Economics 000: Addiction, Belief, Bible, and Bad Financial and Career Advice

My name is Kevin and I’m a belief addict. Here’s my story.

The Widow’s Mite

I once told a friend who was a legend in the financial planning industry how I was attempting to follow the advice of the Bible story known as “the Widow’s Mite”:

[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,  and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

Luke 21:1-4 (NKJV)

“That’s dangerous advice,” my friend said, always blunt, “It makes no sense today. It will hurt you.”

Did he just say Jesus gave bad advice?

I had no comeback. I was an evangelical Christian at the time, trying to follow all kinds of Biblical advice in my career and finances. “Dangerous advice.” “Makes no sense today.” “Will hurt you.” How could that be? I mean, we’re talking Jesus here. And anyway, doesn’t God’s advice move with the times?

If you start wondering if Jesus gave bad advice or that something he said is outdated, you’re not an evangelical Christian anymore. You violated the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura – the belief that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible.

“[Martin Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian.”[1]

You can’t be an evangelical without the Bible, especially the parts about Jesus. Question either, and you’re out. You’re no longer a believer.

The Economics of Faith

Further, I saw in the Gospel an alternate economic system, to which believers were automatically subscribed.  In this alternate economic system, things like the widow’s mite and other counter-intuitive and counter-cultural ways ot approaching economics and personal financial planning made sense.  It was the “Kingdom of God” economy, and you activate it in your life by believing in it.  Once activated, this alternate economy allows you to take an unconventional approach to money and career, because God himself has your back.

Jesus himself set up the primacy of belief:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Obviously, belief is a completely different paradigm for approaching economics and finance.  And it’s not enough just to believe – you also have to not doubt. Plus there’s one more implicit clause in there:  if the mountain doesn’t move, it’s all you fault. If you start out believing but then have your doubts, belief won’t work for you. Jesus’ disciple James made sure we got the point:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it w”ill be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Okay, I think I get it — God gives generously, but if you doubt you can’t receive. Right? God does His part, but you can screw it up. Does that strike anyone else as sort of… unfair?… lopsided? If nothing else, God doesn’t seem to be very effective in the way He “generously” hands out advice. And why do I keep calling God “He” anyway?

But you don’t think that way when you’re in the grip of belief.

You are always the problem.

Belief seeks its own purification by cleansing itself from doubt. It does that by making the believer the problem. To stay on the right side of belief, you need to believe your way through your doubts. Belief is a closed loop — you either believe or you don’t – you start in belief and end in belief. Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

I wandered intellectually my first couple years of college, then had to declare a major. Okay, let’s see… I’m a Jesus Freak… I know, I’ll be a religion major! Studying the world’s religions, I was soon swimming in doubt. I told that to my “that settles it” friend. He handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

I can still see the hardness on his face. Religions venerate those who long endure and despise those who don’t. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter. Lesson learned: you don’t entertain doubt, you double down on belief.

Belief’s endless loop is what snared me, got me addicted. It played directly into a tendency I’d demonstrated all my short life: be exceptional, take everything to the extreme, out-commit, out-work everybody. Decades later, I would learn where that came from. But as a kid, an adolescent, and a young adult, it was my identity, my calling card. Eventually it would also be my ruin.

After we graduated, we missed the intensity of our college experience, and looked for ways to replicate it. Our leaders — zealous young men like me, only a few years older but they seemed so much wiser — started writing books about how to create authentic new testament churches, meeting in small groups and homes, teaching the Bible and doing miracles. We called this “church planting” and prided ourselves on the idea that we were doing just as the early apostles had done.

That’s who I was when I had the “that’s dangerous advice” encounter. In the face of that blunt dismissal, I needed to prove up my beliefs by pushing them to the limit, one more time.

And so I did.

Belief reminds you that if your doubts persist, there are consequences. Turns out there are also consequences to not doubting when you really ought to – which was how my life played out for the next couple decades, as I set about to prove that Jesus’s financial advice was doable.

My education in bad financial and career advice started early.

