Do Americans – or at least a significant portion of them — resent success? To hear some tell it, the biggest division in the country today is between those striving for success – and those who want to tear down the successful. According to presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama and the Democrats fall into the latter category.
When President Obama remarked in a recent speech that “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Romney took the opportunity to accuse the president of scapegoating the successful. “I’m not going to apologize for my dad’s success, but I know the president likes to attack fellow Americans,” Romney told Fox News. “He’s always looking for a scapegoat, particularly those that have been successful like my dad, and I’m not going to rise to that.”
The real issue, of course, isn’t success – Obama, after all, has been successful enough in his life to get elected to the Presidency, and he’s not apologizing for that. It’s whether those from a wealthy background, like Romney, have an unfair advantage.
There’s no question the United States is an unequal society — and one that is getting more unequal by the day. As economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have famously shown us, our current levels of inequality are nearly as high as they were in the days just before the stock market crash of 1929. Indeed, we’re more divided economically than Russia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
But is this kind of inequality bad if everyone has the opportunity to succeed? In the Wall Street Journal, Holman L. Jenkins Jr. takes on what he calls the “inequality obsessives” for downplaying the possibility of upward mobility, painting the U.S. as a Horatio-Algeresque wonderland in which we witness
a giddy process of wealth creation by people from middle-class backgrounds who start companies or become Wall Street traders or CEOs or celebrity performers in entertainment and sports.
Does the U.S. really resemble the land of opportunity of Jenkins’ imagination? While it is true that some middle-class kids do indeed end up making fortunes on Wall Street, or with their own companies, actual stories of “rags to riches” are exceedingly rare. Research by economist Tom Hertz shows that a child born into a poor family (in the lowest decile of family income) has only a 1.3% chance of making it into the top decile. Meanwhile, a child born rich (in the highest decile) has a nearly 30% chance of becoming as wealthy as his or her parents.
But hope springs eternal; Americans, historically, have been far more interested in celebrating the opportunity they have to become rich than they have been in dwelling on the odds against it.
I’m reminded of a memorable scene in in the sadly underrated Dumb and Dumber, in which Jim Carrey’s less-than-brilliant character Lloyd asks the girl of his dreams whether or not he’s got a chance with her. She tells him the odds aren’t good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.
There’s a long and deliciously awkward pause, then Lloyd responds, with a smile on his face: ”So you’re telling me there’s a chance! YEAH!”
Americans by and large don’t resent success, or the successful. This is the country, after all, that invented the notion of the “self-made man,” and which sent countless Horatio Alger novels about upwardly mobile match-boys to the top of the bestseller lists in their day. We just prefer our million- and billionaires to have a little dirt under their fingernails, because true rags-to-riches stories remind us that upward mobility is still possible (and maybe even for us, too).
We’re less likely to lionize those who start the race with big advantages. In Caddyshack, we root for nouveau riche Rodney Dangerfield, not old-money stuffed-shirt Ted Knight. In The Social Network we root for the prickly outsider Mark Zuckerberg, not his one-time rivals the Winklevoss twins. Mitt Romney’s problem isn’t that he’s rich; it’s that, to a lot of Americans, he’s the wrong kind of rich. He’s Winklevoss rich.
That may be why Romney has been peppering his campaign speeches with references to his grandfather, a man whose life was far less financially comfortable than his famous grandson’s has been. “My dad’s dad went broke more than once,” Romney recently told a crowd in Pennsylvania. And it’s probably why, in the speech he gave last night in New Hampshire effectively declaring victory in the GOP primaries and launching the general election, he emphasized the Algeresque biography of his own father, “who grew up poor and never graduated from college … Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”
Trouble is, it’s not Romney’s father or grandfather who’s running for president. The particular nature of Romney’s success is likely to remain an issue, at least through November.