Is the American Dream dead? Is economic mobility a myth? The foundational promise of America is that anyone, if they work hard and play by the rules, can enjoy a secure, middle-class life. Christian Cooper and Khiara Bridges join us to discuss the prevailing narrative that we each control our own economic destiny.
Christian Cooper: Derivatives trader and author. Frequent commentator in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Financial Times, and Bloomberg News. Director of Banking for a New Beginning, a public/private partnership between The Aspen Institute and the US Department of State. Member of the roundtables at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Khiara Bridges: Associate Dean for Equity, Justice, and Engagement at the Boston University School of Law, specializing in the intersectionality of race, reproductive justice, and law. Professor of Law and Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. Author of The Poverty of Privacy Rights and Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization.
Why Poverty Is Like a Disease: http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/why-poverty-is-like-a-disease
Excavating Race-Based Disadvantage Among Class-Privileged People of Color: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3143892
Income Mobility Charts: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/27/upshot/make-your-own-mobility-animation.html
Divided We Fall: https://newrepublic.com/article/141644/divided-fall-trump-symptom-constitutional-crisis-inequality
Raj Chetty in 14 charts: Big findings on opportunity and mobility we should all know: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2018/01/11/raj-chetty-in-14-charts-big-findings-on-opportunity-and-mobility-we-should-know/
Speaker 1: When we say the American dream, you can define that in a lot of different ways but I think this dream has been in decline for decades.
Speaker 2: Baby boomers are concerned that they’re never gonna be able to retire ’cause they won’t have enough money.
Speaker 3: Since 1979 a 200% rise with the top one percenters.
Speaker 4: It’s not class that is causing people of color to be sicker and die younger than their white counterparts. It’s race.
Speaker 5: If you’re moving up, effectively someone else is moving down.
Speaker 6: From the office of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer a pointed conversation about who gets what and why, with one of American’s most provocative capitalists.
Nick Hanauer: Welcome to Pitchfork Economics, I’m Nick Hanauer. Last episode, we talked about economic growth, what it is and where it comes from. But today, we’d like to devote the episode to the American dream. Is it dead or not?
And today joining me is [inaudible] and he’s gonna talk about his experiences with the American dream and I’m gonna share some of mine and we’re gonna get right into the status of the American dream. So welcome, [Duji].
Duji: Thanks, Nick. I’m Duji [Tahat], former troublemaker of Civic Ventures. I now run a program called the Communications Hub at Fuse Washington.
I was born in the Philippines, I arrived to the US at age five and I think like so many hungry immigrants, our narrative very closely mirrors the American dream. We landed in LAX without any idea of what was gonna come next. My mom had family sort of up and down the West Coast, so we just ended up in Yakima which is where one of my mom’s uncles owned a farm. There’s a big Filipino agricultural population out there. Both my parents arrived to the US with PhD’s; however, it took forever to find a job and so before they got professional jobs, they were working alongside undocumented immigrants in Eastern Washington, picking fruit.
So we helped on the farm until my dad got a job with the county clean air authority there.
Nick Hanauer: Why did you guys leave the Philippines?
Duji: For greater opportunity. In addition to this notion that you could work hard to do well and that you’d be rewarded for it in America was there are more ways to work hard. There are a whole range of opportunities. If the PhD is the golden ticket, the US is where you can turn it in for any number of great deals. Obviously, that big move really inculcated in all of us the idea that if you work hard enough, you can make it happen and actually, I think even the struggle at the very beginning of them having to swallow their pride to just make it happen really reinforced that narrative.
Nick Hanauer: Well, it’s not that much unlike my own story. My mom was born in the United States, but my dad’s family fled the Nazi’s in late ’20’s and ’30’s. My dad was born in Germany and they fled Germany first to the tiny country of Lichtenstein and then eventually through Portugal to the United States. First in New York, and then settled in Seattle where my grandfather and my great uncle bought out of bankruptcy the kind of company that they had back in Germany, which was a bed pillow company and they bought this tiny company and began to rebuild it.
