THE BLOG
03/29/2011 11:09 am ET Updated May 29, 2011

Field of Dreams: Explaining Economic Mobility Through Baseball

How appropriate that our national pastime should be the perfect metaphor for how economic times have changed.

The American dream is based on the expectation that you will move from one base to another in a lifetime. If you start off working poor (1st base), you will at least end up middle class (2nd base). Those in the middle class (2nd base) expect they will end up living comfortably (3rd base). And most born on 3rd base know they'll spend their lives on the way to home plate, at least some of them joining those who are already there and never leave.

This system worked well enough for generations. Immigrants would go to bat and through hard work, make it to 1st base. Their kids would make it to 2nd, and enough of their kids' kids would make it to 3rd for a cycle of upward mobility to become a reasonable expectation. Those who didn't change class saw their class change. The life of a factory worker in 1900 was unrecognizable to his equivalent in 2000.

We are also the land of home runs. Many of America's great fortunes--Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Mellon-- grew from the humblest of beginnings. Those who watched their success envied it but did not begrudge it. They used it as motivation. In the United States, the idea that anyone can make it big if they just try is so enshrined in our national mythology it is virtually taboo to question it.

Understanding the hold of the home-run king on the American psyche explains a few things, like how the same swing voter can pull the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 and a Tea-Party Congressman in 2010. These perfectly well-meaning people don't understand that in a desire to keep the Horatio Alger trajectory as obstacle-free as possible, they have nurtured a system that now redounds almost entirely to the benefit of those who have already made it and don't need the help (Even worse, the narrative of success has been appropriated by this privileged class. Never have so many accomplished so little to keep so much, all the while imagining themselves to have run a gauntlet of obstacles every bit as challenging as if they'd been born in a one-room shack in an Appalachian holler.)

America is galloping backward to a degree of class immobility unseen since pre-World War I Europe. Almost everyone can expect to die now in the same class they were born in. In our media-driven culture, however, the relatively few exceptions to the rule are given so much exposure that they perpetuate magical thinking on a massive scale. Look at NeNe! If she can do it, I sure can! (Reality TV is the most ironic label ever devised: the delusions it engenders are in fact the epitome of unrealistic.)

And now, in the era of economic globalization, America cannot even continue to depend on consuming an outsized portion of world's riches to feed our historically disproportionate prosperity. Our entire population of 300 million equals just the Chinese who have moved from working to middle class in the last 20 years, and India is right behind them. With a tax system that so egregiously guarantees that the rich are the only ones getting richer, there is precious little elasticity in the American economy to make anything but stagnation for most even a possibility.

The only way to restore upward mobility for the many is to make downward mobility for the few a real likelihood. From hedge fund managers to Paris Hilton, a tiny sliver of Americans produces nowhere near the value to society reflected by their huge share of the economic proceeds. The time has come for the reduction of income inequality to become synonymous with the American dream, not anathema to it.

The top 1% need to get over the notion that if you have it, you must deserve it. And many of the Americans stuck on 1st and 2nd base need to understand that they are acquiescing in the very system that assures they are bound to stay exactly where they are, at best. They have to stop voting for the interests of the class they dream of joining and start voting for the interests of the class they're already in.

Note: I mistakenly referenced Alger Hiss, when I meant Horatio Alger--of "rags to riches" fame. Thank you to the grandson of Whittaker Chambers for the correction