January 25, 2005
OP-ED COLUMNIST, NYTimes
By DAVID BROOKS
n his Inaugural Address President Bush embraced the grandest theme of American foreign policy - the advance of freedom around the world. Now that attention is turning to the State of the Union address, it would be nice if he would devote himself as passionately to the grandest theme of domestic policy - social mobility.
The United States is a country based on the idea that a person's birth does not determine his or her destiny. Our favorite stories involve immigrants climbing from obscurity to success. Our amazing work ethic is predicated on the assumption that enterprise and effort lead to ascent. "I hold the value of life is to improve one's condition," Lincoln declared.
The problem is that in every generation conditions emerge that threaten to close down opportunity and retard social mobility. Each generation has to reopen the pathways to success.
Today, for example, we may still believe American society is uniquely dynamic, but we're deceiving ourselves. European societies, which seem more class riven and less open, have just as much social mobility as the United States does.
And there are some indications that it is becoming harder and harder for people to climb the ladder of success. The Economist magazine gathered much of the recent research on social mobility in America. The magazine concluded that the meritocracy is faltering: "Would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."
Economists and sociologists do not all agree, but it does seem there is at least slightly less movement across income quintiles than there was a few decades ago. Sons' income levels correlate more closely to those of their fathers. The income levels of brothers also correlate more closely. That suggests that the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life. That's a problem because we are not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this country.
But we're developing one. In the information age, education matters more. In an age in which education matters more, family matters more, because as James Coleman established decades ago, family status shapes educational achievement.
At the top end of society we have a mass upper-middle class. This is made up of highly educated people who move into highly educated neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools with the children of other highly educated parents. These kids develop wonderful skills, get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over again.
In this way these highly educated elites produce a paradox - a hereditary meritocratic class.
It becomes harder for middle-class kids to compete against members of the hypercharged educated class. Indeed, the middle-class areas become more socially isolated from the highly educated areas.
And this is not even to speak of the children who grow up in neighborhoods in which more boys go to jail than college, in which marriage is not the norm before child-rearing, in which homes are often unstable, in which long-range planning is absurd, in which the social skills you need to achieve are not even passed down.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush is no doubt going to talk about his vision of an ownership society. But homeownership or pension ownership is only part of a larger story. The larger story is the one Lincoln defined over a century ago, the idea that this nation should provide an open field and a fair chance so that all can compete in the race of life.
Today that's again under threat, but this time from barriers that are different than the ones defined by socialists in the industrial age. Now, the upper class doesn't so much oppress the lower class. It just outperforms it generation after generation. Now the crucial inequality is not only finance capital, it's social capital. Now it is silly to make a distinction between economic policy and social policy.
We can spend all we want on schools. But if families are disrupted, if the social environment is dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help.
President Bush spoke grandly and about foreign policy last Thursday, borrowing from Lincoln. Lincoln's other great cause was social mobility. That's worth embracing too.