Some static ideas about upward mobility

    No one can predict what impact the OWS movement ultimately will have on our society and our politics but the irrepressible tangible result is that the top 1% of income earners has been objectified---the result of which has been to put questions of equality into the headlines of our political debate. 

    Re-framing the political debate has alarmed chief word polluter Frank Luntz who is now advising Republicans to say "they get" OWS but then essentially ignore it while searching for synonyms for the word "capitalism"---and, as always, blaming everything on big government.

    Pushback on the facts of income inequality has begun in earnest. Recent polls by Gallup are being used to down play the idea that Americans even care about income equality. An editorial in the Washington Examiner referred to income equality as a perennial obsession with liberal Democrats, quoting Gallup---that only 46% see reducing the income gap as important. Omitted was the fact that many more Americans say that it is important that the federal government enact policies that grow the economy and increase equality of opportunity. Of course, in the middle of all this nonchalance about income equality, a constant 60% of Americans state that they are among the "haves"---which reminds me of questions class mates would ask me when I was living out of my van---"How are you doing, Oxy", the answer to which was, "great, things couldn't be better".

    What distorts any discussion about income equality is leaving out the issues of mobility---not to mention, fairness. Having read a number of articles around these themes, I think Noah Kristula-Green put it best: "What's interesting is that while there is growing awareness that America is a more unequal country, there is less awareness that America is also a less upwardly mobile society". 

    The Gallup polls are being interpreted as acceptance of gaps in income as well as that  "income inequality doesn't' need fixing". In a New Republic article, William Galston rightly, imo, points out that Obama needs to focus on growth and opportunity rather than inequality by itself.

    The decline in upward mobility in the U.S. is well documented including studies by Pew Research. Their surveys show a decline from '95 to the present in people who agree that hard work leads to success--from 68% to 58%; conversely, today 40% of people agree that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people, up from 30 % in 1995. More importantly, the facts, according to the Brookings Inst. is that few people born into low income households will ever earn an  above average income and only 6% will make it to the top 20% of earners. Picking the right parents and a college degree are the great dividers of our two tier society---I don't see how anyone can question the facts. But what people believe and where they view themselves along a continuum of money/success is another matter. As the Pew research shows, perceptions are changing.

    Fairness is, in my mind, closely associated with mobility but I'm not sure the general public, or for that matter Obama,for example, is making the connection. Research from Pew addresses fairness---"The public is overwhelmingly critical of the fairness of the economic system. Most, 77%, agree that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations" But there is a counter narrative---just "38% think of America as a country divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots".

    What has driven me to scrounge through a plethora of polls and articles about income inequality and the essential questions it begs--about fairness and upward mobility---is that Democrats, imo, have never understood how to deflect what polls show as an American's essentially optimistic view of his or her lot in life but which is out of touch with the reality of their chances to improve themselves. It's a thorny endeavor to highlight folks' statistical chances in life and how those have declined and who might be responsible. Myths of the rugged individual will always abound in America. I hope that the new awareness brought by OWS will survive the onslaught of misinformation which will be hitting the media about how income inequality is a fact of life, everyone just needs to work harder in order to move up to the 1%. 



    I don't care about income equality, but I do care about making a living. I wouldn't give a rat's ass how rich wall street bankers were if the economy rewarded everyone else in proportion to their talent and effort. The problem is that the economy is increasingly rewarding people that can game the system and dumping large numbers of the middle class into permanent unemployment. Not only is that unfair, it isn't good for political stability.

    "The problem is that the economy is increasingly rewarding people that can game the system and dumping large numbers of the middle class into permanent unemployment."   

    Bingo, Donal.  The essence of America's decline distilled into one sentence.  Finding ways to game the system replaced making a better product as the #1 thought in the minds of most corporate executives a long time ago.


    I don't understand why you don't care about income equality.   Why not?

    I can't answer for Donal, but I'll tell you why I don't care about income equality per se. What someone else earns or has does not lessen the value of what I earn or have (for those so inclined to look to lessons in the Bible, see the parable of the workers in the vineyard). No, what matters is the suffering, hardships, and struggling that the lower and increasingly middle class have to experience. Their suffering would not be alleviated just by having the rich earn less, something that many on the right will quickly remind you of. That's why it's important to remember the reason we want to increase taxes on the wealthy: it's to fund programs to help those who need help.

