The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.

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