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.”

Progressive Capitalism

torn dollar bill

Torn dollar bill image source and license.

We’ve been looking at economic winners and losers in the zero-sum economy — particularly in the context of higher education, where cultural belief in the importance of college and post-graduate degrees on upward mobility and success in the job market is driving behavior that harms both parents (the college admissions scandal) and the economic and mental health of their children (student loan debt, general anxiety disorder, depression, suicide).

This series of blog posts is now in its third year — throughout, we’ve seen how hyper-competitive capitalism and its staunch faith in the implicit justice of the “free” market is causing other economic loses. For example:

  • the stagnation of middle class real incomes;
  • the rise of the numbers of statistically poor people in the U.S.;
  • the dismantling of compassionate social safety nets in favor of expensive, counterproductive, and humiliating replacements;
  • the rise of the “rentier” economy in which formerly public benefits have been privatized, making them accessible only to those who can afford them through the payment of economic “rents”;
  • the end of the American ideal of upward social and economic mobility;
  • the high cost of housing and the death of the American dream of home ownership;
  • the elimination of “normal” jobs through off-shoring, outsourcing, and the delegation of productivity to intelligent machines;
  • the advent of the short-term, contract-based “gig economy” with its lack of fringe benefits and its precarious prospects for sustainable income;
  • economic inequality that favors the wealthiest of capitalists at the expense of the bottom 90% (or 99%, or 99.9%, depending on your data and point of view);
  • the creation instead of an insular top-level “meritocrat” socio-economic class;
  • the new state of “total work” and the “monetization” of goods and services;
  • rising rates of career burnout, mental illness, and suicide resulting from social isolation and the vain struggle to find meaning and purpose at work;
  • the rise of corporate nation-states with economic and policy-making power that dwarfs that of many governmental nation-states;
  • the private (non-democratic) social policy-making initiatives of the wealthiest elites;
  • and much, much more.

Nobody meant economic policy to do this, but it has, for roughly the past 30-40 years. Good intentions; unplanned results.

We’ve seen that both plutocrats and progressives advocate for systemic change, while status quo inertia weighs in on the side of those who don’t see what all the fuss is about, since capitalism is undeniably the best economic option and always has been, and besides it’s still working just fine, thank you very much. Instead of meaningful discourse, we have a predominant nostalgic, populist doubling down on the neoliberal socio-economic cultural ideology that jet-propelled post-WWII recovery but finished running its course in the 1970s, while the retrenchers and the media slap those who beg to differ with the kiss-of-death label “progressive.” As a result, we’re left with incessant lobbing from one end of the polarized spectrum to the other of ideological bombs that originate in data and analysis skewed by cognitive biases, intentional blindness, and fake news . Economic policy-making resembles WWI trench warfare — a tactical grinding down of the opposition and the numbing and dumbing of everyone else. It was a bad idea then, and it’s still a bad idea now.

I had no idea this is what I was getting into when I decided three years ago to research and write about the new economy and the future of work.

It’s in the context of this toxic environment that Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, offered his “progressive capitalism” alternative, based on “the power of the market to serve society.” Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019). His article, like virtually all of the economics books and articles I read these days, begins with a long parade of evils and ends with a handful of policy ideas. His version of the former is by now quite familiar:

“Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years.

“This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

“We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking).

“Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities.

“Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.

“Politics has played a big role in the increase in corporate rent-seeking and the accompanying inequality.

“Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured by rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations must be enforced.

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.

“If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans.

“The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society.

“Progressive capitalism is based on a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.

“Part of this new social contract is an expanded public option for many programs now provided by private entities or not at all

“This new social contract will enable most Americans to once again have a middle-class life.

“The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest.

“America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people.”

His point seems to be that merely reciting litanies of economic woes won’t bring about systemic relief — for that, we need to embrace an essential factor:

Paradigms only shift when culture  shifts:
new ideas require new culture to receive them,
and new culture requires new belief systems.

Systemic change requires cultural change — remodeled institutions and revised social contracts that tether ideas to real life. Trying to patch policy ideas into the existing socio-economic system is like what would happen if a firm were to abruptly change its products, services, and strategic and marketing plans without bothering to change its mission statement, values and beliefs, and firm culture.

Like that’s going to work.

Coming up, we’ll look beyond policy bombs to the higher ground of revised cultural beliefs, starting with next week’s search for the “public” that’s gone missing from the Republic.

