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.”

The Landlord’s Game

monopoly

“Buy land – they aren’t making it anymore.”

Mark Twain

You know how Monopoly games never end? A group of academicians wanted to know why. Here’s an article about them, and here’s their write-up. Their conclusion? Statistically, a game of Monopoly played casually (without strategy) could in fact go on forever.

I once played a game that actually ended. I had a strategy:  buy everything you land on, build houses and hotels as fast as possible, and always mortgage everything to the hilt to finance acquisition and expansion. I got down to my last five dollars before I bankrupted everybody else. It only took a couple hours. Okay, so the other players were my kids. Some example I am. Whatever economic lessons we might have gained from the experience, they certainly weren’t what the game’s creator had in mind.

While Andrew Carnegie and friends were getting rich building American infrastructure, industry, and institutions, American society was experiencing a clash between the new rich and those still living in poverty. In 1879, economist Henry George proposed a resolution in his book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy.

“Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighborhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.”

From “Monopoly Was Invented To Demonstrate The Evils Of Capitalism,by new economist Kate Raworth.[1]

George’s book eventually reached the hands of Elizabeth Magie, the daughter of newspaperman James Magie and a social change rabble-rouser in her own right. Influenced by her father’s politics and Henry George’s vision, she created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and gave it two sets of rules, intending for it to be an economic learning experience. Again quoting from Ms. Raworth’s article:

“Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

“The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes.

“The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

“Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.”

“Chase wealth and crush your opponents” — that was my winning Monopoly strategy. It requires a shift away from the labor economy — selling things workers make or services they provide — to the rentier economy — owning assets you can charge other people to access and use. The scarcer the assets, the more you can charge. Scarcity can be natural, as is the case with land, or it can be artificial, the result of the kind of “regressive regulation” we looked at last time, that limits access to capital markets, protects intellectual property, bars entry to the professions, and concentrates high-end land development through zoning and land use restrictions.

Artificial scarcity can also be the result of cultural belief systems –such as those that underlie the kind of stuff that shows up in your LinkedIn and Facebook feeds:  “7 Ways to Get Rich in Rental Real Estate” or “How to Create a Passive Income From Book Sales and Webinars.” In fact, it seems our brains are so habitually immersed in Monopoly thinking that proposals such as Henry George’s land ownership  tax — or its current equivalents such as superstar economist Thomas Piketty’s wealth tax, Harvard law and ethics professor Lawrence Lessig’s notions of a creative commons, or the widely-studied and broadly-endorsed “universal basic income” — are generally tossed off as hopelessly idealistic and out of touch.

More to come.

[1] Kate Raworth holds positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. We previously looked at her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist  (2017).

Monopoly: The Ultimate in Upward Mobility

monopoly

The Horatio Alger rags-to-riches ideal was born in the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. A century and a half later, it remains an enduring icon of the American Dream and still makes for inspiring stump speeches.

If only it were true.

Truth is, something more powerful than pluck fueled the Robber Barons, and continues to fuel today’s Meristocrats and Robber Nerds. Yes, things like ingenuity, vision, determination, and hard work have had a lot to do with it, both historically and currently, but the essential element for creating mega-companies (sometimes whole new industries) and staggering personal wealth has been none other than government policy, which by definition favors selected economic activities over others.

A trio of distinguished economics and political science professors[1] provide one of the more provocative summaries of this economic reality in their book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009). Harvard sociologist Steven Pinker described it this way: [2]

“The economists Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast argue that the most natural way for states to function, both in history and in many parts of the world today, is for elites to agree not to plunder and kill each other, in exchange for which they are awarded a fief, franchise, charter, monopoly, turf, or patronage network that allows them to control some sector of the economy and live off the rents (in the economist’s sense of income extracted from exclusive access to a resource).”

Medici

This practice is sometimes called the “Medici Cycle,” after the famous Florentines:

“In Towards a Political Theory of the Firm, [ Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business] theorizes that firms use their economic power to acquire political power. They then apply that political power to achieve greater economic gains, which in turn helps them acquire ever more political power. It’s a cycle Zingales likens to the Medici dynasty of 15th-century Florence, Italy. The Medicis leveraged their lending relationships with the Roman Catholic Church into considerable political influence in Renaissance Europe.”[3]

As an example, consider how Andrew Carnegie made his money:

“The competitive strategy of the steelmakers in 1875 was simple:  Collude and fix prices…. Carnegie was invited to join the newly formed Bessemer Steel Association. The association was a cartel, and in the days before antitrust laws, completely legal. Rather than compete tooth and nail for every bit of railroad business, it made far more sense for the steelmakers to establish quotas to limit the total supply in the market. By agreement, each firm was to produce its quota and sell into the market at agreed-upon prices.” [4]

The upside is that Medici Cycle government policies have supported all kinds of timely innovation and inventions, social and cultural trends, and quality of life improvements. The downside is what happens when monopolistic are allowed to go unchecked for too long. Researching this article, I came across several recent expressions of concern that this is happening on many levels in the current U.S. economy:

1)         In their book  The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality (2017), Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles[5] describe their concern with  “regressive regulation” — monopoly-perpetuating policies — especially these four types:

  • “subsidies for financial institutions that lead to too much risk-taking in both borrowing and lending;
  • excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law;
  • the protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; and
  • artificial housing scarcity created by land-use regulations.”

