Prosperity at a cost

Were Alexis de Tocqueville to travel to America once again  – further on in our national story – what might he find? Would America fulfill its promise of balancing individual liberty with the common good? Would equality of opportunity be realized, and indeed produce prosperity for all? And would shared cultural values, respect for democratic institutions, and a vibrant associational life be the promised antidotes to tyranny? Let’s look at an end-of-century balance sheet.

On the broad question of prosperity, things could hardly be better. Huge advances in communication, transportation, and standards of living have brought to almost all Americans a degree of material well-being unmatched in our history. Increasing educational opportunities have made strides toward leveling the social and economic playing field. A wide variety of goods priced for mass consumption as well as innovative new forms of entertainment – all made available in increasingly convenient ways – have improved the daily lives of nearly everyone. On the whole, Americans enjoy a degree of educational opportunity, abundance, and personal freedom of which previous generations only dreamed, a fact which might prompt an observer to paint a rosy picture of this America: widespread progress and prosperity driven by education, technological innovation, and sustained economic growth.

And yet this prosperity has come at a cost. While industries spawned by technological advance have allowed huge corporations to produce unparalleled profits, very little of this wealth has trickled down. The poor may be better off in real terms than their predecessors, but the benefits of economic growth have remained highly concentrated at the top. Extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere on display.

Class segregation in the form of an entrenched elite and a marooned underclass is often a crippling physical, social, and psychological reality for those striving to get ahead. Young people and new immigrants enter the labor force filled with hope that the American Dream can be theirs through persistence and hard work. But they often become disillusioned to find how great their competitive disadvantage is, and how difficult it is to make the leap to where the other half lives. American idealism increasingly gives way to cynicism about a rigged system.

From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam