August 8, 2011
I sincerely hope that Melanie Sturm does not drive her car the way she analyzes economic data. You see, 100 percent of Ms. Sturm’s focus is on the rear-view mirror. She has a total understanding of what is happening behind her, but is paying no attention to the road ahead. An accident awaits.
Ms. Sturm’s Aug. 4 column addressed the past success of the U.S. economy (“Class warfare divisive and un-American,” opinion, Aug. 4, 2011, The Aspen Times). She is appalled that some commentators have started a class warfare – even though the share of GDP captured by those with the top 1 percent of income is now higher than at any time since the Great Depression. Instead, looking backward, she notes that three quarters of the Americans who were in the bottom quintile in 1974 were in the top 40 percent 16 years later. She, like many conservatives, uses this as an indication that there is still social mobility.
There are two problems with the statistic: First, much of the mobility occurs because Americans’ income increases as they age. The few unspoiled children of the rich fall into the lowest quartile when they leave college. Sixteen years later, most have become successful. Thus, while the statistics do not lie, those using them do.
A better statistic would examine the success of those whose parents had no education. I suspect – but do not know – that the upward income mobility of those who started with no advantages is nothing like the success claimed by Ms. Sturm.
The second problem is Ms. Sturm’s data are backward-looking, like her driving. An individual’s chance of success is closely linked to his or her ability to get a good education. Today, tragically the conservative effort to shrink government has destroyed our educational system. Twenty years from now, economists will no doubt bemoan the collapse in mobility between classes. The young today have far less opportunity to gain a good education and thus increase their income than those entering school in 1975.
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The increasing numbers of those denied education and opportunity will become the footsolders in the class war Ms. Sturm detests. Thanks to social media, I fear we will have an “American Spring” within 10 years, which will make the violence occurring today in Syria and the protests seen in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year look like picnics.
Ms. Sturm needs to look at the road ahead, as does everyone else.