If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?

The prevailing myth in the United States is of “equal opportunity” or easy class mobility. This was cultivated to attract immigrants, particularly from Europe. The democratic egalitarianism promised by America was in direct contrast to European feudal society, where classes were fixed at birth and very difficult to escape. Class position established one’s place in village life, whom you had to suck up to and whom you could ignore. It determined the way one was treated by others, and consequently on one’s feelings of self-worth. The psychological effects rippled for generations; feudalism may be over, but many older Europeans still strive to appear to belong to higher social strata than those they were born to.

In the US, the idea of class mobility has been used to pacify us. Instead of rebelling against those in power, we are encouraged to work hard and become one of them. Never mind that structural inequalities make this impossible for the vast majority—the few who make it are held up as shining examples of possibility, and we are told to blame ourselves if we fail to achieve success. A few famous celebrities rose from poverty—if they can do it, so can you! No? Then paint a big red “L” on your forehead.

In fact, when an economy is expanding rapidly, there is more possibility of upward mobility. Remember when it seemed like everyone was making millions of dollars in the new information economy? It certainly wasn’t “everyone,” but there were people who made crazy amounts of cash simply because the moment was right and they were able to take advantage of it. Those who didn’t were made to feel inadequate or dimwitted. In the 1980s, my young neighbor, with no particularly outstanding resources, skills or intelligence, raked in tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks by buying and selling stock options (never mind that he lost it all later). With the stock market soaring, it was relatively easy to turn a little money into more—just jump in and go with the flow.

In a contracting economy, on the other hand, the flow pushes everyone downward. Those lauded as hedge fund geniuses during the up-market become losers, just like the rest of us.