It was in 1931 that the historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American dream.”
The American dream is not just a yearning for affluence, Adams said, but also for the chance to overcome barriers and social class, to become the best that we can be. Adams acknowledged that the United States didn’t fully live up to that ideal, but he argued that America came closer than anywhere else.
Adams was right at the time, and for decades. When my father, an eastern European refugee, reached France after World War II, he was determined to continue to the United States because it was less class bound, more meritocratic and offered more opportunity.
Yet today the American dream has derailed, partly because of growing inequality. Or maybe the American dream has just swapped citizenship, for now it is more likely to be found in Canada or Europe — and a central issue in this year’s political campaigns should be how to repatriate it.
A report last month in The Times by David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy noted that the American middle class is no longer the richest in the world, with Canada apparently pulling ahead in median after-tax income. Other countries in Europe are poised to overtake us as well.
In fact, the discrepancy is arguably even greater. Canadians receive essentially free health care, while Americans pay for part of their health care costs with after-tax dollars. Meanwhile, the American worker toils, on average, 4.6 percent more hours than a Canadian worker, 21 percent more hours than a French worker and an astonishing 28 percent more hours than a German worker, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Canadians and Europeans also live longer, on average, than Americans do. Their children are less likely to die than ours. American women are twice as likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth as Canadian women. And, while our universities are still the best in the world, children in other industrialized countries, on average, get a better education than ours. Most sobering of all: A recent O.E.C.D. report found that for people aged 16 to 24, Americans ranked last among rich countries in numeracy and technological proficiency.
Economic mobility is tricky to measure, but several studies show that a child born in the bottom 20 percent economically is less likely to rise to the top in America than in Europe. A Danish child is twice as likely to rise as an American child.
When our futures are determined to a significant extent at birth, we’ve reverted to the feudalism that our ancestors fled.
“Equality of opportunity — the ‘American dream’ — has always been a cherished American ideal,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia University, noted in a recent speech. “But data now show that this is a myth: America has become the advanced country not only with the highest level of inequality, but one of those with the least equality of opportunity.”
Consider that the American economy has, over all, grown more quickly than France’s. But so much of the growth has gone to the top 1 percent that the bottom 99 percent of French people have done better than the bottom 99 percent of Americans.
Three data points:
• The top 1 percent in America now own assets worth more than those held by the entire bottom 90 percent.
• The six Walmart heirs are worth as much as the bottom 41 percent of American households put together.
• The top six hedge fund managers and traders averaged more than $2 billion each in earnings last year, partly because of the egregious “carried interest” tax break. President Obama has been unable to get financing for universal prekindergarten; this year’s proposed federal budget for pre-K for all, so important to our nation’s future, would be a bit more than a single month’s earnings for those six tycoons.
Inequality has become a hot topic, propelling Bill de Blasio to become mayor of New York City, turning Senator Elizabeth Warren into a star, and elevating the economist Thomas Piketty into such a demigod that my teenage daughter asked me the other day for his 696-page tome. All this growing awareness is a hopeful sign, because there are policy steps that we could take that would create opportunity and dampen inequality.
We could stop subsidizing private jets and too-big-to-fail banks, and direct those funds to early education programs that help break the cycle of poverty. We can invest less in prisons and more in schools.
We can impose a financial transactions tax and use the proceeds to broaden jobs programs like the earned-income tax credit and career academies. And, as Alan S. Blinder of Princeton University has outlined, we can give companies tax credits for creating new jobs.
It’s time to bring the American dream home from exile.
By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 14, 2014
“An Invitation To Oligarchy”: McCutcheon, And The Vicious Cycle Of Concentrated Wealth And Political Power
If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.
Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.
That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.
It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.
As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.
Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.
In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: “We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few,” he said. “But we cannot have both.”
Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.
The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?
By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, April 3, 2014
Does being super-wealthy make you extra susceptible to self-pity today? That’s the only conclusion we can draw from an epidemic of self-pitying American billionaires decrying their persecution by “despots,” and the “Kristallnacht” of rising concern about income inequality, over just the last few months.
Charles Koch is the latest to fall victim to what funnier folks than me have labeled the WATB syndrome, with a whiny op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Collectivists” in government, Koch writes – “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives,” i.e. Democrats — “strive to discredit and intimidate opponents.” It gets worse: “They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.)”