Everybody went to church where I grew up: mostly Scandinavian Lutherans, enough German Catholics to make up a parish, plus the “other” — Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Methodist…. My family was “other” – we went to the Congregational Church, where we were into the 60’s Revolution. We read poetry, played guitars, thought believing everything the Bible said was anti-intellectual. Our Sunday bulletins from HQ advocated social justice. I can still see one of them like it was yesterday: stacks of coins like poker chips, with the words “and God said to him, you fool!” – that was from the Bible, the back cover said.[2]

The Parable of the Rich Fool

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12: 13-21 (RSV)

Powerful stuff. I was an impressionable 7th grader. I pinned the bulletin up in my room, and kept it with me for years.

Consider the lilies…

About that same time, my older sister was into art and calligraphy. She made a poster with some watercolor lilies and these lines:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his Glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Luke 12: 27 (RSV)

I loved it, memorized it, used to sneak into her room to look at it when she wasn’t around. The text comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

Luke 12:22-32 (ESV)

That was the sum total of my financial education growing up: don’t worry about money, don’t worry about making it, don’t worry about saving it, don’t worry about where it comes from or what it’s for, and whatever you do, don’t ever get rich or you’ll end up like the guy with his new barns full of harvest and the grim reaper at his door. And the best part was that if you just keep your priorities straight – i.e., you keep believing what the Bible says — everything you need will just show up – food, drink, the whole deal.

When I read that now, I think it’s crazy. I agree with my friend: it makes no sense. But as a pre-teen I thought it was the ultimate in cool.

I never grew up.

My financial education was fixed at age 12. It survived intact through college economics, a few years in insurance and financial planning, an MBA program, all the way into a career in law. There was plenty of fodder for doubt all that time, but it never touched me.

Never mind that my radical Biblical economics didn’t have much company. Most Christians seemed to know it didn’t work. Maybe that’s what the Book said, but… well never mind. But I minded a lot. I had something to prove. I was a commando Christian, living on the edge, taking belief to the extreme, going where weak belief dared not go, out if front showing everybody else back there that Jesus’s unorthodox advice really did work.

Hmmm, no ego in that…

I was committed. I probably should have been… committed, that is.

One Career and Financial Disaster After Another

The first couple decades of my adult life followed a pathetic pattern of first doing well in my career and then dropping out to pursue some kind of Christian vision. Making a living always came in second to the important stuff and besides God would provide, just like Jesus said. The result was a series of financial disasters about every two or three years, followed by me sulking back to work until I had enough savings to afford getting inspired and trying again. It helped that I was smart and worked hard, so new employers kept forgiving my patchwork resume.

After yet one more disaster to end all disasters, I finally started to learn self-awareness, started asking questions, started doubting. I didn’t know yet that to doubt at all is to end belief – that’s all it takes to break the spell.

A couple decades later, and I was what I am today: an atheist. I didn’t see that coming, didn’t set out to become one, resisted for a long time, finally just sort of drifted into it. I’ve read others who’ve told the same story. We’re not as alone as we think we are.

Self-Help Economics

Along the way, I spent considerable time hanging out in the world of self-help. I am going to write separately about that, so I won’t say much at this time, just that after a few years I finally saw the remarkable similarity between self-help and Jesus’s teachings on belief. I had never heard so much God language since my early Christian days, although people often substituted “The Universe.” Create your own financial and career reality by believing it into existence, and God/The Universe will back you up. But you do need to believe, and keep believing, keep intending and reminding yourself first thing in the morning and before going to sleep at night, and you need to make a vision board and read this book and especially that one, and you need to go to these seminars, and lay your money down everywhere you go… all to stay pumped up, to keep believing. And if it didn’t work for you, well you are responsible for everything in your life, so if it’s not what you want then you need to up your belief commitment – do more, more, more.

Believe, believe, believe… Christianity and self help were indistinguishable. Life as a “believer” –- religious or secular -– worked the same way: believe and don’t doubt, and you get the goods.

A couple key experiences kept repeating, and the lessons I drew from them started to loosen the tether.

One was that belief was never about the thing you were trying to believe into existence — the mountain you were telling to get up and jump into the sea. Instead, belief was one long exercise in the dynamics of belief itself. Belief was about believing. You spent all your energy believing and believing in your belief. You never got out of the loop.

