The 1 percent plays us for suckers: There is no meritocracy and they've strangled the American dream

Something's rotten: America has little income mobility, lots of inequality and our hard work makes the rich richer

Published April 19, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rich Pedroncelli/Charles Sykes/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
(AP/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rich Pedroncelli/Charles Sykes/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The American way of life—more simply, the American way—is charged with affirming our American ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In that trio of nouns—life, liberty, happiness—the last, happiness, activated by pursuit, makes itself curiously conspicuous, like a zany uncle at a bris.

Who in his right mind on this fraught planet would claim that the Creator endowed us with the unalienable right to be happy? You can imagine the assertion coming on the floor of the House, made by the congressmouse of the 9th District of Florida, representing the Disney-engineered town of Celebration.

We must remind ourselves that the official testament to American independence doesn’t declare that our happiness is an inalienable right, merely the pursuit of it. And we all know that pursuit—while often engaging—runs counter to happiness.

If we’re in pursuit, we are unsatisfied. If we pursue happiness, we want or need it. If we possessed happiness, we wouldn’t chase it. This is the nature of desire: We don’t want what we have. Even when we do achieve happiness, sadly, we want more, and off we go again.

By this reckoning, dissatisfaction defines the American way. Life we cherish. Give us liberty or give us death. Happiness we’re ever after, and not happily.

In a letter dated Dec. 24, on the eve of the American Revolution, 1774, Lord Dunmore, a Scotsman and the Royal Governor of Virginia, wrote that his subjects, these American colonists, “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.” This nation of ours was colonized by Europeans who felt ill-at-ease in their homelands, castoffs and trailblazers who went a long way—sea to shining sea—toward slaughtering a nomadic native population while importing indentured servants and slaves unwillingly sold off of ancestral lands. It is no wonder that we, the collective offspring of this migrant mishmash, feel compelled to chase the dog’s tail of happiness.

* * *

The state of happiness operates according to what physicists call the observer effect. Measuring happiness alters it. Happiness is like tire pressure. In order to gauge it, we’re forced to let out air. Once we’re aware we’ve attained a measure of happiness, our happiness is changed by that awareness.

Even unchanged, happiness never lasts. If it did, it wouldn’t be happiness. Think how Laurie Colwin, upbeat author of the earnestly titled "Happy All the Time," died at age 48 of a heart attack. Or hear John Lennon’s tragically prescient baritone, the acerbic voice of the happy-go-lucky Beatles, crooning, “Happiness is a warm gun. Bang bang, shoot shoot.” Lennon, who wrote the song after seeing the phrase in an article published by the American Rifleman, intended the lyrics to be understood ironically. Mark David Chapman—who shot Lennon four times in the back outside the Dakota overlooking Central Park West, and then sat over a dying Lennon reading "The Catcher in the Rye" until taken into police custody—took Lennon’s words literally. Chapman’s mother, Diane, in an interview with People magazine, said: “My first thought when this happened was, ‘My God, I’ll never be happy again.’”

* * *

The essence of the American way—our endless road that gets us more perfectly there—is the American dream. We arrive at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by the once-revolutionary notion that upward mobility is achievable for every honest individual dedicated to hard work. Plain if not simple, that’s the dream.

The American dream, it should be noted, is dependent on the notion of American exceptionalism: the American way is possible in the U.S.—as it is nowhere else—because of the singular nature of this nation.

America is exceptional, but not for the reasons we’ve come to imagine. We now know that the United States is not only among the most unequal societies in the rich world but also among the least mobile. This is not some pinko prattle reprised time and again in the liberal media. These days, you can read regular reports (dangling modifiers and all) in the Wall Street Journal or Business Insider, where it was recently proclaimed:

Because their rising status comes at a time when upward mobility in the U.S. ranks lowest among wealthy industrialized counties, the spending attitudes of the new rich have implications for politics and policy. It’s now become even harder for people at the bottom to move up.

* * *

See Pa Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" finding the handbill promoting plentiful work out West. Hear Ma saying to her son Tom, “They need folks to work. They wouldn't go to that trouble if they wasn't plenty work. Costs em good money to get them han'bills out. What'd they want to lie for, an' costin' em money to lie?”

John Steinbeck understood, and tried to tell us some 75 years ago, that the American dream is not a product of American democracy. The American dream is borne out of our all-too-human hypocrisy. A false advertisement, the American dream is a motivational tool employed to increase worker productivity. The dividends reaped by the increased output go to further fill the coffers of the aptly called job creators.

This is not to say that Americans can’t, like the sitcom Jeffersons, move on up to the top. They do, but the chances are minuscule. Upwardly mobile Americans are not the rule; they’re the exception to the rule. The rule is that most Americans will never move up, no matter how hard we work, no matter how we’re told otherwise.

