The Platonic Ideal of Being Middle Class
In Professor Hanley’s post on income inequality, Gabriel Conroy vexed frustration about how the term middle class was overbroad to the point of uselessness.
Our would be Dubliner wrote:
‘I’m also wary of the way people use “middle class” as something self-evidently obvious. Sometimes I feel like pedant, but the term just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m not saying we have to adopt a Marxist definition. But I’d like some definition that isn’t reducible to “everyone knows it” or, worse, “everyone except the undeserving rich and the undeserving poor, where ‘undeserving’ is defined as that with which the speaker cannot empathize.”’
My theory was that most Americans liked to define themselves as being middle-class for cultural, psychological, and social reasons over anything else.
Almost every part of the United States if not the world as a term or terms for kids who were born into wealth and never needed to work very hard because they knew that family connections and history would help them reach the highest ranks of socio-economics or they could work in any profession they desired because they were free from the burdens of actually making a living, and if push came to shove they could always marry into an equally or more monied family. U.S.C. in Southern California jokingly stands for the University of Spoiled Children. Paris Hilton’s high school is called DWIGHT and the New York short hand for the school is Dumb, White Into Getting High Together. Interestingly Truman Capote is another famous alumni of DWIGHT. There are the Rich Kids of Instagram who flaunt a decadent lifestyle that would make Versailles look modest.
There are also plenty of people who were born on third who are generally horrified by the behavior of their fellow trust funders but still want to enjoy all the benefits of the wealth and privilege in which they were born. Trip Cullman is prolific off-Broadway and regional theatre director (1). He also owns a 2000 square foot pad in one of the hottest neighborhood’s in Manhattan (2).
The New York Times Article hints but does not explicitly states that Trip Cullman comes from money. His mother is a leading interior designer who helped him decorate the place. His grandmother managed the legendary New York Steakhouse Peter Luger. Mr. Cullman mentions that his grandfather bought the restaurant. The article and Mr. Cullman do not mention that the grandfather was former Philip Morris CEO Joseph Cullman. His grandmother was related to Herbert H. Lehman, a Democratic Governor and Senator from New York during the Great Depression.
In short, Mr. Cullman is the type of person who can afford to be independently employed in the arts. He almost certainly is not making enough money from theatre directing to be able to afford a 2000 square foot place in Manhattan.
The arts attract all types but most people will not earn any money in the arts. The average weekly pay at an Equity off-broadway theatre ranges from 566 to 1008 dollars gross (3). This means a potential yearly salary of just below to 29,500 to just below 52,500 gross per a year. Most actors will not earn close to this amount. Most plays do not run for 52 weeks. Most plays have runs that last about 4-6 weeks. Maybe 8 if they are really lucky. The minimum fee for a union director in off-broadway is between 9,476 to 16,847 per a show (4). A mentor of professor of mine in grad school told me that a director who does 6 shows a year is “very lucky.”
Theatre attracts all types but most will live something close to a life of destitution unless very lucky in their careers. So Mr. Cullman can go home to his 2000 square foot pad but many people in his cast and crew will go home to roommates and small and unglamorous apartments in Washington Heights and Astoria. This dynamic can be very awkward.
The American Tax Code favors capital over income but I think the American culture and psyche favors income over capital. We don’t mind people living well including very well but we seemingly prefer people who live well because of their labor over people who live well because they make very good investments. I think this is why so much of American media focuses on law and medical dramas. Most people associate law and medicine as being stable and well-paid positions (most people are also rather unaware of the law school crisis from the past two years.) Lawyers and doctors make a lot of money but they do so through long and dedicated hours at their trade, their wealth is more morally acceptable because it is earned from work. Americans tend to like investors only if they are as seriously unpretentious as Warren Buffet who does not seem to earn an extravagant income. Stories about young people on Wall Street always end up being morality tales about being corrupted into ethically shady to illegal behavior because of easy money that might require long hours but seemingly does not require real labor.
Friends of mine debated whether the New York Times Society/Real Estate section should have disclosed whether Mr. Cullman was able to afford his apartment because of his lineage. From a writer POV, it would be an easy line to add. From an editorial point of view, not so much. The Real Estate section exists to show off nifty apartments and homes. People would probably be very unwilling to show their nifty apartment and homes if it meant revealing that they were trust-funders. I am willing to hold the Real Estate Section to a different standard than the front page of the New York Times. I’ve been told that this is a wrong attitude to have.
For the sake of disclosure, I should probably reveal that I am a trust fund kid. My grandparents were great savers and created an educational trust for me when I was born. This trust fund contained enough money to pay for my undergraduate, graduate, and law school degrees. I am entirely grateful for being debt-free. There is also a small but decent amount left that I can access when I am older but is legally inaccessible to me now. This does make me extremely privileged but also puts me in a weird position sometimes. Most people assume that I am like them and paid for my education via student loans. I don’t want to encourage people to believe this but there is no way to talk about my trust without people thinking it is much bigger than it really is. I think one issue with privilege and wealth is that you can always find someone who is higher than you on the socio-economic ladder and talk about why that person is the really wealthy one. I lived rather well for a graduate student, but I could point to my classmates who lived in much nicer apartments as being the really wealthy ones. I could talk about my jobs during grad school as a source of pride and partially paying my own way. At the same time it still feels very odd to refer to myself as a trust fund kid even though it is true. My trust fund does not pay me an allowance or dividend and never did. In my mind, the trust fund kids were the ones whose trusts contained millions of dollars or more and allowed them to receive a monthly interest payment of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Trust fund kids are my friends who live upper-middle class and above lives while working in the arts, I needed to make a choice between the chance of an upper-middle class life and continuing to work in the arts. I choose law school and even with the law school crisis and recession, I have been doing much better economically than I ever did in theatre.