The myth of the social mobility in America

Last night, I had the following to say about Eric Cantor’s appearance at U-M:

…In his speech, Cantor apparently talked about his ancestors and how they made good lives for themselves in America by a plying themselves and working hard. The implication, of course, is that others can do the same. Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. Social mobility in America is on a sharp decline, and wealth inequality continues to rise. Money and power are concentrating in the hands of a few. And, at the same time, the quality of public education is falling, and the expense of university education is increasing exponentially. The combination of these forces is corrosive to the Democratic underpinnings of our nation. What’s more, Cantor knows this, and yet he continues to peddle this fairytale. It’s shameful…

Today, Robert Reich, as he often does, said it better:

…The old view was anyone could make it in America with enough guts and gumption. We believed in the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who rose from rags to riches – inventors and entrepreneurs born into poverty, like Benjamin Franklin; generations of young men from humble beginnings who grew up to became president, like Abe Lincoln. We loved the novellas of Horatio Alger, and their more modern equivalents – stories that proved the American dream was open to anyone who worked hard.

In that old view, being rich was proof of hard work, and lack of money proof of indolence or worse. As Herman Cain still says “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

But Cain’s line isn’t hitting a responsive chord. In fact, he’s backtracked from it (along with much of the rest of what he’s said).

A profound change has come over America. Guts, gumption, and hard work don’t seem to pay off as they once did – or at least as they did in our national morality play. Instead, the game seems rigged in favor of people who are already rich and powerful – as well as their children.

Instead of lionizing the rich, we’re beginning to suspect they gained their wealth by ripping us off.

Mitt Romney is defensive about his vast wealth (reputed to total a quarter of a billion). He’s reverted to scolding his audiences on the campaign trail for “attacking people based on heir success.”

The old view was also that great wealth trickled downward – that the rich made investments in jobs and growth that benefitted all of us. So even if we doubted we’d be wealthy, we still gained from the fortunes made by a few.

But that view, too, has lost its sheen. Nothing has trickled down. The rich have become far richer over the last three decades but the rest of us haven’t. In fact, median incomes are dropping.

Wall Street moguls are doing better than ever – after having been bailed out by the rest of us. But the rest of us are doing worse. CEOs are hauling in more than 300 times the pay of average workers (up from 40 times the pay only three decades ago), as average workers lose jobs, wages, and benefits…

I don’t really have a point to make. I just hate that Cantor is running around the country, pointing to individuals like Steve Jobs, and suggesting that, if only the government would get out of our way, we’d all be able to achieve similar success. The idea is ludicrous, but there’s a certain delusional segment of the population that eats it up. People like to think that, if only they were unfettered by the constraints of modern society, they’d be as successful as Jobs, as charming as Clooney, and as manly as a John Wayne character. The truth is, they’d probably be working in a coal mine, alongside their malnourished kids, but that’s not how they see it. And, unfortunately, they vote.

Oh, and speaking of Romney and his riches, did you happen to see the story in the news today about how he’s been linked to an $8 billion Ponzi scheme?

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  1. Edward
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Someone needs to come along and rewrite all of the old Horatio Alger stories so that they better reflect today’s realities. They may be off copyright by now, so it might not be too difficult.

  2. TeacherPatti
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    That’s a great idea. I would give him a disability and make him born into poverty, to illiterate and absent parents. Maybe he’d be born addicted, too, just for shits and grins. Then let’s see how he’d do.

    I try to liken it to my beloved game of baseball. Most of us were born at least on first base, some of us closer to second. The kids I teach, by and large, weren’t even called up to bat yet and some still in the minor leagues. In other words, they have disadvantages that will make it very difficult to achieve Jobs level of successes. Not that it can’t be done, but when everyone else is rounding second and you’re just putting on your uniform, you have a bit of catching up to do.

  3. Robert
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Can’s GOP correspondent, EOS, give us a report on the Herman Cain rally at Big Sky Diner yesterday?

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