Stephen Marche writes in this month’s Esquire about the death of America’s most cherished fairy tale: that we are a land of opportunity, where “anyone can make it” if they just work hard enough.
That fairy tale hasn’t been true in a long, long time — such as it was ever true, which was barely. We all know this. But it’s gotten even worse in the past 10 years.
I remember telling My Conservative Friend that if you have money, it’s really hard to get rid of it, short of placing it all on the ponies, because the system is stacked in favor of the wealthy (and for a taste of what I’m talking about, go over to WhatMittPays.com and calculate your family’s tax rate at Mitt Romney’s special Vulture Capitalists’ rate.)
But I’ve come to realize that even this simplistic assessment is no longer true. If you have a little money, saved it up and bought a home or put it in an IRA or 401(k), these days it is easily wiped out by Wall Street shenanigans, like traders betting on Twitter trends and crooked brokers playing with supposedly secure customer funds. Your home can be taken away by a robo-signed foreclosure letter, then bulldozed by the bank.
No, the only people who are truly secure are the super-rich. Simple savings is no longer enough to prepare for the future and fund your kids’ college education, not in this modern era of the Wall Street roller coaster ride. If you want to feel a sense of security, you need to have the cushion enjoyed by the uber-wealthy, the kind of people who are so insulated and tone-deaf they can make a cavalier $10,000 bet on national television while their campaign staff cringes in the green room.
It’s nearly impossible to achieve this kind of wealth with old-fashioned bootstrap-pulling, the fairy tale of hard work and a good education. It’s the kind of money that is inherited. No one wants to admit it, but it’s the truth.
Because the truth of the matter is, while evidence to the contrary is all around us, we are so firmly attached to this “land of opportunity” fairy tale that people remain in deep denial about how truly fucked we are. Which is why, as Marche notes, we seek refuge in cultural indulgences like “Mad Men,” feel-good pleasures that remind us of the “good ol’ days” when the middle class really was expanding at a rate that made the fairy tale closer to reality.
Nostalgia: the last refuge of a dying empire.
The Great Outcry that has filled the country with inchoate rage is the bloody mess of this fundamental belief in the justice of American outcomes crashing headfirst into the new reality. The majority of new college grads in the United States today are either unemployed or working jobs that don’t require a degree. Roughly 85 percent of them moved back home in 2011, where they sit on an average debt of $27,200. The youth unemployment rate in general is 18.1 percent. Are these all bad people? None of us — not Generation Y, not Generation X, and certainly not the Boomers — have ever faced anything like it. The Tea Partiers blame the government. The Occupiers blame the financial industry. Both are really mourning the arrival of a new social order, one not defined by opportunity but by preexisting structures of wealth. At least the ranters are mourning. Those who are not screaming or in drum circles mostly pretend that the change isn’t happening.
Post-hope, it is hard to imagine even any temporary regression back to the days of the swelling American middle class. The forces of inequality are simply too powerful and the forces against inequality too weak. But at least we can end the hypocrisy. In ten years, the next generation will no longer have the faintest illusion that the United States is a country with equality of opportunity. The least they’re entitled to is some honesty about why.
For a sense of how entrenched this new social order has become, I offer you this piece of feel-good “career advice” I spied on Yahoo News:
Earn more, work less: 8 great jobs that escape the rat race
You know what those eight jobs are? Yoga instructor. Massage therapist. Make-up Artist. Private chef. Personal trainer. Internet tutor. etc. etc. etc. I read that and thought, WTF? Who is buying these services? Oh, right. Silly me. It seems the Ownership Class is telling us to just suck it up and accept the new social order: you will be happy helping Calista Gingrich get her makeup just right. Your best hope for being a success in modern America is to help Judith Kent Dimon stay young and beautiful looking.
Wake up and smell the coffee, America. We’re now a two-class society and it doesn’t appear things will be changing any time soon.