If we’re just being brutally honest, one of the really interesting parts of our stories that is similar is while we both did come from striving families that worked super hard, we didn’t start at the bottom. Two people who had PhD’s coming from the Philippines obviously had a massive advantage over two people who didn’t have any education coming from the Philippines and my family was a relatively prosperous entrepreneurial family, a business family and so when they got to the United States, they were not penniless, they had a little bit of capital and they certainly had a bunch of skills that were super useful as did your family. And it’s just interesting to note that the rags to riches stories that people tell, have more nuance than we often account for.
Certainly if you look at the theoretically rags to riches stories that we tell about our most famous entrepreneurs today, whether it’s Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, these were essentially rich privileged kids who started out way ahead and got even farther ahead. And going from the very bottom to the tippy top is far rarer than it looks often and if you peel back the layers, people start out farther ahead than it might appear.
Duji: To your point, Oprah’s the exception to the rule, right? Her story might mirror the American story, but most rich people started off rich.
Nick Hanauer: In a privileged situation, right? With beginning advantages.
Duji: Yeah, and it’s funny that you point that out. It was really formative that my parents and I worked in the fields. But to your point, we weren’t in the same situation. They were able to get a professional job shortly thereafter in the way that the people we left behind there were not.
Nick Hanauer: So, in this episode, we wanna talk more broadly about the American dream and about mobility in particular, right. The idea of the American dream is that you can start off at the bottom and make your way to the top. It’s also the idea that your children will do better than you did. It’s the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules that you can have a successful, secure life. All of these ideas are inextricably intertwined. I think it’s important to acknowledge a couple of things. It’s just objectively true, if you look at the numbers, that mobility in the United States has declined as inequality has stretched the rungs of opportunity farther and farther apart, it becomes, not surprisingly, harder and harder to move from rung to rung.
By way of example, in the 1980’s, the top CEO’s of big companies earned about 30 times the wages of the median worker. Today that number is some place between three and 400 times. So just in an objective sense, it has become much harder to travel the distance, the economic distance, from the median worker to the top, because you have to go essentially 10 times farther.
We often think about mobility as moving up, but since economic success and status in [inaudible] societies is always relative, we must be cognizant of the fact that if you’re moving up, effectively, someone else is moving down. Not all of us can be at the top of a pyramid. In order for there to be a pyramid, there has to be tiny group of people at the very top and a whole bunch of people at the very bottom and so not everyone can have mobility and that’s why I think that Americans need to think harder about what the objective of economic policy is, than just to accept this idea of mobility.
Duji: Yeah. And to this point, we’ve been talking a lot about mobility in one person’s lifetime too, right, but this has obviously implications beyond that and just speaking generationally, certainly that’s what is at the forefront of the immigrant when they move, right, is this idea of generational mobility as well. We know that most Americans born in 1940 ended up better off in real terms than their parents at their same age, whereas only half of the people born in 1980’s surpass their parents’ family income.
Nick Hanauer: We have changed our society in a way which has made it so much harder for people to lead the kind of lives that our parents led in a world where the richest people are running away super, super fast economically from everybody else. We’ve made it really, really hard for people to have relative mobility, to have intergenerational mobility, and for people to hang on to this idea of the American dream.
Duji: We talked to Christian Cooperr to understand what’s happening specifically around cycles of poverty. He wrote an essay called Why Poverty Is Like A Disease that takes a look at the epigenetics of poverty and how it gets transferred, not just wealth, but the genetic coding of poverty gets transferred. This is a former derivatives trader who grew up in deep poverty in Appalachia and has some really interesting things to say the time he made over $700,000 a year. But he’s still choosing to not have children because of the deep imprint in his DNA of scarcity.
Christian Cooper: So my name is Christian Cooper. I have had a long career in finance, but more recently than exploring some really interesting ideas about poverty drawing on my experience in Appalachia.
David Goldstein: Hi Christian. This is David Goldstein. I’m really excited to talk to you because pretty much every issue you touched upon in that piece, I’ve been pondering for months about the causes of intergenerational poverty. So to get your firsthand account and your thinking through all the way down to the epigenetics, it was just really exciting to see other people going into the same space.
Christian Cooper: You’re gonna love the book then. The perspective title is The Poverty Inflamed Brain. That title is really important to me because it gets at every aspect of what the essay touched on which was how our brains respond to poverty, and by the way, poverty can exist in many forms. We’re not just talking about being born in a dirt cabin, right. So we can respond to trauma and adversity as children in a lot of different ways that only isn’t specific to just financial poverty.
