A few different situations have recently set me to ruminating on a curious problem that I think doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. My working name for this problem is “class projection,” although I’m sure the academics have already come up with a much better, or at least longer, term for it. The problem is that when people imagine how other people think, they project onto them an experience deeply informed by their own socio-economic class, instead of the class of the person they’re trying to understand. Let me share a few examples to see if I can make this point clearly.
Workers project working class problems onto their bosses
Working people see, every day, the problems afflicting their organization. They see how faulty software slows them down, they see how some coworkers show up late or leave early, they know who contributes the most to the functioning of the organization and who contributes the least. Where class projection comes in is when a worker assumes that the problems they observe are, in fact, the most important problems faced by the business as a whole.
To give a concrete example, I spend an hour or two every week at Walmart customer service centers. Each customer service center is different, and each employee is different. Over time, you can start to pick up who’s more competent, who’s less competent, who has a better attitude, who has a worse attitude. From the perspective of the customer service employee, such differences are even more profound. A slow worker can cause a line to back up, an inattentive worker can require constant supervisor intervention to correct errors, etc.
It would be perfectly understandable for a customer service worker who notices all these problems to conclude that the key problem Walmart faces is lazy, inattentive, and poorly trained customer service workers.
But of course nothing could be further from the truth. A Walmart customer service center is a loss leader. It’s where they take back broken junk and have to give customers refunds. It has to exist (Walmart’s return policy is one reason people shop there), but the slower and less efficiently it works, the less money Walmart has to return to its customers! A poorly-functioning customer service center is a real problem for individual customer service employees and a real boon for the Walmart Corporation.
I’m not saying this is actually Walmart’s corporate strategy. I’m saying that it’s an example of workers projecting their own very real problems onto the firm they work for.
Bosses project their own class experience onto workers
We have turned life for the middle and upper-middle classes into a labyrinth of programs they’re expected to deftly navigate simply in order to stay solvent. You, dear reader, no doubt read dozens of pages of documents about the different health care plans your employer offers. You dug into the different investment options in your 401(k). You’re excited about shielding some of your income in an HSA which you plan to invest aggressively in order to use in retirement.
First, to state the obvious, we did not have to do this. We did not have to make health insurance tax-free compensation. We did not have to make HSA’s available to employees with high-deductible health insurance plans. We did not have to make retirement so precarious people are desperate to leap on any promise of some modicum of dignity in old age.
But having done it, we have also introduced the problem of class projection. A person who pays enough in mortgage interest to itemize their deductions becomes incensed by the possibility of a working class person wrongly claiming the earned income credit. A person who shields tens of thousands of dollars in income from taxes insists on vigorous work requirements for SNAP benefits to root out any “cheaters.”
This is class projection at its worst: asking “what would I do if earning a little more income suddenly cost me access to food support, health care, or refundable tax credits?” The answer is always, “I’d cheat,” which is why gallons of digital ink have been spilled over supposedly pressing national issues like earned income credit fraud.
The earned income credit was projected to cost, in 2016, $58.7 billion. That is a lot of money, although it’s less than the $75.2 billion in foregone taxes due to the mortgage interest deduction and much less than the cost of excluding health insurance costs from taxable income ($216 billion). Earned income credit “fraud,” Medicaid “fraud,” and all other kinds of “fraud” against the welfare state are fantasies concocted by the wealthy who imagine how good they would have it if they could take advantage of welfare programs the way the cheating poor do. That’s because our system does, in fact, encourage the wealthy to cheat as much as possible.
The same logic applies to the “voter fraud” sensation that has swept the Republican party in recent years. I believe it is genuinely shocking to the relatively well-off that all you need to do to vote is fill out a form with your name and address on it.
Filing their taxes is so much harder than that. Applying for financial aid for their children is so much harder than that. Deciding on their asset allocation is so much harder than that. It’s so easy to vote, how could it not be the case that millions of people illegally register to vote, then vote, and then get away with it?
The answer, of course, is that it’s illegal, so virtually no one does it, because if they did it they would be breaking the law. This is common sense to the actual poor, but totally preposterous to policymakers who see the mere existence of poverty as a kind of fraud against capitalism itself.