In my book, ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’, I make the case that the inequality problem that has surfaced in the twenty-first century in America is the direct result of the flaws in the American political system and the resulting dysfunction in Washington D.C.
That position calls for some elaboration.
There is nothing more un-American than to see a good segment of the American populus excluded from the rising welfare and prosperity that this nation is still producing. Charles Murray, in his seminal 2012 book ‘Coming Apart’, was one of the first political scientists to vividly illustrate that America is coming apart along the lines of birthright. He writes that the fortunate have created their enclaves where they cluster together in high priced real estate, out of reach for the general population (Murray calls it,“Belmont”), and that the unfortunate get similarly bunched up in dilapidated, drug infested, and crime ridden neighborhoods (Murray calls it,“Fishtown”).
Only the children of the fortunate can afford to go to the top prep schools, colleges, and universities. They get the better education, get to mingle with the right crowd, and end up getting the better jobs. Their parents themselves are educated at the nation’s top schools and thus have an elaborate network and the connections needed to climb the ladder. For them money is never an object. Because of the environment in which they live in Belmont, they get exposed to cultural influences that are out of reach for the inhabitants of Fishtown. They get to travel abroad and widen their horizons in a way that children from Fishtown can only imagine. If children from Belmont get in any kind of trouble, drugs, sex, or crime, there are abundant, but expensive, remedies available that can nip the problem in the bud before it gets out of hand. Social pressure and vigilance will further help staving off potential misdirection. Not so much for children growing up in Fishtown. They have a better chance of ending up in jail.
The authoritative weekly magazine The Economist writes in its January 24th, 2015 edition a cover article titled ‘America’s new aristocracy, Education and the inheritance of privilege’. In it the editors point to a remarkable consensus between politicians like Paul Ryan, Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, who agree about little else, that the chances of ordinary Americans rising to the top are not what they once were.
Under ideal conditions, social mobility is a two way divided highway: There is a lane open for people to move up the social ladder based on talent, hard work, and perseverance; and then, there is a lane for people to move down the social ladder based on the lack of these same attributes. Social mobility serves a nation optimally when it shows vibrant movement both up and down. Only then does it create a true meritocracy, where the most deserving (not the most privileged) reach the top and the least deserving (not the most under-privileged) hit bottom. But that appears to be missing in America today.
If America has indeed developed an inequality conundrum, the question should be asked: ‘Who is going to address it and how’. Reversing the trend of rising inequality will require a societal recognition that the acceptance of the separation between Belmont and Fishtown – and never the twain shall meet – is counterproductive to America’s chances to continue to lead the world in economic and social development. And it will be the task of the federal government to set the conditions for that societal recognition to take a hold. That should not be too hard, considering the political consensus that apparently already exists (according to The Economist).
The problems get more intransigent when it comes to figuring out how to reverse the trend and restore a functional level of social mobility. The first order of business is to accept that there is no single silver bullet solution to the problems. That the solution will have to come from dealing, systematically, with the shortcomings in some of the major building blocks of national strength like: education, immigration, healthcare, welfare, social justice, infrastructure, public finance and civic engagement.Unfortunately, the American political system as it operates today is utterly incapable of dealing with these big ticket items. I contend that it is this very inability of Washington D.C. to address and effectively deal with the big challenges of our time that stands in the way of restoring the quintessential American notion that with hard work, frugal and clean living, a good education and perseverance anybody can rise to the top. It is the ineffectiveness of the federal government that has, if not created the current level of inequality, certainly contributed to it and it is that same ineffectiveness that stands in the way of addressing and solving the issue of inequality.
That brings the inequality conundrum in clear focus: The deficiencies in the major building blocks of national strength will not be addressed and removed unless our system of governance is restored to functionality and inequality will not be brought back to acceptable proportions unless these deficiencies are addressed and removed. It all hangs together and America’s destiny hinges on the linchpin of a functional system of governance.