A Sluggish Dream in America

I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see all of them. This post is the second of three in a series on Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.

Today’s American Dream: Go to school, work hard and keep your nose to the grindstone, and by golly, you’ll rise up. According to political philosopher and author Michael Sandel, the credo no longer fits the facts on the ground for a growing number of Americans.

Meritocracy, as defined in my first post on Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit, is the system of just rewards for talent and effort – part and parcel of the American Dream. What possibly could be wrong with this system?

“Meritocratic hubris,” Sandel writes, “reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It is the smug conviction of those who land on the top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too” (hardcover, p. 25).

It’s a good system that has benefitted multiple millions (mostly white males) for multiple decades. Yet, as American society since 1980 has increasingly tolerated a stifling and dividing inequality, this merit system has increasingly become more myth than reality – even for white males. If you are born into economic poverty today in the US, your chances of rising out of it are no greater than 4 percent.

For those born after 1980, American inequality, as if the air we breathe, is completely ubiquitous. Today, the American Dream is alive and well in places like Denmark, Norway and Canada. There’s a caveat: The listed countries are also better than the US at progressively taxing their rich citizens in order to redistribute wealth and economic outcomes, significantly mitigating socio-economic inequalities.

These countries have accepted the reality that in the 21st century’s advanced economies, mobility – up or down – is difficult. In the US, we perpetually await the next big wave of economic growth that make all of us, including those who have been left out economically, prosperous and secure.

According to economist Robert Gordon, this type of economic growth will never come. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press, 2016), Gordon has one major message that he wants to get across: The great inventions and innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that created the incredible economic growth that in turn drove the standard of living higher in the United States was “a revolution that could only happen once.” (Link here to my posts on Gordon’s book.)

Sandel, Gordon and others label the belief that the economy will cure all ills as “market triumphalism.” Part of this belief system includes the conviction (based in meritocratic hubris) that those of us on the top are not required to do anything – volunteer at a food pantry, give charitably or philanthropically to organizations that assist the economically disadvantaged, or advocate for policy changes (like progressive taxation) – to change fortunes for those on the bottom. The market will get it done. Those left out, if they want to get ahead, simply need to play the game by the rules: Go to school, get a job, keep their nose to the grindstone . . .

In previous generations, a majority of American men (and some women) ably supported themselves and their families without the benefit of a college degree. Those egalitarian days are long gone.

Since the end of WW II, the college graduation rate for Americans has steadily risen. In 1980, 20 percent of Americans, twenty-five years of age and older, had a four-year college degree. Today, 36 percent of Americans have a four-year college degree. This current figure broken down racially: 40 percent for whites, 26 percent for Blacks, 58 percent for Asian-Americans, and 19 percent for Hispanics. Each year since 2014, women have outnumbered men in the attainment of college degrees.

These figures are the highest they’ve ever been in this country. I went to college and met my future spouse there. We both graduated. Both our fathers graduated from college a generation before we did. My wife and I have three children, all eventually attaining a four-year college degree. All three of them wanted to go to college – it would have been a difficult situation in our household if one of them had wanted to veer off the designated track.

As a bilingual parish pastor for more than twenty-five years, I helped shepherd a number of Hispanic teenagers to college where they became the first ones in their families to not only attend but graduate from college.

Going to college, more often than not, seems the best option for a high school grad. But student debt in the US has skyrocketed, and economic and social inequalities have increased while social mobility has stalled. The American Dream has become sluggish, even for those who are playing the game by the rules.

Sandel counsels those of us on the upside of the “diploma divide” in this country to be slower to judge those on the other side of it. “The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves. If my success is my own doing, their failure must be their fault. This logic makes meritocracy corrosive of commonality” (p. 59).

These are threatening and precarious times for democracy. We live in an era of “winners and losers,” and Sandel says the odds are already stacked in favor of those on the upside.

“If,” he states, “I truly believe my success is due to my good fortune rather than my own doing, I am more likely to feel an obligation to share this good fortune with others” (p. 143).

It’s time for us to embrace a notion of common good more comprehensive than the consumerist one the market has sold us. More on that in the upcoming third and final post on this book.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

2 thoughts on “A Sluggish Dream in America

  1. I like his term “meritocratic Hubris.” Some how this seems to fit Trump especially well!
    The college issue is complex, and I know it is a favorite metric for the polls. It strikes me that my parents’ generation went to further education specifically to get credentials for work. My mother went to “teachers college” (not 4-yr) because that would give her credentials to teach country school, MA’s mother went to “nursing school” run by hospitals to get a nursing credential. Same with medical schools, seminaries, high school teachers, accountants, lawyers. Only the wealthy for the most part went to college because that’s what you were supposed to do to become an educated person who benefited society, and helped you develop leadership skills to lead in business and government, as well as develop contacts with other leaders.
    I would add that it’s not coincidence that the countries you cite where there is still mobility are also countries that have developed medical/health systems that are efficient in terms of outcome and cost, and are universal. As long as America continues with the regressive incentives of a fee for service system, with the suffocating administrative costs of private insurance, reliance on employer based coverage, and the exclusion of the poor from first class healthcare, we will continue to stagnate.


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