What’s With Student Loans?

obama state of the union 2013

“It’s a simple fact:  The more education you’ve got,
the more likely you are to have a good job
and work your way into the middle class.”

2013 State of the Union Address

President Obama was repeating an enduring cultural belief. Maybe it was still true when he said it, but not anymore — for a lot of reasons we’ve looked at throughout this series, but especially in light of today’s social and economic calamity of soaring higher education costs and student loans.[1]

student debt graph

Chart from Next Gen Personal Finance (May 30, 2015)

Student debt grew steadily 2000-2014. Toward the end of that period, a revenue provision tacked onto the 2010 Affordable Care Act gave the Federal government a monopoly on the student loan business. Since then, total loans have risen exponentially — by 50%, to $1.52 Trillion.

Nationalizing student debt has been a government money-maker, in terms of both capital and income:

“The trillion plus in student debt that the state holds makes up a plurality of its financial assets — 37 percent, far more than national reserves officially held in gold or foreign currency.

“Because the government’s borrowing costs are so low, student lending is incredibly profitable. The Department of Education expects to reap $18.99 in profit on evert $100 in loans originated in 2014… and we’re talking over $25 billion in projected negative subsidy — that is, profit — off the 2014 cohort alone.”[2]

Kids These Days: The Making Of Millennials, Malcolm Harris (2017)

Meanwhile, educational costs have also soared.

educational costs

Tuition data from National Center for Education Statistics. Inflation data calculated using 1963–1964 tuition and tuition increase at rate of inflation from CPI Inflation Calculator. Graph by Noa Maltzman

Today, average undergraduate loans are $30,000. Paying them off represents a 21-year mortgage. What’s the ROI from the students’ point of view? Answering that question requires examining (1) the loans themselves — how they’re originated, paid off, etc., (2) what higher education is doing with the loan proceeds students are handing over, and (3) the cultural belief Pres. Obama articulated. For all of that, I refer you to the book Kids These Days, cited above, and to a 70-minute film Broke, Busted, and Disgusted, which I just watched.[3]

What’s to be done? The remedies in the film are prospective — they’re too late for the $1.52 Trillion already in place. Going forward? Well, it is an issue in the election coming up — at least for the Democrats — and here are summaries of candidate proposals:

Writing this makes me revisit my own experience with student loans and the cost of higher education.

I went to an expensive private college. My financial aid package included scholarships, work study, and student loans. I paid off the loans in five years. The relief was tangible. I vowed never again.

My financial aid package at DU’s MBA/JD program included scholarships and student loans. I declined the loans and worked a lot, sometimes full time. I made it through the first three years without loans and would have finished that way. An accountant friend told me I was crazy — it was cheap money. I took out a loan my fourth year. I paid it off in six years. The relief was tangible. I vowed never again.

In 2009, just after the Great Recession and an ill-timed, ill-advised, and poorly executed exit from law practice, I was short of funds to pay for two of my kids’ final years at expensive private colleges (they’re two years apart in age, but their final years coincided). I took out $30.000 in “parent plus” loans to make up the difference. I declared bankruptcy the following year, and found out student loans hadn’t been dischargeable since 2005.

In 2013, as part of an attempt at mid-life reinvention, I was accepted into a graduate program in sports psychology at DU. There was no way to pay for it other than student loans. I decided not to attend. The relief was tangible. Lesson learned.

In 2016, I qualified for disability income. I used most of my back-pay award to pay off my parent-plus loans. The relief was tangible. Lesson learned. I vowed never again.

It’s easy for me to feel entirely responsible for my own history. But as for today’s reality, as a young friend said recently, “I’m starting to believe it’s not all my fault.” Coming up, we’ll look at more economic support for that thought.

[1] As I write this, the headlines today show Felicity Huffman entering prison for her role in the college admissions scandal.

[2] Citing Department of Education Student Loans Overview Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Proposal. Click here for the 2020 numbers

[3] Of course the documentary has an agenda, but it’s well-done and worth watching.

The Zero-Sum Economy [2]  Meet the Winners

The House Always Wins

We met the zero-sum economy losers last time. Let’s meet the winners this week.

