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The Horatio Alger Myth and Class Mobility

by rdf Sat Feb 14th, 2009 at 11:46:16 AM EST

Frequent critics of government social programs raise one of the fundamental tenets of libertarian belief and I think it deserves an extended disucssion.

This is the idea of personal responsibility, especially for how far one goes in life. This is the Horatio Alger myth which was very popular during the high growth period of US history. Basically it is: poor boy works hard, succeeds in life. When this literary theme was popular it happened regularly. The US was a rapidly expanding economy, with an open frontier and many undeveloped natural resources.

Things have changed in the past few decades and this type of social mobility is much less common than before.



Here's a sample of reporting on the change:

As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls

Bhashkar Mazumder, a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economist, recently combined the government survey with Social Security records for thousands of men born between 1963 and 1968 to see what they were earning when they reached their late 20s or 30s. Only 14% of the men born to fathers on the bottom 10% of the wage ladder made it to the top 30%. Only 17% of the men born to fathers on the top 10% fell to the bottom 30%.

There is a nice graphic in the article which illustrates the data.

Now if there is a widespread social phenomena laying it to failures of personal virtue seems a poor explanation.  If the deck is stacked against you it is hard to get ahead. That a few individuals do it does not change the fundamental problem.

Those who point out the large social problems behind these trends are accused of coddling the slackers. It is the same mindset that disfavors welfare programs and says "I work hard, let them go out and get a job".

The biggest predictor of how well a student will do in school is the economic status of his parents. Are all these under performing children lazy or stupid? Or is there some other factor at work? Blaming the victim may make one feel morally superior, but does nothing towards solving the problem. If you really think that millions of people are morally inferior then you must have a rather poor opinion of the human race.

Let's assume that there are some underlying reasons why we have so little upward class mobility in this country, both compared to prior periods and also compared to other advanced societies. What are they?

The paper quoted cites the rise in wealth inequality, and this is something that I frequently point to as well. But wealth inequality is a result of other policies, not the cause. The cause is the institutionalization of wealth. Those who have it have gained political power as well and have used this power to restructure the legal framework of the nation.

There are several aspects of this.

  1. Changes in tax laws to enable the wealthy to keep more of their wealth and to pass it on to future generations. This include the changes estate taxes as well as the preferential treatment given to capital gains and dividend income. These are now taxed at a lower rate that the average income tax rate for middle class workers. These same workers have little or no income from capital gains and dividends so the rich are benefiting at the expense of the poor.

  2. Changes in campaign tactics to allow big money to have much more influence on elections. The creation of PAC's, the cost of buying TV ads and the ability of big donors to influence politicians have all biased elections against regular folks. Even when a person comes from a modest background they have to ally themselves with big money interests if they are going to be able to afford to run.

  3. Changes in the legislative process. The rise in lobbying and the revolving door between business and government has made legislators more in tune with these interests and less concerned with the issues of importance to the average person.

  4. The rise of multi-national firms which are now, in many cases, bigger than whole countries. Changes to international trade and tax rules ("globalization") have allowed these firms unprecedented power to play off one country against another and weakened the control that countries have over their own affairs.

  5. Lack of opportunity in the developed world. While there are still the occasional examples of entrepreneurs who have a big success (Google or Facebook) they are much less common in the West than in the developing world. For every Google there are hundreds of new enterprises creating millionaires in China and India. Why this is so could be a topic for an entire article, but a growing middle class and government support for entrepreneurship are important. So is the lack of an existing super wealthy class that is interested in preserving their privilege and keeping newcomers from competing.

What I find most surprising is the lack of outrage in this country over the poor hand that many people get dealt. Perhaps the recent highlighting of the excessive compensation in financial firms will awaken people to the underlying issues. The last time people understood the effects of class was 100 years ago.  

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It's interesting that if you actually analyse the Alger stories -- I read a social/lit-crit of them some years ago -- they do not really hinge on hard work.

