For People Who Think

January 13, 2012

The Land of Opportunity…by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 5:23 pm

The sticker was right there in front of me, on the left side of the bumper on a Korean sedan. It read: “Republican: Because some of us have to work.” At the other end of the bumper was another sticker: “Work harder! Millions on welfare depend on you.”

I thought to myself, “If you want to see more Americans go to work, then buy an American car.” Also, I’m sure that the driver has no idea that the vast bulk of welfare recipients are kids. The fact is, though, that these are old sentiments in American thought. They’re based on the premise that people who take government help are lazy – that they’re poor because they deserve poverty, that they brought on their poverty through self-indulgence and bad behavior and that the poor are unworthy of public support.

In some cases, by the way, that’s true. Having out-of-wedlock babies is almost always a ticket to poverty for everybody involved. Generally, though, it’s not true. Those old sentiments have their roots in Protestantism. John Calvin, one of the early Protestant thinkers and writers, revered work as the best path to a virtuous life and, therefore, to Heaven. The American Revolution was designed to replace the rule of nobility with the rule of the people. The revolutionaries thought they were creating a classless society. From the beginning, however, people with money – most of it inherited money — assumed power and held onto it until Andrew Jackson, a truly self-made man, came along decades later.

Since then, this country has seen an endless stream of self-made rich people – the big ranchers of the old west, the merchants and the money men of the east, industrialists and investors, the technical geniuses of the last 50 years. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet – self-made skillionaires all. If they can make it, then others can make it, right? Isn’t that the American dream?

This really was, until fairly recently, a country where the pathway to success was clear and open. The problem is that’s no longer true – or, at least, it’s nowhere as true as it once was. Today, the lands of true opportunity lay on other continents. More surprising yet, they also lay in the ossified, semi-socialist nations of Western Europe.

At least five large studies in recent years have found Americans to be less likely to climb economically than citizens of other industrialized nations. A study led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised on the lowest rung of the economic ladder never leave there as adults. In Denmark, 25 per cent of men get out of poverty. In Britain, a country with an iron-clad social class system, 30 per cent fight their way out as adults.

In this country, only 8 per cent of American men raised in poverty climb to the top fifth of incomes. In Britain, 12 percent of poor kids reach the top 20 per cent of incomes. In Denmark, it’s 14 per cent.

Well, that must be because the poverty-stricken Americans don’t do the right thing. They reject the chance to get good educations, for example. The problem with that logic is that most new American college graduates are either unemployed or work in jobs that don’t require a degree. They carry an average college debt of about 28 grand. The overall youth unemployment rate tops 18 per cent. Most of these kids will be a long, long time climbing into the middle class, if ever. That’s why about 85 per cent of them are still living with Mom and Dad.

That’s not true of the rich kids, though. About 62 percent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in that group, according to the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. A slightly larger percentage of people born in poverty stay there, too. What it boils down to is that if your daddy is rich, the odds are 2-1 in favor of you being rich, too. If your daddy is poor, well, the odds are 2-1 that you’ll be poor as well.

Meanwhile, whenever anybody talks about higher taxes on the rich, who have more money than they ever did and pay lower taxes than they ever have, politicians howl about the evils of class warfare, as though class doesn’t exist in this country. It’s time to put that fiction to bed. Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, et al, saw to it that we have no kings, dukes or earls, but some Americans are born with money they never earned while statistics demonstrate that many, many others are born with no realistic chance to earn any.

This is why so many Americans complain about the stacked deck, about the ingrained unfairness of the system, about the people with money enough to elect the politician of their choice controlling every public policy decision our government makes. And, meanwhile, people who need help from their fellow citizens are reviled on bumper stickers by the hapless working stiffs who believe, against all the available evidence, that the country is held tightly in the grip of some imaginary, all-powerful liberal tyranny bent on impoverishing those lucky enough to still have jobs in this rotten economy we’re now living through.

As this brutal presidential campaign grinds on, I hope that some of these clowns running for office start to deal with issues like this.

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