I’m worried about Charles Koch. For one thing, with all his billions, he couldn’t find a better ghost writer? His silly op-ed, with its alarmist Marxist clichés and fusty Schopenhauer references, would have been dismissed as an April Fool’s joke if published just one day sooner. It came the same day as the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which only increased its ridiculousness.
But Koch’s self-pity and persecution complex is downright unhealthy. He clearly suffers from the same malady as Tom Perkins, who delusionally compared rising political concern about income inequality to “Kristallnacht” for the rich. Newspaper-destroying real estate mogul Sam Zell, who cosigned Perkins, is also a victim, complaining the super-rich “are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” when in fact “the 1 percent work harder.”
Self-pity sufferer Ken Langone of Home Depot even warned Pope Francis that Catholic billionaires might stop contributing to the church because of the pope saying the “exclusionary” culture of the rich made some of them “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” Langone had earlier joined self-pitying mogul Leon Cooperman to admonish President Obama for “new lows in polarizing rhetoric…aimed at successful people in the business sector.”
Maybe we need a public health campaign to warn billionaires about the dangers of self-pity: stress, anxiety, depression, isolation and illness. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” say that “the effect of self-pity on the body is similar to chronic anxiety.” A widely quoted 2003 study of self-pity in the Journal of Personality found:
…Strong associations of self-pity with neuroticism, particularly with the depression facet. With respect to control beliefs, individuals high in self-pity showed generalized externality beliefs, seeing themselves as controlled by both chance and powerful others…Furthermore, individuals high in self-pity reported emotional loneliness and ambivalent-worrisome attachments.
Deepak Chopra says self-pity is linked to “dependency,” so clearly Paul Ryan ought to consider a crusade to change the “culture” of his billionaire patrons in addition to that of “inner city” men:
The issue is dependency. Self-pity is the opposite of self-esteem. It arises because you feel no one will lift you out of your difficulties. With no one stronger, older, wiser and kinder to help you, there’s a tremendous sense of lack. You cannot find the same strength that these rescuers have—or you imagine them to have—and the ache of not being enough is felt as self-pity or “poor me.”
Of course, this isn’t the Koch brothers first pity-party, or their first descent into making things up about President Obama. Three years ago Charles and David sat down with the Weekly Standard and complained about their “demonization” by Democrats and President Obama, who they then went on to demonize. (A clinical note: Projection is also associated with self-pity.)
Charles accused Obama of believing “Marxist models.” David went further, blaming Obama’s views on his father, “a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “He had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.”
David also called anti-Koch protesters “very, very extreme, and I think very dangerous….That was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”
So clearly self-pity is a persistent problem for Charles and his brother. Maybe we need a public health campaign: If your bout of self-pity lasts more than four hours, call your doctor. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” have other advice:
“If you have trouble breaking the self-pity habit, you might want to try an excellent way of getting your mind off of yourself: help others.”
Oh well, that’s probably not the answer.
I don’t know what to advise Charles Koch about his unhealthy habits. He certainly has the money to get the best professional help available. But I would urge the Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of record for the top 1 percent, to stop encouraging the damaging dependency and self-destructive behavior of its readers and patrons, before it’s too late.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 3, 2014
“If You Go Back To 1933”: Another Billionaire With A Victim’s Complex And An Unhealthy Nazi Fixation
Ben White and Maggie Haberman report this morning that the political winds seem to have shifted lately in the One Percenters’ direction. Whereas a few months ago, economic populism looked like it’d give Democrats a boost in 2014, and polls showed strong public support for addressing economic inequality, Wall Street and its allies are feeling more confident.
In two-dozen interviews, the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation said they are still plenty worried about the shift in tone toward top earners and the popularity of class-based appeals…. But wealthy Republicans – who were having a collective meltdown just two months ago – also say they see signs that the political zeitgeist may be shifting back their way and hope the trend continues.
“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”
Oh for crying out loud. Do we really have to deal with another billionaire with a victim’s complex who sees a parallel between economic populism and Nazis?
If this sounds familiar, it was just two months ago that venture capitalist Tom Perkins caused a stir in a Wall Street Journal letter, arguing that the “progressive war on the American one percent” is comparable to Nazi genocide. “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930,” he wrote, “is its descendent ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”
He later said he regretted the Kristallnacht reference, but nevertheless believed his point had merit.
Despite the controversy surrounding Perkins’ bizarre concerns, Home Depot’s Ken Langone apparently decided to embrace the exact same message.