The winners are the best of the best and have the best of the best in cultural, logistical, financial, and other kinds of support. They were tapped for economic competition before preschool. They’ve been groomed for it all their lives. But they pay a ridiculous price — the stress of training and competing is unreal. And when it’s time for college and beyond, only a handful stand on the podium. No wonder their ascent has been tainted with scandal

They’re the children of the new Meritocrats — the economic top 1%. They complete in the X Games of economic competition, and it’s killing them. That description is from Yale law professor Daniel Markovits — a Meritocrat himself, and the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (just out, on Sept. 10, 2019).  Prof. Markovits previewed his book in a recent article that begins as follows:

“Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.

“Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

“Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

“Public anger over economic inequality frequently targets meritocratic institutions. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans believe that colleges and universities are bad for America, according to the Pew Research Center. The intense and widespread fury generated by the college-admissions scandal early this year tapped into a deep and broad well of resentment. This anger is warranted but also distorting. Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

“But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

“No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important. Diagnosing how meritocracy hurts elites kindles hope for a cure. We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.”

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition:  Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out (The Atlantic, Sept. 2019).

The rest of the article details the lives of the winners, and is well worth reading. (For a long and thoughtful critique of the book, see this NewYorker article.)

Next time, we’ll look further into “escaping the meritocracy trap.”

Homo Economicus [3]: Capitalism For Capitalists

homo economicus

Homo Economicus is alive and well where capitalism and capitalists are prospering  most:  in the USA. We know that because U.S. GDP is going up, and has been since the 2007-2008 financial crash, That’s the perspective of this Bloomberg piece:  Capitalism Is Working in the U.S.: From Warren Buffett to Jeff Bezos, today’s American capitalists are proving Adam Smith’s claim that free markets produce investment and growth (Nov., 2018)

“So where is capitalism succeeding in a world roiled by kleptocrats, simmering trade wars, and the xenophobia that inspired Brexit? That would be the U.S.

“American free enterprise is achieving the greatest growth in the developed world, posting annual gross domestic product gains since 2009. Within just eight years of the global financial crisis, the U.S. was the only non-emerging-market economy with record GDP. The nation’s growth has exceeded the Group of Eight leading industrial countries’ average every year since 2012, a trend that economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast to continue through 2020.”

Bloomberg is bullish on American capitalism, but the Nobel prizewinning economist who created the concept of GDP had his reservations about its proper use:

“GDP’s inventor Simon Kuznets was adamant that his measure had nothing to do with wellbeing. But too often we confuse the two… If something has to be sacrificed to get GDP growth moving, whether it be clean air, public services, or equality of opportunity, then so be it.”

“GDP is how we rank countries and judge their performance. It is the denominator of choice. It determines how much a country can borrow and at what rate. But GDP is well past its sell-by date, as people are starting to realise. However brilliant the concept, a measure that was invented in the manufacturing age as a means of fighting the Depression is becoming less and less capable of imparting sensible signals about complex modern economies.

5 Ways GDP Gets It Totally Wrong As A Measure Of Our Success, World Economic Forum (Jan. 17, 2018)

The ideological clash between the two articles cited above couldn’t be more striking.

The Bloomberg’s article extols capitalism as a “moral force” to match the American Revolution:

“The founder of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the same year 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. It remains the most referenced guide to prosperity because of its moral force: Smith said the freest markets are led by an invisible hand benefiting everyone, not just the individuals and companies motivated by their own profit.”

The article then lauds the big capitalist growth winners — Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Facebook, Amazon, Paypal, Apple, etc. — singling out Musk for special praise, saying “[Adam] Smith would relish the example of Musk,” who “might be the archetype of Smith’s capitalist,” despite his having to “give up his position as Tesla chairman and pay a $20 million fine to settle fraud charges.”

Finally, after a few paragraphs acknowledging there’s still work to be done, the article soars to a grand finale that quotes Abe Lincoln on upward mobility:

“Quoting Lincoln in her summer 2010 Marquette Law Review essay, Heather Cox Richardson wrote: “A healthy American society worked so that ‘[t]he prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.’ This was the idea behind free labor, ‘the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.’ ”

By contrast, the World Economic Forum article is having none of Bloomberg’s enthusiasm:

“GDP is a gross number. It is the sum total of everything we produce over a given period. It includes cars built, Beethoven symphonies played and broadband connections made. But it also counts plastic waste bobbing in the ocean, burglar alarms and petrol consumed while stuck in traffic.

“Kuznets was uneasy about a measure that treated all production equally. He wanted to subtract, rather than add, things he considered detrimental to human wellbeing, such as arms, financial speculation and advertising. You may disagree with his priorities. The point is that GDP makes no distinction. From the perspective of global GDP, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear warheads do just as well as hospital beds or apple pie.