Another – the hardest lesson of all — was that believing was the culprit, not me. It wasn’t all my fault after all. Gospel Finance 101 truly was lousy advice, even when it was recast as self help. It truly didn’t work in today’s world. It truly was dangerous. It truly did hurt me – and my family.

The over-arching problem was how belief operates in the human brain, and in human culture.[3] When you start to doubt, you drop out of the cultural context that’s been supporting your belief system. Without constant reinforcement, the neural pathways that run your belief fall into disuse and eventually go dormant as you start looking elsewhere for answers, which requires new neural pathways, and in time your new skeptical neural pathways take over.

No, belief isn’t all bad.

Belief is inspiring and motivating. It throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, replaces them with a world of new possibilities. The brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all the punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” We get a rush of it when we break out, try new things, take risks.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration Meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed closing in on seven million times. Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration Meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[4]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Good for dopamine: it gets us moving, and that’s usually a good thing.

But it might be too much of a good thing.

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get lots of self-help inspirational quotes and to do lists. They’re okay as far as that goes, but they’re not the whole inspiration story. We need inspiration to get going, but all that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[5]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence: the motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; and reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance: each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett: your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[6]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Dopamine is why belief is addictive, why belief always wants more, more, more. It’s not a legally controlled substance, but it ought to be – especially for people like me.

Use it at your own risk.

I kind of wish somebody had told me that. But I doubt I would have listened. I was enthralled with the alternative gospel economy.  It was unquestionably good news.  I just couldn’t make it work.  Money and career ultimately suffered as a result.

Addict? Who me?’

 

[1] Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

[2] Apparently it was okay to use the Bible for our social causes, even if we dismissed it for other purposes.

[3] See this blog’s series on Belief Systems and Culture, also Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief.

[4] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[5] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[6]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good (And the surprising X Factor that could stop it)

Americans rush to defend free market capitalism’s elimination of the “public good,” to our own detriment. Why do we do that?

The short (but complex) answer is that free market capitalism has become the dominant American economic and social ideology, and there’s no place for an egalitarian notion like the public good in its competitive culture.

The X Factor

Economic data suggest we’re in the advanced stages of competitive, zero sum capitalism’s systematic extermination of the public good. But a surprising X Factor could help reverse this trend.

What is it?

Happiness.

Let’s take a look….

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way

Free market godfather Milton Friedman famously said that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” That was free market capitalism’s bold theory: there was no need to import the European ideal of safeguarding the public good; instead, you could give capitalism free reign and everyone would benefit — and no need for social democracy’s clumsy bureaucracy.

We Yanks thought we could do better, but we were wrong, and we were wrong because we were duped. Free market ideology staked its claim as a science, but it wasn’t — it was an ideology, a religion. For it to work, you had to believe, and to aggressively demonstrate your commitment to its ideal or a pure capitalist state.

We heard the call to discipleship, but we still remembered that the compassionate social programs of the Roosevelt New Deal, engineered by Keynesian economic theories of government intervention, had bailed us out of the Great Depression and fueled a startling worldwide recovery from the rubble of two world wars – a recovery that lifted all economic fortunes and established the middle class as the mainstay of socio-economic stability.

But that wasn’t enough for the free market idealists who had already been theorizing and strategizing at their Mont Pelerin Society meetings in the mountains of Switzerland. But their time had not yet come, and they waited, constructing mathematical models that proved they were right — in theory, at least, even though they were untested empirically — until history finally handed them their chance.

European democratic socialism’s reputation had been compromised by the abuses and miseries of its far distant relative, Soviet Communism. The free marketers must have known, but the rest of us didn’t see that they weren’t the same thing, and when the Berlin Wall came down, we celebrated the end of the Cold War by declaring capitalism the victor, and then we set out to cleanse the world of our defeated “socialist” foe. While a new class of Russian opportunists became billionaires by scavenging former state-owned assets at below bargain basement prices, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led the charge to purge their respective countries of any taint of vanquished socialism, which they and everyone equated with Communism. National and corporate leadership snatched the keys to free capitalism’s shiny new muscle car and went peeling out, careening donuts in the cities and shredding fragile tundra in the mountains. The American way of rugged individualism and upward mobility and anybody can make it here if they have enough gumption and are willing to work hard resounded through the halls of government on both sides of the aisle on both sides of the Atlantic, and we routed the welfare queens out from in front of their TVs, put food stamps slackers back to work, created the Incarceration State, and savaged the environment… all to shouts of “workfare!” – a new translation of “hallelujah!”

