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Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., was “the platinum king” of South Africa (and was evidently the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond nemesis Goldfinger). He lived mainly in a “Rhinelike castle, turrets and all,” in Far Hills, New Jersey, but did shuttle via his own fleet of aircraft among four other palatial homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, Boca Grande, Florida, the Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, and the Waldorf Towers in my hometown, New York City, and he had business dealings in 50 countries. He was not my father.

My dad, Charles L. Engelhardt, known all his life as “Len” for his middle name, “Leonard,” lived in a rent-controlled apartment at 40 East 58th Street in Manhattan that he and my mother had found after he was demobilized from World War II. For part of my childhood, he shuttled between there and the gas station he ran on Governor’s Island, an Army base just off the southern tip of Manhattan — until, for a terrible period in the golden 1950s, he was largely out of work and shuttled between nowhere (except possibly bars and home).

Still, I did manage to cross paths with the other Charles, the incredibly rich one, several times in my life. There was that moment when his wife’s hat bill was mistakenly delivered to our house in the worst of economic times and my dad briefly went nuts. There was the butcher in my neighborhood decades later who, if I gave him a check, always said with a little mischievous smile, “Engelhardt… I should have invested in platinum when I had the chance!” And there was, of course, Yale, my personal introduction to big-time inequality in a society that, compared to the present gilded age described so vividly by TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon today, would look like a nirvana of economic equality.

At the time, Yale was still a prime staging ground for the WASP elite. I was a Jewish kid from New York applying (under pressure from my Charles Engelhardt, who saw it as the upward-mobile route to another universe) just at the moment when that school was finally removing its quotas on Jews. That was in every way another age. With the recent set of scandals over college admissions in mind, I was certainly typical in 1961 when I simply walked into my SAT tests one day — no preparation, no courses beforehand, no tutors, no special payments, little understanding of what they even were. Later that year, I had an interview with some Yale alum and bumped into the other Charles for the last time. I no longer remember the context, but my interviewer somehow brought up that Engelhard (no “t”) and ever after I wondered whether he had confused the scions of two very unequal Engelhard(t) families. (It’s unlikely, since I got into Yale off the waiting list and went there — to my deep disappointment– under strong pressure from my parents who could, then, ill afford it.)

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And that was how my introduction to what inequality meant in this country began. Keep in mind that I attended Yale with George W. Bush and what seemed like a bevy of other George W.s, future CEOs standing around beer kegs. Despite a genuinely fine education, when I left, I felt like I had been freed from jail and yet, as Menon points out today, when it comes to gilded ages and gilded cages, those of more than half a century ago were pikers compared to the present moment.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Academia, Inequality 
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  1. But despite your humble middle-class origins, you lived in Manhattan, a place that is 100% off limits for all but the flat-out rich today. If the posh hat bill of a noble woman was mistakenly delivered to your house, then you must have lived in close proximity to her, or the postman was wildly inefficient.

    The same lack of social stratification was still intact in the Seventies. The ubiquitous ranch house neighborhoods had mostly stay-at-home moms, with father providers who did everything from blue-collar work to work requiring three college degrees.

    In smaller towns, all of those economic groups lived in such neighborhoods with the exception of a few successful physicians, lawyers and the owners of the most successful small businesses in town. They lived several steps up the ladder of conspicuous consumption, not too much higher in most cases, though. Their houses were more fashion forward in the Seventies’ rustic way, but not 20 sizes bigger, and zip codes were not aristocratic pass codes.

    America started the stratification climb sometime in the Eighties, probably in the late Eighties where I’m from.

    I know someone with a working-class background who ended up in an elite institution in the Fifties—an elite university that costs astronomically more today. Even though scholarships paid for most of it, tuition at that nationally known private university was far less than what the bigger state universities cost today, so upper-middle-class kids had a chance to attend that private university in the Fifties without the benefit of a scholarship. Most of them just preferred to get a job, get married, etc. The number of undergrads in this person’s graduating class was tiny compared to today, and even years later on the cusp of the Seventies, the number of graduate students in his class was small.

    The more college-educated people we have, the smaller the US middle class gets, and the more socially stratified the society is, not in a funny way, either. It goes beyond getting blamed for some other woman’s extravagant spending on hats, a cooler type of forgotten indulgence.

    I think the social stratification has a lot to do with assortative mating and the top 20%, keeping two household-supporting jobs under one roof, halving the overall number of college-educated, middle-class households without creating jobs for other Americans, whereas the top 1% fund those scholarships for smart, lower income people, increasing equality a little bit in that way.

    But it worked better before too many people got degrees, reducing the value of degrees for most grads, and it worked better before assortative mates increased the wealth gap so much by hogging the few decent-paying jobs with benefits.

    Other than the few scholarship kids on elite campuses, the only time the top 1% mingles with the serfs today is in the luxury services industry, and that is a different relationship than living in the path of the same errant postman or sitting next to the I%ers’ kids in class. Politicians slumming it in diners don’t count; that is too contrived.

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