“I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate – that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased…and I supposed that anyone can be victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggles. But as I went more and more about the country, I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew nothing about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment… Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.” – Helen Keller
America likes to think it’s a country of rugged individualists, that if you can’t make it here, it’s probably your own fault. However, as historian Scott Sandage observes in The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, “Financial failure went from being an event that happens in your life to being something that defines your identity. A ‘loser’ in 1820 was literally a person who lost money in a business – the person who got the short end of the stick, the loser by the deal. But by the end of the 19th century, a ‘loser’ is a person who is completely worthless in every way.” The obvious line from this evolving perception signifies our antipathy toward the “underserving poor.”
"A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises – the dream of upward mobility – and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable,” explains Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. “Class defines how real people live. They don’t live myth. They don’t live the dream."
The 1% has long thrived by denying class differences, placating the vulnerable, and creating a false sense of hope. Writes Isenberg, "The relative few who escape their lower class roots are held up as models, as though everyone at the bottom has the same chance of succeeding through cleverness and hard work, through scrimping and saving…hardly. Personal connections, favoritism, and trading on class-based knowledge still grease the wheels that power social mobility in today’s professional and business worlds...We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents?”
Thus, the beloved idea of striking it rich or making it big is, for the most part, an illusion, unless you are born into the right family.
“The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences… In reality, evil often prospers and never pays the price… The randomness of birthright means people often suffer adversity and enjoy opulence through no effort of their own,” explains psychology journalist David McRaney in You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself, McRaney studies how often we fall victim to our own delusions.
This “narrative fallacy” – how flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations of the future, arriving from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world.
“The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen… we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
In Outliers: The Story of Success, best-selling journalist Malcolm Gladwell debunks the myth found in every billionaire/entrepreneur/celebrity memoir – that an unlikely hero born in humble circumstances fights his way up using only his grit and talent to eventually find fame and success. Gladwell explains how these personal narratives are false: “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
Gladwell uses Bill Gates as a case study. What were his hidden advantages that propelled him to financial greatness? Let’s take a closer look.
He was born from a wealthy lawyer in Seattle, and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do banker.
Because he was precocious and easily bored, his parents took him out of public school and sent him to a private school that catered to Seattle’s elite families.
This private school started a computer club, and they put $3,000 into a computer terminal. This was in 1968, when most colleges didn’t even have computer clubs.
Instead of having a computer-card system like everyone else in the 1960s, this forward-thinking school installed a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle. This gave him an extraordinary, early opportunity to learn programming as an 8th grader in 1968.
The parents of this wealthy academy raised more money to keep the computer club alive.
One parent of a classmate happened to have a mother who founded the Computer Center Corporation at the University of Washington. She offered the club to test out the company’s software programs in exchange for free programming time. Conveniently, Gates lived in walking distance to the University.
When the Computer Center Corporation went bankrupt, Gates and friends hung around the computer center at the University, where Information Sciences Inc. let them have free computer time in exchange for working on a piece of software. Gates programmed on nights and weekends. He was only 16.
By the time they were kicked out of there, Gates’ friend had access to a computer in the medical center and the physics department.
When a technology company named TRW needed programmers familiar with a particular software that was hard to come by, they called up Gates’ academy. Low and behold, it was the one Gates knew, and he convinced his teachers to let him write code as an independent study project. They agreed.
It’s no wonder Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year. He’d been programming nonstop for 7 years, way past 10,000 hours. How many teenagers in the world had that opportunity, in the exact time period ripe for the invention of personal computer software? Even Gates acknowledges just how lucky he was. He was in the right place at the right time and the right age to take advantage of all of the hidden opportunities.
Unlike Gates, author and pseudo-intellectual Ayn Rand became famous for preaching free-market idealism at the expense of the less fortunate. Not only did she falsely attribute her success to her own indomitable will, but she refused to acknowledge the hidden – or rather, quite obvious – opportunities along the way, as captured by Darryl Cunningham in The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis.
When she moved from Communist Russia to America, not only did she take advantage of our immigration policy through the sponsorship of her mother’s relatives in Chicago, but they allowed her to stay with them for half a year for free.
Rand failed to pay – nor even offered to pay – the several small loans the family had given to her.
The family was connected to a film distributor who provided Rand with a letter of introduction to Cecil B. DeMille’s production company in Hollywood at a time when he ruled the motion picture industry.
Rand’s relatives paid for her train fare to California and her initial living expenses.
When she met DeMille, he offered her a job as an extra in his films, and when she explained she wanted to be a writer, he sent her to meet with the head of the studio’s story department.
