The New Gilded Age

Jeff Alworth

As you are all no doubt aware, income disparities have been growing dramatically in the past couple-three decades.  Depending on your political views, this was either a good or bad thing.  For those believing it was good, three arguments were regularly trundled out to offset pinko commie propaganda about the evils of plutocracy.  They were: 1) while it's true that the rich are getting stinking rich, it's okay, because the poor have been getting richer at the same time, just not as quickly; 2) the wealth the stinking rich are earning is good for the country because it will get invested into business, sparking the economy, and 3) in a free-market system like the US's, incomes fluctuate, so the poor don't actually stay poor, they move on up the ladder.

I don't know if you caught it, but recently there was a striking article in the Economist (of all places) that refutes the plutocrats' arguments.  Poor Americans are not doing well, they're remaining poor, and the rich are gathering an ever larger slice of American wealth. 

Quoting from the Economic Policy Institute, the Economist points out that the poor are mostly staying poor:

More dangerously, class is become more rigid, and reports of social mobility are exaggerated.  The Economist sources recent studies that demonstrate this phenomenon:

A classic social survey in 1978 found that 23% of adult men who had been born in the bottom fifth of the population (as ranked by social and economic status) had made it into the top fifth.  Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues recently decided to update the study. They compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979. The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10% of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter....

Thomas Hertz, an economist at American University in Washington, DC studied a representative sample of 6,273 American families (both black and white) over 32 years or two generations. He found that 42% of those born into the poorest fifth ended up where they started—at the bottom. Another 24% moved up slightly to the next-to-bottom group. Only 6% made it to the top fifth. Upward mobility was particularly low for black families. On the other hand, 37% of those born into the top fifth remained there, whereas barely 7% of those born into the top 20% ended up in the bottom fifth.

There is also growing evidence that America is less socially mobile than many other rich countries. Mr Solon finds that the correlation between the incomes of fathers and sons is higher in the United States than in Germany, Sweden, Finland or Canada. Such cross-national comparisons are rife with problems: different studies use different methods and different definitions of social status. But Americans are clearly mistaken if they believe they live in the world's most mobile society.

Related to a discussion we were having earlier, the Economist takes on eduction--both k-12 and elite universities--arguing that k-12 schools in poorer neighborhoods damage the chances of students climbing out of poverty.  And student bodies at elite universities are now increasingly comprised mainly of wealthy kids.    "Three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic fourth, compared with just 3% who come from the poorest fourth....  This means that, at an elite university, you are 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor one.

The Economist, a British publication, is particularly mystified that poorer Americans aren't standing up for themselves.  For a country that prides itself on bucking hereditary privilege, the US is looking a whole lot like the Old World.  Maybe articles like this, which explode the it's-okay-for-the-rich-to-get-stinking-rich argument, will help turn the tide.

  • Chris Bouneff (unverified)

    Kevin Phillips wrote an interesting book, Wealth and Democracy:A Political History of the American Rich that also concludes that we may be in a new Gilded Age where business interests spend their time and money on influencing government so that government will intervene to perpetuate their interests.

    What I found most interesting about the book is that it also examines the rise and fall of the Spanish, Dutch, and British economic empires based on the same premise. Definitely food for thought.

  • Terry (unverified)

    The last sentence in the last paragraph of the Economist article (which makes it a very strong statement, in my opinion), “The Democrats are more interested in preferment for minorities than building ladders of opportunity for all,” gives me pause. What is the article arguing for, I wonder? Terry

  • Terry (unverified)

    My apologies: …the last sentence in the NEXT TO the last paragraph… Terry:-/

  • Randy S (unverified)

    I found this statement interesting:

    "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."

    As though there is a tipping point at which we have arrived... I think in a lot of ways we have moved well into a class-based society.

    So long as the dream/illusion of achieving the top-o-the-heap status remains in people's minds (witness the sales job on tax cuts and social security privatization), they will cling to the fantasy that with just enough grit and personal determination they will make it. It is unfortunate that the arguments and statistics in this report appeared in the the Economist -- whose demographics probably include few of those who might want to re-think the meritocracy theory, at least as it applies to their personal lives.

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    I agree from personal experience that the rich are gone stinking rich, and the oppressed are worse off and die -- from starvation, removal, and neglect; ever since Reagan (the alzheimer prez with the blind ambition veep, Bush Sinister). The 1980s administration ended the use of the Sherman Anti-trust Act (1890) which was brakes on The Gilded Age, (Mark Twain's disdain). With Reagan asleep at the wheel the brake was off, so corporations did agglomerate and mom-n-pop had no Justice against monopolists -- big-fish-eating-little-fish, food-chain, and bottom-feeder euphemism 'framings' started then. The Newtie nineties legislatively deACTivated the Act. All to say giga-dittos, Jeff.

    Nothing new to add, but here's something new to state. Especially in socioeconomic terms and discussions: Take out the up/down reference (analogy). Think flat earth. Humankind is on one plane. We don't move "up the ladder," rather we move 'in' or 'out' or 'away' to a privileged position. People are not 'at the bottom', but rather 'outcast' or 'unvalued' or 'segregated apart.' All to say be mindful of words which preposition one above another or one below another. Consider 'God in heaven' instead of 'God up in heaven,' when 'heaven' is right here on earth.