David Goldstein: On this episode we’ve been talking about the American dream and whether it still exists.
Christian Cooper: America is still the place where dreams can happen. They can happen here more than anywhere else in the world, but we have to open that up to a much wider audience. America is the land of opportunity, still is, can be. It’s a much smaller needle to thread, but it is still possible, it’s just not possible for as many as we need to sustain the system.
David Goldstein: There is a growing divide between some of the more affluent, high tech cities on the coast and much of the rest of the country have this growing spacial inequality in America.
Christian Cooper: Correct, absolutely. Yes we have lower unemployment and yes the stock market is 50% higher since the election. 80% of the country isn’t participating in that equity rise.
David Goldstein: Intergenerational poverty, the type of poverty that you grew up in, is not something that can be quickly solved. The deprivations of childhood have a lifelong biological impact in terms of how your brain is wired, in terms of how you respond to stress and there’s that epigenetic component where the consequences of stress can be passed on for generations. So if this is a generational problem that could take generations to solve, where do we start?
Christian Cooper: We have to increase the runway of children and I call it runway because I remember counting it, how many days have gone by since we got the last electricity disconnect on this? I knew how many days of power we had left before the power’d be cut off. I watch mom adding water to the milk, so I knew we were getting low on food and I knew, okay, we got three or four days of runway left.
So I go back to this horrific experience as a kid in the book and I talk about how do we extend children’s runway? So the concept there is to increase the certainty that they have about their life. So I think we have brought policy tools that are very blunt right now. We have food stamps, they’re not enough. We have WIC programs that provide food and other types of support that are not enough.
What Stanford actually has done as recently as a month ago, they now have a wearable patch that we can actually quantify children’s stress response. It’s almost like taking their glucose level through the skin like for somebody who has diabetes. So the quantification is the first step. We first have to quantify those at risk kids who are stressed out of their mind. And it may not even be a parent, because when everyone lives like that, everyone’s experiencing the same thing, right. You could go back to my home town today and nothing has changed and I could take 100 kids out of the school, I could sample their stress hormone response and it would be astronomically through the roof. But they have clothes, they have eaten, but that’s not the point though.
So I think quantification is the first step and understanding that it all starts with this inflammatory stress response at a very early age.
David Goldstein: I’m curious Duji, and I think the thing’s that’s really cool and fascinating about what you just said is the [inaudible] we’re interested in narrative shifts. And certainly like the narrative around poverty is particular related to cash poor, right, being cash poor and that’s how you quantify it. And you are talking about something else, the physiological reaction to the effects of being cash poor. So they are a couple degrees removed. And so using science, I think in your essay, you do a really great job of breaking that narrative up. Are there other ways that we should be thinking about changing the narrative around poverty?
Christian Cooper: One of the key ways is to understand that everything what we are doing right now about poverty is still treating a symptom as opposed to a cause. You really gotta understand how far under the skin this gets when you’re born that way and when you live that way. And so changing the narrative is understanding that people don’t overeat and smoke and use Payday loans because they’re stupid, they’re doing it because they’re trying to survive.
I basically had to leave home at 17 just to get away from the church. In my first apartment I remember just being so ashamed because I would run into people I know at the store and all I could afford was a bag of potatoes to make potato soup and that would be what I ate for a week. So I think the right would look at that situation and would say, “Oh, well, just make better decisions, don’t use Payday loans,” without really understanding that that’s pretty … when you only have two or three days worth of food left, you’re gonna say, “You know what, screw the light bill, let’s get a pizza guys.” To someone on the outside that may see that as a bad decision, it’s the one thing that can give you just a moment of relief.
And so when you live like that, you live in a constant craving of any kind of relief. And so that’s a Payday loan, that’s a Domino’s pizza, that’s an extra bag of Doritos, that’s a pack of cigarettes.
David Goldstein: A lot of people are familiar with the idea of the marshmallow test where you give a kid an option, you can have one now or if you wait 10 minutes, you can have two marshmallows, and it’s allegedly a great predictor of future outcomes. But when you grow up poor the way you did, it kind of makes sense to take the marshmallow now.
