Category Archives: michael gerson

Michael Gerson on economic mobility

Flickr photo by ant.photo

George W.’s speechwriter has an Op-Ed noting that we should focus more on economic mobility than economic inequality and we couldn’t agree more:

Excerpt:

“Still, the most important measure of U.S. economic success is not income equality but social mobility. Economic inequality can be justified in a fluid society, in which economic advancement is a realistic goal. Economic inequality in the absence of economic mobility amounts to a class system in which the circumstances of birth are the main economic blessing or curse….

“There remains a considerable amount of economic mobility, upward and downward, in the middle class. But nearer the bottom of the income scale, upward mobility is weak and stuck. As a result, according to the Economic Mobility Project, the U.S. economy is less fluid than the economies of Canada, France, Germany or the Scandinavian countries.”Individual advancement is closely tied to educational achievement and family structure. An economy that rewards skills and other forms of human capital is not a good place to be a dropout with a child out of wedlock.

“Conservatives are correct that tax increases on the wealthy to fund entitlement commitments that go mainly to the elderly would do precious little to address this problem.

“Liberals are right that a combination of rising economic inequality (even if the rise is gradual) with stalled economic mobility is an invitation to destructive social resentments. Americans will accept unequal economic outcomes in a fair system. They object when the results seem rigged. That way lies the Bastille.

“So the question comes to liberals and conservatives: If social mobility is the goal, what are the solutions? What can be done to improve the quality of teachers in failing schools, to confront the high school dropout crisis, to encourage college attendance and completion, to reduce teen pregnancy, to encourage stable marriages, to promote financial literacy, to spark entrepreneurship?

“Both Democrats and Republicans should have something to contribute to the development of this agenda. Neither party, however, currently has much to say. And this is not likely to change until the discussion turns from equality to mobility.”

Read Michael Gerson, “Economic inequality is the wrong issue” (Washington Post Op-Ed, 11/4/2011)

Upward Mobility Gap

Flickr photo by Herve Demers

Doyle McManus (of the L.A. Times) has a nice piece citing Robert Putnam on some of our unpublished research evincing “canaries in the coalmine” that are likely to block upward mobility in the US in the decades ahead if unremedied.

Opportunity in America isn’t what it used to be either. Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6 percent make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution…. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States….

[In addition to the decline of public schools,] Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged….”We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”…

“Success in life increasingly depends on how smart you were in choosing your parents,” Putnam said. “And that flies in the face of the fundamental American bargain — that every kid ought to have access to the same opportunities.”…Most Americans accept inequality in the economy as long as the ladder of opportunity is accessible to anyone who wants to work hard. The best way for America to reclaim its self-image as a land of opportunity is to ensure that every kid has access to a decent education — now more than ever the first step onto the ladder. That’s why bipartisan education reform isn’t just about fixing schools; it’s about repairing the fabric of American society.

Read “The Upward Mobility Gap” (Doyle McManus, L.A. Times, 1/2/11)

See also some interesting recent articles in NY Times on how pay of superstars stifles everybody else, and another article that attempts to reconcile Americans’ dislike of equalizing income with declining mobility by showing how in America being middle class is more driven by aspirations than income.  And finally, research conducted at Harvard Business School that ironically shows that most Americans would prefer an income distribution more similar to Sweden’s (far more egalitarian than in the US) over the current American income distribution.

Paul Krugman in “A Tale of Two Moralities” (NY Times Op-Ed, January 15, 2011) writes: “…I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”

Michael Gerson (Washington Post columnist) also had a very thoughtful column on this issue, indicating that this issue (upward mobility) should be the issue that Republicans should be discussing.  See “The economic debate that we should be having” (Dec. 14, 2010)  Gerson writes:

“…the main reasons for inequality are failing schools, depressed and dysfunctional communities and fragmented families. For the most part, inequality does not result from a lack of consumption by the poor but from a lack of social capital and opportunity.

This does not release conservatives from responsibility because the distribution of social capital and opportunity is dramatically unequal. Economic inequality can be justified as the reward for greater effort – so long as there is also social mobility. In the absence of mobility, capitalism becomes a caste system. And this is what America, in violation of its self-image, threatens to become. The United States has less upward economic mobility among lower-income families than Canada, Finland or Sweden. Americans who are born into the middle class have a roughly equal chance of ascending or descending the economic ladder. But Americans born poor are likely to stay on its lowest rungs.