Competitive capitalism became the new state religion — its competitive capitalism campaign slogans became its scriptures, and its entrepreneurial heroes as iconic as dear old Betsy Ross and her flag, and it became culturally criminal to deface them. Cultural myths and icons grow to sacred stature, snuffing out discourse and banning dissent. That doesn’t ensure success, but it does mean that the electorate will still trudge dutifully to the polls and ante up for another round, long after it has become obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the ideology hasn’t delivered on its promise. And thus the American electorate has done for the past four decades, believing with fundamentalist zeal in Friedman’s promise of economic utopia until today we’re left with socio-economic structures of inequality matched only by the days of the French Revolution, the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way, but it did.

The Unconscious Underbelly

Ideologies originate in the neural pathways of the people who create them, and spread from brain to brain until enough brains have the same wiring and, by a process known as “emergence,” they take on a life of their own in the institutions they create and sustain.[1]

Of course, most people don’t go around thinking about how their neural pathways process free market ideological biases. Instead they respond to the issues – politicians urging them to reject the public good in favor of the chance to do have it your way and forget the deep state and its non-elected manipulating – and never mind that the public good that you’re voting out of existence includes your own.

We do some things consciously, with intent and purpose, but we do much more for reasons we’re not in touch with, or for no reason at all – the latter two driven by unconscious impulses derived from the cultural biases wired into our brains. There is, for example, ample research to suggest an additional endemic cultural factor that helps to explain why we support elected officials and their economic agendas even when doing so is against our own best interests. That factor is culturally embedded racism.

“One question that has troubled Democrats for decades is freshly relevant in the Trump-McConnell era: Why do so many voters support elected officials who are determined to cut programs that those same voters rely upon?

“There is, however, one thread that runs through all the explanations of the shift to the right in Kentucky and elsewhere. Race, the economists Alberto F. Alesina and Paola Giuliano write, ‘is an extremely important determinant of preferences for redistribution. When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, ceteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.’

“Alesina and Giuliano reach this conclusion based on the “unpleasant but nevertheless widely observed fact that individuals are more generous toward others who are similar to them racially, ethnically, linguistically.”

“Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York — Stony Brook, made a related point in an email: ‘It’s important to stress the role of negative racial and ethnic attitudes in this process. Those who hold Latinos and African-Americans in low esteem also believe that federal funds flow disproportionally to members of these groups. This belief that the federal government is more willing to help blacks and Latinos than whites fuels the white threat and resentment that boosted support for Donald Trump in 2016.

“In their 2004 book, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference,” Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, found a pronounced pattern in this country: states ‘with more African-Americans are less generous to the poor.’”[2]

Culturally embedded racism is the same trend that developed the “Welfare Queen” stereotype, which was shaped – as all stereotypes are — from the twisted truth of a notorious 60’s case of welfare fraud that became the standard citation for the free market’s case against the social safety net.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way, Part 2

If you’re going to have a public good, you need to have a government that supports it. Theoretically we do: the USA’s republican form of government isn’t a “pure democracy” –instead we elect people to represent us, trusting that they will act in our best interests, which are represented by the word “public” right there in its name.[3]

Republic (n.): c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.[4]

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees administer it for the public benefit. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

Commonwealth (n.): mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917).[5]

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places that everybody is entitled to simply by being a citizen. Once the res publica is legislated into being, someone has to administer it in trust for the public’s benefit. If you can’t administer public goods, there’s no point in creating them in the first place, and free market ideology emphatically doesn’t want government to do either– even if that government is supposedly a republican one.

Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato (The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist”) describes how limited government has eliminated the commonwealth from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much.

“Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today: government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”[6]

Ironically, while the ideal of limited government enjoys wide appeal, the actual reality has been the opposite: while the public good has been cut and slashed, the size of federal government has burgeoned during the free market’s reign, as measured by any number of economic markers, including national debt, number of government employees and contractors, size of the federal budget, and government spending — especially on national security and the military, including what some are calling the “military welfare state.”

The Public Good Wish List

Thus free market ideology has destroyed as much republican government as it could, and driven the rest into hiding. But suppose both could be restored to their places at the economic policy conference table. Beyond “the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system,” what might be included in a restored commonwealth trust fund? Several online searches turned up a long and illuminating list of things that used to be considered part of the commonwealth trust portfolio, or that might be added to it:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • protection from poverty – e.g., provision of food, clothing, and shelter
  • affordable housing
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • security and defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons” (vs. private ownership of intellectual property)
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

What’s Wrong With That List?

Turns out that certain of the things on that list might not technically qualify as public goods, but before we look at that, what was your response to the list? Did you find some items frivolous, maybe outrageous? Did you favor things that would benefit you personally over those that wouldn’t? Did some of the items make you want you to get on your moral high horse and ride? Probably you did all of that, because there will always be investments in the commonwealth trust portfolio that you don’t value for yourself. But that’s exactly the point: the commonwealth looks to the health of the whole, not what the rugged individual might be able to do for himself if everybody would just leave him alone.

This individual vs. group conflict enjoyed a respite when the neoliberal economics of the post-WWII years picked up the interrupted impetus of the prewar New Deal, creating as a result the halcyon days of the public good, with widely-shared benefits to the middle class and the American Dream of equal opportunity and upward socio-economic mobility. But when the recovery played out in the 70’s and was then replaced with the free market’s reign, the technicalities of what is public vs. private good became more important. Which is why, when you had those typical responses to the list – questioning this, preferring that — you were putting your finger precisely on several key and complex reasons why the public good is tricky to define and administer – complexities free market capitalism avoids by skewing the balance all the way to the private side of the balance. For example:

  1. “A public good must be both non-rivalrous, meaning that the supply doesn’t get smaller as it is consumed, and non-excludable, meaning that it is available to everyone.”[7] This is largely a matter of fiat: while many things on the list could be made to fit this requirement, they aren’t currently, thanks to the free market insistence on privatization, believing that will make everything optimally available. While phones and computer and internet access could be made free, open, and universal, trillions of dollars’ worth of private enterprise would have something to say about that.
  2. Public goods inevitably give rise to the “free rider problem,” defined as “an inefficient distribution of goods or services that occurs when some individuals are allowed to consume more than their fair share of the shared resource or pay less than their fair share of the costs. Free riding prevents the production and consumption of goods and services through conventional free-market To the free rider, there is little incentive to contribute to a collective resource since they can enjoy its benefits even if they don’t.”[8] Freeriding means public radio and TV can’t prevent people from enjoying their programming even if they don’t pony up during the annual fund-raising campaign.
  3. Government solves the free-rider problem by levying taxes to pay for public services – e.g., a special assessment to pay for sewer maintenance on your street. Only trouble is, “taxes” are fightin’ words – both in free market theory and generally for many if not most Americans. We’re stuck back at “taxation without representation” and “don’t tread on me” and “give me liberty or give me death” – if we don’t want it or can’t get it for ourselves, we’d rather go without it than pay taxes so that everybody else can have it.[9] Free market capitalism is okay with enough government to legislate itself into dominance, but then government needs to get out of the way.
  4. “Market failure”[10] is the key to the public goods door. It occurs when the free market doesn’t deliver. Free market capitalism relies on the common economic assumption that consumers acting rationally in their individual best interests will generate the optimal level of goods and services for everyone. This ideal is unrealized for the vast majority of things on the wish list, and giving it a boost requires a new configuration of what is properly a public or a private good.[11]
  5. Even if we put public goods in place to override free market failures, we’ll still face the “tragedy of the commons,” defined as “an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.”[12] The tragedy of the commons is why beaches post long lists of rules: it may be a public place, but a raucous party can ruin it for everyone else who wanted a tranquil place for a beach read.