The studio rejected her story ideas, but DeMille hired her anyway as a screenwriter, despite having no experience. This propelled her to selling her first unproduced screenplay, then a stage play that went to Broadway, and then to a successful publishing career.
If only everyone had access to the most successful filmmaker of their day, could land a job with no prior experience, and could live off their cousins until they struck it big.
The irony is that Rand touted self-reliance, and she thought of any recipient of altruism little more than a parasite. (Except that is, when the recipient was Rand.) Clearly she had little interaction with or appreciation for the mentally ill, physically disabled, poverty-stricken, unemployed, or any other less fortunate. She lived in an ivory tower surrounded by sycophants, many of whom lived in that same tower.
Rand’s conservative principles of ignoring the downtrodden and demonizing them as parasites is echoed in her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It’s because of this disconnect, and a misunderstanding of sociological, economical, and psychological factors, that her novels only appeal to upper-middle class teenagers of privilege who have yet to experience just how unfair, uncaring, and unapologetic life can be.
Yet Rand’s message of self-reliance and creating your own fortune is so ingrained in American culture, it’s accepted as truth.
However, it wasn’t true in Rand’s day, and it’s even less true now.
Rand so stubbornly lived in her own head that even when she was dying of lung cancer, she refused to acknowledge it was because of her years of cigarette smoking.
Perhaps “pseudo-intellectual” is too kind a label.
If you are one of the lucky successful Americans out there, it’s likely because of opportunities or breaks allowed to you that were unavailable to anyone else. Did you ever receive a Pell grant? A scholarship? Assistantship? Internship? Job? Did dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other applicants or candidates not receive it because you did?
A leg up can come from many places – parents, peers, institutions. Often, we are equally qualified, but through sheer luck, fortitude, connections, alma maters, social class, or birthright, doors are open to us that are not to others.
In Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, scientist Cathy O'Neil writes that in the worlds of finance and big data, "Both industries gobble up the same pool of talent, much of it from elite universities like MIT, Princeton, or Stanford. These new hires are ravenous for success and have been focused on external metrics like SAT scores and college admissions their entire lives...the message they received is they will be rich, that they will run the world, their productivity indicates they’re on the right track, and it translates into dollars. This leads to the fallacious conclusion that whatever they are doing to bring in more money is good. It adds value. Otherwise, why would the market reward it? In both cultures, wealth is no longer a means to get by. It becomes directly tied to personal worth. A young suburbanite with every advantage, the prep school education, the exhaustive coaching for college admissions test, the overseas semester in Paris or Shanghai still flatters himself that it is his skill, hard work, and prodigious problem-solving abilities that have lifted him into a world of privilege. Money vindicates all doubts, and the rest of his circle plays along, forming a mutual admiration society. They’re eager to convince us all that Darwinism is at work, when it looks very much to the outside like a combination of gaming a system and dumb luck.”
Perhaps the clearest example is the U.S. presidency. No matter how many people wish to become president, only one is selected at a time. Who that person is depends on the family they were born into, social circles they had access to, the colleges they were accepted to, the success of their peers along the way, the wealth and connections present in their social class, and of course their talent, drive and grit.
But talent, drive, and grit alone will not get you to the White House. There are only a few chances for that every generation, and those born into well-connected and well-funded families automatically have a leg up. Which is why it’s all the more shocking when someone like Obama, from extremely humble beginnings, makes it to high office, unlike a Bush or a Trump, who was born into a financial dynasty.
Our perceived immigrant experience is equally misrepresented. "When textbooks tell the immigrant story, they emphasize Joseph Pulitzer, Andrew Carnegie, and their ilk - immigrants who made supergood... Such legendary successes were...the exceptions to the rule. Ninety-five percent of the executives and financiers in America around the turn of the century came from upper-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds," writes James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me. "Social scientists have on many occasions compared the degree of economic equality in the United States with that in other industrial nations. Depending on the measure used, the United States has ranked 6th of 6, 7th of 7, 9th of 12, 13th of 13, or 14th of 14."
As Hedrick Smith explains in Who Stole the American Dream? “The unpleasant truth is that a typical child born at the bottom of the heap in America has far less chance of rising into the middle class or above than one born in France, Germany, or Scandinavia. In fact, one study found that it would take 5 or 6 generations, 125 to 150 years, for a child from America’s poverty caste to rise to the middle of the middle class.”
Upward mobility is now lower in the U.S. than in most of Europe.
“Children born to parents in the top [income] quintile have the highest likelihood of attaining the top,” asserts social scientist Julia Isaacs. “And children born to parents in the bottom quintile have the highest likelihood of being in the bottom themselves.”
