I named this blog “Cheating History” because I think this is the one overriding question our country needs to answer – how do we avoid the inevitable decline that has overtaken every other great nation throughout history? How does the United States cheat history?
I think the U.S. does have a chance to cheat history because of our unique combination of democracy and capitalism. It’s calcification that kills great nations, the tendency of any society to lose its dynamism and settle into a rigid class structure. Those people who were successful when a society was young and dynamic start to change the rules to insure that they and their children get to keep what they got. This makes the class structure less fluid and allows fewer opportunities for the poor to get ahead, to make their own pile of money. Eventually the society stops tapping into the potential within the class structure as a whole and at that point the decline begins.
In theory democracy, with its constant churning of political power, and capitalism, with its constant churning of economic opportunity, can work together to create a permanently fluid class structure. A society where rich people go broke on their own merits and where poor people can get rich, again on their own merits. In theory, democratic capitalism should allow a country to avoid the historical decline.
The United States, of all countries, should have a chance to create a permanently fluid society. But instead we are going in the opposite direction – our country is calcifying. The rich have gotten significantly richer over the past several decades and the poor have stayed poor to the point where we talk about having a permanent underclass. It’s easy to point to changes in tax laws and other factors to explain the calcification at the top. But more worrisome are the changes at the bottom, the many different factors that are creating a society where the poor can’t get ahead.
Sometimes I think there is a tendency to blame all of the poor’s problems on the Republicans. Part of the lack of opportunity for the poor is certainly related to the calcification at the top, and this is driven by policies that the Republicans champion. But it extends beyond that – the poor increasingly lack the skills and character necessary to pursue the opportunities that are available. Unfortunately I think this is attributable more to the people that are trying to help the poor.
The changing of the social norms against unwed mothers offers an example. The single strongest predictor of economic success for children is the presence of two parents. Yet in part out of compassion we have changed our social norms to be more accepting of out of wedlock births. This has made us a kinder and gentler country but has also helped lead to a significant jump in the number of children born to single, poor mothers. By any measure these children will have a much harder time learning the skills they need to succeed.
This is the tragedy of many of our efforts to help the poor – we wind up undermining their ability to develop the skills they need to participate in our democratic, capitalist system. Compassion has led to many changes that have benefitted the lives of the less fortunate. But it is also helping to shape our society in a direction that making our class structure less fluid and making it harder for the United States to cheat history.