    VA's answer is pretty close. Essentially, I don't believe pure socialism works. I can't see penalizing someone for being honestly successful, and charging what the market will bear for their services. I'm against corporate kleptocracy, abuse of workers by management, etc. which seems to me to be social-tempered capitalism.

    While I applaud Ben & Jerry for trying to keep incomes closer, I don't see who gets to make that decision for them.

    Markets are social inventions.   No matter what kind of society we live in, markets are subject to rules and governance.   What a market will bear depends on what we allow it to bear.

    I think that as a political community, we should deliberate and set the rules governing how our markets should work, and set some boundaries to what people are allowed to make of markets for themselves personally.

    A talented person who has much to contribute to human well-being, but who charges the world a king's fortune in order to be induced to part with their services, is really a greedy pig.  I think we need to begin to call that kind of behavior out.  I don't believe in the doomsayers who predict that unless you allow talented egomaniacs to make vast fortunes, then innovation and drive and progress will all fall apart.  I think instead we will probably just get fewer assholes.

    It seems to me that a lot of educated and culturally privileged people these days have convinced themselves that moral disapproval of greed and excess is a déclassé mark of lower-class resentment.  It's oh-so-unsophistacted and lacking in "nuance" to disparage the rich on account of their riches, in the way the ignorant working class sometimes does.   Upwardly mobile and college educated middle class professionals affect an enlightened moral superiority, and obedience to established hierarchies in which they are working to advance themselves, by trumpeting their hip tolerance of inequality and large personal fortunes.

    Wow, Dan, last paragraph! I agree with you but even if I didn't I would have to succumb to such eloquent language. 

    Well, I answered your question clearly without malice, and you turned around and accused me of "affecting an enlightened moral superiority" and"trumpeting my hip tolerance of inequality" - all because I disagreed with you. No doubt you think that was persuasive, Mr Hitchens.

    I was talking about a cultural phenomenon that is prevalent throughout contemporary liberal culture.

    It seems to me that a lot of educated and culturally privileged people these days have convinced themselves that moral disapproval of greed and excess is a déclassé mark of lower-class resentment.  It's oh-so-unsophistacted and lacking in "nuance" to disparage the rich on account of their riches, in the way the ignorant working class sometimes does.

    But isn't this unfair to the argument, if not to some of the sentiments expressed? Many of these folks will say, with some justification, that they started with little, or not much more than most people, and by dint of hard work, discipline, perseverance built their wealth--following all the rules set down by society.

    And they really can't see how their increased wealth made anyone else poorer.

    While I share your sentiment, I don't think it's productive to simply toss aside their argument with a rhetorical flick.


    Markets are social inventions.

    This is another key point. Most people would agree that we can and should make rules for the market, but that the market is not just a "social invention" that can be changed willy nilly, somewhat the way we change clothes or domiciles.

    One sign that it may not be just an invention is that when we mess with the market too much, bad things tend to happen--or at least, bad things have happened in the past. Sort of like when you mess with the environment too much, bad things, or at least unintended things, tend to happen.

    IOW, we're unable to remain in control of the change we're trying effect. It tends to have a "mind" or a trajectory of its own.

    But if we can show that the market really is nothing more than a social invention, created in the same way, perhaps, as we created the Constitution, then lots of changes should be possible, and it's just a matter of making the right changes.

    The term "invention" can lead us to perceive markets as being similar to strictly material inventions like airplane.  What you are touching upon in discussing "when we mess too much..." is economic markets are complex adaptive systems (CAS).  Moreover, not only are there a multitude of economic CASs interacting with and within one another, they are interacting with and fused with a multitude of other non-economic CASs. 

    Complex adaptive systems are characterized as follows[3] and the most important are:

    • The number of elements is sufficiently large that conventional descriptions (e.g. a system of differential equations) are not only impractical, but cease to assist in understanding the system, the elements also have to interact and the interaction must be dynamic.
    • Interactions can be physical or involve the exchange of information.
    • Such interactions are rich, i.e. any element in the system is affected by and affects several other systems.
    • The interactions are non-linear which means that small causes can have large results.
    • Interactions are primarily but not exclusively with immediate neighbours and the nature of the influence is modulated.
    • Any interaction can feed back onto itself directly or after a number of intervening stages, such feedback can vary in quality. This is known as recurrency.
    • Such systems are open and it may be difficult or impossible to define system boundaries
    • Complex systems operate under far from equilibrium conditions, there has to be a constant flow of energy to maintain the organization of the system
    • All complex systems have a history, they evolve and their past is co-responsible for their present behaviour
    • Elements in the system are ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole, responding only to what is available to it locally.

    One key element to be considered is that while markets are inventions of human beings, markets are an invention in which human beings participate. Human beings are elements of the invention as the wiring and bolts are part of the invention known as airplanes.


    I would add that to the extent that the economic system (and to some extent what elements, facets, processes and mechanisms one chooses to be included in the "system" is arbitrary*) has become global is the extent to which one's ability to make the right actions based on right choices is severely limited if one is talking about federal involvement, or state involvement, or local involvement.  Actions taken in India or South Africa will influence the larger system, in ways that might not be forseeable, changing the right decision into a wrong (or at least not-so-right) decision. 

    As long as we attempt to approach economic systems as closed linear systems, we will consistently head down the wrong path, surprised that decisions that had short-term benefits and eliminated or minimized present-day problems, have long-term negative outcomes that generate greater and more complex problems than the previous problems.


    *a good example of this is the K-12 education system, a CAS if there ever was one.  The impact of the outcomes from a local or national education system on the economic systems are obvious.  But if one includes this CAS into the larger economic CAS, the challenges and problems are expanded and the solutions more complicated to derive.  Then one has to look at early childhood education (children from 0-5 yrs of age), which studies show have an enormous determinate value upon the success of the K-12 system. Now one finds oneself, in attempting to address economic issues, talking about how physicians and the medical community work with social agencies in supporting pregnant mothers in poverty.

    Chaos and fractals?

    One conclusion one could draw from what you say is that good results are almost accidental. If one looks at Finland's educational system, the tendency would be to copy it. But what you say makes that exercise fruitless.

    If we do X, who knows what Y will result?

    In fact, what is the point of doing anything with a view to getting a specific result?

    I'm not really disagreeing with you, but trying to draw out the consequences of what you say...

    I can understand how you might think I am proposing the hopelessness and fruitlessness of making a decision.  In fact there are many times people will throw up their hands in despair when attempting address problems existing in complex adaptive systems.  It is frustrating.  Just take the education system.  It is kind of hard to teach a kid who goes home to a place filled with domestic violence and/or no food in the cupboard.  Or home is the parents beat-up station wagon.  Meanwhile budget cuts happen every year and fundamentalists have taken over the local school board and cyber bullying is on the rise. 

    But I don't believe it a recipe for inaction.  Instead it means we have to expand the scope of our attention.  Early childhood education is a great example.  One of the most significant indicators of how well a student will perform in the K-12 system is how well they were prepared during the pre-K years.  This includes things like nutrition in their diet to whether they were ever read to, or even seen a book in their house before arriving at Kindergarten.  So if people are serious about all children succeeding in school, they need to expand their work to include the families with pre-K children, especially those in poverty, and even the mothers who are pregnant. 

    Moreover, rather than concluding inaction, it is a call to humility and awareness of our limitations.  If one goes barrelling into something thinking one has all the answers, then one is not going to be open to seeing both the new opportunities and problems that might arise after one begin to intervene in a new way.

    Te interaction of economic activity and the environment is a great example of this. One specific example of this in which I was involved was dealing with an effort to clear cut the remaining stand of forest in a particular watershed.  We were able to prove that doing so would increase the soil erosion into the water system (the previous clear cuts had already created massive soil erosion) to the point it would shut down the fish hatchery downstream.  From a pure economic return for the  local community, the financial impact from the logging jobs was vastly less than the fishing industry which was dependent in large part on that hatchery.  This was due to the fact that the timber extraction was a one time deal in the short run (the regrowth of the watershed would take years and years before another harvest was thinkable) while the fishing industry was providing jobs on a year after year basis.

    We are able to get specific results when intervening in any particular CAS.  Chaos theory, if one wants to use that specifically, demonstrates that many things that appear chaotic are actually orderly.  It is just that the pattern it follows it complex, and never exactly the same way twice.  It operates, however, within a particular boundary of possible behaviors.  This is why we can't exactly predict the weather, but we can get close in the short term, and we can understand the potential extremes.  The value of imperfect predictability is enough that we keep at it in spite of our imperfection.  At the same time we make decisions based on those predictions with the knowledge of that imperfection.

    Sorry, I don't share your what appears to be your vision of a world of unavoidable canyons of wealth between the rich and the poor, with some ameliorative liberalism taxing away a little bit of the surplus so the poor can be raised up just a tad.

    The workers in the vineyard are required to live with less so that the rich can have more.  That's a bad system and should be fixed.

    Inequality also destroys democracy and democratic solidarity.  It is no coincidence that so many Americans hate so many of their fellow Americans these days at the same time that the gap between rich and poor has never.   If we want to live in an actual democratic society and not just a groping crowd of self-seeking individuals, we need to build a foundation of social and economic equality.

    I have a feeling that the ideologies of the past several decades are exhausting themselves, and that we are now seeing the beginnings of the collapse of both conservative culture and liberal culture.

    I'm not against income equality, I'm just saying that if it's helpful, then it's a means, not an ends. The goal is for the worse off to be better off, not for the better off to be worse off.

    As for your point about inequality damaging democratic solidarity: there's truth to that, but I think it's a cultural problem that we're always "trying to keep up with the Joneses". I personally know people who have a lot more money than I, but I think that most of them are poorer than me because they don't appreciate life. They're too busy trying to get even more wealth. These are literal millionaires, who'll say things like "A million dollars isn't worth what it used to be" (which is true), and "I'm not really rich". Those in the 1% can also be broken down into a 99% of that 1% and the 0.01%, with the 99% of the 1% striving to be in the 0.01%.

    So, I'm not against income equality, but I am against always wanting more. (That is not referring to those struggling to put a roof over their heads, etc., of course.)

    Thanks for all your comments. You have upheld the moral argument against extreme wealth accumulation.  

    Some degree of income inequality is par for a capitalistic society, we all know that. The problem is in defining when it reaches an intolerable limit---which seems to have three parts. When is it just plain wrong on moral grounds?  When is it illegal to the point of putting people in jail and changing behavior? (MF Global proves they haven't learned a thing). And when is it actually dysfunctional---including for those at the top? (No buyers for all the Fords we produce)

    I actually think #3 might be the best arena for at least stalling the inexorable march toward wealth domination by the few.  Which leads me to thinking that the lack of upward mobility is the place to attack. I just don't want in the process to punt on the moral issues of income inequality.  


    Sorry, I don't share your what appears to be your vision of a world of unavoidable canyons of wealth between the rich and the poor, with some ameliorative liberalism taxing away a little bit of the surplus so the poor can be raised up just a tad.

    I would listen and try to address Verified Atheist below this comment. You may not share this view, but I think we need to address it.

    Unless we're going for some kind of absolute equality of wealth--a program that may do as much violence to people as it attempts to eliminate--then I think we're stuck with some inequality, and the question becomes how much and what type of inequality is acceptable or, really, inevitable.

    Liberalism, in its day, didn't tax away just "a little bit of the surplus." In the 1960s, for example, we taxed away a lot and we had a lot more equality than we do now. Yet the rich were still a lot richer than the middle class.

    Peter, thanks for your comments. I think part of progressives' problems is that the incessant narratives of the Heritage Foundation, et. al, have worked. We ourselves have become brain washed. No one today,for example, would even suggest upper income rates in the fifty percent range, let alone eighties or nineties. Instead we argue about a few percentage points in the thirties or below. We have given up any real progressive tax rate notion and have been beaten down in many other policies which actually worked in the past.

    I like Dan's dogged attempts to keep questioning the inevitability of income gaps. Even in my original blog I pivoted quickly away from income inequality, as did others. And let's face it, we will always have inequality. But we need to focus on the fact that many of the economic problems we face now did not take a century to develop---much of it developed within recent history, a couple of decades. We simply need to reverse the policies which put us so far off track. 

    The Great Recession was not a regular business cycle recession. It was a recession caused by a financial crisis. As Fisher of the Dallas Fed has shown, the difficult recovery we're having now is typical of a financial crisis vs. a business cycle one. It simply takes longer. 

    The Financial crisis in turn was the result of policy changes. Increasing income at the top and wage starvation in the middle forced consumers to turn to leverage to keep consuming, facilitated by consolidation of banks, lax regulations, easy credit, unbridled fraud and a generational credit spree. In a sense none of this is complicated and it is all reversible over time. To my mind it doesn't require radical social engineering from Progressives. Radical engineering instead means that we have given up the moral and intelligent focus we need to reverse what just happened by just taking the problems head on. 

    Simply reversing the Bush tax cuts for the next ten years would solve more problems of inequality than anything else we could devise in the way of social engineering. Capitalism is like marriage. Sometimes marriages don't work out but that doesn't impugn the institution of marriage. The same with capitalism---we have had a lot of bad relationships in the last twenty years. We need counseling and some divorces in our capitalistic system, but I don't see the need for radical re-invention of the institution itself.

    I have been frustrated with my post, along with my inadequacy in addressing your fine comments. It seems that income inequality isn't really a problem except when it is. It is defining the is which is important and is not being accomplished in a way which advances the ball.  


    I agree with the thrust of your comments but for the sake of argument why should today's rural proud poor go along with taxing the rich to help all those other people who unlike themselves are just making excuses for their poor circumstances and are not self reliant enough and don't try hard enough--as they themselves do.  In other words many people who one might think should make the argument on behalf of themselves don't and instead, when they hear the argument, are motivated even more to vote for Republicans. 

    In a sense it seems that Progressives have to as a premise for any reforms they think are necessary first make the argument that income inequality per se is bad because it is relentless, always gets bigger and eventually adversely affects everyone but the few who have accumulated the lion's share of the resources. I don't have a clue as to how to make such an argument. It seems to me Democrats are always trying to say as much but after push back that income inequality isn't the problem turn back to focusing on the effects of income inequality, the bad results for those less fortunate, and the argument never seems to sell--in fact, might be back firing.   

    I get what you're saying, I just think it's difficult to make that argument, although Dan makes a good stab with "Inequality also destroys democracy and democratic solidarity." Maybe we know different Republicans, but the some of the ones I know think that progressives would gladly make the poor rich if it meant achieving income equality. Income equality is arguably a good thing, but it's not sufficient.

    My old high school world history teacher used to say, "Communism would only work in two places: heaven where they don't need it, and hell where they already have it." I'm not saying he's right, but I do think that gives a window into his way of thinking.

    Thanks, we know the same Republicans. 


    The thing that pops into my first here is that while a decent life (chicken in every pot) is something people can reasonably claim an entitlement to, the argument that (economic) mobility is a right for everyone is difficult case to make.  If I have my basic needs met (and maybe a little more on top of that, a little icing so to say) and at the end of my days I am pretty much in the same place, has society failed me?  Should the community have done more?  When taken on an abstract level, it is easy to slip over to the role of individual in increasing his or her own revenue.  Want a bigger house? a better car?  a trip to Disney world? that's on you, not the community.

    I would argue that the notions about upward mobility today in America were mostly created during the post-WWII boom and the gains made by workers over a couple of decades.  It is fused with the notions of generational mobility (my children will be better off than me, and their children will be better off than them), and is in many ways unique to America, at least in terms of intensity and sense of destiny or birthright as Americans. 

    Moreover, I actually take some comfort that only 38% of Americans see us as divided between haves and have-nots (along with some discomfort - oh the ambivalence) - given that most Americans do have their basic needs met, even if some are getting through the support and charity of others.  It is hard to drive through the traffic jam surrounding the packed mall today and think of this country as being somehow a third world country where a few have electricity while others shift through the piles of garbage near the shanties.  

    One last thing - while there is the unemployed, there is also the issue of those who have seen their income lowered (either through increased health care costs, or no raises, or underemployment), but who are still able to make ends meet, even if it is month to month.  I guess it is because I have pretty much always lived my life like that (can't think of time when I didn't as an adult), that I don't quite have that much rage when I hear others living that way. 

    That's a very good statement. Knowing of your many fine contributions to your community and your Progressive views I'm curious to know what drives your Progressivism---if you don' t mind saying. Thanks for commenting.  

    Hmmm.  It is an interesting question - in part regarding the notion of "drive."  This is related to the studies that show the proclivity toward this or that mindset, mood (dis)order, emotional landscape etc is correlated to a particular ideological bent.  Most recently came across a study that those suffering from anxiety are more likely to be liberal.  Nurture vs. Nature.  Did watching all those episodes of Big Blue Marble as a child set things in motion, compelling an impulse to bring us into harmony?

    But beyond just being generally a nice person and not wishing ill on anyone for the most part, I would say there is a mix of enlightened self-interest, that is most manifested in sustainability both socio-politically and environmentally, and a sense of justice (where it comes from unknown)- which revolves around what is right thing to do in the back and forth relationship between the community and the individual. 

    All of this however is tempered by both a deep ambivalence that seems to be in my nature (nuture? nature?) as well as an immersion in the historical perspective that tends to see things in a larger context (a means to distance myself so as not to feel too much?).

    If anything there seems to be way to much intellectualizing in the development of my view as opposed to emotional connection - even my days achieving my degree in creative writing was a constant struggle to get past the objective observer on a world passing by - the words slipping into abstractions and theoritical musings.

    Thanks for your response. I relate very much to what you're saying---feel myself a nice person, wanting to see a just society, willing to contribute but have never, for example, marched or demonstrated. At heart I think I am a cooperative rather than a competitive person. I get very competitive when I feel threatened. But being of the cooperative sort, I wish people would just get along---but of course they never do. The reason I delved into this subject was that I am never clear about my own genuine-ness about helping others or thinking progressive thoughts. I think I am generous, but then again I think much of the time it boils down to self-interest. I can say that the most generous people I ever knew were my parents, not just in relation to myself but to others. Not sure where all this is going but I appreciate your comments.    

    Looking at the two approaches or natures of people - cooperative vs. competitiveness - is an interesting angle to take.  When one looks at it from an evolutionary point of view, how we developed moving into the homo sapiens sapien phase, both bring a certain advantage to a particular individual and group.  The kicker, from my perspective, is the introduction of language into the mix, the acquisition of symbolic thought as means to understand ourselves, others, the world around us, and the relationship between them all. This ability to conceive of "I" and "Us" and "Them" and "It."  This touches upon something like how we objectify others, allow ourselves to override or ignore our natural impulse of empathy towards other humans, which had to be there if we were going to survive as a species. And so on.  It goes to the fundamental basis of our conception and understanding of our identity. 

    Some cultures emphasize cooperation, at least for those who are included in their group. The self is seen not as a whole and autonomous being, but a part of a larger whole.  In America, the prevalent cultures tend to emphasize the opposite - so see one's self as autonomous, one being among others, within and beyond the group (be it family, community, religion, nation etc.).  This facet of Western culture ends up producing the Ann Rands of the world along with the Martin Luther Kings.


    Maybe the transition we are in is actually moving toward more cooperation, having pushed the competitive model to its logical limits. 

    Along the lines of the gender comment I made below, there is an article I have been working with for a future blog - The End of Men - which makes the case that women are more suited for this next phase of the modern (post) industrial world, in part because of their greater proclivity towards cooperation rather than competitiveness, as opposed to the male of species.  Of course, this is a generalization, and breaks gender down into the limited binary view of gender.  But that is another story, as they say.

    It is not the making more that bothers me so much as the hoarding of it after.  

    Your comment gets to the heart of the matter---put another way, when is enough enough. I have become more of a hoarded than I would like to admit, particularly books, but I have the excuse that a book store will materialize---if my back doesn't go out, or some similar other impediment doesn't get in the way. My worst fear is showing up infirm and penny-less on my kids' doorsteps. So I have set certain targets for what's in the kitty. The problem is that when the target is more or less reached, it doesn't seem enough. But then from an analytical stand point I realize it probably is enough, it just isn't satisfying. 

    A gender breakdown of the stats would be interesting to see.  Your mentioning of the cooperative vs. competitive perspective / approach got me thinking about this particular angle.

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