Sunday, October 30, 2016

Economic mobility and why it's desperately important

(Yes, I said almost two weeks ago "in a day or two".  I plead excellent fall weather.  There's nothing like making hay while the sun shines.)

Before reading this, you're going to want to read Dr. Frank Buckley's excellent piece "Restoring America's Economic Mobility" on Hilldale College's Imprimis site.  It's a fast, easy read, and I'll wait right here for you.  Besides, I have a bowl of ice cream to eat.

Elsewhere on this blog I've described my parents' upbringing during the Great Depression.  One thing I didn't mention was their parents and grandparents.  I can't speak to my mother's family, they are pretty much a mystery to their descendants.  We don't know why our parents/grandparents never spoke of them.  All I know is that my Grandma left home at 13 and never, ever looked back.

My father's family is much better known to me.  My great-grandfather (obviously, his grandfather), was a subsistence farmer who raised something like 13 kids in a house that looks like what I, being from North Carolina, would call a tobacco barn.  His children ran the gamut from a US Army General (so I'm told) to a railroad conductor (my grandfather), various sorts of factory workers (my great-uncles) and several beauticians (my great-aunts).   All of them lived a life that was far and away much richer in what we would call consumer goods and "comforts" than their father.  They all moved to one town or another, lived in houses with indoor plumbing and electricity, owned an automobile (or two or three) and in general ranged from what we would now call upper-lower class to middle class.  They did this well within the lifetime of their parents, and did it while the Great Depression was going on.  Let that one sink in a minute.  During the worst economic times in their history, they climbed out of what can only be defined as grinding poverty and bootstrapped themselves up the ladder to comfort and security.

My parents found themselves in a position in one of those towns where things were winding down economically.  They were smart enough to "git while the gittin's good".  They sold of what they had and moved to North Carolina, arriving with $20 in their pockets and the willingness to work.  An uncle put them up for a while (as he did with any number of family members who made that same trip south) while they got their feet under them.  Eventually my parents worked their way up the ladder as well.  Before their deaths, they too did better than their parents to a significant degree.

I was, eventually, smart enough to build on that foundation.  Even though I was told that I was too "poor" to afford it, and the guidance councilors in high school though a kid from the wrong side of the tracks ought to just give up thoughts of college and go get a job in a factory, and while it took me 11 years to do it, I wound up with a BS degree--the first college graduate in my family as far as anyone knows.  Over the years, I've leveraged that, the work ethic that my parents and grandparents pretty much beat into me and (as my one-time cardiac doc put it) a Type A Personality From Hell and bulldozed my way through the ranks of Information Technology almost to the top.  I never made Chief Information Officer, but I made Director of IT.  And I'm just stubborn enough I may take another swing at it yet.  :-)

But my kids?  Danged if I know where they will wind up, and that is exactly what Dr. Buckley is addressing.  One of the undying tenets of what we have all thought of as "The American Dream" is that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could do at least as well as your parents and probably better.  But that isn't happening now.  My daughter has had the benefit of a BA in Business and a Masters in a financial discipline (sorry, that's as specific as I can be without compromising OPSEC), both from good private universities, and has yet to get a full time job in her chosen field.  She's willing to relocate to pretty much anywhere that isn't one of the neo-socialist states and has the money to do so, and she can't buy a job.  She's working part-time in retail.

My son will soon finish up an Associates in Welding.  He isn't interested in white collar work, and frankly, given his observations of his sister's luck with higher education, who can blame him?  Besides, he has a talent for the work.  I may be white collar, but I grew up blue collar and I know what good welding looks like.  He's better than a lot of guys I used to work with that had been welding for years.  He could also drop into a machinist's role with a little more work if that interested him.  If it's anything to do with metal working, it's interesting to him.  Fortunately for him, it's a trade that pays well--or it has.

A year ago, he was being courted by local operations of Caterpillar and Deere-Hitachi.  All he had to do was finish school and show up with that degree and he had a job.  Now, both of them are laying off people as quickly as they can.  He has talked to a number of local fabrication operations, and he thinks he will be able to get on with one of them, at about 2/3 of what he would have earned with one of the big guys.  I've done some mental math, and if he moves out, it's inevitable he will fall from the middle class lifestyle that's all he's ever known to a lower class lifestyle.  I'm not sure how he'll handle that situation.

