by David Moberg
In These Times. Posted June 30,
Belief in the myth of the self-made man
has made many ordinary people suckers for the right-wing pitch.
The myth of the self-made man is American
culture's own special heart of darkness, helping to explain both
its infectious optimism and ruthless greed.
The idea holds enough truth and seductiveness
to make it easy to forget its delusional dangers. To reprise Marx's
famous formulation, individuals, like humankind, do make their
own personal history, but not under conditions they choose. But
in America, we choose to ignore the caveat about conditions at
The myth, or belief, that people are solely
what they make of themselves is useful to keep in mind while reading
two ongoing series: the New York Times' on class and the
Wall Street Journal's on social mobility. Both focus attention
on a truth about American society that runs counter to most people's
deep-seated beliefs: There is less social mobility in the United
States now than in the '80s (and less then than in the '70s) and
less mobility than in many other industrial countries, including
Canada, Finland, Sweden and Germany.
Yet 40 percent of respondents to a Times
poll said that there was a greater chance to move up from one
class to another now than 30 years ago, and 46 percent said it
was easier to do so in the United States than in Europe.
Although the news about social mobility
has not been widely reported, it is generally recognized that
inequality has grown over the past thirty years. The Times
series highlights how much the super-rich have made out like,
While the real income of the bottom 90
percent of Americans fell from 1980 to 2002, the income of the
top 0.1 percent--making $1.6 million or more--went up two and
a half times in real terms before taxes. With the help of the
Bush tax cuts, the gap between the super-rich and everyone else
grew even larger.
The American people accept this, it is
argued, because they think not only that there's more social mobility
than there is, but also that they'll personally get rich. Indeed,
a poll in 2000 indicated that 39 percent of Americans thought
they were either in the wealthiest one percent or would be "soon."
The Times poll was slightly less exuberant: 11 percent
thought it was very likely they would become wealthy, another
34 percent somewhat likely.
"It is okay to have ever-greater
differences between rich and poor, [Americans] seem to believe,"
David Wessel wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "as
long as their children have a good chance of grasping the brass
This view is problematic. First, the greater
the inequality, the less likely the possibility of mobility. Increased
inequality worsens the large disparities in resources that families
can devote to education -- resources that are increasingly important
for both entering many careers and for social mobility. A college
degree, it should be stressed, is important not just because of
the knowledge acquired, but because college serves as a class-biased
sorting mechanism for entry to certain jobs. In contrast, the
record suggests that countries with greater equality also have
greater mobility. Substantive equality creates more equality of
But even if there were mobility, such
inequality would be problematic. Is it fair that society's wealth
be divided so unevenly? Isn't there a decent standard of living
-- rising as economies become wealthier -- to which everyone who
"works hard and plays by the rules," in the Clintonian
formulation, should be entitled? Great social disparity means
that the financially well-off use their money and greater political
leverage to protect their privilege rather than to design policies
for the common good.
In defense of the rich getting richer,
former Bush economic advisor Gregory Mankiw wrote in response
to the Times series that the richest increased their share
when the economy boomed; so if we want prosperity, let the plutocrats
prosper. But the economy grew faster in the first three decades
after World War II when equality was increasing than in the next
three decades when equality was decreasing. In any case, if the
income from growth is captured by the very rich, as it largely
has been for a couple decades, this path to prosperity offers
little to most people.
Also, with high inequality, even the
pretense of community declines, social conflict increases and
society functions more poorly. Individual mobility is not the
only way to improve one's lot. Social solidarity and working together
can improve everyone's lot.
This brings us back to the self-made man.
It becomes clear, as the Times series is titled, that "class
matters," just as race, gender and other accidents of history
matter. The social class into which someone is born largely defines
one's class as an adult, and both make a difference in how healthy
or how long-lived the person will be, especially in the absence
of universal health insurance. It influences access to education
and to jobs.
The myth of the self-made person, however,
encourages the person who succeeds to think his good fortune is
due entirely to his work and genius. For this reason businessmen
in the United States have historically been more anti-union and
hostile to government than their counterparts in Europe. And the
myth makes those who fail blame themselves.
According to recent polls, American workers
-- worried more about job insecurity, rising costs of education,
health care expenses, the availability of insurance, pension failures
and social security privatization -- are increasingly looking
for stronger social action to provide security. They are deeply
skeptical about the globalization that has increased inequality
and insecurity. Like the French vote on the European Union constitution,
a U.S. referendum on globalization might well divide along class
lines. The irony is that taking responsibility as a society to
guarantee more stability and equality -- by regulating the global
economy and establishing universal guarantees of health care,
education, and retirement security -- can provide citizens with
more individual freedom.
For now, the realm of freedom for most
Americans remains constricted to the shopping mall, where they
can buy their identities. Both the Journal and Times
point to the rapid growth of personal credit as one way that Americans
have continued to buy while earnings have stagnated. Former United
Auto Workers official Frank Joyce even sees the rise of credit
cards as undermining workers' interest in unions. Income, earned
or borrowed, obviously greatly differentiates people's lives,
even if a working class consumer can only indulge in a box of
luxury chocolates or sub-luxury car. And the growing differences
in income are exacerbated by growing but unmeasured differences
in health insurance, as well as various business perks such as
free cars or expense accounts.
But the focus on income ignores the even
greater inequalities of wealth. Wealth provides security. As the
Times series points out, the better-off consistently talk
of making choices while working class individuals talk about feeling
trapped. Kids from wealthy families can take unpaid internships,
spend a year abroad or experiment with careers; kids from working
class families are likely to stick with a summer job that pays
the bills and provides health insurance, thus failing to finish
More important, wealth and class are issues
of power. Aaron Kemp, who lost his job when Maytag shifted production
from Illinois to Mexico and Korea (see "Maytag Moves to Mexico,"
January 17), remarked, "I never remember even thinking about
what class I was in until after the plant closing announcement
and layoff. And then you begin to think about what class you're
in." Rather than manners or fashion, class ultimately has
more to do with who has the power to make such decisions and the
powerlessness of the majority. These crucial aspects of class--social,
political and economic power--have been missing from the series.
It might have been good for the Times
to run an excerpt of Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro's new book,
Death by a Thousand Cuts. It recounts how the super-rich
worked with ultra-conservatives to demonize and possibly eliminate
the estate tax, which they renamed the "death tax."
As William Gates, Sr., father of Microsoft Bill, often argued
on behalf of the tax, the very rich accumulate their wealth not
simply because of what they did but because of the society in
which they lived, and they have a debt to that society. And the
heirs of such wealth are the antithesis of self-made men.
The rich used their political power, their
money and the right's shameless, mendacious hucksters to protect
their riches, at the expense of society. But belief in the myth
of the self-made man--abetted by the feckless incompetence of
Democratic opposition--made many ordinary people suckers for the
right-wing pitch. Class matters, but so does consciousness of
class. That's another, longer story.
David Moberg is a senior editor of
In These Times.
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