One of the foundational myths of conservatism, or even of libertarianism, is that the private sector will remain competitive by selecting the best of the best through market forces. Those who are the most skilled, the most resourceful, and the most industrious will be rewarded by the invisible hand of the market with high pay and bonuses, while those who would simply leech from the system are punished.
It’s a nice story. If only it were true:
Members of the 1% are clearly at an advantage when it comes to opportunity, and that advantage carries through when it comes to finding a job. While it’s common for people to find employment through family and friends, there’s a direct correlation between a father’s income and the likelihood his son will work for the same employer, according to a report last year in the Journal of Labor Economics (via Miles Corak, who co-wrote the paper). The researchers found that that among its subjects, around 40% of young Canadian men had been employed by an employer for whom their father worked. But for earners in the top percentile, that figure jumps to around nearly 70%.
My first job (that wasn’t delivering flyers for chump change) was stocking shelves/barrels at the Bulk Barn – a bulk food store. I made $7.50/hr lifting bags of flour, sugar, basically whatever could be scooped into plastic bags and sold to strange elderly women. After several months I had made enough money to pay for driving school and my driving test, but I kept the job so that I could also go to summer camp and afford some other stuff. I kept that job through high school, and occasionally substituted as a violin teacher for a buddy of mine.
I took a job in undergrad at a research company doing manual quality checking of ScanTron surveys (basically making sure the dots were dark enough). My first summer back I was on the broom/dustpan bridage at a nearby amusement park. My second summer I worked packing boxes onto trucks at a Canadian Tire distribution center (10 hours a day, 4 days a week, with enough time to come home and help remodel the house so we could sell it). It wasn’t until my third summer that I could work full-time hours at the research centre, and even then I had to work part-time as a bouncer (and karaoke host – fun job) to make enough to pay down debt.
When I got accepted to grad school, I had zero money (I spent it all taking a trip to do three weeks of health development work in Bolivia), so I worked two bar jobs (6 nights a week) while going to classes during the day. A combination of a bursary and scholarships let me quit one of those jobs, and I scraped by playing part-time in the Kingston Symphony. It wasn’t until I graduated and, through a combination of extreme luck and no small amount of charm, managed to get the job I have now.
If, however, I had managed to snag a cushy job at my dad’s Forbes 500 company (well, not my actual dad who is self-employed – my fictitious, much richer dad), I would have had a head-start on success. I wouldn’t have had to waste all those nights wrangling drunks at the bar, or those days cleaning up vomit at the waterslide. I would have instead been gaining not only relevant work experience, but networking and hobnobbing with the upper crust from a young age. I would have at least a 5-year jump on where I am now.
This is not a particularly sad story – I had to work, but I put in the time and I ended up with a comfortable lifestyle. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s not the whole story, though. I wouldn’t have been able to teach violin, or play in the symphony, if my parents hadn’t paid for lots of violin lessons with expensive teachers – not to mention the cost of the instrument itself. I got the research job through a friend, and because my parents (again) paid my tuition/rent I didn’t have to work very often – only enough to cover living expenses. Getting that research job helped me get into grad school, and was instrumental in me getting my current position. Point is – I didn’t exactly start from scratch – far from it, in fact.
Take a look at this graph:
There is an adage I really like: “Rich kids are born on third base, thinking they’ve hit a triple”. While I am not above a little bit of nepotism, it would be nice if that advantage you’re born with came with even the slightest awareness of how ahead of the pack these people start the race at. Even if not every kid with a rich parent ends life richer than their parents, the offspring of the mega-wealthy get a huge bump up the ladder for no reason other than the fact that the condom broke.
It is particularly galling to hear wealthy people decry the middle-class and poor as “lazy”, as though this kind of wealth self-perpetuation was something only seen in science fiction or the works of Marx. Given what we know about the ‘knock-on’ effects of poverty, and this latest revelation (as far as this blog is concerned, at least) about the behaviours of the wealthy, this myth should be dead, encased in concrete, and launched into the sun. Instead we get to hear Newt Gingrich tell poor kids to go mop bathrooms.
I’m not saying the system has been unfair for me. I was incredibly lucky to be born to two parents who were fit and driven enough to get university degrees, and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure I had what I needed. While I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, any spoon that I was born with was at least silver-plated. And it probably had food on it. I’m happy to point to all the helping hands I got along the way. Without them, mine would be a very different story (which you wouldn’t hear, because I wouldn’t have time to blog).
We can tie this to our earlier discussion of scholarships and race. While it’s easy (and fun!) to point the finger at racial minorities as being responsible for taking “our” spots in schools and jobs, the fact is that a much larger injustice is happening, whereby simply being born well-off is your passport to greater riches. Instead of doing the “crabs in a barrel” thing, we should try to turn our focus to those areas where we can truly make success a product of merit, not inheritance.
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