Christian Cooper: I see that study to be a little bit simplistic, but it does get at the root cause of if things aren’t gonna get better, why bother? A decision like that is going to seem supremely irrational, when in fact, it is the most rational thing that person can do, just to get a little bit of relief.
David Goldstein: The way I’ve started to think about it is the way you break this cycle of intergenerational poverty is to stop raising children in the conditions of poverty and I’m sure you’re familiar with the Raj Chetty study on kids who are moved. Their parents got vouchers to move into housing in low poverty neighborhoods and they found that the younger the kids were when they moved out of their high poverty neighborhood into the low poverty neighborhood, even though their parents earned no more money, had no higher rate of employment, these kids had remarkably better life outcomes. Very similar to what you see with high quality early learning.
Christian Cooper: If you give a family a couple extra hundred bucks a month, anyone around that family is going to know that that money is there, and it’s gonna be like, “Hey man, can you give me 50 bucks to get my power back on, hey I need 10 bucks for gas,” I need this, I need that. And of course the answer is always yes. Right. I’ve done it with my family. I’ve put my brothers through rehab, I’ve paid college, I paid for my grandmother’s mortgage. Of course we’re happy to do those things.
But when those programs end, it still doesn’t remove those root causes, right, so you still have that brain that’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, that is primed for maladaptive behavior in stressful situations or uncertainty, we especially respond negatively to uncertainty. But I would imagine that in that study, we can’t wave a magic wand and go back, and we would look at the inflammatory response of those children, just having a different place in life and a little bit more certainty is extraordinarily soothing.
So it gets back to this idea, just give me a little bit of runway, give me something to hope for, right. Until we start using the first of quantification that I talked about, and then identify those at children at risk, then we can talk about, okay, well how do we … what’s causing the stressor? Is it just money, is there something else going on and that’s how we begin to move beyond the blunt policy tools that we now seem to be using into something that’s more refined.
David Goldstein: I’m curious how you feel about basic income, whether that at least would relieve that environmental stress on families that got some sort of direct cash payment.
Christian Cooper: Response from the right on that issue is typically, it’s throwing good money after bad. We’ve been doing this for generations and it hasn’t fixed anything. I would argue that, and again, I wish I had a better way to think or communicate this idea that we don’t have a cultural problem, we have a capital problem which means we have corporations that are engaged in financially extractive practices that completely gut our safety nets and any hope for the future.
So it’s going to be … shareholders and the owners of these investors are going to ultimately have to take lower returns on equity because if we don’t, I’m not sure our nation can sustain the levels of inequality and hopelessness that I now see.
And so the answer is yes, basic income absolutely. Where does that money come from? It’s gonna come from lower returns on equity to corporations and corporations actually paying taxes and getting away from this myth that it’s fine that Amazon doesn’t pay any taxes and wants to put people in cages and … it’s just insane that this is where we’ve gotten to in America.
David Goldstein: In your essay you write that you make a lot of money now, but you’re-
Christian Cooper: Used to.
David Goldstein: Used to, at the time of the essay. But you’re choosing to not have children.
Christian Cooper: I think at my most, I was supporting maybe 15 people. So again, take that money, take half away and what someone may expect that I squirreled away in the S&P 500, went to rehab, it went to mortgages that never got paid off, it went to food and all these other things that I was supporting. So again, no matter how much money you make, it’s still expensive to be poor.
And so I don’t have children because I have no hope for the future, still. Not optimistic about even my own future. Because who knows when I’m gonna get the call and it’s gonna be a family member that doesn’t have insurance and now has cancer, can you help out? And the answer is always gonna be yes. But that may be the last 100 grand that anybody has. And suddenly you’re back to zero.
That’s really why I called the book, The Poverty Inflamed Brain, because it never stops and I could never imagine the additional stress of having children at this point in my life. I just can’t.
David Goldstein: I think it’s really important the work you’re doing and the writing you’re doing. The most destructive thing that I’ve … I’m 55. I saw it happening in my lifetime, certainly in the ’90’s, it shifted this way towards, you don’t want to give four people bad incentives and that shapes so much of welfare reform.