2)         Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute issued a 2015 report that lists numerous government policies that support or deter monopoly. You can download the full report here or read a Business Insider article published earlier this month that serves as a sort of executive summary of the report, and also brought it up to date:  Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz Says The US Has A Major Monopoly Problem.

3)         This recent article from The Institute For New Economic Thinking describes the derivative problem of “monopsony”:

“Center stage in the meeting of the Federal Research Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson, Wyoming this August was a discussion of the repercussions of having a small number of companies dominating the labor markets where they hire workers–what economists call ‘monopsony.’”

In a nutshell, the problem with monopsony is that, “When a small group of companies can dominate a labor market, wages—and workers—suffer.”

4)         Finally, state-supported monopoly is also evident in the current “rentier economy,” which, as the Steven Pinker quote above indicates, is the result of government policy that grants “exclusive access to a resource.” This is another instance of “regressive regulation.”

We’ll be looking more at the rentier economy in the weeks to come. But first, next week we’ll find out about a surprising twist in the original version of the Monopoly board game. In the meantime, you might enjoy my latest LinkedIn Pulse article The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.

[1] Douglass C. North is co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He is Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St Louis and Bartlett Burnap Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Barry R. Weingast is Ward C. Krebs Family Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. John Joseph Wallis is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[2] As described in Enlightenment Now:  The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker (2018).

[3] From this post on the CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor blog.

[4] From Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017). I’m not the only one who didn’t learn about this in my American history class. See this interview with the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

[5] The authors combine for one of the more unique economic collaborations I’ve come across in my research They’re a pair of political science professors at Johns Hopkins University who are also associated with the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. Brink Lindsey is a libertarian, so no surprise there, but Steven M. Teles is a liberal, and together they offer an mix of perspectives that provides heartening evidence that not everyone of conflicting persuasions is so entirely polarized that they can’t tlk to each other or agree about anything.

The Pledge

andrew carnegie

19th Century Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie was (a) more than okay with the right to make as much money as you want; but he (b) was not okay with spending it any old way you like. He had some very specific notions about the latter:[1]

“By the late 1880s, Carnegie’s place as one of the wealthiest men in the United States was cemented… With the time afforded him as the controlling shareholder, Carnegie put forth theories on capitalism. the human condition, and the American Republic. In 1889, Carnegie wrote an article simply titled “Wealth” — it would soon become known as “Gospel of Wealth….” In it he offered an unapologetic defense of the system that enabled great wealth such as his.

“[Carnegie believed that] the price for… material progress — ‘cheap comforts and luxuries’ — was great wealth inequality… Any thinking person, Carnegie surmised, would conclude ‘that upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends — the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.’ But his defense of capitalism was a setup for a most startling conclusion.

“In the article Carnegie argued that the greatest of men, capitalists, should be unencumbered to accumulate wealth. But once great wealth was achieved, these men should, during their lifetimes, give it away. As the possession of wealth was proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability, it made little sense that it should be bequeathed to descendants. Inherited wealth would undermine the argument that those with wealth earned it, deserved it.

“Next, he held that if men waited until death to give the money away, less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned. While Carnegie viewed wealth as a symbol of intellectual mastery, the actual possession of it should be considered only a trust fund, with ‘the man of great wealth becoming mere trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could for themselves. The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.’

“Carnegie was hailed by newspapers, socialists, workingmen, and, more discreetly, even his fellow capitalists… for such enlightened views.”

Carnegie’s legacy of endowments endures to this day. (I have clear childhood memories of our small town Carnegie library.) Carnegie’s fellow Robber Barons created similarly enduring legacies, such as those reflected in the following names:  Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Ezra Cornell, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and James Duke.

Carnegie’s philosophy also endures today. albeit expressed in terms  more in tune with the ethos of our times. Consider, for example, the Giving Pledge, formed “in an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.”