Some may find this analysis excessively "revisionist" but I think the facts check:

Horatio Alger (1834-1899) wrote about 130 short novels. Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, which I read at the same age, they are all the same, yet all quite readable. Alger had a great gift for narrative. For some reason or other, I happened to pick one up as an adult. I was quite surprised at what I was reading. Then I read several more to see if that was an aberration. No, that part of my memory, at least, was correct; they are all exactly the same.

They feature a boy just at, or on the verge of, puberty, from the country or the slums. He comes to the center of the big city. He does work, but he doesn't work astonishingly hard, certainly not as compared to the majority of other working children in the days of legal child labor. He doesn't start his own business or invent a better mousetrap or find the Northwest Passage.

What really happens is he meets a rich older man who takes quite a fancy to him and sets him up with money and educates him and teaches him how to dress and conduct himself. There is, indeed, a "meet cute" in which the boy does something that draws that nice rich man's attention. It's usually something heroic, like stopping a team of galloping horses that's dragging a coach that is carrying the rich man's daughter.

This action is referred to in the books themselves and by people like those at the Horatio Alger Society as a sign of character. It is also a chance for the older man to notice how this boy stands out from the other boys. He has that forthright, noble-boy quality. Which is very, very attractive. Eager, earnest, shining. It's what draws priests to alter boys. In addition to the convenience, of course.

I do not understand how an adult can read Alger's stories and not realize that these were homosexual pedophile fantasies. Actually, it's a single fantasy repeated over and over again.

So I looked him up. And there it was. He had started out as a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was having sex with boys in his congregation. Two of them told their parents. He admitted to a certain "practice." He resigned and moved to New York City. There he became a writer and began churning out these fantasies as dime novels.

We have two distinct ideas of what happened when he went to New York. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, a critic, antiquarian bookseller, and gay activist, has written: "Alger continued his 'practice' although thereafter most often against types of boys nobody cared about, thus avoiding further trouble with authorities. The newsboys Alger glamorized in his fiction were in reality homeless child laborers who spent their nights in alleys or slum-squats .... Their plight included sexual exploitation ranging from outright rape to 'willing' prostitution."

Stefan Kanfer, writing in the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative propaganda mill, has a very different tale to tell: "The fugitive repaired to New York City in the spring of 1866. Though never to wear the cloth again, he resolved to live out the Christian ideal, expiating his sin by saving others." Upon seeing the slum children of New York, "an idea came to him .... He had sinned against youths; now he would rescue them and in the process save himself. He would do it as a novelist."

In this version, Alger never had sex with a young boy again (nor anyone, presumably, as there is no reference to marriages, mistresses, or an adult male companion). Kanfer describes also how Alger did many good works, works that kept him close to the youngsters he was trying to save, and how he helped many of them and found them places with his friends.

So, two distinct interpretations of Alger's reality.

Whatever the facts of Alger's personal life, the plotlines of the books are in the historical record and they are, indeed, all Cinderella stories for boys:  the young man's virtue and personality, not to mention his fresh-faced and honest good looks, attract the benevolent attention of an older, wealthy, powerful man who then smooths his way to privilege and position.  They are the boys' equivalent of the endless shelves of True Romance novels for girls and women, in which it is not really backbone or hard work that earn a living, but the appeal of the spunky, courageous young protagonist to a far more powerful elder male who lifts him/her out of struggle and into ease.

If Horatio Alger is really the moral literature of the Far Right, then the real sin of the poor is that too many of them are neither young nor cute, or that there are too many even of the young and cute ones, exceeding the capacity of the handful of sentimental rich people who have chronic rescuing tendencies :-)  

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sat Feb 14th, 2009 at 01:00:01 PM EST
Bravo! You've motivated me to go read Horatio Alger.

It seem that your critique shows Alger's books to be fundamentally conservative, by the way.  The social structure is celebrated, not challenged.  Had he written books about young men (or women) achieving against the odds and through hard work, they would in fact have been slightly more progressive.

by cambridgemac on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 09:19:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the one hand, the stories seem to plainly reflect a narrative of sexual predation, and further to have been written by a sexual predator.  

On the other, they are used to support a claim or myth about the efficacy of industry and hard work, though the stories themselves contain nothing of the kind.  