    The stinking rich are remote from the nucleus of humankind. The center has food, clothing, shelter and social wellness; the fringe has inked paper called 'money.' The fringe can be pinched off into isolation into stagnation into putrefication -- leaving them eating their papers. Literally. Starve the ones in the castles 'counting out their money.' Don't say 'top ten percent;' say 'farthest ten percent.' And the farther off they go from the center of mass, the sooner snaps the fragile lifeline.

    Laws of physics find that as the positives and negatives increase across a gap, ('potential difference'), ultimately a lightning discharge ('kinetic energy') materializes along the polarity. In human animation the equivalent of lightning is rage and riot behavior, seen in torches and pitchforks and guillotines.

    None of this is new; it's as old as nature. But it has given me new vision seeing people's motives -- by changing up/down into in/out, back/forth, near/far, around/across, etc. -- and I recommend the idea to others.

    (Jack, are you still interested in defining what 'meme' means?)

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    The last material I read on economic class stability, some time ago, said there is about a 20 percent chance of an American leaving the class he was born into. However, the 20 percent goes either way. I would be interested in knowing if the greater share of wealth allocated to the very wealthy means that the probability of moving down instead of up is now greater.

  • allehseya (unverified)

    Nothing new to add, but here's something new to state. Especially in socioeconomic terms and discussions: Take out the up/down reference (analogy). Think flat earth. Humankind is on one plane. We don't move "up the ladder," rather we move 'in' or 'out' or 'away' to a privileged position. People are not 'at the bottom', but rather 'outcast' or 'unvalued' or 'segregated apart.' All to say be mindful of words which preposition one above another or one below another.

    Now there's some good word medicine.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Although I think the growing disparity between rich and poor is a clear indication of the serious problem that the wealthy have bought themselves a government that looks after their interests, I disagree with the notion that we have already become a class-based society (leaving aside the established super-rich families, which have always been a powerful class having nothing in common with ordinary people). I've been poor, and now I'm in the middle-income range. I have ideas that I am pursuing to become more wealthy. I can do that because in this country your station in life doesn't hold you back. In a class-based society, it doesn't matter how clever or hard-working you are. If you're born into the working class, that's where you stay. There are few opportunities for improvement of your lot in life, and virtually no chance you will become rich. I think we need to work harder to educate people on how to pursue their dreams in a way that creates wealth, rather than focusing so much effort on fostering hatred of the wealthy, as if those who are not wealthy are owed something that is being taken by the wealthy. We also need to face the reality that a lot of people are simply not smart enough, creative enough, strong enough physically or emotionally, or hard-working enough to be anything other than poor, which, of course, is where charity comes in.

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    I can do that because in this country your station in life doesn't hold you back.

    Becky--did you read the article? It's from the conservative Economist, which takes a free-market position on everything. Their point is exactly the opposite. The PERCEPTION is that the US remains a Horatio Alger, American dream kind of place, but the evidence disputes it. Chris's reference to Phillips' book is more evidence--Phillips is yet another conservative (in the old, 1950s sense) who has scads of evidence that your life is the exception, not the norm.

    However, the 20 percent goes either way. I would be interested in knowing if the greater share of wealth allocated to the very wealthy means that the probability of moving down instead of up is now greater.

    Nope. If you're in the top income bracket, you have enormous advantages to keep you there. The article describes these.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    Becky, you have really bought the bill of goods.

    As I said above, at least 80 percent of Americans will remain in the economic class they were born into. Some, perhaps most, of the 20 percent will drop below their parents' level of income. You don't see that kind of rigidity in an economic system unless it is built-in. And, it is. Most simply put, opportunity and income are largely distributed before we are born. We enter a system that is rigged in favor or those who already have both. A relative few of the poor will be able to move up the economic ladder into lower-middle class status, but rarely higher.

    Factors such as racism and gender discrimination make the rigidity worse for some parts of the population. A black college graduate often earns less money than a white person who may or may not have finished high school. Some studies show that a black man with no criminal record has a much harder time getting an entry level job than a white felon. Women's wages are actually regressing in the current conservative atmosphere.

    You can read a blog entry discussing the Horatio Alger myth, titled "Debunking the American Dream," here. You will notice that Alger heroes did not climb the economic ladder merely by virtue of hard work as many people think. They were 'adopted' by powerful mentors and/or married the boss' daughter.

    Does this mean you will not become wealthier than your parents, Becky? No. There is a slim chance you will. But, the overall picture will not change much. As surely as you go up, somebody else(s) will come down, and not because he/she/they is/are stupid or lazy.

  • (Show?)

    Wow Jeff,

    Excellent and important post. As for The Economist, at least they research their numbers and their sources to a standard that all of the "big three" US mags(Time, Newsweek, and US News) should aspire to. It's really sad that we have to look offshore to find a credible mainstream weekly. I've been meaning to subscribe, and as of this AM, I have.

    I look forward to hearing reasoned, fact based responses from the Blue Oregon readers who have been counselling us against Class Warfare. As Tesnk noted, we are already involved in class warfare and so far the top tiers are kicking our butts........

