Sunday
Jul152012

Owning class - its own challenge

How many owning class people do you know personally? I know a few who are either owning class, or were raised in owning class families. Each of them is a good person, hardworking, bend-over-backward honest, full of initiative and gracious. A few are highly competitive. Some of them are extraordinarily cautious. More about these traits in a moment. 

First, what does it mean to be owning class? Ownership refers to possession and control. Property rights are enforced by contract and by law. When one or a few people’s power to control an industry creates a radical imbalance of power, that’s an owning class person or group.

The U.S. has 5.7 million businesses, and all but seventeen thousand of them have fewer than five hundred employees. That’s .3% of the businesses with over 500 workers. Most of the rest are called “small businesses.” 

One of my close friends owned a travel agency, and hired a dozen people to sell ocean cruises. They worked for him, some on salary, others on commission. They all depended on each other for their livelihoods. Did the fact that he owned and managed the agency make him owning class? Not likely, because they were dependent on the shifting rules set by the airline and cruise industries for their travel agency’s success. Although he owned the agency, his agents often earned more than he did after paying the expenses like rent, utilities and licenses. 

Another friend owns three buildings. She lives in part of one and rents apartments in the remaining space. She earns a reasonable living after expenses of maintaining the three dwellings. Even though she owns the buildings, she is dependent on the mutual care and cooperation of her residents for her living, as they are dependent on her for maintaining comfortable, safe residences. 

The owning class people I know are part of families that either own or are senior officers in hotel chains, public utilities, real estate trusts, large law firms and housing developers. All are wealthy. Some built their wealth in their lifetimes, others are giving away old wealth through foundations. All have a lot of personal control over the operation and direction of their companies. 

About some of the traits displayed by people raised owning class:

They were praised for taking initiative, public speaking and presentations, and told early and often that they were born to be leaders, to take charge of the world. 

They were reminded of how intelligent and facile they were, and compared often to less capable children. Cautioned not to get involved with those less capable.

On the other hand, parents were often extraordinarily busy creating the family’s wealth, so children were raised by nannies, sent off to boarding schools, and separated from close human contact with parents and siblings. 

Material advantages were substituted for personal connection and caring. 

In boarding school they were trained to be intensely competitive, and demeaned for any cooperative traits. Hazing rituals were common. They were hazed, sleep deprived, ridiculed as freshmen and expected in turn to do the same to younger students. 

A heavy emphasis on the value of competition separates them from classmates, and limits their inherent ability to collaborate to a few others. Peer cooperation is discouraged and even penalized.There is a heavy emphasis on competitive sports like football and wrestling.

Personal safety is often threatened. Many owning class people believe their lives are at risk because of their visibility, influence and wealth. Looking back in history at the number of assassinations of the wealthy and the kidnapping of their children, the fear has some foundation. The fear for their safety only increases their isolation from all but a narrow range of people.

When they observed disparities in the world they were either steered away and told there was nothing they could do about the problems, or that those conditions were those peoples’ own fault. 

Because of their relative advantage they were taught not to complain, but to “always show a good face.” They had to pretend everything was all right. Pretense in the face of difficulty became a habit.

It’s fair to say that life was not a bowl of cherries for these owning class people growing up. Given their isolation, fear and mask of graciousness, it has taken me lots of patience and good luck to build several strong connections with a few owning class folks. When I set out to write this section I thought I didn’t know anything about the owning class because I don’t know the Mellons, the Waltons, and so forth. I had to stop and review who I do know and how I came to know them. One owns a manufacturing company with plants in three states. Another teaches at a major university, but his father founded one of Southern California’s water conservation districts. Remembering them and a few others made the writing come more easily.

Please take a look at the people you know, where they came from and how you got to know them. You may be surprised at how much you know outside your own class circle.

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