Which myth sides-steps the fact that the actual socio-economic playing field is not "level." and "hard work" really has nothing to do with social status, respect, or success.  

Which further side-steps the fact that a just society is fair to everybody, and not just the few who happen or manage to be "upwardly mobile."  

Further, the real core of "conservative values" seems to be a commitment to (committing or enabling) abuse.  

Which closes the largest Chinese box inside the smallest, and around again.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 07:10:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers pretty much dispells the myth of the hero going on to great success by dint (I love that word) of hard work, pluck, and smarts. It just doesn't work that way. In the vast, vast majority of cases, the successful,

"...got a big head start, an opportunity they neither deserved nor earned. And that opportunity played a critical role in their success."

Your Horatio Alger stories are accurate as far as that goes, streaming and mentoring are huge. Right in the opening of the book, he details why boys get ahead in the Canadian Junior Hockey League meritocracy: the cut off date for boys age X is such that those born in the first three months of the year have a little bit more maturity, status, growth than those born closer to the cut off date.

And the advantage is cumulative, these boys start off doing marginally better, and get more attention, support and direction than the rest. They are put into the hockey "stream." The advantage continues accumulating all the way through that person's career. Those who make it into the NHL exhibit the same pattern of birthdate distribution as those in the Juniors. Those born 5 or 6 months later have little chance right from the start.

Alger was right. It's not a moral, it's a dynamic.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 09:30:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you look at the Wikipedia entry you will find there are two, one for Horatio Alger the person and the other entitled "Horatio Alger Myth".

The myth has a life of its own. The myth is that hard work leads to rewards in life, that's why I coupled it with the studies which show that inter-class mobility has decreased in the past few decades.

If you want to discuss the fact that the myth is, well, a myth that's fine, but this is irrelevant to the main point.

Mobility has declined and my thesis is that it is not due to an increase in wealth disparity, but that wealth disparity is yet another symptom of the power disparity in the US.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 10:07:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sorry rdf, I was not attempting to derail your main point -- w/which I agree, obviously -- but fascinated by the fact that the myth to which the conservatives cling is itself a myth, i.e. that Horatio Alger, mythwright, did not even say what they say he said.  this is actually pretty typical -- much of the praxis and dogma of the "Christian" established church has precious little to do with the text of the NT, let alone any remote, irrecoverable historical Jesus;  Marx was not a Marxist;  Darwin never uttered the simplistic tropes repeated by crypto-Darwinists;  Adam Smith was in fact skeptical and mistrustful of sharp practises on the part of business owners, and so on.

this is all a sideshow -- of sorts -- to the main drama of dispossession, Enclosure and immiseration aka the Story of Capitalism, whose endgame is playing out in our time.  and yet, if we understood a little better the tenacity of these myths, or our preference (as individuals and a culture) for an invented history or dogma over the complicated texture of fact, we might get a better handle on the possibilities for social change?  (I am not becoming a Straussian, btw -- I don't to say that we should learn to manipulate this human frailty, but somehow compensate for it...)


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 16th, 2009 at 12:50:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
whose endgame is playing out in our time.

That's been said before.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Feb 16th, 2009 at 01:07:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
with social mobility I'd like to see the "problem" of unrestricted human reproduction (in places other than Communist China) addressed.  Perhaps the poor would breed less if they had better things to do.

I don't mind living poor; have done so all my life.  True, I would not want to be a Gaza citizen at this stage in human history.  

I do not envy the wealthy/powerful.  We are all stuck on this rock for one life sentence, and as Jim Morrison once sang, "No one here gets out alive."

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 06:11:36 AM EST
Your comments are really offensive. You imply that the poor are stupid and like rabbits.

In point of fact the strongest correlation between birth rate is the level of education of women, not their income. The west has done a very poor job of supporting education in poor countries, preferring instead to supply arms.

The US, especially under Bush, has worked to make family planning worse by putting arbitrary restrictions on what such money could be used for. Obama has now reversed the worst of these policies.

Get women educated and able to earn their own money and the birth rate falls within a generation.