Christian Cooper: And you know why it’s so counterproductive? It’s because the rich people and the poor people have two different rule books of life and what a rational choice looks like to a rich person, is the worst possible thing for a poor person. And so we’re only creating incentives once you understand the brain and the rule book a person born poor lives through.
David Goldstein: Well thank you for your time Christian. This was a pleasure.
Christian Cooper: [inaudible] I really enjoyed it.
David Goldstein: Thank you.
Christian Cooper: Talk to you later.
Sara Lee Bovich: As you might expect, we are not the only people who think the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Hi, I’m Sara Lee [Bovitz], producer at Pitchfork Economics. The Human Condition, a magazine created here in Seattle, dedicated their entire third issue to just that idea, that the American dream is a fallacy. We spoke to one of their contributors, Jordan Faralan.
Jordan Faralan: I am a youth worker at a social justice nonprofit in Seattle. I am an activist and the chairperson of [inaudible] in Seattle which is a political organization fighting for the liberation of the Philippines and I’m also, what we call in the Philippines, a cultural worker, an artist but specifically an artist for the movement.
Both of my parents immigrated from the Philippines from a pretty young age, around 10 and 14. They immigrated here but grew up pretty Americanized. So by the time I was born, we had pretty Americanized concepts of going through life and I completely bought into it. The American dream was this idea of hope that we could have a better style of living and we could work our way up to certain amount of wealth. We could have a certain kind of shelter if we worked hard enough. I went into business school, of all things, because I wanted to help minority owned and women owned businesses. I worked at corporate. I thought I was doing all of the right steps and somewhere along the way, I got politicized and I really started to understand the American dream as a lie, as false, as something that is not attainable for all people.
We go into foreign nations and we use tactics like war to displace people, but then tell them that if they come here to the US that it’s gonna be fine if you work hard enough, that you’re gonna be able to make it, but then when they get here, the material conditions are not actually there for them to survive, right. Or they get pushed away at borders, or they die in detention centers or X, Y, and Z.
So my idea of the American dream has completely flipped. There is a level of privilege to be in the US and also coming to terms with US imperialism pushed me out of my homeland. It made it so my parents weren’t able to thrive and survive in the Philippines, so the only reason that I’m here in the US is because we couldn’t make it there.
When my parents were growing up, they were fleeing martial law in the Philippines under the dictator Marcos, so they knew very little about choice, about what they could talk about, what they could listen to, what they could believe and then when they came to the US, those choices were opened. They were able to access education, but then were also met with racism or at the poverty lines, unable to really eat their own foods, the foods of their home. The only thing that they could grasp, at that point, was to hold on to the hope of the American dream. And as they had kids, we … my brother and I we were able to see what it’s like to have a single mom and single dad, living divorced in the US as immigrants, creating small minority owned businesses and seeing how hard that was in a very white town.
Going to the Philippines for the first time was a really life-altering thing for me, as many homecomings are for people. Over 6,000 people in the Philippines are leaving each day to find work overseas. It is definitely an expectation that if you live in the US, that you’re making it, you’re good, even though most of the Filipinos here are working three jobs, they barely see their children.
So there’s also this idea of an American identity that a lot of Filipino Americans, especially in the younger generation, are really battling right now. But I think that our generation is very much poised to be able to see the fallacy of the American dream.
Paul Constant: I’m Paul Constant and I’m a writer at Civic Ventures.
Khiara Bridges: My name is Khiara Bridges and I’m a professor of law and a professor of anthropology at Boston University.
Paul Constant: I seem to recall in the ’90’s there was sort of a glowing white liberal perception that race wasn’t an issue so much as class in America and you’ve done a lot of work sort of finding the divide between race and class as two separate issues and I was wondering if you could give us an idea of what you’ve been working on in that context?
Khiara Bridges: Sure. So we can’t deny that racial inequality exists, right. You can drive through any major metropolitan area, you can turn on the news, you can look at statistics documenting just the health and well being of people and you will see that people of color are not doing as well as their white peers. And I think that the post racial explanation of that, which is very liberal, but as well as a conservative one, is that the real problem is class. The reason why we have mass incarceration disproportionately affecting communities of color is a class issue because the people who are in those institutions were poor before they got in the jails and prisons and they’re definitely gonna be poor after.