  • (Show?)

    I ask you to join in a re-United States. We need to empower our people so they can take more responsibility for their own lives in a world that is ever smaller, where everyone counts. We need a new spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together, or the American Dream will continue to wither. Our destiny is bound up with the destiny of every other American.

    Bill Clinton 1946-, Forty-second President of the USA

    I have something else to add. I just ran correlations myself for 2004. There was a 4.48% correlation between a states ranking in business tax and development and their rank in unemployment. That means that roughly 2.2% of a states employment is explained by how lenient the state is on taxes and how much the state spends for economic development.

    Oregon ranks as the 10th best state, yet we have the 49th worst unemployment. Maybe we need to rethink how we throw tax breaks to rich developers while sticking it to middle income earners.

  • (Show?)

    I think it's high time for a class war (see Let's have a war!). Every time someone even suggests the possibility that maybe--just MAYBE--the rich are ripping off America, those very richies are provoked into a senseless rage. Gee, I wonder why? Could it be that class war ain't so hot for their bottom line?

    Once again, I give you the impolitic Emma Goldman: "Give us work; if you do not give us work, then give us bread; if you do not give us either work or bread then we shall take your bread."

    Let's have a war!

  • Becky (unverified)

    Mac Diva -

    I agree that racism and gender discrimination are real problems (I've experienced sexism myself). I did read the article, but I maintain that the primary reason people in the U.S. remain poor is that they do not know how to become rich or are dealing with personal issues, not that they are unable to become rich due to class. The words "stupid" and "lazy" are your derrogatory terms, by the way, not mine. And while it may not be politically correct to say so, it is quite obvious that not everyone in this country is bright enough or willing to do what it takes to improve their lot in life. But having spent a year in a third world country, I have some experience with severe poverty, and even the weakest among us never have to be in as bad a shape as the majority of people are in some countries, where they literally have no hope of improving their lives. I taught children who worked their tails off much more than kids here, yet their futures were bleak.

    Our opportunities here are inconceivably greater, but few of us appreciate or take advantage of our opportunities. Some people know how to get wealthy, while others do not, which is why I said we should focus more attention on helping those who are capable - the vast majority of Americans - learn how to be more successful financially. And yes, I am already wealthier than my parents. My brother, however, is one who is bright but lazy and for that reason he is poor and has, at times, been homeless. I'm sorry, but I get very annoyed with people who want to coddle those who are capable but unwilling to work for something more and then foster hatred for those who have been successful. Further, one person's success does not preclude the success of others. Corporate greed and unethical business behavior are things that should be punished, but this wallowing in self-pity and fostering that kind of wallowing in others rather than expecting them to achieve or teaching them how to achieve is damaging to our future as a culture and as a nation.

    Incidentally, if you believe everything you read in the Economist, how about an article they wrote a couple of years ago about Houston, in which they praised the city's lack of land use planning as having contributed to greater opportunities for minorities, who were able to live wherever they want and work to improve their property without political interference from those with the power to impose land use regulations that would have impeded them? One could easily jump to the conclusion that government itself is an impediment to people seeking to attain their full economic potential, and from what I have observed it is a fair conclusion. Government power seems to be an attractor for unscrupulous people who want to impose restrictions on those they don't like or help those they do like, and consequently, government often refuses to sanction those who step on others to reach the top and works to give advantages to the well-connected. I think these problems can be solved through greater ethical oversight of government officials and restricted power to intrude upon the freedoms of individuals. But it will never be solved by creating a them-and-us mentality, in which the have-nots feel sorry for themselves and blame their situation on the haves, rather than going out and doing what is necessary to make their own lives better.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    Viva le France!

    (Too bad you can't cut their heads off nowadays)

    Oh well. Just shake them down through the tax code for all you're worth anyway.

    Then you can grumble about the new exodus of wealthy expatriots moving to the Caymans and wonder why the all the major US markets nosedive.

    But if you stick with it and you continually purge our country of the "richies" you'll finally have the classless society progressives dream about. A society driven by the desire to help your neighbor before you help yourself.

    We'll officially outlaw "greed".

    I'll help you get started with a quote to motivate the masses:

    "Let them eat Twinkies."*

    *Although I'm not close to being "rich", I'd like to be someday - so you can get started blaming me now (just in case).

  • (Show?)

    Here's another fact for you.

    The #1 reason why people file for bankruptcy is unforeseen medical costs. So many people live with 2-3,000 in credit card debt. If they get sick and even have to pay copays or meet deductibles, they get even more consumed in debt.

    Advocating class warfare I think was mentioned out of sarcasm, but the real way to fight a class warfare is to educate people. What everyone must realize is that the job market is driven by supply and demand just like the economic market is. When you have a surplus of people fighting for a position, the market rate will go down. If you have high demand, the market will go up.

    People complained about the high salary that was paid to the new director of portland libraries, but if you talked to the city council (which I did) you'd realize that they were simply trying to pay the market rate for directors. Had they paid less than market rate, we would have been left with an unqualified director.

    It is very well researched that children of poor or uneducated parents do worse in school. If we really want affirmative action in this country that will work, we need to stop pandering to one racial group, and we need to provide additional help to children of poor or uneducated parents.

