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Page added on December 29, 2008

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The upside of downward mobility

…Our “can do” spirit and “anything is possible” determination tamed the frontier, helped win two world wars, invented countless technologies, and put a man on the moon. But the way our success mutated over time into the expectation that our kids would always do even better has created three problematic ways of thinking:

The first is that we’ve overestimated the power of the individual to shape his own economic destiny. The thread running through our admiration of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln on to such modern icons as Bill Gates, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama is the celebration of the self-made man: In America you shape your own destiny via determination and hard work. The corollary of our faith in the individual has been a tendency to judge harshly those who fail. After all, with so much opportunity for the taking, if you can’t make it in America, it’s probably your own fault. The question is whether our instincts here have been shaped by a faith that no longer accurately reflects the prospects of even many hard-working Americans in the global economy.

The second problematic way of thinking is what the author and Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson has called America’s sense of “entitlement.” In this view, we became so spoiled by progress that we presumed endless growth was simply our due – and believed further that this growth would enable us to solve virtually every social problem, from poverty to racial animus to health inequities. This is the economic face of American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. is somehow destined to be blessedly immune from the travails that ordinary nations face. The distrust of government that has become the legacy of such hubris makes the work of reform harder today, because a high burden of proof is imposed on those who would use government for new purposes.

There’s a third worrisome attitude traceable to our faith that the kids will earn more than we do. This is the imprudent conviction that we can live beyond our means, because somehow we’ll earn enough later to deal with any problems. This outlook represents a dramatic shift from earlier American thinking, as the sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1976. “Twentieth-century capitalism wrought a … startling sociological transformation,” he wrote, “the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism.” Both as individuals and as a society, we’ve been gambling on better days tomorrow to make good on unsustainable borrowing today.


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