Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Thoughts around social class: Over-estimating our own class

with 2 comments

Preamble: About a year ago, I worked on a series of texts about social class. At some point, I lost interest and the remaining intended texts were forgotten. The below text was left half done, and I only realized that it was still unpublished today, as I contemplated a short text with some observations on “Hornblower” and class. To get it out of the way, I have done some minor fixes, including proof-reading. A number of points-to-be-expanded have been removed. The previous installments include at least [1], [2], [3]. Further texts might or might not be added (“Hornblower”, probably; the removed points-to-be-expanded, possibly; other originally planned texts, probably not).

Until the mid-20th century, Germany used three train classes—1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Even further back, there was a 4th class. Today, there are two—1st and 2nd. Surely, this is a sign of societal progress? That the for-the-poor 3rd class has become redundant and been abolished, as everyone in modern society can afford at least the 2nd class?

Not so: What happened was quite the opposite—the 1st (!) class was abolished, while the other classes were promoted in name. It can be argued that today’s 2nd-class passenger is actually a 3rd-class passenger, while the alleged 1st-class passenger travels in the 2nd class… Indeed, looking at some trains (e.g. the “S-Bahn”), the difference between even the current 1st and 2nd class is often just cosmetic, making everyone a 3rd-class passenger.

It is true that various advancements have increased the comfort and quality of the current classes compared to their incarnations in the day of yore. This to the point that the current 2nd-class might compare favorable not only to its “true” correspondent (i.e. the old 3rd class), but also to the “real” 2nd class of yore. In some* regards, it might even surpass the abolished “true” 1st class. However, in others it still trails or might even have lost ground. Most notably, travelers in the current 2nd class are regularly packed like sardines and/or forced to stand (even in Germany!)—and even when everyone has a seat, there is not necessarily a plenitude of room for legs, movement, and luggage available…

*Definitely travel speed and the availability of on-board Internet… Note, here and elsewhere, that I lack the personal experiences to make a detail comparison of the many attributes over time and class. Some of the statements might need revision in detail, but they remain true in principle.

The same development matches overall society well: Many people with some success in life believe that they are 1st-class or 2nd*-class citizens, because it say so on the virtual door or because some attributes of the higher classes are present in their lives. The reality is that they are one or two train classes below what they believe that they are.

*Note that the use here contrasts the 2nd to the 3rd and the 4th class—not to the 1st class (as would be the case with most uses of “2nd-class citizen”). I stress that the delineation is mostly one of money and influence—not true worth. (Just like a worthier human might not have the money for 1st-class travel, or might prefer a cheaper ticket to greater comfort.)

Now, being a class or two lower than perceived still makes for quite a good life by the standards of our grand-parents. Materially speaking, the vast majority of Germany’s population is in a state that would fill most of our ancestors (and most of e.g. the current African population) with envy and a wish for the same. In some ways, e.g. entertainment and dentistry, the “poor” of today’s Germany have it better than medieval kings. We have reached a point where the increased risk of obesity is commonly cited as a one the largest problems with being “poor” in many Western countries.*

*To a large part, because many politicians and poor social scientists assume that this increased risk is caused solely through lack of money or a college diploma, and ignore the difference between correlation and causality. In reality, much of it is caused by e.g. the unwillingness or inability to read the nutrition labels on the packages and adapt eating habits in accordance. (In addition to those problems that are fairly income-and-whatnot independent.)

The hitch is that there are many areas where even the perceived 1st-class passenger is nothing of the kind. Look at 19th-century English literature*—and consider how anyone even remotely “someone” had at least one servant or how there was no end to politeness towards those in a higher standing.

*Fiction should always be taken with a grain of salt; however, there are so many instances of similar depictions from so many contemporaries that more than minor exaggerations and idealizations are unlikely.

Disclaimer: The below servant discussion was a mess in the draft, with problems including a single too-long paragraph, inconsistent footnote references, and unsourced numbers. (How did I get from 100,000 to 65,000, e.g.) I have tried to straighten it up a bit, but might not have put in enough effort for clarity and correctness. In particular, I suspect that the numbers used were bordering on place-holders, with most of the work still remaining. Also see e.g. [4] for some words on the extremely large non-tax mandatory payments, which would cut away even more money.

Outside the truly rich, very few people in today’s Germany can afford* more in the way of servants than e.g. a once-a-week cleaning lady. Even hiring a handyman to do some minor work can be sufficiently expensive** that most people only do so grudgingly.

*In a sense that includes a reasonable cost–benefit comparison. The proportion that could pay for, say, a house-keeper at all is larger, but most would be forced to far greater compromises in other areas than the house-keeper would bring benefit.

**With VAT and other taxes, a travel surcharge, the often low work tempo, and the hourly fee. This assuming that no deliberate cheating takes place, which could move us to yet another ball park.

Consider e.g. a hypothetical scenario where a family with 100,000 Euro (well above average) in yearly earnings would try to hire a live-in house-keeper for 20,000* Euro a year + food and lodging. Naively calculated, the prospective employer would have close to 80,000 Euro left, assuming that the additional living cost for the house-keeper can be kept reasonable. This should leave enough to grow the bank account, even in the face of two children, two cars, some amount of travels, and whatnot—the house-keeper might well be worth it.