    I'm currently looking for PhD programs in business. 40-60% of the current student bodies are international students. People with PhD's run major corporations. Maybe if we had an educational system in this country that actually challenged kids, and maybe if we had a culture that supported higher levels of education, we would create a larger supply of well qualified workers and bring down the market rate for lead CEO's.

    Don't steal from the rich to give to the poor. Steal from the rich to educate the poor so they learn how to support themselves.

  • (Show?)

    "government often refuses to sanction those who step on others to reach the top and works to give advantages to the well-connected. I think these problems can be solved through greater ethical oversight of government officials and restricted power to intrude upon the freedoms of individuals."

    Bravo Becky. I gree with you on both of these points.

    I hope you will join me and others like myself in uging the Oregon Legislature to reinstate the ethics oversight funding for the state of Oregon. Wayne Scott (R-Canby) and Karen Minnis have been particularly attentive to keeping the Legislator/Lobbyist revolving door spinning.

    As for the second point, can we agree that all legislators should avoid protecting adult individuals from themselves, when society as a whole is minimally impacted by their behavior?


    Being wealthy is not a crime or even a sin, but the issues that Jeff addresses here do not amount to whining or class envy. Rather he is calling for the government to do its duty as a Referee in the Big Game of Capitalism.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Class warfare goes on all the time. The wealthy and their lapdogs get upset only when the war is mentioned in public. It is both incorrect and dastardly to maintain that the poor wage war on the wealthy. It is almost always the other way around.

    Americans of moderate means are victims of the cruel myth that they can become rich if they work hard [or these days, more likely win the lottery. Actually, I think one of the lottery's raisons d'etre is to distract the poor from their hopeless subjugation.] That is why the poor do not stand up for their own interests: they expect to get rich next week.

    Our education system, politics, and media regularly reinforce this lie. The US is the land of opportunity, where every lad and lassie can grow up to run a monopoly software giant. Oh ya, and give me a dozen megabucks tickets to go.

    Capitalism has its advantages in wealth creation, but capitalism without wealth redistibution from the top to bottom [it seems that needs to be stressed since it happens in the other direction so often] is nasty, brutish, and ultimately self-destructing.

    I'm not in favor on guillotines, until they are necessary.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    Count Du Money: "The peasants are revolting!"

    King Louis : "You said it. They stink on ice."*

    *Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1


    Sorry, that line always made me laugh. I'm guessing that is the mental image progressives want to hold of the "rich".

    But I wonder if the superwealthy interests gaming the political system would be able to get away with it if the big government policies (supported by progressives) did not enable them?

    As long as you promote redistributing wealth for the public good, there will be some Homer Williams-esque figures out there selling a new subsidy scheme to the politicians in order to lessen their risks in the market.

    The politicians fall for it over and over.

    Republicans too.

  • (Show?)

    Yep Pancho, and as long as enough people continue to see capitalism as a religion instead of a somewhat flawed economic system in need of regulation, intelligent and unscrupulous people will find ways to take advantage of it.

    Welfare mothers gaming at the bottom, welfare ranchers gaming on the range, welfare contractors gaming in the city, welfare homeowners writing off our morgages at all levels, and welfare corporations gaming in Hillsboro and Iraq.

    It's just human nature.

  • (Show?)

    Being wealthy is not a crime or even a sin, but the issues that Jeff addresses here do not amount to whining or class envy. Rather he is calling for the government to do its duty as a Referee in the Big Game of Capitalism.

    The US was founded on twin, competing values of equality and liberty. Becky voices the liberty side well. If you're not smart, disabled, or fail to meet the standards of ambition set by people whose values are profit-making, you deserve to be poor. That's one view, and certainly one that has some currency and support in America.

    Then there's the view of the equality-siders, aka liberals, who hail FDR, JFK, and LBJ for their work in making sure that everyone has a chance to live comfortably in something less than full-on socio-economic Darwinism.

    It's a choice, and it's probably a balance. But as the Economist's story ably demonstrates, the choice has led to gross imbalance, and we are sliding toward old European-style class determinism. Is that the American way? Is it the right way? Is it the best way? These are questions the Democratic Party (in particular) should begin to consider.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Jeff - How did you get from my saying things like, “Corporate greed and unethical business behavior are things that should be punished” and “a lot of people are simply not smart enough, creative enough, strong enough physically or emotionally, or hard-working enough to be anything other than poor, which, of course, is where charity comes in,” to saying I think "If you're not smart, disabled, or fail to meet the standards of ambition set by people whose values are profit-making, you deserve to be poor"? That was an unfair leap on your part. I do believe in a safety net and in helping those who can't help themselves. What I don't believe in is coddling those who CAN help themselves but don't want to, and then reinforcing their mistaken belief that the rich don't deserve what they have and it's fair to take it away from them, rather than to build riches for onesself.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    Becky, you are confusing my comments with Jeff's and some other people's. I haven't endorsed the Economist, which is mainly a conservative publication. My taste leans more toward Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. What I did take issue with in your first comment was the built-in assumption that people control whether they become wealthy or not. Largely, they do not. Forces present before they are born do.

