Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The myth of social mobility

I saw a preview for Justin Bieber's new film "Never Say Never" last night.  Now, let me just state for the record that I really don't have feelings one way or another about Justin Bieber.  I don't know his music and I don't know him.  If he wants to sing on stage and if other people want to make money promoting him, well that's just fine.  I really don't care.  But the film (or at least the preview) seems to be trying to sell Bieber as an authentic American success story.  (Okay, he's Canadian, but whatever.)  That is, he was a small-town kid with a dream, and he worked hard and his dreams came true.  And if you do the same, you can become a star, just like Justin.

I find this infuriating.  For whatever reason, Hollywood and Washington have conspired to tell us the same story over and over again -- you can do anything you want if you just want it bad enough.  Why does this make me mad?  Because it's patently untrue.  We have very little social mobility in this country.  If you're born poor, you're likely to die poor.  If you take the view that anyone can do anything they want, then you're making the assumption that either most poor people want to remain poor or they didn't work hard enough to become rich.  Either point of view is monstrous.

Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with trying to inspire people or to encourage them to strive, but the plain fact is that not everyone is going to make it big.  For every Justin Bieber, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented kids in small towns who will never get recording contracts because their parents don't know the right people or a talent scout didn't view their YouTube video at the right time or they lack an Internet connection and a camera to make a YouTube video or they don't have a supportive family, no matter how much drive they have personally.  And as the book Outliers pointed out, for every Bill Gates, there are hundreds or thousands of equally talented and driven potential computer programmers who didn't live near a supercomputer at a pivotal time in recent history.

We have a lot of barriers to social mobility in this country, from school inequalities to persistent poverty to institutionalized racism.  We're not going to fix them if we believe they don't exist.


Daniel said...

I think the root of the problem is the same reason that the Horatio Algiers story exists: if this is the land of the free, then shouldn't a person be free to do anything they want if they work hard enough? That's the common perception.

I think, in actuality, America is a free country in the sense that anybody who is capable and lucky can be successful, regardless of heritage or race...at least that's how it's supposed to work.

Daniel said...

*Horatio Algiers stories exist

Cynic said...

he was a small-town kid with a dream, and he worked hard and his dreams came true.

Accurate enough.

And if you do the same, you can become a star, just like Justin.

Whoah. How does that follow? I haven't seen the film, but does it actually make such an outlandish claim? Isn't the entire power of the narrative of a Bill Gates or a Justin Bieber the fact that their success is extraordinarily unusual?

Aspiration is incredibly powerful. Hammer home the grim reality of declining social mobility, and you're quite likely to instill a destructive degree of fatalism. If we have to err in one direction, on a societal scale, we're probably better off exaggerating the chance of success.

We have a lot of barriers to social mobility in this country, from school inequalities to persistent poverty to institutionalized racism. We're not going to fix them if we believe they don't exist.

And we're not going to summon the political will to fix them by focusing on stagnant or downward mobility, either. Convince people that they're stuck where they are, and you'll choke off initiative and encourage more purely redistributionary politics.

Instead of battling the persistent and pervasive power of American myths, and standing there with a dour countenance debunking people's hopes and dreams, why not harness the power of those myths for good? Americans tend to muster the political will to act when challenged to make the realities of our society live up to our ideals. That means instead of emphasizing how rare the Biebers of the world are, we ought to emphasize those things we can do to make them more likely. Do we underinvest in our schools in disadvantaged areas? Then press for more equitable funding in the theory that some of those kids will be enabled to hit home runs that will enrich us all. It's much more resonant, in America, than arguing that every child should be able to hit a single. Instead of (futilely) trying to persuade the public to abandon the Alger myth, far easier to persuade it that embracing the myth means expanding equality of opportunity.

Daniel said...


I saw the trailer and yeah that's pretty much what the movie is implying (hence the name "Never Say Never") —that if you hope enough and keep going it'll happen. If anything the movie's premise implies that discouragement is a sign that you will make it some day.

Anonymous said...

i'm taking the easy route by saying it's about balance, but i think it's true. cultures do well with the notion that anyone can succeed, massively. it inspires people who might not have been. we love this story because, in some basic human way, i think it encourages our friends and communities not to settle for mediocre. but instead to strive for greatness. if you were constructing a society from nothing, you'd probably want to have that theme somewhere in the social dna.
but the other side of the balance is important too. by always striving for something better, we miss the opportunity to "choose" what we have. to look at our relationship and see the great aspects instead of the things that bug you.
staying in your community and improving it, as opposed to "making it big in LA" (for example).
there's a restlessness in the "american dream" that slaps the buddha's face as he's saying "be with the now". (i'm not sure if the buddha said that, but enough new agey buddhists have, so give me that).
we need a balance here, so the culture can grow up.

Anonymous said...

and i love the use of "monstrous". every essay is better with a "monstrous" thrown in. very "freedom rider" of you.

Daniel said...


So I'm with you on your logic but I still think that worth realizing that not all of us will be dancing on some stage and have movies made about us is really really important.
Yes, as you say, it's a good idea to have hopes and be optimistic but in the U.S. we have people who will never ever be rich thinking they will be and advocating tax cuts for the rich to the detriment of others. That's going to far...and now I sound like some political hack....
oh well

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Just for a little context, Justin Bieber isn't just any rock star. Indeed, he is highly atypical of the usual rock star career track. He is a studio created phenomena and cult of personality created and maintained by the Disney juggernaut, so that it didn't have to go hire someone who had already made a name for himself. They wanted an everyman young singer to catapault to stardom, looked for suitable candidates, chose him and put him on a stage in a carefully controlled context.

He is the modern day equivalent of the Monkeees, a studio created act designed to match an authentically developed rival (the Beatles).

An older analogy, perhaps even more apt as it is contemporaneous with Horatio Alger, is to equate Justin Bieber instead to Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. He is a young man plunked from humble circumstances to serve as guinea pig in a grand experiement, tidied up, and presented to the world as a member of a higher social set by someone who is already there who has motives of his own unlated to the subject's particular abilities.

This isn't to say that the boy can't sing. But, ordinarily, there is far more to being a rock star than that, and he managed to make it to the front of the line for reasons only vaguely related to talent and hard work.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, et al

I agree with you, and Seth. Our media/culture tell us the 'pick yourself up'/'bootstraps' story ad nauseum. But in reality it's a sham. And a frustrating one.
What really chaps my hide is: do the peddlers of this garbage believe the story (and thus they're uninformed or just ignorant) OR do they know it's a lie, but do it anyway... for profit/power/status quo?
Personally, i think they know.
but you're correct. and the real subject here is that social mobility is a rotten tale.

Seth Masket said...

Well, the simplest explanation is that it's just a compelling narrative. People like the story, so they'll pay to see movies and buy books that push it. They might not even believe it. I doubt too many LA hookers are expecting to meet Richard Gere and live happily ever after, but there's nothing wrong with watching the fantasy play out on screen.

The more pernicious and paranoid explanation is that elites push this narrative on us all the time because if poor people ever realized how screwed they were, they'd revolt. See "They Live" for details.