Old Boys (UCC Blues Part 3)

Perhaps the strangest thing about my reunion was coming to grips with my own status as an Old Boy, albeit disconnected from the Old Boys network. Those connections were quite apparent during the reunion but the clique-iness I remember from my school days was not really present at all – as Old Boys at a reunion we were cast in the same boat.

I was hoping to do some “primary research” at UCC. One of the most fascinating areas of economic research has to do with inequality, in particular, what is happening at the very top of the distribution. Saez and Veall first unmasked the pattern based on tax data, and Murphy et al at Statscan recently did their own analysis that confirms the basic findings: all of the action has been in the top 1% of earners. On top of that, federal and provincial tax cuts, have reinforced those gains.

So where better than a UCC reunion to peek at the lives of the top percentile (or higher)? It is dangerous to over-generalize based on who was actually there. Partly this was due to a poor turnout. This is true for my class in particular: I was in the first cohort able to graduate in Grade 12 instead of 13; about a third of my cohort did so, but of these only four showed up at one or more of the events. I was quite surprised how many decided to steer clear of the reunion, given how many Old Boys still live in Toronto.

Some Old Boys were simply out of town, but it made me wonder if other forces were at play. It could be that school pride has been tarnished by those sex scandals over the past few years. It could be that only the successful showed up, and the under-achievers avoided the place. It could be that many just want nothing to do with the school, given their experiences there.

As for the Old Boys who were there, it is not so black and white. There were no obvious Conrad Black-eque villains. Most of the Old Boys are charming and likeable, especially if we were to compare them to the cardboard cut-outs at the Fraser Institute, the cheerleading squad of the wealthy.

Twenty years on, the Old Boys are pretty settled in their careers. A high percentage of them are in finance of some variety (brokerages, hedge funds, insurance), others in business, as owners or CEOs, and much of the remainder in professional fields like law, medicine or accounting (many were at the upper echelons of these professions – partners, specialists, etc).

I was (predictably) the only progressive economist in the bunch, though it is worth noting that there is an undercurrent of UCC Old Boys who have gone on to be stars on the left (e.g. long-time NDP MP Dan Heap, Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, Stephen Clarkson of U of T, and former Ontario NDP leader Michael Cassidy).

I was not rejected as a “class traitor” though I did get the odd roll of the eyes. One ex-classmate, who now runs the family stock brokerage, made some remark about getting government off his back. I told him my job was to make sure he paid more in taxes.

That said, I had difficulty finding any sense of higher purpose among those I talked to. For the previous generation that might have taken the form of going into politics (e.g. Michael Ignatieff, Michael Wilson, Perrin Beatty, Bill Graham), but I saw none of that. Instead, the over-riding purpose seemed to be making money for money’s sake – not for its utility in buying food, clothing and shelter, but as an end in itself, a means of asserting a place in the hierarchy.

As I left, my parting comment to my stock-broker schoolmate was “promise me you’ll make less money and spend more time with your kids” (he had not gone on a family vacation in some time). When you are on your death bed, what will you regret more: not making enough money, or not traveling and spending enough time with your family. I don’t know that he got it, but I can only hope that sentiment sinks in somehow.

Also striking is the disconnect between how the Old Boys see the world and the reality of most people who take the bus or subway to work each day. They are accustomed to privilege, and therefore find it hard to relate to people who struggle to make ends meet each month.

What I discovered is how much the school is still in me. I caught myself yelling out “Go Blue” during the football game (sports teams are called the UCC Blues, as in Tory blue, thus the name of this series). I had just turned 12 when I started there (and skipped a grade, so I was playing social catch-up in a class of 13-year-olds) and was out before my 17th birthday. I grappled with the bizarre socialization of UCC when I was in university, and had rejected the school at that point.

Twenty years on, I figured that distance would be so much the greater. Yet, though I may not like to admit it, there is something still in there. And even though I have clearly changed sides, as a progressive economist who does lots of media interviews and public talks, I wonder if am just a part of a different elite. Perhaps what matters is what you do with your education and experiences. I feel fortunate that I can feel good about the work that I do at the end of each day.

In the end, is UCC just another school? No, it remains a bastion of privilege. The school and its teachers  encourage students to go and make a difference in the world. And by this standard, much of these efforts must be considered a failure, relative to the more prominent outcome of reproducing the class structure of Canada.

A final thought on the topic of Old Boys is the absence of girls. That early experience of being segregated was not a good one in my mind. I think it made it a lot harder for me to relate to women when I got to university. But it is very likely that UCC will stay an all-boys school. The big debate back at the school was a recent decision to phase out boarding (about one-fifth of the boys boarded), but I doubt we’ll be seeing any time soon a debate about going co-ed. Other private schools have gone that route, though the perception is that this was due to waning enrolment. And Toronto has three elite girls schools in the vicinity of UCC: Bishop Strachan, Havergal and Branksome Hall.

4 comments

  • One of the most interesting aspects of the sociology of inequality is that there is incredible inequality within the top 1% – even more so than in the bottom 99%. The cut off point to get into the top 1% is well below the average of the top 1% (See Murphy et al) and the top 0.01% is hugely ahead of the rest of the top dog pack. As we lefties often like to point out, it is relative not absolute well-being that matters. This means that, within the top 1%, there is a huge amount of angst, and big struggles to go from being well-off, to a star, to being a super star. Those who have not inherited wealth work hard, often very hard. No doubt UCC types who went on to business school had to do well there, even go on to elite graduate schools, to do even better in relative terms. They then figure from all this that they truly deserve what they have, an dthat those who complain about inequality just don’t know what it takes to be a top dog.. The best response is indeed to argue that the game – with winning measured in dollars – is not worth the candle, and that relative well-being cannot be translated into who has the most money.

  • Another important implication, which Andrew has noted elsewhere, is that higher income taxes would not reduce the incentive for rich people to work hard, since they are motivated by relative income rather than absolute income.

  • True enough, Erin. Many of them never needed to work a day in their lives but have ended up in work with long hours!

  • Guy who started the Oprah show, Dr. Phil, Wheel, Jeopardy and Inside Edition…had more money than the banks…fell ill on Friday and dropped dead Saturday. 63 years old. Brought to mind your advice to the stockbroker. Our most important commodity is time.

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