    I found time to read the article in the Economist, while waiting, and waiting and waiting at the opthamologist's office this morning. It confirmed what I said about the fluctuation rate of about 20 percent changing their economic status significantly, in our generations. However, the chances of moving down in class are higher than they were in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Excerpt:

    . . .Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues recently decided to update the study. They compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979. The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10% of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter.

    Though the studies have been of men, the mobility of women is even less. African-Americans barely move up at all. (Yes, I know there is supposed to be a larger black middle-class, but that impression is achieved partly by comparing the consumption of the black bourgeoisie to itself, not that of the white middle-class. Compare equity --inherited wealth, property ownership, stocks -- and the disparity is even greater.)

    Work done by Lani Guinier and Barbara Ehrenreich pointed to increasing class rigidity back in the 80s and 90s.

    BTW, in my experience middle-class white folks who call for any kind of 'war' against the way thngs are just throwing words around. They are much to invested in the status quo to really oppose it.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Based solely on the anecdotal evidence of my own experience, I have a theory about why fewer men are reaching the level of success of their fathers, and it's not because they're being held down by "richie", so to speak.

    First, those who were raised in comfort tend to feel more is owed to them and are less willing to work as hard for things - we've all seen the spoiled rich kid who gets whatever he wants and doesn't have any self discipline.

    Second, you may have noticed a rampant problem with drugs and alcohol that has severely hampered the success of many men of my generation (35-45). I know so many of these people I can't even count them all.

    Third, people today saw the sacrifices their parents made to get what they have, and many of them don't think it is worth it. They'd rather spend more time with their family, or have more stuff now, or travel more while they're young, etc.

    Fourth, in the African American population there is a significantly higher incidence of absent fathers, so the children grow up with less of a sense of empowerment and hope, as well as understanding of how to make it. Of course, they also do face discrimination, which worsens their plight, though I think from what I see that this is lessening with each generation.

    Fifth, undiciplined children grow up without the kind of dedication and self-control necessary to achieve - I'm a firm believer in restrained but firm spanking and follow-through from the earliest years of childhood. I rarely spanked my children, for example, because they knew I would if I had to and they preferred to discipline themselves rather that be disciplined by me - and I get comments all the time on how well-behaved and secure they are. They also are able to sit down and do their homework, focus on a project, or do the work necessary to earn something they want because they've learned how to control themselves, they understand that there are rules in society, and they understand that those rules are beneficial.

    Finally, there is a general sense in society that is fostered by reports such as this one in the Economist, which I believe avoids some key facts to come to faulty conclusions, that one is entitled to, or has a right to a certain level of comfort and security whether one works for it or not, and that if one has not achieved it is because the system or the rich businessman or corporate America is holding him down. Not all of these factors apply in each case, and certainly there are some who as I said earlier cannot do better for a variety of reasons, but I see a very strong trend in each of those areas that is holding back those who could do better, and I don't believe fostering an anti-rich attitude is going to improve the situation.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    Oops! Typos when I comment while tired. My last paragraph in the comment above should read:

    "BTW, in my experience, middle-class white folks who call for any kind of 'war' against the way things are just throwing words around. They are much too invested in the status quo to really oppose it."

    Betsy, you really are not getting it in regard to race discrimination and class rigidity. The major point of discrimination is too keep its victims down. But for that reason, the amount of work put into maintaining discrimination would not be worthwhile. There must be something for the discriminators to gain from it. (Yes, racial discrimination also provides psychological comfort to the people benefitting from it, but I think that is secondary to the economic aspect.) The incidence of a higher number of single-parent black households does not explain why a white high school grad earns more than a black college grad, or, why a white felon finds a job easier than a black person with no criminal record. Racial discrimination does.

    I followed up this entry with one that combines information from the essay from the Economist with sales data from the Christmas season. Interesting reading, I think.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Mac Diva, you bring up excellent points, but I think the impact of fatherless families is likely to be enormous but for ideological reasons this terrible problem is not properly recognized. It's also getting worse among all demographic groups, and throughout the West, not just the U.S.

    Racial discrimination is surely only one among many reasons why white high school grads earn more than black college grads. Quality of schools and availability of opportunites are among others. Discrimination also includes concerns about the preparation of job candidates, as well as other concern about the how the cultural background of the candidate might affect performance in any number of ways. These concerns are not necessarily illegitimate, though racial prejudice plays into them. Racial discrimination does not explain discrepancies in the performance of native-born Americans of African Ancestry and immigrants of African ancestry who I believe tend to perform at a significantly higher standard.

  • Nancy (unverified)

    Want to know what is the matter?

    All you do is sit and patter on about your many problems. No suggestions how to solve 'em ever managed to gain entry Into short- or long-term memory, And I'm sick and tired of listening to your never-ending bitching 'Bout the wrongs that "they" have done you Through their not-so-liberal menu And the "kinks" in their agenda.

    Did you ever think to lend a hand to help yourself?

    So I'm gone.

    And you can stay here all alone And moan abuses to your rights And all your lack of life's delights While I enjoy a life that's fine--

    Responsibility that's mine--

    None owe me laughter in the rain, Or sunny days, Or never pain, Or loaded table, Solid roof, Top-notch wages Brand new tooth.