And then I talked about the safety net, right. The liberal/conservative view would be that’s a class issue, we just need to do better with taking care of the poor and the poor are a socioeconomic group.
My work has been very critical of this rush to explain racial inequality in terms of class and class inequality. And one of the things that I’ve done is show that even when you control over a class, racial minorities, black people, nonwhite people are still not doing as well as their white counterparts.
And so I work in the field of maternal and infant health and rights and justice and maternal racial disparities and maternal mortality ought to be an embarrassment to the US. Relative to our peer nations, people are dying during childbirth or shortly thereafter at rates that would be unconscionable to our so-called peers. And then when we fold in racial disparities on top of it, black women are dying three to four times as often as white women on the path to motherhood.
A lot of people like to explain that in terms of class, right, so they say, “Oh, the reason why three to four times as many black women as white women die during childbirth or shortly thereafter, well that’s because people of color, black women are bearing the burdens of poverty at a disproportionate rate to white women, and so that racial disparity and maternal mortality is just a function of poverty.” Black women are poor so poor women are gonna die more frequently than wealthy women and so tada, you get your statistic of three to four times as many black women are dying as white women during childbirth.
But the thing is, where racial disparity and maternal mortality persist, even when you control for class, which means that if you look at a white person with my same income, I’m still more likely to die than my white counterpart and in fact, infant disparity or racial disparities in infant mortality actually increase when you move up the income ladder, which is to say that poor black babies and poor white babies, they have a more similar chances of living beyond their first year of life than wealthier black babies and wealthier white babies.
So it’s not class that is causing people of color to be sicker and die younger than their white counterparts, it’s race, right and it’s the relationship between race and class. And so big, big, important takeaway from my scholarship is to push against this post racial sense that we’re beyond race and our racial problems are really just an effect of our class problems.
Paul Constant: This episode is about the American dream and obviously that’s a broad subject and a complicated issue, so what should we do, I suppose is the first order question?
Khiara Bridges: I really believe in the people. And I believe in social movements and I believe in social agitation. I think the biggest changes that we saw in American life and the biggest changes that we saw in our norms and our values and our ethical commitments came from social movements. This is my reference to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 1950’s. People were unsatisfied with merely writing letters to their congressmen, of course people were disenfranchised so there was no congressman that was committed to representing them, but it was not the … the sense was not that there are official avenues through which we can produce the change that we demand the country to reflect, but rather it was like we ourselves, we individual private citizens, have to organize, come together and shake the core of the country so that the country becomes more reflective of the things that it proclaims to be committed to.
Paul Constant: I think what I hear you saying is that we could pass a whole bunch of laws and to be clear, I’m sure you would agree, there would be some laws that you would love to pass and that would be better. But what you’re saying is that will be insufficient. We have to change the norms and the culture too. Just to stipulate, you raise the minimum wage from what it is today to $20 an hour, and had a mechanisms to make sure that everybody had health care and the median family income rose from 59,000 to 80,000 or 90,000 and the proportion of people who were under the poverty line went to some tiny figure. What happens to those disparities between … they close, don’t they?
Khiara Bridges: I’m not actually convinced that they will close. I think that we live in a country in which it’s not unreasonable at all to think that they will persist. That people might live longer in the world that you’re describing, but black people will still die five years earlier than their white counterparts. Racial disparities and maternal mortality, it’s been the same since before the civil rights movement. So back in the Jim Crow days, back when black and white people couldn’t go to the same hospitals, back when they lived in … they still live in completely different neighborhoods, but there will be violence if a black person tried to cross into the white neighborhood.
Racial disparities and material mortality were the same, so I’m skeptical. I think that the world that you’re describing is incredibly better than the world that we’re living in now, right, because we will have less people dying just from sheer lack of basic necessity, but I don’t think that what follows from that world is one in which we have done better on the race question. I think that we can be doing just as poorly on the race question while everybody’s life has improved significantly.
Paul Constant: Okay. Again, let me put you on the spot.
Khiara Bridges: Okay, good.
Paul Constant: How do we get people to be less racist? How do we solve this problem that you describe, this relatively intractable problem?
