There But for Fortune: What the One Percent Fail to Understand

The one percent still doesn't get it. This tiny but distinct minority, who control over 40 percent of this nation's wealth and consequently its political decision-making power, believe that it is their individual endowments, their distinctiveness and talents that have determined their wealth -- that they are, in fact, "superior" individuals.

The reactions to the inspirational OWS movement -- and parallel movements elsewhere in the nation and abroad -- among the super rich suggest that few understand the basic concepts of culture, social systems, and opportunity structure. Moreover, they have little idea of the consequences of social structure on social outcomes. Being the beneficiaries of a culture and social system that has favored them throughout their lives, they would like us to believe that their affluence and power is a direct result of their hard work, their innovative skills, and their intelligence. Theirs are beliefs of total individualism divorced from any societal facilitators or constraints. Moreover, they wish to create the illusion that they embody the American Dream -- that anyone, regardless of where they are born, their color, their gender, their socioeconomic status at birth, can achieve their level of wealth through hard work and talent -- despite this being patently false.

What basic understanding is lacking among these new gilded few? Social and behavioral scientists have studied social stratification for over 100 years. Since the 1960s there is a large and growing body of literature that attempts to predict quantitatively who will and who won't succeed in American society. What are the most important factors that determine success? In many ways the results are unsurprising, yet under-appreciated by those who are the "winners." Let's put to one side the arrogance of those who have inherited their wealth and look only at those who supposedly begin the race at the same starting line. The facts of social life betray this idea that there is a single starting line.

First, family background makes a huge difference. The educational achievements of your father and mother have a very significant effect on a child's achievement, independent of other factors. If you happen to be born into a family that lives in the Hollywood Hills and go to the Harvard-Westlake school, your life chances, from birth, are vastly greater than if you are born into a poor, poverty level family in Kansas City and go to one of the local public schools -- even if these two children who were born into different worlds actually have equal ability. Both of these youngsters are born into a culture and subcultures -- into positions in an existing social system -- that are constraining. These subcultures have different values, norms, obligations, and attached to them are opportunities. The luck of birth gives these two children highly different chances of ultimately becoming part of the 1 percent. The simple fact is that the kid born into the home of a welfare mom in Kansas City is running life's race with a different weight on his back -- a kid who is apt to go to a subpar or failing school compared with the kid whose parents have his future mapped out from the elite preschool to the Harvard-Westlake school to an Ivy League institution -- and has the money to pay for it all, as well as to contribute millions to the school's fundraising efforts. Simply put, the educational achievement of parents is transferred from one generation to the next through the educational opportunities given their children, with all of the attending advantages that they gain in the process.

Second, the quality and prestige and income of the jobs held by parents are also very good predictors of the success of their offspring. Many of these factors are correlated with each other. They work in concert to differentiate the life chances of children from different backgrounds. And of course, being a woman, being a member of a minority group, being from an impoverished uneducated family, determine life chances that are vastly inferior to those of the sons and daughters of Wall Street bankers whose children attend the best private and public schools from age 3 to 30. They are the ones who are tutored in any subject that they seem to be doing poorly at so that they will have a crack at Ivy League schools or their equivalents. They have the funds to take SAT tutorial or tutorials of any kind in order to give them a leg up on those who can't afford such questionable practices. And this is all planned out from the time these kids are weaned.

Third, because of where they are located in the social system, these privileged youngsters of the 1 percent have further cumulating advantages in the people that they meet and the social networks they form. If you go to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia, you establish friendships with people who provide you with opportunities through their connections. It is, as the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has put it: "The strength of weak ties." Friendship patterns, which are often the result of a family being well placed in the social system and an individual's attending elite schools, influence the ability of an individual to get a foot in the door of the major corporations, banks, industries, and academia, and alter the probability of them obtaining jobs at the top rungs in the stratification ladder - giving them still greater cumulating advantages compared with others with equal or more talent.

Finally, let's not forget the element of "luck" in the process that leads to success. While social scientists rarely study "luck" as a concrete phenomena, we know from personal story after story that many of those who have achieved great success speak of having been lucky by being in "the right place at the right time." There but for fortune go I.

So who are those among the 1 percent -- these new captains of industry? Many of them are extremely talented and have worked very hard to achieve their current positions. They believe that a market system unencumbered by a government that acts to distribute wealth more equitably is antithetical to national welfare. They believe that thanks to their achievements a significant portion of the nation's wealth will trickle down to the 99 percent - despite their being no evidence to support this theory. Even the wealth that the 1 percent has garnered would not be so objectionable if they were willing to share it with those less fortunate than they are - and support their larger contributions through higher marginal tax rates - to help the general welfare of the society. As Elizabeth Warren, who does understand the idea of social structure, suggested recently in a stump speech, this 1 percent doesn't seem to recognize that the roads that they drive to work on or the workers who are skilled enough to get jobs in their businesses are products of the 99 percent's tax dollars and are the products of government programs. The resistance of the 1 percent to a higher marginal tax rate or other forms of economic redistribution is testimony to the erosion over the past 30 or 40 years of the ideas of contributions to "the common" and of civic virtue. It would not be a bad idea if they came to define greater equality of income and wealth as part of their civic responsibility. After all, most of them have had opportunities to achieve, independently of their IQ, or their other intelligences, that few others in American society have had.

There is a continuing motif among the critics of the OWS movement that the protesters are against a market economy. While some may be, it is a mistake to characterize them this way. The OWS is not opposed to market principles, but like the vast majority of our most prominent economists, they do not believe in uncontrolled laissez-faire market mechanisms. There is a role and responsibility of government to intervene when it comes to determining that there is more economic justice in our society. That greater economic equality -- that basic sense of justice -- is what OWS wants and is protesting for. Let markets work to produce certain efficiencies, but let us all support the idea that while some people can earn great sums of money, some of that money and wealth ought to be returned to the rest of society to improve social and economic condition of the 99 percent. The inequalities cannot be sustained.

Remarkably, many among the 99 percent, including large numbers of Tea Party supporters, match the lack of understanding among the one percent of these key aspects of our society. A remarkable feature of the United States today is that a high percentage of the less fortunate, whose income has not changed much for 20 years, who have lost their jobs and who have been forced to foreclose on their homes, suffer from false consciousness, believing that they actually have a chance of becoming part of the one percent if the government would just get off their backs. How little they understand, unfortunately, about the realities of opportunity structure.

The super-rich, one percent, needs to acknowledge to themselves that the social system of American society has enabled them to use their talents and the talents of others in ways that payoff. Now it is time for them to recognize that a more just society includes a wider distribution of wealth and power. Until the 1970s, this was the working assumption of those who made millions. Now that value of civic virtue has been lost. The OWS movement is trying to bring those older civic virtues back to the consciousness of the American people.