GUEST POST: Broken Ladder

[This guest post on income inequality is by new Cowgirl contributor Bud White, who can be reached at A discussion on this topic is long overdue.]

As the recognition grows regarding the issue of economic inequality in America, the discussion invariably comes around to upward mobility. In an attempt to describe the current situation, many observers and experts turn to an analogy of a ladder with ever lengthening rungs to paint a picture of why it is difficult to advance. The idea being the opportunity to move up the ladder is there, but it is just harder to reach the next step.

These experts then go on to offer a variety of factors to explain why. They mention inadequate worker preparedness, globalization, education, etc. All these imply that the opportunity to advance is hindered by something lacking in the individual that prevents him or her from reaching the next rung. It’s possible, one just has to improve and work harder to reach it. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The game is rigged and those writing the rules continue to change the rules as the game is being played.

If one must use the ladder analogy, a more accurate image is of a ladder that has gotten increasingly higher and higher. Standing on the top rung is a small group of people, while huddled on the tightly compacted rungs near the bottom is everyone else. And the rungs in between are not elongated, they have been kicked out by those at the top during their insatiable climb over the last 30 years. Not only that, but those at the top aren’t satisfied with their current state of affairs either. In their quest for ever increasing wealth and political influence, they continue to add rungs on top, climbing ever higher, all the time furthering the distance between themselves and those further down.

Occasionally, they open a portal to the top for someone new, typically of exclusive pedigree or political influence. Rarely is it based on an individual’s willingness to improve and work harder. For this is where the game keeps changing. Today, especially in the aftermath of the second worst financial meltdown in American history, the reward for a willingness to work harder is to be expected to do even more, and for the same or less pay.  A person is asked to work harder so they can, not climb the ladder, but simply stay on the same rung. If this isn’t a rigged game, then it is one that, at a minimum, favors the house.

Looking up from below, what does this ladder look like? For one thing, no one can really see the top, or put another way, see the path to the top. Oh sure one can glimpse, and maybe even covet life at the top through the media glamorization of the lives of the rich and famous. But one can no more touch it in reality than they could through the television screen. In many ways, celebrity worship has become a symbolic substitute for real opportunity.

To be sure, mobility is alive, but not particularly well on the remaining rungs. Unfortunately a downward direction may be as likely as upward in this stratum, even a certainty if you were unlucky enough to lose your job to the recession. Many at the top are more than happy to advise those very people to just be willing to work, regardless of pay. After all it is better to start again a few rungs further down than not be on the ladder at all.

Of course what they don’t mention is another rule change. This rule is more like one of those strange laws of physics, where how things look depends on your point of reference. When looking down, the rungs of the ladder look very close together, it being easy to slide lower. But looking up is where those steps elongate, for it is still difficult to move upward. Start a few rungs down and one may just stay there permanently.

Indeed it is a rigged game. A game where those few obscenely wealthy and powerful at the very top enjoy the only opportunity to move further up in any significant fashion. A game where everyone else faces a grim, but very real, prospect of little or no upward movement. And the vast nearly empty space in between offers little, if any, opportunity.  It is a distance so great and difficult to pass, and usually only transversed by the anointed few. A game where the rules are written to extend the advantages for those at the top and perpetuate the disadvantages to those in servitude everywhere else.

The only way to restore this broken ladder to some semblance of its former self is to change the rules. And even if the missing rungs are restored the ladder will still be too long for most. Those at the top will never permit themselves to be denied their present status and be forced to give up some of their wealth to shorten the ladder. That is one rule unlikely to change. Yet restoring the rungs in the middle, along with restoring the rewards for improving and working harder, will give more space for everyone to move into and grant real opportunity to grow and prosper.

For this to happen, those at the top will not be able to climb at the uncontrolled rate they currently enjoy. Some of the financial gains flowing exclusively in that direction need to be more evenly and fairly restored to all those on the other rungs of the ladder. It doesn’t require taking from the top what is already there. That will never happen anyway. But it does require changing the rules so that some of that flow breaks up and spreads to everyone else. To do otherwise is flirting with disaster. If the middle rungs of the ladder are not restored, one day those at the top could very easily discover they don’t have a leg to stand on and the whole thing will come crashing down again, and maybe this time even taking them with it.


19 Comments on "GUEST POST: Broken Ladder"

  1. It really is impossible to overstate certain, non-meritorious advantages, like white male privilege, for instance. That said, the challenge is figuring out the mutual win for policies that benefit us all. Equal pay for equal work is conservatively estimated to pump $200 billion into the economy, leveling the playing field AND creating a real way to address the federal debt. And we need to do these things. A 50-year old white guy making $100,000/yr now is a disabled elderly person dependent on others in only a few short years.

    This isn’t about envy and the answer is not revenge. Hooray for introspective folks like Bud who think on these things!

  2. Great post by Bud as we’re in the new ‘Gilded Age’ and lavish oppulence steill in fashion as one can now see the rich ‘digs’ of the depose Ukrrainian despot while the average Ukrainian family only earned 300 Euros a month. The ‘equality of opportunity’ website note hosted by Harvard, whose ranks contributed to the ‘banksters secret society’ (link above) who proudly flaunt their ‘one percentness’ while the ladder is broken. Teddy Roosevelt, Harvard man, rose above and showed America what Harvard men had done in ‘Nobles Oblige’ Colonel Shaw, Oliver Wendell Holmes in SCOTUS and hundreds more who considered public service noble and sacrificed their lives. The ‘Colonel ‘ led the Bull Moose Party, America’s Progressive Party, and TR recognized the ‘malefactors of great wealth’ who were corrupting equality of opportunity and a great new book about that period is ‘The Bully Pulpit’ and shows how JOURNALISTS had balls back then.

