Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Own Bubble Test

Libertarian social commenter and author Charles Murray, in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, has what he calls the "Bubble Test." (A shorter version of the test that will tally the score for you is available here.) One premise of the book is that upper class and upper-middle class Americans have become increasingly disconnected from the lives of lower- to lower-middle class Americans. As Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic:

…[The conceit [of Murray's book] is that America's ruling class, including journalists like me and cosmopolitan readers like you, exist in a cultural bubble. We distance ourselves from ordinary Americans, especially the white working class. "Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized," Murray writes. "Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them."

Now, without discussing Murray's overall thesis, I have to object to his test. I did very poorly indeed - I am well "inside the bubble," in the parlance of the test - because I don't stock my fridge with cans of domestic beer, own a pickup truck, have cigarette-smoking friends, and so on. I don't think being inside the bubble makes one unable to empathize with others, however; if it did, then Ted Kennedy would have been an ineffective Senator during his years in Congress.

Here's a different (and quicker) bubble test: suppose you had a $20 bill in your purse, bag, wallet, or pocket and it slipped out. Boom, gone. How much pain would this cause you? None? Mild annoyance? Heartburn? No dinner out this week? Missing a rent payment? Repeat the question with a $100 bill. I'll hazard a guess that people who can lose a hundred dollars without being frantic about it have a different perspective on life than those for whom losing the twenty is a catastrophe.

Back in graduate school, when no one had any money, a friend of mine would use the campus ATM to get out $20 at a time, then complain about the ATM fee that he was assessed. I tried pointing out that this was a fairly low-crime campus and he was built like an ox, so he could probably carry, say, $100 with him and have 1/5 the ATM fee, or even plan ahead and avoid the fee entirely. I never understood why he didn't find that to be a compelling point.

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