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Carter '12: Occupying the issue of social mobility

Two pieces caught my eye in the past week: "The Tyranny of the Meritocracy" by Megan McArdle in the Atlantic and "The Downward Path of Upward Mobility" by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, both of which found their inspiration in a piece written by Brookings Institute fellow Scott Winship in the National Review, "Mobility Impaired."

All three pieces treat, in some form or another, a troubling new dimension of American exceptionalism: Our current lack of upward social mobility, especially with respect to the ability of those at the bottom to — in the immortal words of Curtis Mayfield — move on up. And it's pretty clear why this is such a devastating revelation: If we're forced to point to just one key aspect of the American dream, it's the idea of social mobility. Without a sense that upward social mobility is actually possible, the American dream fast becomes an American myth.

I do not want to pretend to offer an explanation for why our upward social mobility is worse now than it was half a century ago or why countries in Europe, whose formerly rigid socio-economic societies impelled many of our ancestors to come to the United States, now offer a better chance at this mobility than we do. Trying to comprehend the causes of such disparities is far beyond my intellectual capabilities. But I will — perhaps too boldly — offer a suggestion for how these facts might be effectively used in the current political landscape.

The calling card, rallying cry and sign-making inspiration of the Occupy movement nationwide has been the notion of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. From Oakland to Wall Street, the 99 percent have been protesting the rapidly increasing concentration of wealth among the nation's top 1 percent of income earners. Say what you will about the 1 percent's right to its wealth, the fact remains that their incomes have increased at a time when the economy is far from healthy.

From my understanding, the Occupy movement places its emphasis more on the problems of income inequality. But this notion of income inequality seems haunted by the specter of the phrase "redistribution of wealth," which produces a knee-jerk reaction from some on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Perhaps as a result of this emphasis on income inequality, some commentators have even suggested that the Occupy movement is to the Democratic Party what the Tea Party is to the Republican Party.

Regardless of whether this is an appropriate analogy, the fact remains that people still consider the Occupy movement distinctly partisan. Though many protesters are trying to transcend party lines, some will stubbornly refuse to see them in this light. The lack of serious treatment by mainstream media at the movement's inception certainly did little to help in this respect.

Here's my suggestion: a shift in focus from income inequality to social mobility might garner more widespread support for the Occupy movement. If upward social mobility and the Horatio Alger story are in fact the key components of the American dream, then Americans from both ends of the political spectrum should advocate for its preservation. In other words, placing more emphasis on social mobility will allow the Occupy movement to capture the support not only of those who already find it a worthy cause but also those who might have been put off by the possibility of "redistribution of wealth" that they wrongly thought lurked behind the emphasis on income inequality.

The traits needed to achieve social mobility — including, but not limited to, self-reliance and determination — come straight out of a conservative playbook for the behavior of upstanding citizens. Of course, if reinstating the possibility for social mobility entails bigger government, then these very same conservatives might not be so thrilled. But even if Occupy were only able to attract those who thought slightly bigger government were a fair price to pay for more social mobility, it still might be a considerable gain.

This proposed shift in no way precludes the Occupy movement from continuing to protest the other issues that are fast becoming its hallmarks. No inconsistency arises from protesting an unfair concentration of wealth and the tremendous obstacles to climbing the socioeconomic ladder. One could even argue that they are, to some extent at least, two sides of the same coin.

Assessing the progress — let alone the efficacy — of the Occupy movement is exceedingly difficult. But what's clear is the fact that it has, like the Tea Party during the 2010 midterm election cycle, the potential to slowly steep in the national consciousness. More emphasis on the slow disappearance of social mobility might only increase the effect.

Sam Carter '12 is always open to suggestions. He can be reached at



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