A Paucity of Prospects
Steve Brill—who created The American Lawyer and Court TV—wrote a fine piece for Time, published a few days ago, titled How Baby Boomers Broke America. (He adapted the article from Tailspin, which is available on May 29.) Mr. Brill aptly describes how my generation—Boomers, but he’s older and richer than I am, and the Boomer period encompassed Americans born between 1946 and 1964—has done well and pulled up the ladders as we wrap it all up. We got ours, and to hell with anyone else.
Matthew Stewart, a philosopher, has written a fabulous piece which you can read on line. (It will appear in The Atlantic’s June edition as The Birth of a New American Aristocracy, and I saw no reference to a book.) Mr. Stewart writes at length about the 9.9%—not the super wealthy, and not everyone else—and how our individual decisions have, collectively, left our brothers and sisters way behind. Way behind!
These gents, who have the smarts, the resources, and the time to really focus on important issues fully, have opened my eyes. I offer my thoughts, but I urge you to read what they’ve written. This stuff matters! Really!!!
Upset? Read On
Before I go further I need to borrow a few words from Mr. Stewart, to set the tone for my comments. He writes, about reactions to observations about the collective problem, thusly:
In part what we have here is a listening problem. Americans have trouble telling the difference between a social critique and a personal insult. Thus, a writer points to a broad social problem with complex origins, and the reader responds with, “What, you want to punish me for my success?”
Both pieces hit me hard, for I’m a card-carrying member of the meritocracy. I play by the rules. I’ve worked hard. I pay a price—ungodly amounts of stress, from time to time—taking on other people’s troubles. But. I. Have. Succeeded.
I live well. Hoity-toity hood. No day-to-day financial worries. I’m healthy. I’m in a loving relationship, my daughter and I get along famously, and I have plenty of friends (including my former spouse).
I don’t meet Mr. Stewart’s financial qualifications for the 9.9%, but I appreciate his recognition that wealth comes in many forms. Lots of advantages came my way, including parental expectations (high) and sacrifices (many). Connections up the wazoo. And, at least, an above average intellect and temperament. By any measure other than money, I’m rich.
And Mr. Stewart’s comments offend me not at all. Messrs. Brill and Stewart identify a situation not caused by malicious intent, mostly. With the benefit of hindsight, the rich have gotten richer because of policies and prerogatives, but no one consciously designed our status quo.
Still, both Mr. Brill and Mr. Stewart have me asking lots of questions:
What does the other half 90% think of me when they see me, and does older men calling me sir, even when I’m not lawyer-dressed, explain anything?
With one child, who attended “effectively reprivatized” public schools—Mr. Stewart’s term for public schools in Gilded Zip Codes—how much responsibility do I bear for the fact that so many children attend failing public schools? And did I let down society because we did not have more children?
I benefit from many tax expenditures but I also pay lots of income taxes; do I get a pass?
Does acknowledging my privileges matter at all? Can I do nothing else because, like many prominent people—Warren Buffet, Barack Obama, and Elizabeth Warren—I know many people account for why I am successful?
Does our religious and philanthropic culture count? Can we manage this problem with prayer and talent, time, and treasure?
What can I do? What can we do, any of us?
Again, I offer my thoughts not to blame anyone. We live our lives. Individually. But our actions, collectively, change the world. And as Messrs. Brill and Stewart demonstrate ably, not for the better over the past 50 or so years, at least for most of us.
Sadly, the writers offer not so many answers. I don’t have many either, but I do have a few quick thoughts.
Long term problem; no quick fixes.
Public schools made America great; we need to reaffirm our commitment to a quality public education for every child. (As for the shooting galleries we subject our children to, can we really accept the fact that 27 words prevent this nation—this exceptional nation, with its can-do spirit—from solving for gun deaths?)
With an aging, shrinking population, we need people from elsewhere. Now, working lawfully.
Maybe the natural course of a free society takes us here. A paucity of prospects for a bright future for the 290+ million Americans! (Read that number again, please, for it represents the 90% of Americans we’re leaving behind.) Free societies don’t do central planning, and many causes identified by Mr. Brill and Mr. Stewart reflect hidden choices, present for many years, with vested and powerful constituencies. (Try taking away 529 plans for college savings. Not so fast. Similar plans for private elementary and secondary education. Got ’em now. And does anyone think those plans work best for the lower 90%?)
I’m frightened for my country. Almost 300 million Americans won’t be listening to “bootstraps” arguments for a whole lot longer. They’ll blow, one of these days, and when some of them—the angry ones who elected our president—realize they’ve been had, they’ll be looking for someone to blame.