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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

United States one dollar bills are curled and inspected.

Today’s post is on income inequality. Since we’re heating up in election season, candidates are pushing forth their economic plans for America.

The dangerous separation of the American upper middle class

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“The American upper middle class is separating, slowly but surely, from the rest of society. This separation is most obvious in terms of income—where the top fifth have been prospering while the majority lags behind. But the separation is not just economic. Gaps are growing on a whole range of dimensions, including family structure, education, lifestyle, and geography. Indeed, these dimensions of advantage appear to be clustering more tightly together, each thereby amplifying the effect of the other.

For many, the most attractive class dividing line is the one between those at the very, very top and everybody else.  It is true that the top 1 percent is pulling away very dramatically from the bottom 99 percent. But the top 1 percent is by definition a small group. It is not plausible to claim that the individual or family in the 95th or 99th percentile are in any way part of mainstream America, even if many of them think so: over a third of the demonstrators on the May Day ‘Occupy’ march in 2011 had annual earnings of more than $100,000.

For others, the most important division is at the other end of the spectrum: the poverty line. The poor have not fallen behind the middle class in recent decades. But they have not caught up either. There is a case to be made that whatever is happening towards the top of the distribution, the gap we should care most about is between families struggling to put food on the table and those with adequate, middling incomes.”

Senator Bernie Sanders has made addressing income inequality one of the principle components of his campaign, and even other populist candidates like Donald Trump have called for raising taxes on the rich, or at least certain groups of wealthy Americans. Most voters, particularly Republican voters, oppose raising taxes on the rich, but here’s the question:

Is income inequality a problem in America?

The answer is, it could be: One of the ways America has been able to become the most powerful nation on earth in such a short period of time is because we are one of the few societies where economic mobility is possible. Someone born poor, even without tremendous musical, athletic, dancing, or tech genius talent can still earn a solid living and move from the bottom 10% to the top 1%. Herman Cain and Ben Carson are two such examples. Abraham Lincoln went from being born in a one-room cabin to President of the United States. That gives people hope that they too can achieve the “American Dream”, however it is defined for them. For some, earning a salary of $250,000 or more per year is unrealistic. But they may find happiness moving from $20,000 a year to $60,000 a year.

However, the American Dream only works if people believe economic mobility is feasible for them. And right now, many Americans do not believe it’s possible, or at least is becoming more difficult. Some Conservatives and “1%ers” will just say those people don’t work hard enough, or make poor decisions which cause them to stumble. Those may be true for some people, but not for all.

And that’s not the point of this discussion. It’s ‘do you believe you can move up the economic ladder’? And if people are answering no, then the question is, ‘why?’ and if people think the system is rigged against them, populist candidates like Sanders and Trump will absolutely win because the “hard work+perseverance=success” mantra will ring hollow to people who believe we are slowly moving away from an economically mobile society to one based primarily on who your parents are or who believe some people are ‘privileged’. That’s part of the reason entrepreneurship activity is down overall. Onerous government does hamper economic activity, but if people do not believe they can succeed, most will not even try.

This is something both major political parties will have to come to terms with. Certainly no productive society can function under Communism, where everyone (except the Party leaders) is equally poor and miserable. But too much inequality fuels populist and radical candidates who promise to fix the problem.

So take a look at the above graphic and try to answer for yourself, “is income inequality a problem in America”?

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Are you interested in learning more about our sixteenth president? The public is invited to a free presentation of “Young Mister Lincoln,” a fictionalized movie biography of our 16th President, which will be screened at the Dover Public Library on Wednesday, April 8th at 5:30. Larry Koch will host the program. Larry is a Lincoln expert, who will give you the most incredible stories about Abe, down to the types of jokes he thought were funny and when he thought they were appropriate. Don’t miss this event!

July was a typically warm month in New Salem Illinois in 1831. If you were people-watching on your porch you would not have found the tall, gawky, flat-footed farm boy particularly unique. Abraham Lincoln was 22 year old, and owned little more than the ill-fitting homemade buckskin clothes on his back. His pants barely reached his shins, and when he stretched or bent over his long underwear peeked out from the bottom of his raggedy trousers. Such outlandish, rustic attire was hardly worth a second glance in a western frontier community.

According to Lincoln “I was a friendless, uneducated, penniless boy… a piece of floating driftwood.” Needless to say, no matter how bizarre Lincoln might have appeared to a perhaps more discerning observer, the quotation that “you can’t tell a book by its cover” was never more apt. Within a few years Lincoln was a prominent and noteworthy young politician. In the future, of course, he would be elected president, confront the most deadly challenge to the Republic since its’ founding, built the greatest army in the world, defeat the formidable forces of disunion and end slavery in America. Interestingly, even on that first day in New Salem, Abraham Lincoln, perhaps inadvertently, advanced personal liberty and helped legitimize an increasingly trend-setting pattern in American society.

Social mobility in pre-bellum America was severely limited by tradition and circumstance. People in general followed in the occupations of their family and ancestors. The overwhelming occupation of Americans at that time was made up of subsistence farmers, and in the great majority of cases their children similarly followed in their parents’ footsteps. People generally lived and died within ten miles from where they were born. Special circumstances and survival issues (apprenticeship opportunities or loss of land fertility, for example) of course were exceptions to these accepted patterns, which otherwise continued for  generations.

Lincoln rejected the expected option to be a farmer, like his father, for startlingly different reasons. He would often say his father taught him farm work, but not how to like it. He enjoyed poetry, theater, and reading history, and simply did not find fulfillment in the hard physical, demanding work of the agrarian lifestyle. His desire to do something else was based on personal preference and ambition rather than any particular disaster or specific marketable skills.

The Lincoln who arrived in New Salem had no money, no contacts, and no idea initially about what he wanted to do. A nineteenth century observer would hardly find that Lincoln had left the world he knew to simply survive, and the Town of New Salem, population 100, hardly offered any special opportunities. It was enough, however, for Lincoln. The 22 year old and future president did have ambition, a pleasant personality, a willingness to learn and work hard, and eventually rose in New Salem society to become a surveyor, a postmaster, a storekeeper and eventually a lawyer and party leader.

Today it is not unusual to find people who choose an occupation and lifestyle based in large measure on what they enjoy doing, not what was the traditional occupation of their family, class or region. In fact it is the basic American promise that here one can exceed one’s parents’ station through commitment, hard work and learning. Generations have been assured that they can grow up to be anyone they want to be, even the president of the United States, as long as they apply themselves. The man who more than anyone else established that national ideal was the farm boy who moved to the town of New Salem in July of 1831.

Interested in this pivotal American story? The public is invited to a free presentation of “Young Mister Lincoln,” a fictionalized movie biography of our 16th President, which will be screened at the Dover Public Library on Wednesday, April 8th at 5:30. The director is the legendary John Ford, and, in perhaps his best performance, Henry Fonda stars as Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln defends in court two brothers accused of murder. As a movie prequel to the great events that would follow, you will gain insight into the life events that shaped a future president. A brochure will be shared with the audience that will identify historical accuracies and errors, movie goofs, and other information about “Young Mr. Lincoln.” I will be hosting this program, and I look forward to seeing you, and telling you about other Dover Library offerings celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War.

Larry Koch, EdD

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