These issues are inescapable: if you want public goods, you need to deal with them.

“Homo Economicus”

The issue of market failure ought to be the easiest issue to tackle, since it is based on a long-discredited notion of the rational economic man – the assumption that people will act rationally in their economic dealings, and that “rationally” means in their own best interests. John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to explain this economic behavior:

Homo economicus, or ‘economic man,’ is the characterization of man in some economic theories as a rational person who pursues wealth for his own self-interest. The economic man is described as one who avoids unnecessary work by using rational judgment. The assumption that all humans behave in this manner has been a fundamental premise for many economic theories.”[13]

The idea has had its detractors:

“The theory of the economic man dominated classical economic thought for many years until the rise of formal criticism in the 20th century.

“One of the most notable criticisms can be attributed to famed economist John Maynard Keynes. He, along with several other economists, argued that humans do not behave like the economic man. Instead, Keynes asserted that humans behave irrationally. He and his fellows proposed that the economic man is not a realistic model of human behavior because economic actors do not always act in their own self-interest and are not always fully informed when making economic decisions.”[14]

Even so,

“Although there have been many critics of the theory of homo economicus, the idea that economic actors behave in their own self-interest remains a fundamental basis of economic thought.”[15]

Ayn Rand Would Have Approved

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the free market belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest improves things for everyone. It finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”[16]

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of free market.

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”[17]

The X Factor: What Would be Wrong With a Little Happiness?

But you don’t need to be anybody’s patron saint to like the idea of the public good. You just need to be self-interested enough to want to be happy – or at least be envious of those who are.

Back to our Public Goods Wish List. Technicalities and difficulties of definition and administration aside, if we look at it from the perspective of “wouldn’t that be nice” there’s not a lot to dislike about it. While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good –whose citizens don’t seem to be so adverse to their own happiness — routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Report:

“Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”[18]

The capitalists who need our labor would do well to recall that happy workers are better workers – more loyal, productive, loyal, creative, innovative, and collaborative.[19] Further, as the following perspective on Switzerland shows, democratic socialism can still offer plenty of healthy capitalism:

“Like many progressive intellectuals, Bernie Sanders traces his vision of economic paradise not to socialist dictatorships like Venezuela but to their distant cousins in Scandinavia, which are just as wealthy and democratic as the United States but have more equitable distributions of wealth, as well as affordable health care and free college for all.

“There is, however, a country far richer and just as fair as any in the Scandinavian trio of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But no one talks about it.

“This $700 billion European economy is among the world’s 20 largest, significantly bigger than any in Scandinavia. It delivers welfare benefits as comprehensive as Scandinavia’s but with lighter taxes, smaller government, and a more open and stable economy. Steady growth recently made it the second richest nation in the world, after Luxembourg, with an average income of $84,000, or $20,000 more than the Scandinavian average. Money is not the final measure of success, but surveys also rank this nation as one of the world’s 10 happiest.

“This less socialist but more successful utopia is Switzerland.

“While widening its income lead over Scandinavia in recent decades, Switzerland has been catching up on measures of equality. Wealth and income are distributed across the populace almost as equally as in Scandinavia, with the middle class holding about 70 percent of the nation’s assets. The big difference: The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer.

“The real lesson of Swiss success is that the stark choice offered by many politicians — between private enterprise and social welfare — is a false one. A pragmatic country can have a business-friendly environment alongside social equality, if it gets the balance right. The Swiss have become the world’s richest nation by getting it right, and their model is hiding in plain sight.”[20]

Yes, the citizens of countries that promote the public good pay more taxes, but as this article[21] points out, that doesn’t mean the government is stealing their hard-earned money, instead it’s a recognition that paying taxes acknowledges what the national culture has contributed to their success. Meanwhile there’s still plenty of happiness to go around.

The X Factor, One More Time

It would take a lot to reclaim the public good from free market capitalism’s pogrom against it, and all appearances are that won’t happen anytime soon. But if it ever does, it could be a newly reinvented and revitalized homo economicus’ finest hour, motivated by the simple human desire to be happy.

