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Growing up Privileged
January 7, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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As a writer I tend to make my childhood more interesting than it really was by reporting the bad actions of my parents. I also tend to cast myself as someone who has overcome adversity. Most people do this to some extent. My favorite example of late is Senator Bernie (Bernard) Sanders, who as a Socialist wishes he had a working class pedigree. He wants his lap-dog followers to believe his father was a worker, so he worked out a description of his class background carefully. He says he lived in a rent-controlled apartment and his father went off to work every day. He leaves out that almost all apartments in New York City were rent controlled during that era, and that his father went to work at his own wholesale paint distribution business. A business successful enough to pay for little Bernie to go to an elite private college, the University of Chicago.

Reality is more important than fiction, so I am taking this opportunity to issue a disclaimer, or at least a clarification. While in other places I might complain about my lack of privilege, in this American Reality I began with more privilege than most people.

Neither of my parents ever owned a business, or any stock in any business. In itself that did not put them at the bottom of the ladder, though they may have started near there. My father was born in 1918, so he was about 12 when the Depression hit. His parents were factory workers, but they muddled through the era in Chicago, and my father graduated from high school. He then found various forms of work, but got into some trouble and joined the Marine Corps when he was 20 years old. He did well in the Marines, rising through the ranks in World War II, and retiring as a Captain in 1960.

Having a father who was a Captain put me in a bit of an elite, at least compared to the sons of privates, corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants. It also provided an income floor for the family in the form of a pension. Not too many families have a pension that early in life. My father enrolled in college, paid for by the GI Bill, when I was in first grade. That was a big advantage for me. I seldom saw my father, who had a job too, but when I saw him he was often studying, so I came to think of that as an important thing to do. When he got his degree he became a school teacher, which also was encouraging for me, if not a high-income job. In addition my parents bought their first house with a low down payment, low interest rate loan from the government.

My mother's grandparents had owned a farm, and her father owned one for a while, but he lost it some time in the 1920s and became a tenant farmer, about as low as one could get in that era. Towards the end of the depression Mother left home and school (she had an 8th grade education) to take a job in a warehouse, and then somehow moved into the typing pool. She worked as a typist her whole life, excepting the few years when her children were young. Again, that seems low in the class structure, but she did marry a Captain and her pay from working helped give us a middle class income.

We also had all the privileges of being white. I saw the kinds of slums most black Americans were relegated too in the South in that era, and it was not pretty. But even within the white portion of the community we were better off than most. I went to Catholic schools up to grade 8, and had a good idea of what my class mates parents did and what kind of houses they lived in. Several families were better off, headed by professionals and business people, but most were not. I did not feel underprivileged at Catholic school.

That changed when I got a scholarship to the local prep school beginning in 9th grade. Suddenly I was among the poorest of the students. It did not matter much, I was teased a bit about my clothing and lack of culture, but then again I could exhibit a pretty sharp tongue myself. Still, I had the privilege of getting a much better education than I would have at public or Catholic school. By beginning to associate with the children of the rich and powerful I started learning a lot of things that are not so obvious otherwise.

The real eye opener was Brown University. At Brown I really felt poor. The average student at Brown had parents richer than almost everyone at the prep school I had attended. Again, I complain elsewhere. Again, it was a privilege to be among some of the world's elite professors and to be allowed to associate with the children of the rich.

The main secret I learned from Brown is that rich kids are typically not very smart. They don't have to be, they can rely on capital. But they also are not all Trumps, not all bullies and meanies. If anything, they are mostly in a position to be nice most of the time. Working class kids, and especially underclass kids (the Marxist lumpenproletariat, our homeless and unemployed), have a lot of pressure on them. They have to be tougher and smarter just to get enough to eat.

Of course I am immensely privileged at this point. At the age of about 45 I gave up my philosophical, bohemian, vagabond ways and started turning my mind to building wealth. Twenty years later I own a house, I write a stock-picking column, and I own some stocks myself.

But I seldom write about this bourgeois life I have now. More fun to tell stories of my Punk Rock days, or running with the anarchists, or defending the forests with Earth First!

Disclaimer about privilege complete. Back to more interesting topics, soon.

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