Income mobility, the goal of the American dream, is greater in Canada, and if there was ever something rotten in the state of Denmark, the ruling parties there have freshened those fortunes. These days, something’s rotten in the United States.

Consider what has come to be called the Great Gatsby curve. Coined by former Council of Economic Advisers staff economist Judd Cramer, the Great Gatsby curve illustrates, in X and Y axes, how the wealth or poverty of a father predetermines that of his son. (Statisticians use paternity because discrimination against women greatly distorts data.) To put it in economists’ terms: intergenerational immobility correlates to inequality.

* * *

The Harvard economist Greg Mankiw says that comparing the vast USA with the admirable economic mobility of a wee nation like Denmark is akin to comparing perennially rich Connecticut with ever-destitute Mississippi. The Great Gatsby curve doesn’t measure the cause-and-effect nature of intergenerational income inequality, Mankiw claims. It measures economic diversity. Because of far greater American income diversity, America can’t be held to such standards. What we have here is yet one more gleaming instance of American exceptionalism.

This is a cagey way of saying that in America, the citizenry is much richer than the Danish and far poorer. Mankiw is pointing to income disparity and calling it diversity. Someone should find Professor Mankiw a job torturing rhetoric in North Korea, where, in the midst of famine, he could aid Kim Jong-un in espousing the high nutritional value of food substitutes like sawdust.

An article at the Economist elegantly points out that if Mankiw’s argument weren’t asinine, the fortunes of Mississippians would’ve, over time, proved to be more upwardly mobile.

Mr. Mankiw has stumbled on a very convincing point: Whether you are rich or poor in Europe or America depends to a great extent not on your own qualities or efforts, but on where you happen to be born. America is not a meritocracy, Mr. Mankiw is saying; not only do those born rich tend to stay rich and vice versa, just being born in one state or another makes a huge difference to your lifelong earnings.

We Americans, having been duped, are now culpable for misleading ourselves and the world. We might generously offer the interpretation that our collective hoodwinking isn’t the pure product of propaganda, not some Koch brothers cabal perpetrated under the innocuous name of a not-for-profit advocacy foundation.

Rather, because we now live in the era of Big Data, we can prove or disprove conventional wisdom. The numbers are no longer the mythical math of pollsters like Karl Rove. Technology has entitled us all to the math. The American dream, come to find, has been decidedly disproved. There’s no more succinct, and sickening, piece of evidence than this six-minute infographic video created by Politizane, reportedly a freelance filmmaker “living and working in a red state (Texas)” and choosing to remain anonymous. Even if we discover that Politizane is a newly tech-savvy Noam Chomsky using voice-changer software, or a PSYOP campaign spearheaded by Vlad Putin, the numbers are the numbers.

* * *

Eighty percent of Americans possess 7 percent of our nation’s wealth. Anyone still championing the reality of the American dream is either delusional, dishonest or criminally uninformed. Dream or no dream, the American way of life isn’t simply dying a slow death. It’s being strangled. The killers are people like Professor Mankiw, who is not uniformed. The killers are millionaires and billionaires who abide by the mantra: no new taxes. The killers are political organizations like Americans for Prosperity, a special interest group that hosts the annual Defending the American Dream Summit.

The American dream is a lie, and those who attend DADS, and politicians backed by Americans for Prosperity, are actively working to foment it. These pols and lobbyists intimate that the rich are—to put it plainly—in possession of a greater value system. A better work ethic. A life-affirming set of beliefs. A more productive appreciation of the family. Americans who don’t abide by these values are discovering—lo and behold—that they suffer accordingly.

This argument—declining American values—isn’t conservative. It’s not an attempt to hold fast to the good old days of tradition and morality. The declining-values argument is supremacist. It’s that simple. Those who espouse it skew toward older, richer, whiter and, make no mistake, in this argument, at heart, is one clear declaration: Our values did, do and should reign supreme.

* * *

The genius of “pursuit of happiness” is that each person defines it intimately. We argue about life, when it starts—at conception or after—and ends—with brain death or the cessation of the heart—but the basic parameters we can agree on. Liberty, at its core—the power or scope to act as one pleases—is somehow both more abstract and more essential. But happiness?

Originalists, those linguistic fundamentalists, argue that happiness, as it was originally intended by the founding fathers, has changed markedly since the days when an ink-stained Thomas Jefferson scratched out his “original Rough draught.” The etymology of "happy," as defined by that most Loyalist of sources, the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the root "hap": “Chance or fortune (good or bad) that falls to anyone; luck, lot.” It wasn’t until a century after the first published appearance of "hap" that "happy," in written form, came to side with good "hap." The word "happen" shares the same origin, hap: “to come to pass (originally by ‘hap’ or chance).” "Happenstance," as we use it today, is nearest to the original "hap." An originalist would argue that a more accurate translation of the clause in question should read: “life, liberty and the pursuit of good fortune.”