Should you be treated seriously when you post under a pseudonym and with a phony email address? I have little respect for people who can't put their name on their opinions.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 08:33:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - The Horatio Alger Myth and Class Mobility
What I find most surprising is the lack of outrage in this country over the poor hand that many people get dealt.

This is pretty much the case for most of America and Europe. This shows how much the dominant culture has been successful at brainwashing most of us.

This is especially true in the USA where the "American Dream" myth is stronger than ever (although cracks are beginning to appear...), "Only in America..." as you pointed out should be more accurately replaced by "Only in India or China...".

But myths and accuracy are two very different things, obviously...

by Bernard on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 09:38:24 AM EST
Besides the various possible changes to inherited wealth, how does one approach the problem of inherited knowledge about what is the right thing to do? In the Horatio Alger example cited above, the rich guy teaches the poor kid how to dress. In modern society, who teaches the low income parent how to dress? How to buy nutritious food. How to not have more kids than can be fed? (See above also!)

Suppose someone from a poor family gets into Harvard or Oxford (or French/German/Spanish equivalent), but doesn't know how to hold his fork correctly, or wear makeup correctly. How is society to fix this problem?

I believe that in the good old days organizations like the BBC and CBS made an effort to use their nationally received version of English pronunciation, for example, so at least in theory a kid from Wales or the East End or Mississippi or Yonkers would have an example of how to talk "properly." But now we have traded that in for more realistic entertainment, taking away this one small example of support for upward mobility...  

by asdf on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 10:34:10 AM EST
asdf:
Suppose someone from a poor family gets into Harvard or Oxford (or French/German/Spanish equivalent), but doesn't know how to hold his fork correctly, or wear makeup correctly. How is society to fix this problem?

That chimes in with a comment I heard about All Souls College, Oxford, alleging that any prospective fellows had their table manners scrutinized during dinner in hall, prior to their election.

You're clearly a dangerous pinko commie pragmatist.

by Vagulus on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 03:40:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
asdf:
I believe that in the good old days organizations like the BBC and CBS made an effort to use their nationally received version of English pronunciation, for example, so at least in theory a kid from Wales or the East End or Mississippi or Yonkers would have an example of how to talk "properly." But now we have traded that in for more realistic entertainment, taking away this one small example of support for upward mobility...  

interesting take i never heard before.

it's a tricky issue, the standardisation of dialects to some common norm.

it is sad to see a child born and raised in hawaii, (say), is told not to speak pidgin when that's the vernacular with which she is comfortable. it seems like 'whitefella-isation' and brings back redolent memories of 'missionary colonialism', the same ignorant force that planted thorn trees on the beaches there to prevent 'unchristian' behaviour in the tropical moonlight.

this rootcutting has always really offended me, as it cuts to the core identity of a person, effectively depersonalising him, to force 'received' english for example... it always sounded so phoney, the diction of bbc presenters, it was cartoon toffee nose, plummy stuff, and it they wore it like a moss bros rentatux.

so i grew up kinda despising what it symbolised. those are the cons.

the pros are obvious, there's no way a cornishman would have understood much coming out of the mouth of someone from the isle of mull, 200 years ago.

same here in italy, though the italian spoken by tv anchors aren't trying to sound like arch duchesses, imitating the royal cutglass!

i see the good too, that's why i think a global language is optimal for all. the strides toward understanding between nations have been ginormous, as more and more people have access to the text based world, images and music aren't enough.

it's just hard to hear the bland, unrooted, cadences of tv language and feel much. while listening to the tones of people speaking dialects, well, it's the music of the area, w-a-a-ay pre-textual, and has effects like music. the welsh are amazing like that, they sing while they talk. many primitive peoples were perceived to have 'singsong' voices for the same reasons.

tv talk has so much less soul, but it works...

god knows we need all the unity we can conjure right now.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Feb 19th, 2009 at 03:51:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting diary, but are these numbers actually all that bad?

Only 14% of the men born to fathers on the bottom 10% of the wage ladder made it to the top 30%. Only 17% of the men born to fathers on the top 10% fell to the bottom 30%.