    I chose to learn school lessons well, To train for work, And not to dwell on setbacks. Life's not always fair.

    I look for eagles in the air, Hunt moonbeams hiding in the night, Try counting all the stars in sight, Smell the pine Share a kiss or two. Onbly lupines should be blue.

    So you want to gain, not lose? Then all you have to do is chose To view the good with gratitude And change your current attitude.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff - How did you get from my saying things like, “Corporate greed and unethical business behavior are things that should be punished” and “a lot of people are simply not smart enough, creative enough, strong enough physically or emotionally, or hard-working enough to be anything other than poor, which, of course, is where charity comes in,” to saying I think "If you're not smart, disabled, or fail to meet the standards of ambition set by people whose values are profit-making, you deserve to be poor"?

    Becky, I'm not letting you off the hook on this one. Conservatives argue for socio-economic Darwinism, and the gloss doesn't cover that. There's a common conservative belief that the "losers" in society are getting what they deserve. If some charity helps lessen the blow, that's probably good, but it doesn't change the calculus any. Conservatism puts its eggs in the "liberty" basket, knowing and understanding full well that this means many will end up with nothing.

    It's poor politics to say this. And liberals, for the most part have felt it is impolite to point it out. So the fiction that the liberty view can lead to equality is upheld. But you can't have it both ways: if you favor a winner-take-all system, you have to cop to not giving a damn about the "losers."

    Your language betrays you, too. For you, having the opportunity for success is tantamount to having success. If you're not successful, it's evidence that you don't want to be. This is the logic of the liberty-siders. That's a perfectly respectable position to hold, but let's be clear: it IS the position you're arguing for.

    As I've said, there's definitely a balance to strike here. Take equality to its logical conclusion, and you end up with communism, which we've learned from experience saps life from individuals and countries. But, follow liberty to its ultimate conclusion and you end up with a Lord of the Flies society.

    We have gross inequality in society, and that's accelerating the advantage of the powerful. Left on its current course, America will be a grim place in a decade or two.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)

    Another lens the argument Betsy is making can be viewed through is a religious one. (I'm not saying she is religious. I have no idea whether she is not. But, her reasoning dovetails with this argument pretty well.) The Calvinist doctrine of the elect holds that some people are preselected for salvation. That belief has often been extended to economics and power. Basically, many people seem to think that the possession of wealth and influence means the persons who have it must deserve it. Simultaneously, the people at the bottom of the well must deserve their position, too. The 'just world' outlook provides a way for people to be comfortable with the status quo.

    Unfortunately, it is not at all realistic. Most great wealth is inherited. Investment of the initial wealth and continuation of the privileges of wealth and power means the initial wealth continues to grow. A child born into such a family becomes wealthy, but not because he has done anything to deserve his fate. We could use George W. Bush as an example. Wealth on both sides of his family for generations meant he never had any chance of economic failure, despite being a mediocre student and failed businessman. But, you say, there's Bill Gates. He fits into what the research found, too. His parents' status placed the family perhaps one or two levels from the top of the economic structure. That meant a home in an upper-middle class area, a father employed by a silk-stocking law firm and private school for the admittedly very bright Bill from kindergarten on. He can be credited with having made Microsoft a success, but relative wealth and power placed him the position to make the most of opportunity when it came knocking.

    Anthony, praising a minority (in your comment, African immigrants) in order to demean another (African-Americans) is one of the games people play whenever racial discrimination is discussed. But, it doesn't work. The comparison group one should look at when considering nonwhite immigrants' success or lack thereof is white Americans. If one does, one sees the pattern of racial discrimination repeated against nonwhite immigrants. Since immigrants tend to be better educated than the poor in America, and, middle-class when they arrive, they, obviously, have advantages over the homegrown poor and/or minority. But those advantages do not mean they achieve parity with white America. They still are 'taxed' for being the wrong color(s). Contrary to what you imply, their status relative to that of whites proves ongoing racial discrimination.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Jeff - First, I'm not what you would call a "conservative" - and I acknowledge that hard-core conservatives do tend to be so focused on individual responsibility to the point that they can fail to see that some people simply can't make it without help. I don't actually fit into any political category, which is why I'm a registered independant, but to sum up my beliefs on this issue, which for some reason I don't seem to have clearly explained (perhaps because of inaccurate assumptions on the part of those reading my posts?), I believe an a capitalist society that gives people opportunities (there's never a guarantee that people will take the opportunities they are given, though we should make every effort to teach them how to), protects people from unscrupulous and oppressive behavior on the part of government and business, helps those who need help, and lets people choose and pursue the lifestyle they want. Where I most disagree with you, and forgive me if I've misread you, is that you seem to be saying that people deserve wealth and success as a matter of course, regardless of whether they do what it takes to obtain it. I know several people who are successful and wealthy, and in every case it is because they had a good idea and worked their butts off to make it. Should this wealth somehow be an automatic thing that people should get, regardless of the choices they make in their lives or their natural abilities? In the job market, people with rare or advanced skills make more money. Would you change that, so that anyone who works at their highest personal level gets paid the same? I know many poor people, and in every case it is either a choice they have made to not work hard (I include drug/alcohol abusers in this category, though I support publicly funded treatment for them) or it is due to circumstances beyond their control, such as disability, lack of knowledge, abuse, discrimination, lack of skills or ability, etc. Those who choose not to help themselves and depend on others to take care of them DO deserve to be poor, and I don't feel sorry for them, though I'd be the first one to help them if they decided to get their lives pulled back together. I don't believe society should tolerate lazy leeches - if someone is satisfied to be poor because they're not motivated to do better, then that's their choice and I'm fine with that. But those who are poor due to disability of one kind or another or to other circumstances beyond their control deserve help and I absolutely support helping them. And I don't think it is a poor reflection on our society if some who simply are unable to attain a high level of skill or do a job that demands higher wages are unable to become wealthy. So long as working families and families unable to help themselves who are relying on public assistance are able to get three meals a day, a warm place to live, clothes on their back, and the other necessities of life, I think we are doing well as a society at taking care of the weakest among us. Having seen how things are in the rest of the world, it's not a bad life, and this idea that we innately deserve more just doesn't wash with me.

