What Bootstraps?

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is an expression that has a profound resonance for Americans. We like to think of this country as a “land of opportunity,” where anyone can “get ahead” by dint of hard work.

The historical record does not always confirm the truth of those sentiments. Cooperation and communal effort, as much as individual achievement, have just as often been the engines of upward mobility. Prejudice and injustice have also destroyed the hopes of many. Still, whatever the methods employed or obstacles encountered, we as a people believe that economic and social advancement should depend on individual merit rather than inherited advantage or status.

According to many observers, that ideal is now threatened. “Americans are clearly mistaken if they believe they live in the world’s most mobile society,” the Economist wrote recently (January 1). Surprisingly, it is easier to move up the economic ladder in many European countries, where broad access to higher education and an extensive social safety net mitigate the advantages of wealth. In contrast, the editors of the Economist note, a growing concentration of wealth, and related narrowing of opportunity, has occurred in the United States in the last thirty years. Not since the 1920s has the bulk of the country’s economic assets been concentrated in so relatively few hands, while the gap between rich and poor is wider now than at any...

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