No Points for Thinking of Richard Branson
I’m curious what left-leaning types around here think of Charles Murray’s quiz — How Thick Is Your Bubble? Here’s the underlying thesis:
As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives…
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.
You may do well to take the quiz yourself before reading any further.
I scored a very modest 27 points. That’s about what I might expect, given that I am — yes indeedy — a “second-generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot.” By which I mean, contrary to the received usage, that I’m still connected to my small-town roots, I was active in the Boy Scouts, and I’ve got plenty of conservative (and liberal) contacts through my work.
These three supplied the large majority of the points I scored in the quiz. Television gave me absolutely nothing, and I’m ashamed to say that for the “Branson” question I was unable to think of anything other than Richard Branson. (Why would I? Hasn’t everyone heard of Richard Branson?)
[T]here is no reasonable version of this test on which I would have come out looking like a Man of the People. More generally, Murray is surely right that there is a culture gap between the new upper middle class and the rest of the public, and that the former is often ignorant about the lives of the latter.
At the same time, I am skeptical that the gap is much greater than it was fifty years ago. Murray claims that the elite of the early 1960s was much more in touch with mainstream culture than today’s upper middle class (which he defines, roughly, as people in various professional occupations who are in the top 5% of the income distribution). He only offers a modest amount of evidence to support that claim, and on some points his evidence cuts the other way. For example, one of the differences between the upper middle class and the mainstream that Murray cites is that the former are much more likely to engage in foreign travel. But that gap was even greater in 1960, when foreign travel was much more an elite preserve than it is today, in the age of relatively cheap jet flights.
More importantly, I am far from certain that the kind of knowledge Murray describes is actually important in improving the quality of public policy. Yes, elites who make policy that affects the lives of truck drivers should have some knowledge of “their priorities.” But it’s not clear to me that knowledge of TV shows, foods, preferred sports, etc., of truck drivers is all that useful to understanding those priorities.
I’m more or less in agreement, but I also think he misses the point of the quiz, which is not and does not try to be rigorous social science. My sense is that it’s meant to instill a measure of guilt, and therefore caution, among policymakers and pundits. It used to be that this kind of guilt belonged to the left. They owned it. Clearly they haven’t for a while, and by now — well, by now I’m wondering if they even recognize it anymore.
Now, clearly culture explains a whole lot about politics — this exact gap, for instance, seems to me the primary reason why Occupy Wall Street only got so far before it turned into permanent, agendaless encampments of voluble, highly educated and yet somehow functionally homeless individuals. The people in the parks never connected with the people for whom they were ostensibly protesting.
Why not? Possibly it’s because they didn’t know who Jimmie Johnson was. In fairness, I didn’t either. People who are not deeply familiar with mass cultural signifiers and who do not participate in them personally are just not going to be able to lead mass popular movements. Or is that overstated? Someone has to win the presidency every four years, and historically they’ve been some pretty elite people.
I’d be very interested in what the commenters here thought.