George W. Romney was the 43rd Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. His son went on to Harvard law school and Harvard business school, and is now the likely Republican nominee for president. Jamie Dimon was born on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, attended a prominent preparatory school, and is now the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. George H.W. Bush went to Yale, served in the U.S. Congress, and eventually became president. His son coincidently followed in his footsteps.
Mitt, Jamie, George: maybe you should send dad a thank you card.
To be fair, these three prominent Americans are not alone in their tales. Unfortunately, the narratives of rising from poverty to prosperity that once defined the American Dream are slowing slipping away.
The New York Times recently released a report outlining this trend. It determined that economic mobility -- the likelihood of rising from the lower class to the upper class, and vice versa -- is significantly lower in the United States than in Canda and many European countries. It has become increasingly clear that our destinies are no longer defined by our own accomplishments, but rather by those of our parents.
The report found that 62 percent of Americans who are born in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths. Likewise, 65 percent of those born into the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths. In a direct attack on the American Dream, just 8 percent of American men rose from the bottom to the top fifth, while 12 percent of the British did.
What is to blame for this trend? Alan Krueger, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, recently coined what he called the "Great Gatsby Curve." According to his research, there is a very strong negative correlation between economic mobility and economic inequality. In other words, the more inequality a country has, the less mobility it has.
Suddenly, the cries of the 99 percent from Occupy Wall Street seem to resonate even deeper. Even Republicans, who used to avoid discussions of inequality at all costs, are beginning to accept reality. Former Senator Rick Santorum, now a presidential candidate, admitted that the mobility "up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America." Congressman Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, wrote that "mobility from the very bottom up" is "where the United States lags behind."
Essentially, our basic economic structure is being brought into question. The American Dream was based on the concept of a meritocracy: no matter your starting point, hard work and good education will rise you to the top.
But we are now beginning to understand the reality. The rich are able to send their kids to the top private schools, pay for tutors to get them high SAT scores, and send them to the top private universities in the country. Poor children, on the other hand, have to worry about getting food on the table before they can worry about their education.
Meritocracies are great in theory, but they still do not correct for the fact that some will start out far ahead of others. Precisely, that is what the data suggests: prosperity is not contingent on hard work or effort, but rather on the arbitrary situation of your parents.
These views commonly invoke cries of socialism. But we can, in fact, make capitalism work. We simply need to ensure that we are taking steps to get everyone on an equal playing field.
That means higher taxes on the wealthy to stifle inequality and strengthen mobility. We can use the extra revenue to beef up our public schools, libraries, parks, and museums to rival those private schools and country clubs. We can send out more Pell Grants and lower the tuition of public universities. So long as our public institutions remain sub-par, the rich will retreat to their own institutions, further polarizing society and leaving the poor behind.
Fundamentally, we need to adopt a culture that understands our class structure. The poor are not poor because of bad work-ethic, but rather because they were arbitrarily placed in a less favorable position. And attempting to level the playing field is not class warfare, it is a recognition of reality that our current model favors our parents' accomplishments over our own.