Khiara Bridges: We have to get rid of the institutions that make these problematic ideas, these racist ideas make sense. So in the world that you’re describing, if it’s a world in which mass incarceration is like this historical anachronism that something that we used to do and that we’re incredibly embarrassed about. If the world that you’re suggesting is possible is one which the welfare state is like … of course we have a very generous welfare state because we’re trying to beat the generosity of our peer countries and it’s not a stigma to be a beneficiary of the system, if we have a humane immigration policy that recognizes that people … there are push and pull forces and that globalization is something that might be inevitable and that they’re gonna be times when people who are not citizens and not residents of this country are gonna want to move to this country, because there are job opportunities here.
If your world is not just one in which there is economic opportunities for all, but also a just one in terms of institutions that are present in the society as well as the ones that are absent in the society, then that might actually be a world in which racism goes away or at least is only something that we can find in the aberrational few.
So I don’t think we disagree, but I think that as long as your vision is one that takes into account more than the economy, right. If your vision takes into account what institutions actually exist in this society with a just economy, then it might actually be one in which we can combat racism and racial inequality too.
Paul Constant: All right. From your lips to God’s ears.
Nick Hanauer: So today we wanted to tackle the issue of the American dream and is it dead, hopefully not. I think as I reflect on it, I think what’s really important to highlight is first that if we’re honest with ourselves, we shouldn’t get too wistful about the good old days of the American dream, because clearly a lot of people were excluded from that. Women were excluded from that, people of color were largely excluded from that although it’s worth reminding ourselves that African American families are doing better before 1975 in many ways than they are today.
But there’s a lot of power and validity to that mid century idea around the American dream ’cause it is unambiguously true that life got better for the majority of Americans in a really big way and at a really fast pace for a really long time and that lasted basically until the trickle down revolution that Ronald Reagan initiated in about late ’70’s, early ’80’s.
And we are talking about mobility which is also been a really important part of the story of the American dream, but mobility and the American dream are in this uneasy tension, if you look at it carefully, because the idea of mobility means moving up and if you’re moving up then someone else is moving down and we certainly don’t want to have an economy or a set of economic policies that depend on that or begin and end with that zero sum view of how the world should work, where some people will move up and other people will move down and that’s life.
I think for the American dream to have real residence you wanna have a combination of those two things. You want to create an economy where everyone has a reasonable chance to live a life of dignity and security, both in their working lives an in retirement, and you want to have an economy where people who work insanely hard and who are very, very capable, can come from anywhere and make it to the tippy top.
And the combination of those two things, an economy that provides generally for people to have a dignified and secure and stable life and also for an economy that both permits and rewards people, high performers and enables everyone in the society to become a high performer, that really is worth shooting for and something worth working for, something we’ve had to a certain extent, but less and less today.
Duji: Yean, and I think the thing that you’re getting at is, we have to create a circumstance and an economy where the effect of luck doesn’t have the magnitude of effect that it has today.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, by luck you mean the circumstance of birth among other things.
Nick Hanauer: Although as an entrepreneur I will tell you that luck plays a big part-
Duji: Without a doubt.
Nick Hanauer: Even if you’re very good, luck is important too. Fundamentally, we need to think about economic policy as a mechanism for including a broader and broader number of people in our economy in ever more robust ways. When we do that, not only sort of restore and enhance the American dream, but we also just generally make the economy grow faster and create more prosperity which, if we’re doing it right, will be good for everybody.
Do tax cuts for rich people really create growth? In the next episode we’re gonna examine tax policy, who pays and who doesn’t.
Speaker 6: Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures, The Magic Happens in Seattle and partnership with Larj Media. That’s L-A-R-J Media and the Young Turks network. Find us on Twitter and Facebook at Civic Action and follow our writing on Medium at Civic Skunkworks and you should also follow Nick Hanauer on Twitter @NickHanauer.
As always, a big thank you to our guests and thank you to our team at Civic Ventures. Nick Hanauer, Zack Silk, Jasmin Weaver, Jessyn Farrell, Stephanie Ervin, David Goldsteine, Paul Constant, Nick Cassella and Anna Fadely.
Thanks for listening.