoever made that decision is probably a wealthy American, but that person apparently has more in common with the drug lords in charge of Los Zetas than he or she does with the sort of wealthy people who vote for Obama (or, probably more precisely, against Romney). E1 aren’t law-abiding opportunists like Gates or Buffet who rightly command a lot of respect. They are pure opportunists — ones who don’t mind collaborating with a spectacularly brutal criminal organization if there’s a few billion dollars in it.

    • I have met several friends and clients (myself trying to become a CPA) born in Peru. A third world country – as far as society might label it. Overall, I believe opportunity exists and what really matters is how comfortable you feel among all members of the social class “ladder”. The variables in the equation are just not confined to money or family names. What about country of origin, sexual orientation, addiction, scholarships, and privileges. If we chose our parents before birth- it will be a different story. Great essay, made me think about so much but I digested it as a useful tool to use in this ever changing global economy.

  29. By sheer chance, today I ran across a 1963 story by John Brunner entitled “The Totally Rich”, which is about an E1. It’s narrated by a G3-G2 who becomes an E3 briefly. It doesn’t appear to be online anywhere, so I transcribed the first and last sections here, which give the flavor without giving away the plot. Here’s how it begins:

    They are the totally rich. You’ve never heard of them because they are the only people in the world rich enough to buy what they want: a completely private life. The lightning can strike into your life and mine:— you win a big prize or find yourself neighbor to an ax-murderer or buy a parrot suffering from psittacosis — and you are in the searchlight, blinking shyly and wishing to God you were dead.

    They won their prizes by being born. They do not have neighbors, and if they require a murder they do not use so clumsy a means as an ax. They do not keep parrots. And if by some other million-to-one chance does tend towards them, they buy it and instruct the man behind it to switch it off.

    How many of them there are I don’t know. I have tried to estimate the total by adding together the gross national product of every country on earth and dividing by the amount necessary to buy a government of a major industrial power. It goes without saying that you cannot maintain privacy unless you can buy any two governments.

    I think there may be one hundred of these people. I have met one, and very nearly another.

    By and large they are night people. The purchase of light from darkness was the first economic advance. But you will not find them by going and looking at two o’clock in the morning, any more than at two in the afternoon. Not at the approved clubs; not at the Polo Grounds; not in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot nor on the White House lawn.

    They are not on maps. Do you understand that? Literally, where they choose to live becomes a blank space in the atlases. They are not in census lists, Who’s Who, or Burke’s Peerage. They do not figure in tax collectors’ files, and the post office has no record of their addresses. Think of all the places where your name appears — the yellowing school registers, the hospital case records, the duplicate receipt form in the store, the signature on letters. In no single such place is there one of their names.

    How it is done…no, I don’t know. I can only hazard a guess that to almost all human beings the promise of having more than everything they have ever conceived as desirable acts as a traumatic shock. It is instantaneous brainwashing; in the moment the promise is believed, the pattern of obedience is imprinted, as the psychologists say. But they take no chances. They are not absolute rulers — indeed, they are not rulers of anything except what directly belongs to them — but they have much in common with that caliph of Baghdad to whom a sculptor came, commissioned to make a fountain. This fountain was the most beautiful in the world, and the caliph approved it. Then he demanded of the sculptor whether anyone else could have made so lovely a fountain, and the sculptor proudly said no one but he in the whole world could have achieved it.

    Pay him what was promised, said the caliph. And also — put out his eyes.

    And it ends thus, 24 pages later:

    These are the totally rich. They inhabit the same planet, breathe the same air. But they are becoming, little by little, a different species, because what was most human in them is — well, this is my opinion — dead.

    They keep apart, as I mentioned. And God! God! Aren’t you grateful?

    The story has been called Brunner’s best, and was collected in the 1969 anthology of dark science fiction Dark Stars (ed. Robert Silverberg) and in the 1992 anthology Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 25, 1963. It also appears in the Brunner collections Out Of My Mind (1967) and The Best of John Brunner (1988).

  30. I actually attended an Ivy League School,and my father did as well. My performance was very mediocre but I obtained a BA. I do not have a graduate degree, but did get a teaching credential and taught high school for twelve years (G3?)

    I found the profession very unsatisfactory and ultimately decided to switch careers last year, starting a one-person landscape and lawn business based on what I perceived the visible business opportunities to be in the area where I live currently (Southeast). I sometimes employ up to four people, but my revenues are probably less than $60,000 a year. (L3?)

    Can someone like me be categorized? I have steadfastly refused to allow my career to define me and I have always harbored a mostly secret desire to be recognized for either writing or painting. In fact, I habitually painted until a couple of years ago and received sincere praise from many who might fit into the “G” category, people who actually know something about art. My tastes in film, literature, and television, I am certain, would be shared by those in a high “G” category.

    So, might it be better to classify someone by the culture in which they participate than by their job category, or do you regard the two as inseparable?