  • Terry (unverified)

    From "Unto This Last" by John Ruskin:

    "...Disputant after disputant vainly strives to show that the interests of the masters are, or are not, antagonistic to those of the men: none of the pleaders ever seeming to remember that it does not absolutely or always follow that the persons must be antagonistic because their interests are. If there is only a crust of bread in the house, and mother and children are starving, their interests are not the same. If the mother eats it, the children want it; if the children eat it, the mother must go hungry to her work. yet it does not necessarily follow that there will be “antagonism” between them, that they will fight for the crust, and that the mother, being strongest, will get it, and eat it. Neither, in any other case, whatever the relations of the persons may be, can it be assumed for certain that, because their interests are diverse, they must necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.

    Even if this were so, and it were as just as it is convenient to consider men as actuated by no other moral influences than those which affect rats or swine, the logical conditions of the question are still indeterminable. It can never be shown generally either that the interests of master and labourer are alike, or that they are opposed; for, according to circumstances, they may be either. It is, indeed, always the interest of both that the work should be rightly done, and a just price obtained for it; but, in the division of profits, the gain of the one may or may not be the loss of the other. It is not the master's interest to pay wages so low as to leave the men sickly and depressed, nor the workman's interest to be paid high wages if the smallness of the master's profit hinders him from enlarging his business, or conducting it in a safe and liberal way. A stoker ought not to desire high pay if the company is too poor to keep the engine-wheels in repair.

    And the varieties of circumstances which influence these reciprocal interests are so endless, that all endeavour to deduce rules of action from balance of expediency is in vain. And it is meant to be in vain. For no human actions ever were intended by the maker of men to be guided by balances of expediency, but by balances of justice..."

  • Nancy (unverified)

    Becky, I’ve been reading your postings. I so very totally agree with what you're saying.

    My father was raised dirt poor during the depression. One winter his father was very ill, his mother had 6 little kids at home, and they ran out of food and lived the winter eating the chicken feed--not realizing, of course, that the whole grains in the chicken feed were actually very nourishing! His father died not long after he graduated from high school. Dad worked his way through college with no help (partly using a Montgomery Ward scholarship that he had earned through door-to-door selling of the use of their mail order catalogue), earning his accounting degree through Berkeley (it wasn't liberal in those days!). Dad chose to go into business for himself with all the risks that involves because he could create jobs and be an asset to the community in which he lived--at a greater level as a business owner than he could have achieved doing accounting. During the course of his life he amassed some wealth and raised 8 children. But he was always the very first to help someone in need and to contribute to the community. He built the dump for the local town and maintained it for years. He put innumerable kids through school (I say innumerable because I don't think anyone knows how many, and I doubt that he remembered). One man is a millionaire today because of a loan from dad that dad never expected to have repaid. Others have been helped by his generosity. All this was because of choices he made. He worked long, hard hours in order to have the lifestyle he wanted and meet his obligations.

    Choices may not make you rich, but they can go an awfully long way toward keeping you comfortable! It's true that in our world, accidents happen. Sometimes even those who have made good choices have bad things happen. That's where society and welfare should step in--but not to make people have a life style equal to the rich, especially for those who are lazy or who make bad choices. I remember welfare buying my deadbeat cousin a color television in the days when my husband and I were just getting started. We couldn't even afford to buy a black and white one! We were digging ourselves out of the debt that ex-wife had left him in! But we did it. And we both have been successes. My husband because, after we were married, chose to get an education and work hard. I worked my way through college--and through 2 years of high school in a private school. I consider myself a success, too, though not financially. I've had an exceedingly rich life, taken care of my responsibilities, and done what I've chosen to do, worked where I've chosen to work. My priorities were not money. And I raised a pretty darned wonderful daughter.