Imagine that.

[1] For more on neuro-culture, see Beliefs Systems and Culture in my Iconoclast.blog.

[2] Why Don’t We Always Vote in Our Own Self-Interest? New York Times (July 19, 2018).

[3] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[4] Etymology Online.

[5] Etymology Online

[6] The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (orig. 2013, rev’d 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018).

[7] Investopedia.

[8] Investopedia.

[9] This is a particularly thorny issue for philanthropy – see this article and that one.

[10] Investopedia.

[11] See Everyday Ethics: The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods, The Rock Ethics Institute, University of Pennsylvania (Apr 15, 2015).

[12] Investopedia.

[13] Investopedia

[14] Investopedia

[15] Investopedia.

[16] What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

[17] How America Lost Its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

[18] See the full list here. See also the corollary Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Reporthere’s the pdf version.

[19] See The Real Advantage of Happy Employees from Recruiter.com., also this re: an Oxford study: A Big New Study Finds Compelling Evidence That Happy Workers Are More Productive, Quartz at Work (Oct. 22, 2019)

[20] The Happy, Healthy Capitalists of Switzerland, The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2019).

[21] No It’s Not Your Money: Why Taxation Isn’t Theft, Tax Justice Network (Oct. 8, 2014). And for a faith-based perspective I’ve never heard from the religious right, see Faithfully Paying Taxes to Support the Common Good, Ethics Daily (April 12, 2018).

Horatio Alger is Dead, America Has a New Class Structure, and it’s Not Your Fault

horatio alger

January 23, 2020

The member of the month at the gym where I work out is a guy who looks like he’s in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asks “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything” — yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids, and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it, that’s your problem, not America’s.

Except it’s not true, and we know that, too. We know that you can work really, really hard and dedicate lots and lots of time and effort (and money), and still not get what you want.

Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Why don’t we admit that things don’t actually work that way? Because that would be un-American. So instead we elevate the boast: America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity — like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed.
I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that landed gentry/inherited wealth class system here.

Except that’s not true either, and we know that, too.

But we love the equal opportunity myth. We love the feeling of personal power – agency, self-efficacy – it gives us. It’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[1]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

Equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is.

Never mind that the Sacred doesn’t seem to mind being doubted – it’s the people who believe something is sacred you have to watch out for. And never mind that history and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths – exposing them as belief systems, not absolute truths. But it’s too late by the time history has its say: the fraud is perpetrated in the meantime, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. If we don’t get “anything you want,” then we confess that we didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort,” or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth.

You may have seen the Indeed commercial. (Go ahead, click it – it’s only 30 seconds.)

Indeed advert

It brilliantly taps the emotional power of the equal opportunity myth.

“With no choice but to move back home after college, they thought he’d be a little more motivated to find a job.”

The kid is glued to his phone, and it’s driving his parents crazy. He’s obviously a slacker, a freeloader. Household tensions mount. The phone dings at the dinner table. Dad snatches it up.

“Turns out, they were right.”

He’s using it to find a job! Faith and family harmony restored! That’s our hard-working boy!

Heartwarming, but still untrue.

But What About the Strong Job Numbers?

Yes, unemployment is low. But consider this analysis of those numbers[2], just out this month:

“Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation report (better known as the ‘jobs report’) to outline the latest state of the nation’s economy. And with it, of late, have been plenty of positive headlines—with unemployment hovering around 3.5%, a decade of job growth, and recent upticks in wages, the report’s numbers have mostly been good news.

“But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are these jobs any good? How much do they pay? Do workers make enough to live on?

“Here, the story is less rosy.

“In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions.

“Just how concerning are these figures? Some will say that not all low-wage workers are in dire economic straits or reliant on their earnings to support themselves, and that’s true. But as the following data points show, it would be a mistake to assume that most low-wage workers are young people just getting started, or students, or secondary earners, or otherwise financially secure:

      • Two-thirds (64%) of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25 to 54.
      • More than half (57%) work full-time year-round, the customary schedule for employment intended to provide financial security.
      • About half (51%) are primary earners or contribute substantially to family living expenses.
      • Thirty-seven percent have children. Of this group, 23% live below the federal poverty line.
      • Less than half (45%) of low-wage workers ages 18 to 24 are in school or already have a college degree.

