Schooled to Accept Economic Inequality

Up front I would like to say that I usually don’t write pieces like this, pieces that are perhaps overly simplistic and provocative and lacking a more balanced and nuanced view of things. But in the best spirit of provocation to encourage the dialog… here goes!

I keep seeing statistics and voices calling out that the economic disparities between rich and poor in this country continue to widen. It makes me wonder… in a democratic society where (at least politically) “majority rules”, how come the most wealthy among us, “the one percenters” as they have recently been coined, seem to continue to call the shots on a government financial policy? Why doesn’t at least a majority of the “ninety-nine percenters” come to an agreement and vote for a more equitable path forward?

There are a number of explanations out there for this, which in my opinion have at least some merit.

1. Many of us still believe in the “American Dream” of becoming “one percenters” ourselves so we don’t want to diminish that hallowed group we aspire to.

2. In our society, “money is power”, and with the expense of running political or legislative campaigns, the wealthy in this country can exercise tremendous political power relative to their numbers.

3. There is a persistent Calvinist ideological thread in the U.S. that accepts that there will always be “winners” and “losers”, and that the presence of so many “losers” is the greatest inspiration encouraging all of us to try harder, to excel and join the ranks of the “winners”.

Along with the above, I would put forward at least a fourth reason why the vision of the majority is not asserting itself in our political process and legislative action. Most of us have been “schooled” in a public education system to be passive recipients of approved knowledge, accepting external authority from our superiors telling us what to do and when to do it, while we are told to sit quietly and attentively in our seats. Thirteen years of such “training” in preparation for the adult world, and no wonder we generally fail to assert our political will!

This while most of us who are part of the “one percenters”, have been raised in an environment away from these public schools, an environment where we are trained instead with an expectation that we will be in the seat of power and wield it. We have an expectation that we must actively leverage our power to maintain and even enhance it. Here is radical educator John Taylor Gatto calling out the components of an elite education that are not found in conventional public schools.

And in a more recent book, The Education of Millionaires, author and Forbes blogger Michael Ellsberg, he calls out his seven “core success skills” gleaned from his study of the most economically successful among us…

* Learn How to Sell
* Learn Marketing
* The “Right” Way to Network with Big Wigs
* Define Your Vision
* Invest in Yourself
* Build the Brand of “You”
* Take an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Look at the stories of the most successful of the entrepreneurs among us who by leveraging their energy and innovative ideas, rise into that top economic percentile of Americans. Those stories, including those of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others, usually involve avoiding, rather than staying in, conventional public education.

Our public school system seems to excel instead at creating academic winners and losers, and among the winners, train up the “apparatchiks” (or a “mass of clerks” as Gatto has said) that will pull down an upper-middle class income doing the high-powered grunt work for “The Man”. That actually is not surprising to me given that one of the key visionaries of the U.S. public education system was Horace Mann, whose vision was significantly influenced by his study of the Prussian education system in the early 19th century. The Prussians developed perhaps the first mandatory universal education system in the world, with a three-tiered system of schools as follows…

Tier 1 – For the children of the Prussian aristocratic elite (their “one percenters”) to train them to be entrepreneurial, strategic and visionary leaders of society

Tier 2 – For the top ten percent of the rest of the country’s youth (the “winners” of the non-elite) to be the “knowledge workers” as professionals, industrial managers and the middle-level military officers

Tier 3 – The rest of the rest (the “losers”) to be the worker-bees of the economy and rank and file foot soldiers of the army

Having the social privilege of being white, combined with the economic privilege of solid middle-class “knowledge worker” jobs, my partner Sally and I were able to let our kids follow their instincts and leave school in their early adolescence before they were completely transformed into either academic “winners” or “losers”. Directing their own development after that point, in the enriched environment that we had the privilege to provide them, they are both now launched into adulthood with living-wage jobs, aspirations based on who they are as unique human beings, and the tested agency to set goals and effectively move towards manifesting those goals.

I hope they both can live up to their professed beliefs in equity and the democratic process and leverage their agency to join with other like-minded people to challenge the logic of “The Man” that keeps the “one percenters” on top of still formidable pyramid of undemocratic power and privilege.

11 replies on “Schooled to Accept Economic Inequality”

  1. What’s your evidence on the Prussian School system? The Prussian aristocracy was anything but entrepreneurial given the dismal state of their agriculture on dependancy on protectionism. Good officers and soldiers yes, but they were not entrepreneurs.

  2. Bill… I appreciate your comments! They inspired me to go back to my various sources. Maybe you are right that the word ‘entrepreneurial’ gives the wrong connotation here. Though in looking the word ‘entrepreneur’ up in Wiktionary I got the following definitions…

    1. A person who organizes and operates a business venture and assumes much of the associated risk.
    2. A person who organizes a risky activity of any kind and acts substantially in the manner of a business entrepreneur.

    What I was getting at was the kind of strategic thinking that the Prussians excelled at and led them to a stunning victory in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian war. In the early 19th century they were the emerging power in Europe and their university at Berlin was the intellectual center of the world, drawing academics from the rest of Europe and the U.S. to study there and obtain the first modern doctoral degrees in the various hard and social sciences.

  3. And many of us would be fine with being a worker bee — if it paid a living wage and you could get steady work. When even that part of the social contract falls apart. . .

  4. Nance… It is interesting that you reference a “social contract”, presumably that American businesses will provide jobs for American people and that those people will have learned enough to have the basic starting skill sets for those jobs. Don’t know if many on the business side would acknowledge such a contract, thinking its more “catch as catch can”.

  5. It wasn’t always this way. Not to attribute altruism inappropriately. Businesses won’t last for long without the rest of us.

  6. Nance… I agree, but here’s the sticky part… Would you turn down a good job with a good working environment because the employer was not participating in that broader “social contract”? Or would we have to count on government forcing businesses to be “socially conscious” to that degree?

  7. Nance… I agree with the whole regulated marketplace thing, ensuring that certain community standards, including safety and quality, are met. But government while offering businesses incentives to give people jobs can’t really demand that they do. I don’t think that has ever been or is going to be part of a “social contract”. I think the assumption has been that given an always (previously) growing American economy, that there would always be work to be had.

    I hope you don’t think I’m dismissing the questions you are asking, they are really poignant ones! Is there a social contract with those of us who launch and run businesses? Should there be? Is it really even doable in a country where the state does not control all the economic activity.

    Interesting stuff!

  8. A social contract doesn’t mean government enforced.

    OTOH, when the government is involved, as it is, in so many aspects of the financial and other industries, it could certainly require more than it does. Requiring bailout money be used to give loans to small businesses, for instance.

    And, yes, a decent social contract should involve all the players — you launch a small business and try not to do evil. For instance. Does it always work? No. Are there obstacles in your way? Days you have to make deals you’d rather not? Yes. How long before you’ve sold your soul?

  9. Nance… good point about the nature of a “social contract”. Also good point that government could mange our capitalist free-enterprise system more than it does now.

    I think I may have pushed you into an argument about the details of a “social contract”, what it is and isn’t, which moved us away from the bottom line where we may be fairly close to agreement. I am not a socialist… I believe in a regulated system of free enterprise. That said I think people should engage in various economic enterprises because they love what they sell, not because they love the money they’ll make. Maybe the social contract is something in the vein of, “Do what you love and the money will follow!”

  10. I was interested in Nance’s point about the social contract having once included jobs with a living wage. You may recall Pres. Roosevelt (Franklin) attempting to pass legislation guaranteeing this. It failed but the fact that it existed and could’ve passed means that the feeling was quite prevalent.

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