A new book rebukes the “luxury beliefs” of America’s upper class

From The Economist:

While applying to Yale University (pictured) in 2014, Rob Henderson visited New Haven for the first time. He stayed with a friend of a friend, whose cat was called Learned Claw (an obscure, pretentious allusion to an American judge of the mid-20th century who went by the name of Learned Hand). Mr Henderson did not get the reference. When he arrived at Yale more cultural mysteries awaited. Everyone raved about “The West Wing”, a television show he had never watched, and “Hamilton”, a musical he could not afford to see.

More Yale students come from families in the top 1% of income than from the bottom 60%. Mr Henderson was among the less-affluent minority. He had been removed from his drug-addicted mother when he was three years old and lived with nine different foster families before his eighth birthday. Scared, insecure and angry, he soon began to drink, take drugs and get into fights.

At the age of 17, as his peers started going to prison, he signed up to the armed forces on a whim. Mr Henderson thrived in the structured, disciplined system and spent seven years in the us Air Force. It became clear he was highly intelligent, so he was encouraged to apply to college through the GI Bill. (He has recently finished a doctorate at Cambridge University.)

Troubled” is the compelling story of his chaotic childhood, his time at Yale and what it all made him think about divisions in America. As a result of his experience, Mr Henderson has coined the concept of “luxury beliefs”, which he describes as “a set of beliefs that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while inflicting costs upon the lower classes”.

In the past, people displayed their membership of the upper class either by doing things “like golf or beagling” that no working person would have time to do, or through their material accoutrements. But today, leisure time and luxury goods are more accessible to everyone, so it has become harder for the elites to separate themselves from the hoi polloi. Their solution? “The affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs.”

Mr Henderson gives the example of support for defunding the police. The idea gained traction in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and has been championed by many affluent people. However, it is an unpopular policy among poor people—exactly those who the well-meaning college kids say they are trying to help—and leads to higher homicide rates.

“Troubled” is more than a fascinating memoir, as it analyses the controversial belief systems that have gripped American universities. But it does so without being an angry culture-war screed. Mr Henderson makes no statement of political affiliation. Lots of what he writes is simply common sense. It is what much of middle America believes.

Mr Henderson exposes the stupidity of what now passes for orthodoxy, such as the way the luxury-belief class claims that the unhappiness associated with substance abuse or obesity, for instance, “primarily stems from the negative social judgments they elicit, rather than the behaviours and choices themselves”. The well-off “validate and affirm the behaviours, decisions, and attitudes of marginalised and deprived kids” in a way “that they would never accept for themselves or their own children”. One classmate argues that monogamy is “outdated” but admits that she was raised by two parents and intends to have a monogamous marriage herself.

Link to the rest at The Economist