    You can forget that Calvinistic thing referred to in one of the postings. Only Calvinists believe in pre-destination. The rest of the Christians believe that all of us are pre-destined to be saved--the price Christ paid on the cross was quite sufficient for the entire human race. But we also have the power of choice which was given us by God. We can chose not to accept that pre-destination and then we don't get it. Just as we can chose not to accept our responsibilities to care for ourselves and then we don't have things. I chose my lifestyle and I take the responsibility for dealing with the things that have happened to me, not all of them my fault but all of them my responsibility. I can look the world square in the face and say, "You don't owe me anything," and I'm not the least jealous of those who have more for whatever reason. They've paid the price, even those who inherited their money. (Frankly, I don't consider President Bush a failure--and his IQ is higher than John Kerry's who got wealthy by marrying into wealth--twice! But that's another argument.)

    Anyway, good job, Becky.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Mac Diva,

    Using racism as a sufficient explanation for disparities of performance is another game people play. If Asian and Asian-American students outperform Whites, is that proof that there’s racial discrimination against Whites?

    I haven’t denied that racial discrimination exists, and I used an example that involved the same race. That example came from memory of having read on more than one occasion that comparable groups of native American Blacks and immigrants of African ancestry don’t perform equally. I’m open to considering evidence to the contrary. Whatever the case, I’m not aiming to “demean” a minority group.

    My understanding is that what is euphemistically called single parenthood is an extremely important indicator of performance later in life. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it also has a high correlation to poverty. But poverty is far from an exhaustive explanation of performance, even when combined with racial discrimination (which is extremely hard to measure). Is there a constant correlation of income to attitudes toward work and education? Of course not. For example, low-income white people tend to have a worse work ethic than Central American immigrants in a similar income bracket. Is racial discrimination the cause of Black students being accused of “acting White” if they take their studies seriously? Of course not.

    Can such attitudes be related to social problems with a more proximate connection to racial discrimination and slavery? Sure, but it’s a futile exercise obsess on that increasingly tenuous connection when energy ought to be expended in ways that are more likely to improve people’s lives.


    I've never heard a conservative argue for "socio-economic Darwinism." That idea is repugnant to the conservatives I know. I might agree with you that many conservatives overestimate what effort will likely gain you in this society, but I think Becky's view is very common among conservatives, if I can digest it: effort may not be sufficient, but it sure is necessary, and those making the effort have little patience for the complaints of those not making the effort, whether those complaints are made by those people themselves or their advocates.

  • Randy S (unverified)


    "What I don't believe in is coddling those who CAN help themselves but don't want to"

    Perhaps, dear Becky, we simply share different views of the role of government.

    Is is coddling to mandate a minimum wage sufficent so a working single mother can afford to work and to have decent child care?

    Is is coddling to keep the promises of decades of Social Security contributions made to those who are approaching (or in) the age when they physically can no longer work to earn enough to pay rent, food and meds?

    You say you believe in a safety net, yet don't define what that net is (in your view) or should be.

    I believe our society should first agree on what the safety net should be (medical care, retirement, education, and many others) and then go about paying for it instead of deciding how much we should pay and then figuring out what can be provided with the revenue.

    I don't know how "rugged individualists" can be turned to "compassionate communitarians", but until we agree on what government should be doing policy-wise, the individualists will continue to think that every single example of government "coddling" justifies hewing to a "sink or swim" attitude towards the social compact.

  • Nancy (unverified)

    Randy, I have to say that Social Security is something most recipients have earned--an enforced savings account, if you will. Those who have paid into it should be able to receive out of it. The basic payments certainly should not be considered government welfare.

    Welfare, on the other hand, should be a helping hand up out of an unfortunate situation, not a way of life as though the government and the wealthy or the comfortable have "deep pockets" and it's my right to dig into those pockets. For too many it has become a way of life, an entitlement for some reason. That's what has to change: the attitude that somehow society and the wealthy owe people something. They don't.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Everybody who benefits from the protections and opportunities of civil society owe something back in return. That can include some measure of assistance to those who need it. Samuel Johnson - a Tory - said in the 18th Century, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization... The condition of the lower order, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination."

    That means a willingness to help those who can't help themselves. But there needs to balance needs to be struck between duties and entitlements. As there's an expectation on the productive to help, those who could be productive and aren't are culpable.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Randy S. - You asked what I think of the minimum wage and Social Security. Let me be clear. Despite the fact that conservatives around me disagree heartily, I think the minimum wage is a good thing, a form of protection for those who are willing and able to work but have little to offer in the marketplace. It should be set at a level that people can obtain the basic necessities. I think it's fair right now, because if it gets pushed higher more jobs will be outsourced so businesses can continue to compete in the marketplace, which I find repugnant on so many levels. As for Social Security, I think the President should keep his hands off it and Congress should keep their hands out of it. If we had never raided SS funds, the system would be much better off. What do I think a safety net is? What we had until recent cuts, with better oversight, and more funding to protect the mentally ill to keep them off the street. I may be mostly conservative in my head, but I'm liberal at heart. And I absolutely believe that the problems we are facing in this area are entirely due to individuals who have been motivated by power and greed preying on the public's anger at individuals who have taken advantage of our generosity as a society.

    <h2>You have a problem with my term "coddling." I think it is coddling to publish and disseminate biased (whether intentionally or unintentionally) reports that create an excuse for people who could succeed but haven't done what is necessary to succeed. It allows them to transfer their anger at themselves for not doing what they know they should do onto those filthy rich people who they can now believe have somehow held them down and prevented their success.</h2>

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