“These statistics tell an important story: Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.”

When the kid got a text at the dinner table, it was about one of these jobs. Mom and Dad better get used to the idea that he’ll be around for awhile. Even if he gets that job, it won’t offer benefits, could end at any moment, and won’t pay him enough to be self-sustaining. That’s not how Mom and Dad were raised or how things went for them, but that’s how the economy works nowadays.

Economics Begets Social Structure

The even bigger issue is that the equal opportunity myth has become a social norm: uber-competitive free market economics controls the collective American mindset about how adult life works, to the point that it’s become a nationalist doctrine.

The Chicago School of Economics – the Vatican of free marketism — believed so ardently in its on doctrines that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of fundamentalist indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”[3]

Free market ideology preaches that capitalism promotes both economic and social opportunity. It has had the past four decades to prove that claim, and has failed as spectacularly as Soviet-style communism failed to benefit the workers it was supposed to redeem. Instead, free market ideology has given America what it wasn’t ever supposed to have: a stratified socio-economic class system that skews rewards to the top 10% and leaves the rest in the grip of the dismal statistics listed above.

But we don’t see that – or if we do, we don’t say anything about it, we just keep reciting the “trickle down” mantra. Member of the month and his Dad and the parents in the Indeed commercial and most Americans still believe the myth. Ironically the ones who see through it are the top 10% members who got in before they closed the gates. Meanwhile, the lower 90% — the decimated middle class, the new poor, the hard-working wage-earners – keep blaming themselves.

Even though it’s not their fault. If the kid in the commercial can’t find a job to support himself, it’s not his fault.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

But unlike “anything you want,” “it’s not your fault” is true: current economic policy and its companion social norms do not deliver equal opportunity. Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth lives on life support as we teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data.

Horatio Alger is Dead

There’s no more enduring version of the upward mobility ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons – opportunists aided by collusion and chronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[4]

But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin. Thanks to our devotion to that philosophy, a fair start has become is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders.

Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the economic elite himself:

“As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

“I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

“My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.”

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

“Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education – that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

“The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our ‘creed,’ the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims ‘All men are created equal.’

“There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

“Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

“The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.”

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

“Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did…. But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.”

The New American Meritocracy

Along with Richard Reeves, philosopher Matthew Stewart and entrepreneur Steven Brill cite the same economic and related social data to support their conclusion that the new meritocrat socio-economic class has barred the way for the rest of us. I’ll let Matthew Stewart speak for the others[5]:

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below.

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re ‘middle class.’

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

Two Stories, One Man

In a remarkable display of self-awareness and historical-cultural insight, Stanford professor David Labaree admits that his own upward mobility story can be told two ways — one that illustrates the myth and one that doesn’t, depending on your point of view.[6]

“Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

“But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed. As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University.

“Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game.

“In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale.

“The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children.”

Pause for a moment and wonder, as I did, why would the new meritocrats write books and articles like these? Is it a case of Thriver (Survivor) Guilt? Maybe, but I think it’s because they’re dismayed that their success signals the end of the American equal opportunity ideology. You don’t trample on something sacred. They didn’t mean to. They’re sorry. But now that they have, maybe it wasn’t so sacred after all.

The new socio-economic class system was never supposed to happen in America. We weren’t supposed to be like the Old World our founders left behind. But now we are, although most of us don’t seem to know it, and only a few brave souls will admit it. Meanwhile the Horatio Alger mansions are all sold out, and the gate to the community is locked and guarded. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America.

Until it did.

[1] The Declaration of Independence.

[2] Low Employment Isn’t Worth Much if the Jobs Barely Pay, The Brookings Institute, Jan. 8, 2020.

[3] The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017).

[4] The best source I’ve found for the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

[5] Matthew Stewart is the author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. Steven Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, and is the author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America. The quoted text is from Stewart’s Atlantic article.

[6] Pluck Versus Luck, Aeon Magazine (Dec. 4. 2019) –“Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.”