*I have no idea what is a realistic value, but I doubt that there would be many good takers without the “food and lodging” part—and a bad house-keeper is likely worse than no house-keeper… The principle of the example is more important than such details, however.

In reality, the numbers are very different. For starters, the taxes and whatnots on those 100,000 Euro will diminish the available money to some 65.000, not counting e.g. fees to the pension systems and the mandatory health-insurance systems. At the same time, taxes and various fees* that hit the house-keeper will force the employer to pay well above 25,000 Euro for a net of 20,000 to arrive to the house-keeper. This not counting any side-costs that might or might not be necessary or beneficial, e.g. work-place insurance; and not counting the food and lodging, which is now far more relevant in terms of margins. To boot, there is some risk (I have not researched this) that food and lodging would it self be considered taxable by the IRS, driving the cost up even higher. In other words, we land at a surplus well below 40,000 Euro, instead of close to 80,000. Even this could make for a decent life, depending on how far below, but the money for the house-keeper would be much better kept for other purposes. This even assuming that the original 100,000 Euro was the family’s earnings and not the total salary, tax, whatnot cost put on the adults’ employer(s)—otherwise the family would bankrupt it self with a house-keeper… More generally, the insane cost increase on hired work compared to bartered** work has strongly limited service levels and what can be done with even an over-average amount of money.

*I have not done the leg-work for this constellation, but a regular employment sees considerable increases on top of salary. See e.g. [4]. (There might be special regulations for e.g. household services and private employ.)

**Consider e.g. the relative cost to each party when an electrician and a plumber trade services for their private homes or pay “under the table” respectively when they send each other official bills. (And the government wonders why “under the table” deals are so common…) The house-keeper example (food and lodging) is another partial example—servants of old were often border-line “au pairs”, being paid less through money than food and lodging, which could be provided a lot more cheaply. (Compare e.g. the cost of a servant using an otherwise spare-room and having shared access to an existing kitchen and bathroom with the cost of a taxed-and-whatnot pay increase to rent even a small own apartment.)

(Also consider portions of [3].)

Or consider the many instances in life where being a 1st-class citizen brings no value—just like a 1st-class passenger cannot* arrive in time with the same train that leaves the 2nd-class passengers an hour late. The analogy immediately provides a good examples of this (even be it one that applied equally to 19th-century England—while the truly rich of today have the option of buying a helicopter and avoiding both delayed trains and “Stau” on the Autobahn). Another example, with many sub-examples, is influencing local (let alone national) politics—the very rich can do so, the nominal 1st-class citizen can do little more than the 2nd-class and 3rd-class citizens.

*Depending on circumstances, there might be some work-arounds available using money; however, (a) those will rarely be worth the price, (b) will not always be available. For instance, leaving the train at an early station in order to take a taxi could cost many times the train price; might not be successful, because the train would still be faster in most scenarios; and might not even be attemptable, because there is no halt between here and the end-station or because the delay becomes known at a too late stage.

I have no interest in having people bow, call me “guv’nor”, or similar—on the contrary, excesses in this regard is a major fault in some past societies (including 19th-century England). However, the mixture of a general lack of respect for others (even towards those intellectually superior) and complete absence of service* mentality (even towards paying customers) which manifests so often in Germany is truly deplorable. For instance, the typical civil servant, train conductor, building super, whatnot, appears to see his job as keeping the customers in line for the benefit of his employer—while it should be to provide services to the customers on behalf of the employer. This, of course, only as far as they even try to do their job—shirking of duties to the disadvantage of the customer is no rarity. Or consider the attitude of bicyclist, who often ignore every even slightly inconvenient traffic rule—and often (illegally) spend more time on the pavement than on the street. What is the effect of pointing out the illegality and lack of respect for others involved, even in a factual tone? In my experience, it ranges from being ignored, to stupid comments, to attempts at pseudo-justifications, or even, in one case, a threat of a fight.** Or consider how the advertising industry increasingly presumes to call their intended victims “Du” instead of “Sie”—despite being the last group of people I would ever grant this privilege.***

*To which degree this is rooted in the individual employee and to which in the respective business, I leave unstated. Both are likely problematic, however.

**“More on this in an upcoming post.” according to the original footnote. I do have a text on problems with bikes in Germany in my backlog, but I cannot guarantee that it will ever be written.

***German (like e.g. Shakespearean English; unlike e.g. modern English) has both polite (Sie/you) and familiar (Du/thou) forms of address. The use of “Du”, without explicit permission, between non-child strangers is it self border-line unacceptable. In a business setting, e.g. when trying to sell something, it is extremely rude and presumptuous. Coming from a grossly unethical and human-despising group like the advertising industry, it is utterly unacceptable and a presumption that borders on the incomprehensible. (Imagine Professor Moriarty addressing Sherlock Holmes with “Sherlock”.)


Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2019 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Due to the outrageous incompetence of WordPress the above needed hand-editing to correct for a destroyed-by-WP link. This correction was, for unknown reasons, only possibly after removing square brackets from the disclaimer in the middle of the text.

    WordPress sucks!


    November 16, 2019 at 3:48 pm

  2. […] This text is not the one mentioned in [3]. I am still developing my ideas, Hornblower is merely the impetus, and it could be a while before I […]

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