The Rich Man’s Burden; or, Trading Lessons Between the Classes

This week’s Economist reduces to op-ed form what is (apparently — I choose to take them at their word) the thesis of Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: the State of White America. That is, that the social morality of the haves- in this country, the 1 or maybe 10% who serially send their kids to top colleges, and operate as thought leaders in the modern world, is something that can and should be taught to the lower classes, both to stabilize lower-class attitudes towards the family and the value of work, and to cultivate a stronger shared national culture. If his diagnosis of the problem comes off as patronizing — and it does, but because Murray has a habit of saying controversial things with grains of truth to them, we should elide that small sin — his solution has a lot to commend it. Murray proposes that by encouraging interaction between the classes, we can arrest the escalating isolation that entrenches class divides, creates disparate worldviews, and contributes to political polarization, and in the process, the rich can model the virtues of stable family life and entrepreneurship, which will, in turn, help the nation as a whole.

Call it “trickle-down values,” built on the assumption that, for some reason, the rich lead more stable, wholesome, and moral lives. And challenge it if you like, but it’s hard to argue with Murray’s numbers (even if his causal inference, that wealth breeds responsibility and not vice versa, remains vulnerable). The broader point, that we should do something about our increasingly divided nation, holds up. Pace Republicans, but President Obama’s “class warfare” is a symptom, not a cause of, an inequality issue that’s gone unacknowledged for too long. If conservatives need a case like Murray’s to interest them in uniting the country, so be it.

Separately, though, I would question whether the rich couldn’t also stand to learn something substantive — not just cultural — from the rest of the country.

As conservatives instruct Americans to remember to live within their means, they simultaneously prop up a financial system predicated on hyper-leveraged finance, imaginary money (the “Synthetic CDO”), selfish exploitation (if “the Magnetar Trade” doesn’t qualify as actionable fraud, it’s at least bad citizenship), and simple irresponsibility. As a former lawyer for top financial institutions, I can now tell you, of course without naming names, that some banks’ trading practices betray an almost shocking level of recklessness. There’s one bank that executed billion-dollar trades, but never kept track of their paperwork, meaning no-one at the bank knew, at any point prior to the credit crisis, what they owed or how to mitigate losses once the bottom fell out. And this apparently isn’t abnormal. If the 1% statistically stand as role models for private morality, their public morality, sense of civic duty, and responsibility to the larger society are all easily eclipsed by the average soldier. Or that soldier’s family, living paycheck to paycheck and enduring the absence of a family member as he (or she) fights their country’s wars.

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Astonished with America at the turn of the 18th century, Alexis de Tocqueville famously of us, “there is no class here.” Consistent with their broader approach to “American exceptionalism,” so many Republicans would treat that as a static fact, inherent in the nation, unchangeable. But it’s high time to acknowledge that past victories are triumphs to live up to, not laurels to rest on. Rich and poor alike have a lot to learn from each other about being good citizens.

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3 comments

  1. It frankly seems to me that all this talk of “American exceptionalism” and “the American dream” and all that is more a question of romanticism than actual reality, considering that social mobility is actually way higher in many European countries than in the United States these days. Further to that, I’m not even sure what particular ‘values’ these elites are supposed to teach, either, since most of them probably inherited their money and opportunities anyhow.

    In my opinion, it’s all about health care and education. Get a universal health care system introduced, fix your public schools, and take money completely out of the equation when it comes to selecting students for the top universities (maybe even free education – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). Everything else follows from that.

  2. I entirely agree. But the sad thing is, I don’t think you get anywhere by saying “The American Dream isn’t working anymore,” even if it isn’t. Especially if you invoke Europe, no matter how right you may be :). If you listen to Republicans, for example, they never say “the Dream is over,” they say, “we have to guarantee it for our children too.” Take Rubio (please) in this segment:

    Most Republicans appear to believe that social mobility is as strong as it ever has been (“Haves and Soon-to-Haves”).

  3. […] it’s hard to deny the first three steps, especially if we believe that cultural mixing is, even to conservatives, a good […]

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