* * *

Every word is only ever an approximation. Language is a liquid, flowing as long as it is spoken or written or thought, even. This is one reason why originalism, and its application to contemporary Constitutional law, is not simply absurd. It’s stupid.

The hubris of originalism—and I mean "hubris" in its original sense: “a crime that casts shame on both criminal and victim”—is that it runs against the very nature of language. Language is a measure of change. To put forth a principle of interpretation that tries to discover the original meaning of a written document is one thing, but to then use that principle in an interpretation of present-day law is so moronic as to constitute intellectual dishonesty. That, or flagrant hypocrisy.

Originalism is a pedant’s con game. It’s the sort of justification that can only be made by those so supremely mired in rhetoric that they’ve lost all sense of the everyday world and how it works for folks unfortunate enough to make their livings by means other than moving words around.

Trying to freeze a word in its original intent is like isolating a droplet in a river. It can be accomplished. Doing so will give you a better sense of water and its properties. If examined closely enough, the droplet may yield its origins. But the droplet will never help you navigate the river. The droplet can’t tell you where the river meets the sea.

Plato, in his "Cratylus," quoting Socrates quoting Heraclitus, famous in Ancient Greece for his insistence on the ubiquity of continuous change, says: “All things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice.” To this graceful truth we might add another. You cannot use the same word twice.

Every time a word is used, it is changed, however imperceptibly, because no two contexts are alike. If the usage is published, the change is more lasting. But the speaking of a word still effects its change. The effect is smaller, impossible to gauge, until, oral uses taken collectively, the effect becomes notable.

* * *

All words start as slang. Consider that the likeliest contender for first word ever spoken by humans, some one million years ago, is "duh." It’s not hard to envision an early ancestor of Justice Antonin Scalia, sitting robed in furs at the back of the Supreme Cave, smacking himself in his sloped, hairy forehead and uttering that one dumb syllable. The rest is pre-history.

Eventually, slang words are lost or they’re not. If not, they’re canonized and, in the English-speaking worlds, this transition is marked by inclusion in dictionaries, the OED still king among them.

Just because happiness meant one thing to the founding fathers doesn’t mean we’re remiss by applying its modern meaning to a historical document. To insist upon a singular definition locked in time for all time—be it applied to legislation like Amendment II to the United States Constitution or to books like the Bible—is fundamentalist in a way that is un-American.

* * *

The better angels of America can’t help but combat fundamentalism, abroad and at home. The place to start at home, if we ever want our children to have an honest chance at living the American dream—because it’s already too late for us—is to reclaim our language from fundamentalist civic leaders and their financiers. We must outwit them. Use their words against them to show them that by deluding themselves, they’re deluding us. If they keep it up, they’ll run us to further ruin.

These leaders, we should acknowledge, are doing their damnedest to be reasonable. That’s the problem, because, as Benjamin Franklin imparted, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” This particular sort of mindfulness becomes more common the longer a person sits in a position of power; likewise, wealth reduces empathy. Current psychological findings confirm the common sense of the founding fathers for instituting term limits, limits long overdue for judges.

We must acknowledge the atrophying of empathy that accompanies power and wealth. This means that those representing our interests in our great republic, and those paying the highest amount in taxes (if not the highest percentage), are the worst equipped—emotionally, morally—to make choices for the common good.

* * *

In a 2012 article in Scientific American, Daisy Grewal writes that new

findings build upon previous research showing how upper class individuals are worse at recognizing the emotions of others and less likely to pay attention to people they are interacting with. Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications.

The wealthy and the powerful lie more, cheat more and are less sympathetic. Our economic and political leaders are more susceptible to the deadly sins than the rest of us.

Seven recent studies reveal how the wealthy and the powerful morph into hypocrites, here defined as “people who pretend to have admirable principles, beliefs, or feelings but behave otherwise.” Before we attain success, we often do possess admirable principles, beliefs, or feelings. Once successful, our self-possession is warped into pretension by success. Anecdotally, we see this time and again. A politician starts out, like New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, fighting graft and corruption, and winds up indicted for graft and corruption. Today, we have the damning data to support the anecdotal evidence. An academic roundup of the recent findings reveals:

In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

Senators, CEOs, the dynastic Kochs and Waltons, the multimillionaires who dominate talk radio, these Americans should not be instructing us on the importance of American values.

The values of the wealthy and the powerful are the least trustworthy. This doesn’t mean we need smaller government and lower taxes, the platform championed by a Republican Party—and its Teetotaler fundamentalist wing—bankrolled by Americans for Prosperity. The Koch brothers are acting in their interests. They know full well that the conservative agenda further privileges the already privileged. Any Republican who disagrees is targeted for disposal. What we need—desperately—is increased government regulation in the private sector and the overturning of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United verdict. Reduced regulation only increases our freedom to lie, cheat and steal as we gain wealth and influence. Lower taxes on the highest earners keep wealth hoarded in the hands of Americans most inclined to undermine American values. Increased election spending makes it more likely that those who control the most capital will institute the worst devils of our nature.