Addressing the actual causes of inequality should be common ground for the center-left and center-right – and politically appealing to American voters, who are generally more concerned about opportunity than income equality. A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor. Children of low-income parents who gain a college degree triple their chance of earning $85,000 a year or more. If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.”


Young Americans dropping out of religion, other American Grace findings by Putnam/Campbell

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) recently previewed selected themes from their forthcoming book American Grace at the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that draws a select group of the leading journalists on religion in America.

As Michael Gerson, ex-speechwriter to President George Bush and one of the Pew Forum attendees, noted in his opening paragraph in a recent nationally syndicated and well-nuanced op-ed in the Washington Post:

“There is a book that everyone will be talking about — when it appears over a year from now. American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives, being written by…Putnam and… Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the pre-eminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven’t yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.”

Putnam and Campbell’s analysis draws on the Faith Matters data they collected — a national, authoritative large-scale, hour-long survey on religion (beliefs, belonging and behavior),  social and political engagement, and religious and political beliefs.  They followed up in a very rare panel survey, reinterviewing the same respondents 6-9 months later to understand the stability of our religion and religious beliefs and to get traction on the issue of causation.  Their research also entails a dozen to fifteen in-depth case studies of religious denominations and churches of many stripes across all parts of the nation.

American Grace finds evidence of unprecedented polarization along religious and political lines, with politics driving changes in religious attendance rather than the reverse!  But amidst the deepening divides, they find a startlingly high level of support on all sides for religious diversity. Most deeply religious Americans reject the idea of a theocratic society run by Christian ayatollahs, while most secular Americans are quite comfortable with the idea of a society infused with religious and moral values.  In short, they argue, America today represents a historical rarity—a society that is both deeply religious and deeply tolerant.  [For example, Americans believe that Americans of other religions can go to heaven, even Christians of non-Christians.  Moreover, 8 of 10 Americans think there are “basic truths in many religions” and 85% of Americans say that religious diversity is good for the country.]

Here are a few of their interesting findings:

  • Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40% have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago).  But youth’s religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics.  Putnam and Campbell expect, given the remarkable history of American religious entrepreneurship (from Mormonism to revival meetings to megachurches), that this disaffection from religion is temporary: religious entrepreneurs will rise to offer these young Americans the less politicized religion that they crave.
  • Americans today inherit both religion and congregation far less than their parents and grandparents did and there is remarkable religious fluidity, with between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Americans changing religion from the one they were born into.  [The lower bound does not count a denominational shift like that from Methodists to Calvinists as a switch and only counts a change in religion from Judaism to Buddhism or from Baptist to no-religion.]  And there has been remarkably more entrepreneurial sorting of congregations and congregation shopping with congregants finding a religious home within a denomination that maximally meets their wants and needs (sometimes through stricter “churches”, sometimes through looser ones).
  • There is a remarkable degree of religious bridging in our social networks: approximately 70% of Americans have at least some extended family of a different religion than they are, and this rises to 75% for closest friends, and 85% of Americans who live among at least some neighbors of a different religion.  The interlinkage of these religious networks helps to constrain any message of intolerance that parishioners get from the pulpit.
  • Religious Americans are better citizens than non-religious ones (they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, and join more, to mention a few markers of good citizenship). However, it is not their particular theology that predicts good citizenship, but the extent to which they are embedded in a friendship network of religious others (regardless of their religion). [Putnam refers to these religious friends as “powerful, supercharged friends.”]  So it is religious social networks, not teachings from the pulpit that are key to them being 3-4 times more generous than the most secular Americans.

American Grace will come out in October 2010.

Michael Gerson’s syndicated Op-Ed “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” is here. (Wash. Post, 5/8/09)

See “Getting to Know You” (Wall Street Journal by Naomi Schaefer Riley, 5/15/09) [which discusses the extent of religious bridging social capital in America, and how having friends of different religions changes ones views toward that religion]

Also, see “Religious People Make Better Citizens” (BeliefNet.org)

Excerpt below from “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” By Michael Gerson:

“[R]eligious affiliation has declined in America since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in “one shock and two aftershocks.” The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents at the same age — the probable result, says Putnam, of a “very rapid change in morals and customs.”

“This retreating tide of religion affected nearly every denomination equally — except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious “entrepreneurs” such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right — the first aftershock.

“But this reaction provoked a reaction — the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable — both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans now in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 percent or 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated…. Putnam calls this “a stunning development.” As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn’t changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics….There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”