“Pointing out the defects of GDP and even tentatively suggesting alternatives is no longer controversial. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a panel led by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economist, to examine the issue. It was creating a dangerous ‘gulf of incomprehension,’ Sarkozy said, between experts sure of their knowledge and citizens ‘whose experience of life is completely out of sync with the story told by the data.’”

The two articles are talking past each other, which allows both to be correct:  (a) capitalism is in fact good for capitalists, and (b) obsessing over GDP ignores general societal wellbeing. Squeezed between the two is the philanthrocapitalist vision of better world. We looked at that previously; we’ll look again next time.

Ambition: Promised Land or Wasteland?

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

We’re exploring how inspiration, motivation, and ambition can help create meaningful work. We found that inspiration is essential, but has a dark side that includes mania and delusional risk taking, and that motivation is a ManagementSpeak relic and a brain stressor.  As for ambition, much current commentary focuses on my kids’ generation, but there’s plenty here for the rest of us if we view it in the larger economic context.

Here’s a quick summary:  Our parents came of age in the glory years of The Job and a Fair Income for the Middle Class. We Baby Boomers were born into that economic model, customized with our own iconoclastic and utopian social visions. The model weakened in the 70’s and 80’s, but we were too busy with kids and careers to notice. The Gen Xers got in early enough to ride the upward mobility escalator, but now that the Millennials are  young adults the model is bankrupt, leaving them to face a whole new gig — as in “gig economy.”

All that happened while most of us didn’t know it. Along with our policymakers, we were and still are stuck in the cognitive and cultural bias of the jobs heyday. Back in the day, we showered the Millennials with self-esteem-building, be-all-you-can-be positive thinking, and told them to follow their dreams. But when they came of age the economy wasn’t set up to support them. Maybe that’s why some parents habitually hedged their advice, urging the kids to have a Plan B and for crying out loud quit with all the cold filtering and get a real job.

(For a remarkable look at the current state of economic opportunity, see “I’m a Millionaire Who Creates Zero Jobs. Why Do I Pay Less Tax Than You?” by Morris Pearl, a career Wall Street One Percenter who is now chairman of the Patriotic Millionaires.)

No wonder people write books like Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before , by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge. This is from the flyleaf:

Generation Me“In this provocative and newly revised book, headline-making psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge explores why the young people she calls “Generation Me” are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.

“Born in the ’80s, and ’90s… the children of the Baby Boomers are … feeling the effects of the recession and the changing job market.

“Her often humorous, eyebrow-raising stories about real people vividly bring to life the hopes, disappointments, and challenges of Generation Me.  Engaging, controversial, prescriptive, and funny, Generation Me gives Boomers and GenX’ers new and fascinating insights into their offspring, and helps those in their teens, twenties, and thirties find their road to happiness.”

I was okay with the blurb until it got to “happiness.” I’m more in tune with the article we looked at last time — You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015):

“Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, says that .. we’ve seen ‘rising expectations among everybody for work that’s more than just a salary… You see this among people who are highly educated… and that helps explain why job dissatisfaction tends to rise over the past couple of decades, because people are asking … to use their talents or passions in their work.’

“The shift in expectation has resulted in tremendous anxiety over achieving these goals and, paradoxically, sheer delusion. Point out to parents or teens just how difficult it can be to achieve such a high-level career and you’ll likely be treated to a catalogue of all the people who bucked the odds. Not just the Oprahs or the Steve Jobses who achieved super-status but the friend of a friend who just bought a modern all-glass home overlooking San Francisco Bay with his signing bonus, or the daughter of a work colleague who was cast in a new TV show, or the neighbour’s son who got a scholarship to Harvard.

“If it’s possible for them, we want to believe that it’s possible for our children too. Besides, who wants to be the killjoy who has to remind the struggling math student that medicine likely isn’t an option? … Besides, technically it is possible. At what point do we abandon possible for probable, and encourage our children to do the same?

“‘This links to the cult of positive thinking,’ says Krznaric, ‘where we’re always wanting to feel up and good and send positive messages… and so we feel that we should only be sending good messages and positive messages to our children and to young people. That it’s somehow wrong or bad or inappropriate to tell them: actually, it isn’t possible.’”

Ambition says it’s possible. Current economics says it’s not. Now what? Back for more next week.

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.