Smith explains, “Several countries in Scandinavia and continental Europe, which we used to mock as class-bound hierarchies, have now surpassed us as places where people can move up the social and economic ladder…Evidence shows that countries like Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Canada offer young people the greatest chances of breaking out of the family mold, and even France, Germany, and Sweden offer young people better chances than America for moving up. In fact, America is now classified as a “low-mobility country in which about half of parental earnings advantages are passed onto sons,’ reports economist Isabel Sawhill. Isaacs adds that ‘starting at the bottom of the earnings ladder is more of a handicap in the United States than in other countries.’”
In fact, not only do we have fewer entrepreneurs today compared to 200 years ago, we have fewer than Europe today: 1 in 13 Americans is self-employed, compared to 1 in 8 in Western Europe, reports Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me.
"Compared with other rich nations...U.S. intergenerational mobility is surpisingly low, in part because the gap between income groups is so much bigger," writes Jacob S. Hacker in Winner-Take-All Politics.
"The consequences are clear," warns historian and professor Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land. "In contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the U.K. and the U.S. have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity and - increasingly - the famliar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling and minor criminality. The unemployed and the underemployed lose such skills as they have acquired and become chronically superfluous to the economy. Anxiety and stress, not to mention illness and early death, frequently follow."
It is indeed a sad fact that 99% of Americans will die in the same tax bracket we are born into.
Sadly, the wealth divide only creates a greater divide. Privilege sustains privilege; poverty begets poverty. So much for equal opportunity.
One can see how easy it is to misattribute our own class status for hard work and fail to recognize the opportunities or circumstances of our birth and our social status.
This only creates a greater divide – financially and cognitively.
According to Thom Hartmann, "The super-rich once needed the working class in order to be successful. They needed us for their businesses, their factories, their communications, their transportation, as their customers, and for their overall success. They rode on the same trains as the rest of us, went to the same hospitals, learned at the same schools. Their success directly depended on us, and on the well-being of the nation, and they knew it… With globalization this is no longer true… They don’t need our infrastructure for their yachts and helicopters and submarines. They pay for private schools for their kids, private security for their homes. They have private emergency rooms to avoid the health care hassle. All they need is an assortment of servants, who might be guest workers coming to America on H2B visas, willing to work for less than a middle-class American can afford.”
Unfortunately, these millionaires and billionaires who have given up on America and on the working class are in control of the political process in this country.
As Paul Buchheit confirms at AlterNet, “As they accumulate more and more wealth, the very rich have less need for society. At the same time, they’ve convinced themselves that they made it on their own, and that contributing to societal needs is unfair to them. There is ample evidence that this small group of takers is giving up on the country that made it possible for them to build huge fortune.
Professor at Harvard University and American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel observed in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do that “The more we regard our success as our own doing, the less responsibility we feel for those who fall behind.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most damaging result of our inequality: the adverse way it affects those of us who are the most well off.
In Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes writes of the elite pathology, “it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would…As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites.”
Hayes continues, “in a society of fractal inequality, there is no top. There is always another height to which to ascend, more competitors to vanquish, more money to obtain. Which is why our elites display a destructive and combustible combination of egomania and entitlement on the one hand, and insecurity on the other…Our elites are conditioned to fight for every last inch of beach, to parry and thrust their way forward no matter how much they have already achieved, all of which produces…nasty psychological side effects. One is that it tends to make people believe they have absolutely earned what they have achieved…This means we are cursed with an overclass convinced it is composed of scrappy underdogs, individuals who are obsessed with the relative disadvantages they may have faced rather than the privilege they enjoyed…In fact, a basic ritual associated with entrance into the circle of winners is constructing a personal story about how it was through grit, talent, and determination that you fought your way into it.” See Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire son of a car company CEO and governor of Michigan.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
According to Hayes, “Psychologists find that those in high-power situations…pay less attention to details; they are more inclined to stereotype and to form snap judgments. They display a larger appetite for risk and are more inclined to…think that things will work out…those in high-power situations are more self-justifying. But the most meaningful finding is that power narrows the vision of the powerful…Those in power pay less attention to the characteristics, views of, and details about the low-power people they encounter, and are less empathetic overall... Those primed for high power automatically projected their own view outward, while those primed for low power automatically adopted the viewpoint of others.”
Thus, it comes as no surprise that those in the lower classes possess more empathy than the upper classes, reflected in a percentage of respective incomes given to charity, the poor, and religious organizations.
As our inequality grows, and society becomes more stratified, so will it be with our levels of empathy.
And empathy already registers pretty low in the realm of politics, as we'll see in: