A provocative thought over in the comments responding to a Charles Murray piece in Time:
I will suggest that the real reason people dislike the rich is that they know deep down that there has never been a time or a place that is more meritocratic than America today. When the evidence is in front of you that one can be the son [of] a Kenyan goat-herder and an irresponsible white mother, yet ascend to the Presidency . . . who do you have to blame for your lot in life?
The elite colleges admit people on the basis of their academic resume and their test scores, not on their bios. I will never forget my grandmother crying when I told her I had been admitted to Yale. She said, “I just never thought the People Like Us ever would have a fair chance.”
The reality is that lack of success is highly correlated with lack of virtue. And those that fail know deep down that their short end of the stick is only the result of poor decision making.
A couple of points:
1) Obama’s father was indeed at one point in his life a goat-herder, but he also had the opportunity to attend an exclusive Christian boarding school, and he was the University of Hawaii’s first African foreign student. Whether Obama’s mother qualifies as “irresponsible” will be in the eye of the beholder; I find the concept of leaving my children to perform anthropological field work for several years unthinkable. But the overall point that Obama grew up in circumstances that seemed supremely unlikely to generate a national leader stands. Will Americans look at their own difficulty in rising from less-than-ideal circumstances and recoil at the contrast? Would this spur or intensify the desire to lash out and look for scapegoats?
2) The culture Obama grew up in in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is not necessarily the same as it is today. In fact, much of the anxiety about upward mobility stems from the notion that a culture and economy of accomplishment, opportunity, and determination is eroding before our eyes, a culture and economy that is fresh in our memories from not too long ago. Certainly in the late 1990s, with the tech boom and the dot-coms creating instant millionaires, fewer Americans expressed fears that the land of opportunity no longer lived up to its name.
3) There are strong and weak objections to the argument that “there has never been a time or a place that is more meritocratic than America today.” On the Time site, the argument centers a great deal upon the cost of higher education. But more Americans are attending institutions of higher education than ever before.
No, it is beyond college, in the job market, that America’s meritocratic values seem shakier. During this recession, an untold number of Americans who did their jobs well lost those jobs through no fault of their own; the collapse of Kay-Bee Toys, Borders Books, Lehman Brothers, etc. meant job losses for the best and worst employees of those organizations. If a job is outsourced overseas because labor in the Far East is cheaper, it’s hard to see how that illustrates the lack of merit on the part of the newly unemployed. (They may be more expensive than employers are willing to pay, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have merit through skill, dedication, discipline, etc.)
Looking beyond who is hired and fired, the more activist federal government we’ve witnessed during the downturn sometimes seems to turn the definition of merit on its head. What’s more, as Glenn Reynolds writes in a column that touts Charles Sykes’s new book, A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing, this presidency seems to provide regular examples of government directing benefits to those who demonstrate the opposite of what was traditionally considered merit:
And, after a while, people who pay their bills on time start to feel like suckers. I think we’ve reached that point now:
* People who pay their mortgages — often at considerable personal sacrifice — see others who didn’t bother get special assistance.
* People who took jobs they didn’t particularly want just to pay the bills see others who didn’t getting extended unemployment benefits.
* People who took risks to build their businesses and succeeded see others, who failed, getting bailouts. It rankles at all levels.
. . . In a world of bailouts and crony capitalism — which is to say, in the world we live in today — a rational businessperson has to compare the return on investment between improving a product or service, or lobbying the government for goodies.
A nation of crony capitalism isn’t a land of opportunity, and that system establishes much higher barriers to upward mobility than that much-derided, allegedly cruel and heartless free-market capitalism. The metaphor of “climbing the ladder, then pulling it up behind them” would appear to fit those who rose to the top through a freer system of the past generation and who now are comfortable with a nation and culture where so much economic activity is spurred, and driven, by decisions in Washington.
One more thought: The human desire to find scapegoats and excuses for one’s disappointments in life is probably so widespread, deeply ingrained, and intractable that attempting to create and administer public policies to mollify it is probably a fool’s errand.