Ironically, tragically and, yes, hypocritically, Americans with the most money and influence—and in possession of our worst values—lobby hardest for the importance of American values. Poor church attendance, welfare dependence and gay marriage are not leading to decreased American values. Our declining values are the direct result of the rich and powerful succumbing to human nature. It’s not solely their fault—the fault is hard-wired in all of us—and they are in sore need of our help to overcome their inherent vice.

* * *

Because we cannot trust the rich and the powerful to act in our best interests or in the best interests of America, they must be hamstrung. They will not help reinvigorate a healthy middle class, crucial to reestablishing the American way. Not only does the middle class make for a broad distribution of resources, the middle class, more so than rich or poor, more so than our leadership or our left-behinds, provides the moral compass for the America that can and should be. But if 80 percent of Americans control 7 percent of American wealth, the middle class is, statistically speaking, nearly nonexistent. How do we breathe new life into the subgroup of the American population predisposed to do the greatest good for America?

* * *

Along the way, we Americans have gotten lost. We’ve allowed ourselves to become convinced that the redistribution of wealth is an anti-American evil, and that free markets innately aid the common good. A growing number of us have come to the painful conclusion that free markets consolidate wealth at the top, and that those at the top can’t be trusted for long. In 1890, with the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act and its subsequent amendments in 1914 and 1936, we institutionalized monopoly busting. We’re long overdue for a new set of antitrust acts. It’s high time Congress legislated billionaire busting.

Government mandated income redistribution must not shift wealth from one extreme to the other, rich to poor, but toward the middle. There’s only one surefire way: tax the fancy pants off the ever-tightening asses of the rich. How about that? The rich and their leadership won’t willingly give up their means—they’re constitutionally incapable: charitable giving declines as wealth increases—and because they won’t, we have to take it from them. Congress must levy heavy taxes on billionaires, or we must oust the current Congress.

* * *

A fiction, Jay Gatsby is an effigy for the American way of life. A poor boy born to a poor father, he was forced to make good the only way he could, outside the bounds  of decency, law and order. He bootlegged during Prohibition to build his fortune. That, in the face of the evidence, is how real working-class Americans can hope to break the shackles of class. Thanks to the current policies put in place by the sons and fathers of privilege, we must lie and cheat to get ahead. Once ahead, we’re more inclined to lie and cheat, a predisposition that helps us stay there. Welcome to the new American way, which, come to find, was the old American way.

If the prosperous Americans for Prosperity don’t recognize this reality, civil unrest is sure to follow. If American billionaires don’t come to terms, there’s bound to be an American Spring in the offing. The Occupy movement was the first salvo. The demonstrations, rioting, the cop shootings and looting in Ferguson, seemingly unrelated, are part and parcel of a growing American class divide further divisible by race. We’re overdue for a reckoning.

* * *

At the close of "The Great Gatsby"—the great American novel not the tragic American chart—the narrator thinks how Gatsby’s

dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

The futility of Gatsby’s pursuit, as F. Scott Fitzgerald rendered it, and the hypocrisy of influence he came to represent, makes Gatsby’s pursuit, and ultimate downfall, all the more poignant. Gatsby’s is an American futility, the beautiful futility of forming a more perfect union, the glorious striving for the ultimate, unattainable truth.

Sometimes, it seems, that hypocrisy, more so than happiness, is our unalienable right. We reach for happiness (and for good fortune) knowing the likelihood that these things have already passed us by, or were never within reach to begin with. But on we pursue nonetheless. Most of us are incapable of acknowledging our own hypocrisy; we are what Aristotle called “consistently inconsistent.” Scientists, philosophers, novelists and psychologists have long been aware that a prerequisite of the human condition is self-deception, what Carl Jung dubbed the “hypocritical pretenses of man.” Such pretenses mature with power and privilege. The greater our personal gain, the greater grows the gulf not only between us and our fellow Americans, but between us and ourselves. Increased success decreases self-awareness. Like we do with happiness, we must pursue hypocrisy—our own, that of others—and especially the hypocrisy of our leaders and of our prosperous. They are, more and more in this country, one and the same. If there’s any hope for America, it is this: Hypocrisy, like happiness, operates according to the observer effect. By observing it, we change it.

By Jay Baron Nicorvo

Jay Baron Nicorvo's essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Poets & Writers and Guernica. He’s published a collection of poems, Deadbeat, and is at work on a novel, inspired by his former sister-in-law, about war veterans confronting the troubles of home. His website is

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