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New York, New York,
December 31
I'm a musician, blogger, and like to fancy myself an entrepreneur, filmmaker, and travel blogger . I use Open Salon to post thoughts that I feel pertain to broader cultural dialogues in the US, most recently the state of jazz, my chosen profession.

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AUGUST 11, 2008 11:30AM

Elitism - from July 11

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Early this week Barack Obama gave a town hall speech to a mostly black audience in Georgia. After telling the kids they probably weren't as good at basketball or rap as they thought, he went on to profess his desire that Americans become more proficient in foreign languages.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been calling for a price floor for oil since early 2004, but the current "crisis" has spurred investment in alternative energies in quantities unheard of in the 1990s. Amid the cries for more offshore drilling, leasing more Alaskan lands and crackdowns on speculation, a steady chorus in favor of the opposite idea-that prices need to be kept as high as possible-has emerged. A price floor means that the national government establishes a minimum price-per-barrel-say $100-and implements a tax that makes up the difference should the market price fall below that floor. In 2001 some economists and green energy enthusiasts were calling for a $50 price floor-laughable by today's standards. The conventional wisdom goes that large-scale investment in a new technology won't occur until it can be offered at prices competitive with existing technologies.

If Friedman has had his eye on long-term investment in global infrastructure, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg made two famous failed attempts to initiate fundamental change at the local level with his now infamous congestion pricing. Bloomberg's idea was a simple one: make it so expensive to drive a car into Manhattan that public transportation or carpooling becomes a more realistic option. Like peak train fares, congestion pricing-in its conception-was designed to encourage people to think twice before driving their cars.

60 Minutes aired a broadcast last fall featuring a compelling debate: to keep or to divest of the U.S.'s lowest monetary common denominator, the penny. On the side of axing the penny were an economist who argued its uselessness and inconvenience, and...well an economics student at MIT pointing out the economic catch-22 of minting pennies: they cost far more to create than they're worth.

So what is elitism? By and large it's a catch-phrase we hear tossed around during political seasons, usually on Lou Dobbs or Fox News. (Though David Brooks, I suspect out of guilt more than anything else, has been know to use it on occasion.) Colloquially "elitism" is understood to mean values held by a segment of the population more educated, liberal, and light-in-the-loafers than-say-the followers of NASCAR. Dobbs, for his part, went to work on Obama after the "foreign languages" speech, calling it elitist and asking citizens to demand of their congressman that English be made the official language of the U.S.

Who are elitists? One imagines a littany akin to "you might be a redneck if..."-an elitist acid test, and indeed the genesis and popularity of websites like "stuff white people like" indicates the label might not be totally undeserved. (Do you brag about not owning a television? Does your dream home include at least one piece of modernist furniture?) Complicating things somewhat is the fact that most modern purveyors of the term, almost to a one, seem to fit the definition (see: Brooks, David or Coulter, Ann). David Brooks may well be a special case, devoting some columns to assailing elitism (Obama's bowling, that salad bar at the Applebees) and just as many participating in it (the rise of the educated class/education as the new cultural wedge, rich people's kids are better at interacting in the world, modern rich work harder than modern poor). By simultaneously participating in and criticizing a culture, he's engaging in "post modernism" and as such likely deserves accolades from the elitists.

So we can go to work on the term with a pickaxe, as Thomas Frank, Paul Krugman and many others have done-dissecting the real makeup of our culture: The fact that the upper class is more likely to vote according to its religious views than the working class. The cars/houses/dress/salary of the people making money by selling us "red America." (And in so doing we'd be engaging in "posthumous cultural meta-analysis", which doubtless would bump us a couple of notches in the elitist book.) But just have a look at Stuff White People Like and tell me some of this stuff isn't a dead-ringer.

But I'd like to propose a more street-level concept of elitism, and an argument about why it may be important in some cases. As somebody with enough education to get a job that allows him to sit indoors at a computer all day and recieve a paycheck by direct deposit I'm isolated from a certain segment of the population. I can afford to live in New York, where I don't have to drive a car to work and where I'm already buying "high end" foods at the grocery store (so I'm less afflicted than some by the rise in food prices). I own a computer, take for-granted a passing familiarity with its applications, and make enough money to pay for high-speed internet. I've got a health plan through my employer and access to credit that all but ensures my liquidity will stay shy of desperate, even in tight months. I've got an entertainment budget liberal enough that there's room to pare things down if I have to pay off the IRS or something. I've got in laws wealthy enough and generous enough to fund occasional international travel.

And yet here I sit, decreeing that Americans should learn foreign languages, that the high price of oil is a good thing because it will wean us off foreign oil-and hopefully reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in general, that congestion pricing was a good thing, and that maybe we should get rid of the penny. My point is, what standing have I to say? Or, less delicately, where do I get off?

Indeed, anyone who purports to know what's best for someone whose hardships he's never had to share ought to think twice, and at the very least ought not to object to a degree of resentment. "Obama wants me to learn foreign languages? What's next-I have to learn the languages of every immigrant group moving into my town? Has he ever had to support a family of four by working at Wallmart?" "You want to keep gas expensive? Half my monthly paycheck's going to gas so I can get my kids to school and get to my job." You get the picture.

Sheldon Silver, the stodgy state assembly Democratic leader who eventually defeated congestion pricing in committee, summed up his opposition in two sentences. Bloomberg's not going to charge limos. People who ride in limos will be exempt from a "tax" my working-class constituents will have to pay. Opponents of losing the penny point to studies of other countries that experienced price adjustments to the next-largest currency upon eliminating their smallest. Those adjustments were always up. So what if it's just a few cents to you? The poor and working-class will get hit in the wallets. (Penny proponents: fear not. There is little chance of eliminating the penny in the near future.)

So it's elitist. Now the crux: does that make it wrong?

For issues like price floors on oil and congestion pricing, I leave it up to debate. Climate scientists will tell you we have to reduce our CO2 output
substantially and fast, otherwise the consequences will be far more dire for the planet than a higher pricetag at the pump. And global warming will-of course-affect the poor disproportionately, as natural phenomena usually do. Perhaps people like Friedman and Bloomberg would have done better to engage their opponents and display an understanding of the fears-legitimate or not-lower income citizens have about sweeping environmental regulations. A compromise-any compromise-is better than nothing, which is precisely what we've got.

What about requiring Americans to learn foreign languages? I would go one step further and ask, "by our new definition, is that really 'elitist'?" Was Obama deigning to proclaim, to people whose shoes he'd never walked in, that they should follow a course of action for which he would reap the benefits but incur none of the risks? I say no. On the contrary, most of the manufacturing base that used to be America's bread and butter has been gutted by globalization. And the loss of manufacturing jobs has turned vast numbers of former members of the middle class into the poor. Whether you favor free-trade or tarrifs-whether you favor outsourcing or not (or hell, whether you think it's reversible), there is but one approach universally agreed to improve our prospects accross the economic spectrum and that is education. We've all read the statistics about American students falling behind in test scores (they've since made up some ground, but progress is uneven). We've all seen the surveys of appallingly small numbers of Americans able to idenfity well-known foreign countries on a map. Yet we persist in harboring attitudes toward education that border on hostile. Indeed, the most successful politician in the last decade is one who learned to speak "beneath his IQ"-with a Texas stutter belying his Ivy League education.

So let's practice a little less elitism in the way we talk about elitism, and a little more in evaluating our competitiveness in the world.

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