Bryan Caplan  

Sumner's One-Sentence Class Autobiography

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Three years ago I asked economists to share their class autobiographies.  Yesterday Scott Sumner boiled his down to one sentence:
At various times in my life I have been in all 5 quintiles of family income distribution, and yet I have always felt like I was in the same "class," and I have never felt like my happiness had anything to do with how much income I was making.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Gary writes:

I agree for the most part. So is class more about genetic quality?

Todd writes:

I am skeptical that his happiness had literally nothing to do with how much money he was making. It may never have been the predominant factor in determining his outlook on life, but I find it had to believe he's never done or wanted to do something that depended on having enough money. If you're going to chide Robin Hanson for using unnecessary universal qualifiers, you should probably extend your criticism to this case as well.

Sulla writes:

More cultural imo. It depends alot on the way you were raised and the society you live in. However, even in that case, a certain personality might 'rebel' and develop his own belief system, and the reason for this might be genetic.

Eddy Elfenbein writes:

He's confusing class with money, this is something many Americans do. It's easy to measure money, class is a bit harder. It relies on factors such as education, diction, race and family. Sumner's statement underscores the elusive qualities of -- and importance of -- class.

Scott Sumner writes:

Eddy, I don't think I did confuse class and money. If you read the whole post (and it's far to long, but at least the part around that quotation) my point was that money and class are two different things. I went on to talk about poor people who had lousy schools, no health insurance, crime ridden neighborhoods, etc. And I mentioned that a single mom might be very unhappy having the same income that I had as a young single male, or even twice the income. I was also pointing out that income inequality data unadjusted for age is very misleading.

Todd, I'd put it this way, happiness may be correlated with career success. And money may be correlated with career success. But the causality probably goes from achieving my goals to happiness, with money just a side effect. My blog has allowed me to achieve some goals, but without any more income. And yet I am happier than during years I got a big raise at work, but didn't achieve any personal goals.

But don't get me wrong, I'd be very happy if Bill Gates suddenly gave me a check for a million dollars. At least on that day.

kebko writes:

I have 2 personal observation contra the redistributors & Gini worriers:

1) My personal income history is much more divided than the nation's as a whole, and I think this may be almost universally true. Since, during a typical working lifetime, you will tend to earn more in the later years, and your later working years will reflect a much wealthier society, the statistical inequality of the typical person over a lifespan is probably greater than the inequality at a point in time for the nation. I wonder if anyone has studied this. The trend of more time in school & in retirement should be making this point even stronger.

2) Looking at my cousins, who all come from the same socioeconomic background (2 generations ago), there is a huge amount of income inequality (especially if you go by statistical person-years, per point number 1). Much of this difference has to do with personality, life choices, family issues, discipline, education, etc. and some is from parental largesse, luck, etc.

Once these 2 factors are taken into account, statistically it seems that there must be a surprisingly small amount of income inequality of a Dickensian nature.

Dr. T writes:

It may be cute, but it's not an autobiographical statement if it says almost nothing about the writer. I can truthfully use the exact same statement, though I'm quite different from Scott Summer, who didn't raise goats as a kid and go on to become a clinical pathologist.

mobile writes:

Careful, Professor Sumner. Somebody will propose a large and punitive Scott Sumner Tax and declare it to be Pareto optimal and welfare enhancing.

Giedrius writes:

Maybe this only means that class is about expected lifetime income, not momentary income.

El Presidente writes:

Giedrus,

Maybe this only means that class is about expected lifetime income, not momentary income.

Or, perhaps class is measured with respect to one's peers, thus excluding older and younger generations (in response to kebko). I tend to think the income of one's parents guides class identification until the point at which one's peers begin to reach professional maturity. Then we look around instead of up to see how we're doing. Think of college students, for instance. They are typically very poor in their own right and yet think of themselves as being "middle-class" despite their paltry or negative incomes. I don't think this is so much because they expect to have nominally high incomes but rather that they expect their incomes will be higher than their peers' for an extended period during their future.

Greg writes:

This is intriguing, but only if he's not counting grad school.

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