Monday, May 23, 2005

Curious Percentiles

by Tom Bozzo

A link from Pharyngula led to this fun interactive class calculator, provided as part of the NY Times' ongoing series on class issues. You enter occupation, education, income, and wealth, and it computes a percentile index of those class signifiers. I end up in the 87th percentile, with two of my responses more or less common knowledge and the others left as an exercise.

A curiosity is that what really drags me down is being an economist. The occupation is 53rd in prestige out of 447 listed job categories, which somehow translates into the 68th percentile, behind clergy, podiatrists, and commercial drivers among other occupations. Lest the sociology contingent chuckle, you're even worse: ranked 61st or 65th percentile. We would all be better off as "miscellaneous social scientists," ranked 36th.

The amusement continued when I looked at the top-ranked professions. Physicians and surgeons rank first, 99th percentile. Second-ranked are lawyers, which somehow translates into the 84th percentile. I was particularly amused by the fourth-ranking of "computer systems administrators." I will remember my place the next time I complain to ours about the internet connection not working or having to endure the latest loss of functionality to keep unseen malefactors from compromising the piece-of-crap PC in my office.

I'm very curious as to how that step in prestige ranking from doctors to lawyers is so large in percentile terms. It isn't a matter that they're combining the ranking with the number of people employed in the occupation. According to the CPS, there are about 830,000 physicians and surgeons, which is 0.6% of employment, and 954,000 lawyers. So it would look like lawyers would be ranked in the 98th or 99th percentile of occupational prestige by that method.

Perhaps this isn't just an error, and the percentiles represent the results of some prestige tournament. In that light, I suppose lawyers may engender mixed feelings (as in "kill all the") in ways that physicians mostly don't — and the social sciences are almost surely in the territory of pure bewilderment.
Somehow I bet that if I could change my occupation from sys admin to federal worker, my class ranking would drop from the 89th percentile ;-)
where does blogger rank?
Cathy: probably depends on how the occupation were framed. As "bureaucrat," you might be in line with some less-desirable jobs in the services sector. As "person who provides miscellaneous social scientists with useful data," you'd probably do better, at least with surveyed social scientists.

Bryan: for the two or three people who actually make a living off their blogs, I suppose blogging may be up there with computer system administration. For the rest of us, it's perhaps like if "Star Wars superfan" were a BLS occupational category.
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Pfffft! Don't mind me, I'll be the one playing Class Struggle.
Depending on whether I count my house in my "net worth," I'm either 67% or 80%. Since the bank still owns most of the house, I'll stick with 67%.
Tetricus: just remember, once you've set foot in grad school, you'll have instantly joined the educated elite.

Jay: FWIW, I'm pretty sure net home equity is included in the Survey of Consumer Finances data they use in the wealth measure.
That's the way David Malpass claims it should be.

Personally, I consider the only legitimate measure of wealth to be quick assets. If I sell PFE, I get the cash fairly quickly. If I take out a Home Equity loan, I have cash (income) and a loan payment (debit) that match each other, ex-interest for no gain.

We rank slightly below Tom (excluding my wife's professions, since she's on hussy duty for at least the next 12 months). If we sold the house and rented an apartment, we would suddenly be significantly above him.

Thus, it strikes me as a major flaw to include primary residence as an asset in determining financial wealth, in terms of that survey.
The SCF net worth measure fails in this assignment for much the reason Ken suggests. It's not that hard to be bumped up into a high percentile of "wealth" by way of long tenure in an average-priced house (in many areas), but that wealth is basically inedible absent a transaction that realizes a profit not otherwise reinvested or obtained in exchange for some other obligation. BTW, we're in the position where the house is the biggest single gross asset, but not the biggest component of our net worth.

A gray area is "quick" but not easily accessible financial assets, like the contents of private retirement plans.

Anyway, what I'd see as signifying upper-class status would be the accumulation of sufficient "quick" assets such that wage income is nice but inessential. That status is quite exclusive, even among the mass-affluent, and the calculator basically doesn't get at that until you reach the nosebleed levels of net worth.
Oh god.. get OVER it. So people don't think so well of "economists" - who CARES? If it really bothers you, become a doctor and quit sniveling.
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