This shouldn’t be necessary, but as a rule, Nazi comparisons in domestic political debates are a bad idea. But they’re an especially egregious mistake when they’re rooted in a ridiculous fantasy.
Whether Langone understands this or not, the scope of contemporary economic populism is often quite narrow. In a political context, it tends to focus on stagnant wages, regressive tax policies, and safeguards against the worst of Wall Street excesses. As a policy matter, we’re generally talking about a higher minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, access to affordable medical care, and lately, expanded access to overtime compensation.
Billionaires may have substantive disagreements with these concerns and their proposed remedies, but to see them as somehow similar to Nazi genocide is more than a little twisted.
The more annoying phenomenon isn’t an American mainstream that believes the wealthy can afford to pay a little more in taxes, but rather, coddled billionaires benefiting from a modern-day Gilded Age feeling sorry for themselves.
As we talked about in January, it’s comparable in a way to a curious strain of political correctness. The more progressive talk about the concentration of wealth at the very top, tax rates, poverty, and stagnant wages, the more some of the very wealthy tell each other, “Oh my God, they may be coming to get us.”
If liberals would only stop talking about economic justice, maybe the richest among us wouldn’t have their feelings hurt.
Or maybe billionaires should just let go of this fantasy, stop seeing themselves as victims, and abandon the disgusting notion that American liberals have something in common with Hitler because they’re concerned with the consequences of growing economic inequality.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 18, 2014
Harvard economist Greg Mankiw is notorious for trying to justify the income of the very rich on the grounds that it’s what they deserve. In this column, for example, he uses the example of Steve Jobs as a person who deserves his wealth, having been in charge of a company that built some hugely popular electronic devices. The idea is plausible at first blush: Jobs’ products are indeed very popular.
But it quickly runs into enormous problems. This “just deserts” way of looking at the world is perennially tempting for conservatives — the flip side being that poorer people also deserve what they get — but they will have to do better than this to justify and valorize the existing social structure.
Consider the case of economic growth. As Matt Bruenig points out, the mysterious “Solow residual” — the source of productivity that can’t be directly attributed to capital, labor, or land — almost certainly consists at least in part of knowledge, which has been piling up for centuries:
If we are being good “just desert” adherents, then we need to divorce out the massive chunk of the total output that constitutes the Solow residual and ensure it makes it to its rightful contributor. All of our national product attributable to the world’s accumulated knowledge of algebra — which includes much of Mankiw’s work it should be noted — rightfully belongs to ancient Babylonians, ancient Greeks, and a whole host of other long-dead historical figures. All of our national product attributable to electricity technology rightly belongs, not to anyone living, but to people like Nikola Tesla and and Thomas Edison. In short, the view that individuals should receive only their marginal product actually generates the conclusion that the substantial part of our national product resulting from inherited technology and knowledge belongs to no living person, or more reasonably to everyone in general. [Demos]
Even that isn’t going far enough! As Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, nearly all major scientific breakthroughs were made by multiple people simultaneously and independently, and were critically dependent on certain background conditions in society. In other words, if we could somehow figure out how much of economic output stems from the discovery of calculus, even Newton would not deserve full credit for it.
We can take it even further: what about the English language itself? That is to say, practically every single economic activity depends on a foundation of literacy that has been built into society. No business today can operate without a functional language as a bedrock condition. That is quite obviously the result of thousands of years of communal creation and evolution. Today’s Job Creators can’t possibly claim to have “built that,” and the very idea of trying to single out individuals in the creation of English is ridiculous on its face, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare or William Tyndale.
Finally, merest existence means being ensnared in a web of obligation that it would be futile to map out. Every person alive is built at great effort and pain from the flesh and blood of another person: your mother. How could one possibly begin to even “repay” such a debt? Presumably, she deserves all of your income less what it takes to keep you alive, since she is literally responsible for your creation. But that’s not even the end — before your mother, there was her mother, and so on, in an unbroken chain of life creating life stretching 3.6 billion years back to the primordial sea. Remove just one of the links, and you wouldn’t exist.
Anyway, one could continue in this vein, but I’ll leave it there. In my view, the sheer impossibility of ever allocating desert in any sort of systematic or consistent way means we should guarantee a minimum of safety and security for every person. But at a minimum, Mankiw and his fellow 1 percent apologists would do well to abandon this line of reasoning.
By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, March 14, 2014