It's not just my kids.  You may remember my last employer was an "institution of higher education".  I watched us churn out hundreds of students with degrees that either weren't in demand (sports management, religious music and the like) or degrees that were in demand, such as education, but that don't pay enough that the kids would be able to live on their own and be able to pay their living expenses plus the loans they had saddled themselves with to pay for those degrees.  These kids are going to be making house-payment sized school loan payments for years.  Don't tell me that won't effect their attitudes and their buying patterns.

This isn't something new.  At the employer before that, we had a large number of employees who had degrees in biology and zoology and thought they were all going out and save the world.  They found out that saving the world paid just enough that they had to gang up in threes and fours and rent an apartment or a house together, work second jobs and even then had to live like church mice.  The disillusion was a palpable force, and many of them eventually decided that the damn world could save itself.  They left and got "real" jobs--this was back before 2007 when there was something that acted like a functioning economy.

We keep hearing about the Millennials, and they've become the butt of a lot of jokes about "failure to launch".  Yes, a lot of them are special hipster snowflakes, but a lot of them aren't.  I suspect many of the special hipster snowflakes won't stay that way forever--most generations don't stay in their stereotypes their entire lives (mostly).  The hippies didn't, Gen X and Gen Y haven't, and I doubt the Millennials do either.  But they're facing something that none of the other generations have--an economy where not only will they likely do worse than their parents, but one where they and their offspring may well be locked into a lower socio-economic level for some unknowable number of generations to come.  What will happen when Generation Millennial grows up and finds out that there is no pie left for them?

We know that there are a lot of things happening that are turning America (and I'm differentiating from the United States here) into something different than what we've all believed in our hearts it was.  Yes, I'm an adult and I know that a lot of what I believed was best categorized as "the myth of America", but societies need their myths.  That myth, that Horatio Alger story of the poor kid who worked hard and grew up to become a millionaire, was central to who we are.  It was the story of my grandparents, my parents and me.  (Well, leave out the millionaire part.)  It was supposed to be my kids' story, but it's looking like that isn't going to happen, or if it does, it's going to be drastically delayed.

What happens to societies that lose their myths, their central, core beliefs that define themselves to themselves?  Looking at history, the answer appears to be "Nothing good".  We can already see it in the here and now.  Look at the level of open corruption in our government.  View the mainstream media's open cooperation with those with whom they would curry favor.  Look at the wedge that some politicians are driving between citizens and the civil services that are put in place to serve them, solely for political gain.  Look at the ever ratcheting up "us vs. them" typified by Black Lives Matter and every law enforcement agency in the country that those actions cause.  The center is starting to break down.  It doesn't have to totally break down before it ceases to hold.

We've brought this on ourselves.  I can remember hearing explanations that the crime problems in the so-called inner cities were driven in large part by a "lack of hope".  People who lived there didn't think things could get any better for them, and so they simply did whatever they had to do to grab some bit of "the good life".  If that is in any part true, consider what may come when an entire generation, cities and suburbs alike, finds out there is no hope.

If we fail to restore our country's economic viability we are not only condemning our children and grandchildren to poverty and penury, but ourselves as well.  We, the Baby Boomers, will not be allowed to sit on our fat defined benefit pensions, big Social Security checks and 401(k)s once the Millennials have assumed political control of the country, which they will do long before we die off.  A lot of them act like fools now, but they won't be doing that forever.  If Dr. Buckley is correct, we will see a Marxist United States in our lifetime, with the only question being will it be a left-wing or right-wing Marxist state.  Either will be sufficient to remove those benefits from us.

That isn't what I want my kids or anyone's kids to be forced into.  I want those kids to have to go out there and struggle, but I want it to be a fight they can win.  I'm going to allow John Wayne, in the character of George Washington McLintock, explain it.  Sorry for the video quality, but it's the audio that counts.

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