I think everyone understands the human phenomenon whereby we mistaken deem our own personal experiences to be more typical than they are. People who attended selective colleges tend to talk as if they don’t realize that the majority of the minority of Americans who go to college at all go to unselective institutions. People who earn a lot of money overestimate the number of people who earn that much money. And poor people tend to underestimate how rich the really rich people are. It’s easy to see how this happens and totally forgivable.
But part of what being a journalist is about—especially a journalist who covers public affairs in the United States—is to operate on the basis of actual factual information about the country. Thus, it’s been striking to watch press coverage of the Santelli mishigos and see how many wealthy media celebrities believe that the experience of a wealthy commodities trader is typical of the country. This was on egregious display yesterday during the Sunday shows, and it wasn’t the end of it. At one point, for example, David Gregory was making some point about the stock market and said something about how “it isn’t just the fat cats, it’s you and me” as if he, David Gregory, is a typical workaday American.
In reality, the median household income in the United States was $50,233 in 2007. That’s non-trivially less than I earn. And though I like to think that my blog is pretty neat, I’m pretty sure that being the host of Meet The Press puts Gregory well above me in the media totem pole. Meanwhile, Gregory’s wife Beth Wilkinson served for two and a half years as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie May until she resigned in September 2008 following the federal takeover. After this setback she became a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, a firm where first-year associates earn more than triple the national household median income.
And good for them. I think Gregory’s takeover of Meet the Press has been change for the better and some of my best friends work for high-paying law firms, and Wilkinson had a substantial career in public service before getting her payday. But the fact of the matter is that these are the fat cats—they host major network television shows, they’re partners at prestigious law firms, and their experience of the economy is quite a bit different than that of a typical American.
As detailed here, my facts are a bit off as college attendance rates. Only a minority of Americans acquire a bachelor’s degree, but when you throw in two-year schools and dropouts, about 57 percent of the population attends college at some point.