If there was perfect mobility you would expect rises and fall of 30%, so 14% and 17% do not seem so bad seeing as how they are the numbers for the biggest (and hence most difficult) rise/fall.

In any case such numbers are a distraction. The rich-poor gap is far more critical that the background of the people that make up any given 10% bracket. There will always be a poorest 10% no matter what way the cake is cut. I would be happy with less class mobility as long as the gap was narrowing (hell, at this stage I would take it if the gap simply stopped expanding).

by det on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 11:59:04 AM EST
But the demographic composition of the topmost - say - 10 % can be interesting for other reasons. Such as the undesirable nature of hereditary oligarchies.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 12:18:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm surprised it's 14%. Of that 14%, I'll bet that somewhere along the line, almost everyone in that group (my guess is 80-90% of them) had someone who personally took that person in hand (a teacher, another relative, whoever) and guided her/him along during the critical early/adolescent/young adult years.

Expectations, networks of support, exposure, and guidance are all vital parts of later success.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Sun Feb 15th, 2009 at 09:41:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So is the lack of an existing super wealthy class that is interested in preserving their privilege and keeping newcomers from competing.

I strongly disagree. The super wealthy often have a high interest in helping others to create new enterprises (And I don't mean just as investment, but really e.g. as professors at universities). I don't see the slightest indication that this would be a major source for the lack of more entrepreneurship in the West. Apart from patenting, environmental and social protection laws, and such stuff, Western laws are much more friendly to social mobility than in India or China. In India, you might not even learn reading and writing, if you have bad luck with respect to which family you are born.
An increasing middle class helps of course, but it maybe the other way around. The middle class increases, if there are many people with a mentality keen on founding enterprises. In the West you can have a nice live by just doing what others want you to be done, if you are talented. In India or China, this is much more difficult. And are there really so much more stories of people getting super rich - normed to the population, than in the West? And is this wealth created in the 'real economy' or just good luck on volatile financial markets?

For sure you don't want to take their laws over to reach a better result.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Mon Feb 16th, 2009 at 12:24:08 PM EST
Martin:
Western laws are much more friendly to social mobility than in India or China

that's true, and one of the positive forces released by early industrialism, new money earned in the factories enabled the peasants to aspire to a middle class life, less tied down to land and season.

there was more social justice in the meritocracy of money than when monarchy and aristocracy were the only rule.

the problem came with pollution on the ground and in the skies and waters, and in the psychology of the last century, where the relative good of money was claimed as absolute, ala ayn rand.

here's an opinion you may enjoy, martin

The Archdruid Report

It's easy to turn scientism into the villain of this particular piece, but scientism is simply a recent example of the human habit of using successful technique to define the universe. Hunting and gathering peoples see the animals they hunt and the plants they gather as the building blocks of the cosmos; farming cultures see their world in terms of soil, seed, and the cycle of the year; the efforts of classical civilization to inhabit a wholly logical world, and those of modern industrial civilization to build a wholly scientific one, are simply two more examples. Nor was scientism always as maladaptive as it is today. During the heyday of the industrial age, it directed human effort toward what was, at that time, a successful human ecology. In retrospect, scientism's limitless faith in the power of human reason turned out to be a case study in what the ancient Greeks called hubris, the overweening pride of the doomed. At the time, though, this wasn't obvious at all, and there's a valid sense in which scientism has become problematic today simply because its time of usefulness is over.

Still, the cultures best suited to the deindustrial age will have to embrace an attitude toward nature differing sharply from scientism: an attitude that starts from humility rather than hubris, remembering that "humility" shares the same root as "humus," the soil on which we depend for the food that keeps us alive. That attitude offers few justifications for today's arrogant notions about humanity's place in nature. Still, just as Greek logic was pulled out of the rubble of the classical world and put to use in a string of successor civilizations, the scientific method is worth hauling out of the wreckage of the industrial age, and could function just as well in a culture of environmental humility as it does in today's culture of environmental hubris. My guess, for what it's worth, is that the environmental sciences offer the most likely meeting ground for such a project of rescue.


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Feb 19th, 2009 at 05:15:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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