    Why should the ‘game’ now be merely a gambling dynamic, where you ‘might’ get lucky? Government – at least for democratic republics – were formed to SERVE all the people, not Oligarchs in the growing ‘corporate government’ state unholy alliance of the ‘deep state’.

  3. Sounds like your analogy relies solely on the rich looking into their hears and realizing they need to change. I certainly hope that’ll happen, but I’m not going to be holding my breath.

    I also disagree with the idea that one day they’ll look down and see some of those middle rungs gone. Sure, the middle class will be gone in another two decades, but the swelling tide of proles and plebes will surely rise enough for the moneyed-interests’ silk and satin slippers.

    A rigged game? Boy, did we just learn how to read newspapers, or have you just decided to dig around the hedge? Because anyone with a decent pair of eyes has been able to see for some time that a Congress making vastly more money than the people they represent have known that for years, generations even.

    I will agree on celebrity worship, and soon these will be our leaders and then our Gods. Maybe another 20 years when that middle class is finally wiped out.

    Yes, bleak times, so grab a beer, plop down in front of the tube, and let that well-crafted marketing message roll over you so that you can buy things you don’t need in an attempt to find that happiness that we never had a right to anyway.

  4. Interesting but a little vague, or maybe writing at a Democratic site makes it impossible to state the obvious. Wealth naturally clumps. Talent has something to do with that, but not as much as people think. Most ways of making huge amounts of money are not related to personal talent. Family and inheritance are huge, but scaling, leverage, pure luck (Bill Gates) and mere proximity to other people’s money (bankers) works as well.

    If we drop a bomb in the system, break up the huge fortunes and wealthy families that run this country, and start over, within a few decades we are back at square one. That’s just how it works.

    The answer is continual churning of money by means of steep progressive taxation and especially heavy taxation of estates. Political control follows wealth concentration like Mary’s lamb. We don’t need huge pockets of wealth – as Judge Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

    You have to face that issue, fight that concentrated wealth. It cannot be done via party politics, as that wealth controls both parties. Is this why you are so vague, Mr. White?

  5. I approached MT Cowgirl about doing a guest post on the topic of economic inequality in the hope of finding a vehicle to generate a discussion that leads to some meaningful dialogue. Plant a seed so to speak and see what comes of it. Personally I’d like it to go beyond mere discussion and reach some level of engagement that could result in effective action. That may be wishful thinking, I don’t know. I am not even sure this type of venue is best suited for that. By that I mean a blog site in general, not MT Cowgirl specifically.

    But being from MT and believing this issue is both local and national (even global) in importance, I thought it made sense to give it a try here in MT. Any solution obviously has to reach beyond our border, and yet we do have an obligation to do whatever we can on the local front as well. If for no other reason than it is sometimes easier to start that way.

    What I’d like to make clear right now is I am not intent on offering any personal solution of my own making. I do have some ideas of my own, but I am not sure they are right, nor workable. But again, that is not my point. I think it is more important to find organic solutions that come from the discussion. One thing I do feel strongly, whatever the solution(s) are, they need to be feasible and relatively simple. I realize it is a complex problem and often complex problems, at first appear to require complex solutions, but that just decreases the likelihood of a successful implementation. That too is open to discussion.

    So if your up for it, I will continue to send an occasional post on the topic to keep the ball rolling. I’ll do my best to figure out a way to respond to the comments and move the discussion forward. I’d appreciate any suggestions regarding that as well. By the way, thanks to those who have submitted comments so far.

    • Well, Occupy Wall Street gave it a shot, and Obama crushed it.

      You’re really vague. You use a lot of words and phrases that carry no useful information, like “reach some level of engagement that could result in effective action.” I suggest that if you can’t say “Let’s have a meeting at the Labor Temple tonight at 7 and organize a strike,” (definite in time, place and purpose), then you’re really not doing much more than mission statement, something we all know to hate.

    • Whether blogs have an impact or not is a matter of perception. There are those that claim that they do have an impact – at least on elections – but there are also those that state they have no value. I tend more toward the idea that a well read and well written blog (those don’t necessarily go hand in hand) can have an effect in proportion to the locality involved.

      For example, I believe that a local blog can have a greater effect on local events than a statewide blog can have on statewide events. Though I have no proof that this is true, my own experience with this would tend to support that idea.

      That said, I do see a value in attempting to raise awareness of an issue. The fact that Montana has one of the highest homeless rate of any state in the US is something we should be talking about. Our poverty levels are ridiculous and our political system here in Montana seems hell bent to punish those in need rather than help them. A dialog should be started on this issue – especially if that dialog leads to some kind of real action.

  6. Here’s a concrete action everyone can do: tell a young person how economies actually work. If you don’t know, ask an economist! I hear people comparing national or state economies to their household budgets! Everyone could stand a little more econ knowledge.

    • Therein lie another problem – economists don’t know how economies work. Neoclassical economics is bunk, more a Randian honey trap than a useful science. It cannot predict the future or explain the past. But its framework allows the existence of huge pockets of concentrated wealth and structures government policies to defend them. No coincidence that it comes out of a school founded by the original 1% guy, Chicago.

  7. Sometimes there are constructive comments, and sometimes the comments you’ll get are actually intended to derail any discussion. I should have warned you in advance ; )

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