I’ve always harbored the prejudiced view that even though America is the very seat of global capitalism, its ‘dynamic’ society offers the poor more of a chance to improve their lot than European countries where social class was more solidified. As it turns out, this is very much untrue for the wide swath of developed capitalist nations–all except Britain have a greater chance of social mobility than the United States. But still the old myths about American being the Land of Opportunity, the Great Meritocracy, persist, perhaps because they have had certain appeal to people coldly evaluating their circumstances, even though they are contradicted by empirical fact. But their untruth plays an important ideological role. It causes people to endorse an economic system that impoverishes them, acting in a way analogous to the horror-tales of ‘Socialist Medicine’: they believe that while it is not exactly ideal here it is way better than anywhere else.

While the myth of America as a Land of Opportunity lead economists to suggest that a person’s inheritance accounted for as little as 20% of their wealth, or ‘earnings advantage’, the new measurements show that it accounts for somewhere between 40-60%, and maybe even as much as 65%. This of course is rather startling, and was even covered in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (May 13, 2005 and Nov 14 2002, respectively). When one’s inherited position accounts for so much, your parents’ social position not only gives you an advantage or disadvantage, it plays a determining role in your place in society–and that is to say nothing of your grandparents and great-grandparents. As long as America is perceived as a socially mobile society, and not one whose recent trends suggest an even further entrenchment of social class, the realities of class will remain on the periphery of consciousness. It’s time we disabused ourselves of our myths.