As of May 2018, 183 individuals or couples from 22 countries had taken the pledge, representing total net worth closing in on a trillion dollars. Some of the Pledgers are household names; most aren’t. I randomly clicked several of their photos on the Giving Pledge home page, which takes you to their statements about  why they took the pledge. Noticeably absent is Carnegie’s belief that capitalists are “that the greatest of men,” that “the possession of wealth [is] proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability,” or that wealth is a “symbol of intellectual mastery.” Nor is there an expressed fear that “less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned.” Instead, there’s a certain humility to many of the statements:  they often mention lessons learned from forebears or other role models, and often express gratitude for having been “blessed” or gotten lucky, such as this one:

“Allow me to start by saying that I am not sure I am a worthy member of this group of extraordinary individuals. I consider that I have been lucky in life.”

Other predominant themes in the statements are (a) a recognition that attaining great wealth is not solely a matter of rugged individualism, but that cultural and historical context deserve a lot of credit, and (b) a belief that giving back is a way to honor this reality. I.e., wealth made possible by historical and cultural circumstance ought to benefit all members of that culture, including the most needy. As it turns out, this isn’t just a kind-hearted philosophy of life, it’s a statement of the economic terms upon which much wealth has in fact been created and in the past and continues to be created today.

State-sponsored policies that favor timely and innovative ideas and technologies represent a significant type of societal support for wealth creation . We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan, (2017).

Meet the New Boss

Same as the old boss.

– The Who

Commentary about economic inequality often compares the situation today to America’s Gilded Age. Back then they had the Robber Barons. Now we have the Robber Nerds. Same dif? It depends who you ask.

A quick check of a list of the Robber Barons on Wikipedia reveals the names of several household brand names that still endure, plus numerous key universities and charities. And this article from a European source — The Truth About the Robber Barons from the Mises Institute ( “30 Years of Austrian Economics, Freedom, & Peace”) — says don’t be too hasty to condemn:

“The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often referred to as the time of the ‘robber barons.’ It is a staple of history books to attach this derogatory phrase to such figures as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the great nineteenth-century railroad operators — Grenville Dodge, Leland Stanford, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and others. To most historians writing on this period, these entrepreneurs committed thinly veiled acts of larceny to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers. Once again we see the image of the greedy, exploitative capitalist, but in many cases this is a distortion of the truth.”

For more, consider the following articles, whose titles telegraph whose side they’re on. but they’re all worth reading:

Seven Myths about the Great Philanthropists:  The turn of the 20th century was a golden age of American philanthropy. It deserves to be better understood.  The Philanthropy Roundtable (2011).

The Robber Barons Weren’t Robbers. Here’s Why. The Learn Liberty project of George Mason University (2017).

Robber Barons. Economists View (2007, reprinting a 1998 article).

The Dark Side of the Gilded Age. The Atlantic (2007)

The Myth of America’s Golden Age. Politico Magazine (2014)

On the lighter side, see P.J. O’Rourke’s Up To a Point: Robber Barons Make Way For Robber Nerds. Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan: This country used to produce impressive if immoral captains of industry. Now we’re stuck with unrefined geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. The Daily Beast (2014).

One thing seems to be consistent in all these commentaries:  both then and now. soaring wealth for the haves and a commensurate decline for the have-nots occurred in a capitalistic, market-based economy. A second key point gets less consensus:  whether the Barons benefited then and the Nerds are benefiting now from government policy and financial subsidies (including tax breaks in our day) — i.e., whether the economy was then and is now truly a free market.

Satisfy yourself, but at this point, after examining far more sources than I can cite in a blog post of this length, and having interviewed a couple free market champion friends of mine, I can comfortably say, as they did, “There never has been a free market.” Instead, what we had then and what we have now was and is a skewed version of capitalism — a perfect political and economic storm that made economic inequality possible back in the Gilded Age and makes it possible again today. This is the missing piece that Econ 101 and its simplistic supply/demand curves doesn’t provide.

The result in both eras has been a new class system that morphs the Horatio Alger ideal into a Great Gatsby reality. When the new class system hits the job marketplace, the result is a vast worldwide demographic of the Angry Left Behind — unhappy, disillusioned, dissatisfied, depressed, and even suicidal workers suffering from meaning malaise. What bothers them is often equated to the same anger that has fueled worldwide political shifts such as Brexit, Trumpism, the move to the right in Germany and France, and a whole lot more. (See for example No Job Left Behind and Back to Work, and countless more initiatives and opinions like them.)

When the subject of economic inequality invokes those kinds of inflammatory developments, it’s no wonder we don’t want to talk about it. Which is precisely what we’ll continue to do, right here.  Stay tuned.

meet the new bossHere’s the original music video of The Who’s We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here

And who first called the Robber Barons era the “Gilded Age”? Find out here.