  31. Two comments. First is that this idea of three Ladders needs to be combined with the idea of the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory ( in order to have a usable model of society in the US. Second comment is that the Age of Automation is progressing rapidly and one of the foreseeable results is that the rate of unemployment will be perpetually 90-95% in the Labor ladder. One way of summarizing this change would be to say that the vast majority of the Labor ladder will be added to the Underclass. So, even if a synthesis of the Ladders and the Generational Theory could be made, society would have changed so much, by the virtual elimination of an entire Ladder, that the synthesis would not be valid. Welcoming comments.

  32. This is an interesting analysis; fairly accurate, though I would ascribe far more villainous qualities to the gentry than you do; in fact, I have. I’d also expand and break down the lower classes a little differently, probably from close acquaintance with them. Rather than tooting my own horn on the subject (I come from L3, lead a G2 lifestyle, and occasionally dabble with E3, which I figure is pretty much G2 by my own lights), I’ll direct you to Mencius Moldbug, who I think more correctly nailed the war between Elite and Gentry:

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  36. Kudos on this–there’s some real insight here. Thanks very much!

    Just two things:

    1. Given a suitably educated populace, there’s no such thing as surplus labor; there are only faulty distributions of labor. Regarding people as uneducable due to their social background is probably the prime fault of today’s American zeitgeist; it’s just that the way we distribute school money keeps the fault lines wide.

    2. I come from a middle-class American suburb, yet practically my entire family votes Republican. We don’t seem to fit into either Labor or Gentry; my dad was middle-management–a cross between L2 and G3, because white male middle managers are practically the definition of “Establishment conservative”.

  37. What do you think of the ideas of American Libertarian-leaning economists? I tend to find a lot of what you are saying here makes sense why they espouse so many seemingly naive ideas, and are so quick to hype the interventionist nature of left leaning politicians and economists.

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  41. Not sure if anyone else has pointed this out but it was reported in 2013 that Jon Stewart, “is taking home between $25 and $30 million a year, topping broadcast network competitors Jay Leno and David Letterman, who have seen salary cuts in recent years.”

    Not exactly “‘merely’ upper-middle-class income working for the notoriously cheap Comedy Central.” If anything this would suggest that Comedy Central values his cultural impact with important demographics.

  42. Hello,

    I cannot remember how I found your essay but it kept me reading it. Very interesting points and supporting evidence. I could relate to some of your arguments. Citations will make this essay stronger. Overall great work

  43. Where do we put highly successful drug dealers/gangsters/rappers? Their income takes them out of the underclass (though only the lucky ones appear to extend their lifespan, since visibility is not always a good thing in some parts of the underclass). What about successful athletes who rise from the underclass? Dennis Rodman, however eccentric his vacation plans, does run a construction company which hires people from his old neighborhood. Professional athletes may be considered as a special case of the L ladder, who maintain their place, or not, insofar as they manage their bodies and their finances. Yet some parlay their careers into the Elite, at least some levels of it.

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  46. This essay is very good, but I think you left out a pretty sizable segment of the population, which I’ll call the “mundane wealth servants” (MWS). These are lawyers, real estate developers, and wealth management advisors who live in Baltimore, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Like “elite servants”, their job is to service the needs of the truly wealthy. But unlike “elite servants,” it’s not particularly hard to get into this class. The “elite servants” only exist in a handful of cities on the coasts. Everywhere else, the upper-middle class is dominated by the MWS.

    Mundane wealth servants didn’t go to an elite college. Instead, they majored in business at a state university or at a lesser-known private school. You don’t need prestigious academic credentials to become an MWS, but you do need an affluent upbringing. (I’m not sure why: maybe it’s because one naturally needs familiarity with wealth in order to know that servicing it can be a career, or maybe it’s because they all get their jobs through parental connections.)

    G2s look down on MWSs on grounds that MWS jobs require only social skills, not intellectual exertion. Nevertheless, with mid-career earnings of $150 – $400k, MWSs make more money than most G2s! Thus, many G2s resent the MWS class.

    Elites look down on MWSs too, because they didn’t go to elite colleges or work at elite firms. Most MWSs would have tried to become Elites had they gone to a more prestigious university or grown up in New York City. However, because they didn’t, most MWSs are only vaguely aware that the Elite infrastructure even exists.

    MWSs are definitely not members of the Labor infrastructure (they always go to college), but, interestingly enough, they share, with the Labor classes, an appreciation for sporting events.

    The Gentry vote Democratic, while MWSs vote Republican.

    I went to a private high school in Baltimore, and probably half of the families in my class there could be classified as MWS.

  47. I have no idea what I am.
    Most likely g3/2?

    My parents were dirt poor growing up, but both of their families owned quite a bit of land.
    (I now own the land that my Fathers’ family owned) Dad didn’t finish school, worked in a company that manufactures car parts as a machine operator, mother has a diploma in education and teaching.

    I will have a bachelors business degree in 2 years.

    I don’t particularly like the idea of slaving away at some job (regardless of what that job is) for longer than 2 years, as I plan to work for myself, including freelance work, self-publishing books, and some sort of online business probably.

    I also wouldn’t mind starting a blue-collar business, say, laying tiles.
    I’d work by myself for a while, then hire people and eventually take myself completely out of the equation.

    So what am I?

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