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August 27, 2015


I recall having read  years ago a some 1,000 page book on social mobility written in 1900 by Professor P.T. Sorokin, who held forth at a university in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The book was written years  before the age of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and adherence to their brand of historical imperatives calling for Marxian reorganization of society. My recollection is that Sorokin coined the phrase “social mobility.”

It was a scholarly and massive tome showing (among other things) that the class ladder could be ascended  and was not some Horatio Alger rags-to-riches fairy tale designed to keep the underclass hopeful that lightning will strike as Dickens’s Oliver magically becomes today’s Bill Gates. (Joseph E. Stiglitz in his latest book (The Great Divide) writes in this connection that “Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of false complacency, they might as well have been.” Thus we are now endowed with another inequality to join that of wage, wealth and tax inequalities; the inequality of opportunity.

Social mobility in our day and age is still possible, but we have designed a system that makes such a Sorokin-type move up the ladder occur not much oftener than lightning strikes. Stiglitz notes in his book that the Brookings Institution has conducted research showing that only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and only 6 percent born into the bottom fifth moved into the top. Economic mobility is lower in the United States than in most of Europe and all of Scandinavia. How could we have come to such a nadir in providing opportunity to our people to move up the economic ladder when we started out with such great promise, including a law establishing Land-Grants to educational institutions in higher education signed by Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War, just as Northern railroad building continued apace during such war, proving that we could walk and chew gum at the same time? I think this question especially important since a Pew report shows that an almost universal consensus of 90 percent of the American people think that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity. So what’s holding us up when we know that the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his/her parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data? What can and should we do about it? What happened to meritocracy? Are we mesmerized by corporate propaganda?

Study after study has shown that the most important reason for lack of equality of opportunity is education, both in terms of quality and quantity. Stiglitz notes that we extended higher education across the economic spectrum to Americans via the GI Bill after World War II, and I here note that studies since prove that such investments were returned to our treasury and then some due to the increases in tax revenues resulting from higher wages and salaries paid to a better-educated populace. In other words, we educated millions of Americans – and at a profit to our treasury! What a deal! Where do I sign for this free lunch that puts more money both in my pocket and in our treasury?

I did in fact “sign” following WW II. My father dropped out of school during the seventh grade to work as a child laborer in coal mines. After the war, I took a degree in economics and one in law school and became a lawyer. I paid in a lot more in taxes than my father, adjusted for inflation, who went to work in 1913, the year we first had an income tax following a constitutional amendment to permit one.

I am perpetually vexed by the no votes on education by state and federal legislators when in most cases such investments return more than they cost to both the citizen and the government. I attribute such ignorance to their no-tax penchant for pandering to the rich and government seen through a corporate mentality that demands quarterly returns on investment. Education is not a cost and never was; it is an investment in our people, our economy and our future, an investment that may take more time to show a profit than quarterly analysts demand of publicly-held business corporations but more certain than “the market” that such investments will “pay off.”

Lately we have apparently decided that the “corporate model” should apply across the board in all kinds of activities though many are ill-fitted for such a means of conducting what it is they are doing. Churches and some schools have openly followed such model, and even government (though not formally organized as such) is held to the corporate requirement of profitability (or at least not “overspending”). Schools were designed to educate, not make money. Government was designed to do collectively what we as citizens could not do alone in the service of all its citizenry as a not-for-profit organization, not to make money. As I have frequently blogged, not every activity yields to corporate modeling.

Private entrepreneurs and for-profit corporations are designed to make money and some do, some do not. State colleges and universities are not for-profit corporations but act as though they are for-profit corporations what with corporate endowments, “chairs” for this and that, and open invitations to such contributors to involve themselves in lectures and STEM drumbeats. Many, and I am one of them, think that the purpose of educating young minds is to get them to think and analyze, not just prepare them to become robots for corporations and perhaps become subject to replacement by real robots later on.

Such so-called centers for higher learning are acting at cross-purposes with their role to have their students realize “The American Dream” and with their outlandish costs and fees which has resulted in student debt loans that now amount to more than America’s credit card debt – beyond a trillion dollars – and worse, such loans are virtually immune to discharge in bankruptcy due to Republican amendments to the bankruptcy code on behalf of their campaign-contributing bankers who will pursue defaulting students for debt to the grave in a symbolic return to Dickens’s debtors’ prisons sans incarceration, and this in a time and day when a lack of higher education literally defines the lives of millions of Americans.

The right wing tells us that money is not the answer; that government should stay out of education etc. Are they telling us that the present grotesque system IS the answer, that millions of meritorious students who could be educated and add status and meaning to their lives and revenues to our treasury in excess of their educational costs should be excluded from pursuit of their “dream?” The near-free system of European universities, the income-contingent student loan program in Australia and our own GI Bill experience tell us that government should be heavily involved in investing in education since a more educated populace yields greater innovation, a robust economy, higher incomes and a higher tax base. What’s not to like? It is unconscionable that education and access to it have been corporatized and students are now treated as “products” preparing for the corporate maw rather than learning humans.

So what are we going to do about our cancerous failure to invest in education, just sit and watch while corporations add education to our economy and other areas they have already commandeered? How does that scenario fit in with “The American Dream” and “Land of Opportunity?” It doesn’t.  GERALD    E


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