Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Caste system vs. caste 'system'.

India is a predominently Hindu country that has historically operated under a caste system where your economic standing in society is predetermined. If your grandfather was a bricklayer, then your father was a bricklayer, you are a bricklayer and your children will be bricklayers. This kept things in relative balance as most aspects of life were covered. The 'Brahmins' as in 'Boston Brahmins' were at the top of the heap and went to the best schools, lived in palaces and had domestic help. Like their British colonial masters, it was 'verboten' for domestic help to date or marry someone outside their station.

But India today is changing. Thanks to fiber optic cables, many of todays high tech jobs can be found in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. Yup, the job YOU had before 2000 has gone there. As a result, many Indians are seeing a burgeoning middle class which includes cars, better housing, and while not having domestic help some people in India are doing quite well on $20K a year. Those people who are now just entering the pipeline are showing some class jealousy. Furthermore, India is devouring more energy for air conditioning in modern office complexes, as well as more private automobiles.

India 'officially' ended the caste system some years ago, and now touts itself as the world's largest democracy. But many millions in India are still despertely poor. In rural areas, the caste system is alive and well, arranged marriages, honor killings and all, because 'that's the way its always been done'.

In the U.S., we are also an 'offically' classless society. Anyone can rise above their station in life with a little hard work. So they say. Having a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time plays a greater role. Examples abound how a street kid playing b-ball in the 'hood can become the next Michael Jordon. Mike Tyson beat up people on a regular basis when one of his trainers convinced him to go pro and make millions to beat the crap out of (or bite the ear off of)
his opponent in the ring rather than on the street.

The New York Times has been running a multiple part series on 'Class in America'. The class system in America is alive and well in the US although in one installment, it claimed that it is getting harder to tell who has class and who doesn't. Some wealthy people shop in discount stores, while middle class folks are fond of Godiva chocolates, Ralph Laren clothing, etc. High Technology is the great liberator of class as the price of photo-phones, Ipod minis and computers keep coming down so hi-tech is no indicator of class status. I have an Ipod that I bought in better economic times and I offer no apologies for it and I am now no longer in the middle class, I am getting closer to the ground floor.

In last Sunday's installment, they talked about how the 'hyper-rich' are leaving the 'regular' rich in the dust. One hundred years ago, the rich owned railroads and newspapers. Fifty years ago, the current 'old rich' of the Kennedys, Kerrys and Bushes (yes the Bush family is as much an elitist family as the Kennedys) made their money in oil, finance or broadcasting or real estate.

Today's 'hyper rich' made their money in the stock market, pulling out it primarily before the hi-tech bubble burst in 2000. Because technology is changing at such a rapid pace, you needn't work 'hard' to become hyper-rich. Find a good idea, start a business, market it, work it for a year and then 'flip' it by selling it for $500M.

The article talked about how the island of Nantucket has become the first naturally 'gated' community. Old money clashes with new money. Houses that once sold for 500K now run for $15M. During the last Bush recession of 1982, the rich kept their jewels and furs out of sight in some 'sympathy' for those who were unemployed and having a hard time. I managed to survive that recession because I was still young enough to keep employed, despite the fact that once bosses have figured out that the economy has gone in their favor, they tend to become ogres.

Todays rich have no such feeling of restraint. Today its 'NOTICE ME, I HAVE ARRIVED'. The old rich on Nantucket are put off by the brasheness of the new rich. The old rich still spend money, and enough of it, but less than they did before, because they fear that they are getting too old to make it back quickly. In an effort at rebuffing the new rich, many of the exclusive clubs are closed to the new rich, so the new rich have simply started their own exclusive clubs. $300,000 membership fees at some golf courses are not uncommon.

But like everywhere else in America, if you were born middle class on Nantucket you have to leave. If you 'work' for a living, that is, actually get up every day at 6 or 7 am you can't afford to live there. Some construuction workers are doing a brisk business by being flown in from the mainland, work all day and fly back at night. This cost is of course passed on to the home buyer.
The talk of at 'The Club' is no longer IF you flew in, but on what kind of jet. Gulfstream IVs are the 'preferred' mode of transportation.

When a young person starts out in life, he or she is told that they can be anything they want to be and become as rich as they want. They start out in life full of optimism and enthusiasm (employers love that), but by the time one reaches 40, a mid life crisis sets in as you finally realize that all that hard work and you probably never reach 'their' level of wealth, so now you now operate in maintenance mode, in other words, running just to remain in place. Eventually, most people simply accept their lot in life.

In other words, you settle into your somewhat pre-defined caste slot and hope that your kids can do a little better than you did. So when you come to think about it, India and the US are becoming more alike in ways then either one of them cares to admit. I do find it somewhat comforting that 'what goes around comes around' that the 'old' rich are now being looked down upon by the very people that they used to look down upon and that they too, have to work that much harder (just like the rest of us) just to maintain a decent place on society's ladder.

I know this first hand because I live in a neighborhood that promotes itself as 'better' than other neighborhoods here in Vegas. As I move back East, class is defined by suburb. Its 'better' to live in Weston than Waltham and 'better' to live in Boxford than Braintree. And so it goes.


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