I was at a networking meeting last year, when two new guests arrived. The more vocal of the two started touting such notions as “our system keeps people poor” and “if we would just tax the rich more, we could fix our education system.”
The former deserved some devil’s advocate play, but that latter deserved a smack of common sense. I had to stop her twice from her mantra to ask, to no avail, how it could be an acceptable argument that spending more money would solve a problem when we were already spending more per capital on education than any other nation on Earth. She simply could not process the notion and resumed her tirade against the rich as the cause of all poverty and disadvantage.
She couldn’t even tell me what she meant by “rich”. It wasn’t even the usual, vaporous, “you know … those people who own everything.” So I asked her, point blank, “How much money do I have to make before I become part of this elite, evil class?” The term “deer in the headlights” came to mind.
Now I’m a darn diplomatic person. I openly accept people’s differing perspectives, opinions, and beliefs. It is arguable both for and against the position that our economic system prevents, rather than encourages social mobility. Growing income disparity, after all, is the latest buzzword topic around the water cooler these days, along with it’s ready-made assumptions and implications. But sometimes just posing a challenging contrary argument, fact, or even possibility will set someone off if they’re on the edge. And in this case it was most definitely an emotional matter for them. I should have known better.
The statistic that the vast majority of present millionaires are first-generation was met with profound incredulity. The possibility that lack of social mobility was due in any part by personal factors such as generationally-passed values and habits was offensive. When I mentioned the premise behind the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, where success is dependent on, or at least highly influenced by how children are taught to handle money, work ethic, etc.., her immediate comeback was, “Well it must have been written by a rich person.”
“If that’s the case, then they would be well qualified to talk on the subject.”
Oops … she started to snap at this point. It devolved into an incoherrent shouting of questionable facts and opinions to where we literally could not understand what she was saying and the hosts called a mutual time out. Near the volley’s end, it was even implied I was a bigot.
The other woman, a friend of the first who seemed to be taken under the wing of the first, was African-American. She told us earlier in the conversation that she had dropped out of college from lack of funds, being poor and all. In her mind, there was nothing she could do. Shocked, I informed here there were plenty of scholarships for minorities. Her response was that even if that were true, she couldn’t get her hands on them because “it was too hard” and the guidance counsellors didn’t tell her. It was the system’s fault, it seemed, or rather it seemed a comfort to her that she didn’t have to try again (and possibly fail) if she could hold such a belief.
The Bigger Issue
There are obviously obstacles to social advancement, and there is no denying people have different starting gates and weights they must bear. But what of the tremendous psychological impedimentum of ASSUMING there is little or no chance for social mobility? What purpose does that serve? One likely answer is a bit embarrassing.
What if the belief in an oppressive class is an exuse for so many people’s personal shortcomings? I find it a weak position, this belief there is a “them” distinct and separate from the not-as-rich “us”. It’s like they are an alien race, don’t live among us, rent the same movies, drive the same streets, breathe the same air. But there must be an enemy to blame, and their degree of moral degradation must be equivalent by how much more successful they are than us. After all, none of us deserve to be however poor we are, do we? If life were fair, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to survive — we would just have whatever we want on our own terms. You know, like rich people. I’m sorry … I just can’t keep my hands steady to type any more of such nonsense.
With this woman, and so many others, the emotional assumption that they deserve better (and it must be someone else’s fault) is worn on their sleeves. That saddest irony is that they went to the meeting because they were trying to become successful entrepreneurs themselves, as if it were possible given their attitude. Without some change of heart, it would be a cruel yet assured bet they never will be. And it will somehow be the fault of people like me if I’m the ones who — in their eyes — make it.
The “Success Is Evil” Assumption
I think it is somewhat self-evident that influential human beings at all income percentiles have varying levels of conscience like anyone else, or else the world would be in a lot worse shape. Philanthropists do exist, after all, and with great impact. Corporations run by people making millions of dollars a year win awards as best employers, and even public broadcasting would not be possible without advertising … ahem, I mean “contributions” … by entities run by the upper echelons of wealth. And this is on top of the top 5% already paying almost half the taxes.
So what intellectual construct have we created to insulate us from the idea that the rich might NOT be oppressing us? It is based on the thouroughly 19th Century European notion that those in charge of the means of production (companies) make their money “off the backs” of the working class (employees)? This has been a sentiment quite effective in stirring the masses to revolution — and it has, most notably resulting in the Soviet Union and Totalitarian China. It is the insitigation twoard class war threatening our own society. But here’s an argument that hard to dismiss: If class oppression was significantly applicable to America and it’s Free Market, there would have been a revolution a long time ago, not just the reverse-classism of the poorly-aged hippie ideologies permeating today’s politics.
No, I think the egg comes before the chicken on this one. People tend to harbor a subconscious belief that having power, or wealth, or success in any real measure requires playing the game unfairly — that if “they” have something “we” don’t, they must have been willing to do something (unethical) that we are not. This psychologically turns the table from feelings of inferiority to moral superiority. That was visible in spades at the meeting, and I’ve seen undertones if it throughout recent political rhetoric — defining Liberal and Progressive initiatives in more imposing, absolutist moral terms than the average Right-Wing Evangelical could have come up with.
I say we need the courage to ask the hard questions: What if the “things” only some are willing to do are more often other kinds of choices, such as really hard work, sacrifice, planning, and integrity? What if just working hard without a plan and hoping it pays off isn’t enough? Is it possible to fail even if we do our best? Can’t a Meritocracy be inherently more fair, or should everyone just succeed equally when some are simply more able? We really need to ask ourselves WHY we believe what we do on these counts, and with honest, not the subliminal interjections of an anachronistic Engels or Marx. If you disagree with the above assessment, does your emotional reaction precede a justification, or the other way around?
Sometimes I think everyday people are the ones who insist on living in a world where being good doesn’t pay and being selfish and evil does. It’s so much easier on the conscience when you don’t succeed — but then is probably the reason you won’t.