Ignore the Left AND Right, the American Dream Is Alive
As the country that has happily been curing poverty since at least the early part of the 18th century, the United States is held to some pretty high standards on the subject of income mobility. Good. We should be proud of what the U.S. represents to the rest of the world in terms of freedom and economic opportunity.
Yet that's why all the whining from the left and right about a supposedly dying ‘American Dream' is so puzzling. The U.S. wouldn't be so attractive to foreigners if the ‘Dream' were dead.
Arguably the most cited statistics on income mobility have been produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Notable there is a 2012 study which found that 43 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of earners remained there as adults. At first glance such a stat is depressing. But only at first glance. A finding focused on the negative neglects to accentuate the positive. If 43 percent remain "stuck" in the bottom income quintile, that means 57 percent emerge from it.
To the American left, those allegedly left behind or "stuck" speak to a bug in the American economy. To them the American Dream means everyone rises economically, particularly if they do certain things that the left can never quite articulate. In 2014 Hillary Clinton spoke of a "basic bargain" of middle class ascendance for Americans who "work hard and play by the rules." Clinton missed by a mile.
Future Americans didn't risk their lives crossing oceans and borders in search of guarantees. That many of them died before they got here is powerful evidence supporting the previous assertion. Aspiring Americans came here because they felt their ability to live and work freely would translate to upward mobility. Having in many instances escaped tyrannical countries clearly defined by too much government, the idea that they came in search of prosperity to be bestowed on them by all-too-powerful governments was and is laughable.
That some Americans remain "stuck" at the supposed bottom is a signal to the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof of a country that is failing its people. To him it also signals a country defined by limits. The title of an August 2015 column he wrote on this subject was "U.S.A., Land of Limitations?" A logical addition or subhead to the title would have been "Of Course, and By Design."
A country in which people are free means they're free to succeed and fail. If Americans had wanted something different along the lines of government-created cushions meant to shield them from their errors, they wouldn't be Americans in the first place. Kristof ignores, as Hillary Clinton has, that Americans come here not for security or certainty, but because they want the chance to succeed or fail. Artificial cushions limit the downside, but by definition they limit individual upside too. The richest part of the U.S., a locale that is teeming with immigrants, is Silicon Valley. Most start-ups there fold rather quickly. Most car companies at the dawn of the age of the automobile in the early part of the 20th century died too. Americans have long accepted the bad in return for the more abundant good that is unfettered success.
Rather than acknowledge this, Kristof cherry picks. He cites the admittedly very sad story of "Rick" from his childhood hometown of Yamhill, OR. Rick died of heart disease at the age of 65 after a very rough life defined by immobility. But as Kristof also acknowledges, Rick "drank, took drugs and was arrested about 30 times." Kristof argues that consequences for bad decisions made by the children of the rich aren't as bad as those experienced by those who aren't, but it's safe to say that someone with 30 arrests on his record will live an immobile life reeking of failure no matter his origins. Furthermore, growing up in the U.S. once again doesn't guarantee success as much as it enhances the odds for those who strive. Again though, no guarantees.
Kristof's broader point is that "Success is not a virtue. It's mostly a sign that your grandparents did well." To the American left the American Dream is dead. Success is passed down. But is that true? No, it isn't.
Indeed, this same American left has properly moved more in the direction of openness to immigrants in modern times. Good for them. Yet what these lefties may not want to admit is that the desire among many of the world's poor to live and work in the United States constitutes a very pure market signal indicating that the American Dream of upward mobility is very much alive. In many and probably most instances we're not talking about people whose "grandparents did well," yet they still want to immigrate to the U.S. But if upward mobility weren't a strong possibility no matter one's background, the U.S. wouldn't be so attractive in the first place. Lefties like Clinton and Kristof need to rethink their musings about "basic bargains" not being met. Again, the U.S. is where poverty is cured.
At the same time, the American right needs to get real too. For one to watch the GOP presidential debates without any on-the-ground knowledge is to believe that the U.S. is on its back economically, and that Americans are wandering aimlessly in search of work that has vanished on President Obama's watch. Outside of retail politics and at the S.A.L.T. Conference this past summer, Peter Schiff talked about U.S. college graduates being reduced to working at McDonald's due to a lack of economic opportunity. In his contribution to the quickly forgotten 2014 e-book Room to Grow, conservative policy strategist Peter Wehner lamented an economy in which "the odds of moving up or down the income ladder in the United States are roughly the same as they have been for decades."
Of course, if what Wehner and other conservatives are saying about the state of the U.S. economy were true, the alleged "problem" of immigration would be non-existent. Lest we forget, border crossings fell substantially from 2008-2010 when work opportunities stateside plummeted. More realistically, the happy fact that foreigners continue to enter the U.S. (legally and illegally) is an optimistic sign that the American Dream is still very much alive. Forget the stats, continued foreign inflows into the U.S. signal that upward mobility here remains the rule. That's what's so strange about all this conservative talk about an America in decline.
Supposedly strong believers in market forces and market signals, excessive negativity about the economy along with rising conservative hostility to immigrants reveals conservative disdain for what the markets are saying. Not only is human migration the purest market signal of them all, human capital is easily the most important input when it comes to economic progress. Despite this, some on the right wax rhapsodically about the building of walls meant to blunt the message of markets, and others about empowering allegedly wise politicians to plan and regulate the inflow of precious human capital.
The extremes on the left and right disturb. Neither can have it both ways. The left can't rage about a dying American Dream all the while properly pining for immigrants that wouldn't migrate here absent an intact dream. The right can't trash the supposed market-unfriendly desperation of the Obama economy that is allegedly destroying the American Dream all the while raging about immigrant inflows that are a market signal of prosperity. The extremes of each ideology let us down. We need small l libertarianism to fill in where conservatives and liberals have clearly failed.