The American Dream - and anecdotal evidence

George Monbiot has written a thought-provoking piece on Romney and myths about self-made men and women in the "land of opportunity", the United States.

The piece reminded me of a conversation I had a while back. I was at a dinner at Christ Church College Oxford, attended by some very, very wealthy people (sponsors of an event I shan't name).

I talked to the person sitting next to me. He explained he was a self-made multi-millionaire who had made it after moving to the US. He said he knew many others (some in the room) who had done the same, which demonstrated that the US mentality and culture was really far superior to that in Europe.

In response, I said: wasn't there actually less social mobility in the US than there was across much of Western Europe, and especially the supposedly "socialist" countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark? If you are born poor in the US, surely you are rather more likely to stay that way than if you lived in Sweden, say?

My dining companion was absolutely convinced I was mistaken about that. After all, he himself knew several people just like him: people who had gone from rags to riches. That showed the American Dream is a reality.

Actually, the American Dream is just that - a dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream thus:

life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

Yet the US is not the "land of opportunity" it pretends to be, as various studies show. You have a much better chance of climbing the social ladder if you live in a Nordic country than if you live in the US. But of course, Americans, even very poor Americans, really passionately believe they live in the quintessential "land of opportunity". They believe the Dream.

As the wiki page on social mobility points out:

The American Dream Report, a study of the Economic Mobility Project, found that Americans surveyed were more likely than citizens of other countries to agree with statements like “People get rewarded for intelligence and skill”, “People get rewarded for their efforts”; and less likely to agree with statements like “Coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to getting ahead,” “Income differences in my country are too large” or “It is the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income.” While another report found such beliefs to have gotten strong over the last few decades.

If the American Dream is a myth, why do so many people buy it? Monbiot points out it's in the interests of the rich to perpetuate it.

However, there's a further reason why it's comparatively easy to perpetuate the myth. The reason this misperception of the US as "a land of opportunity" is so persistent is that an anecdote psychologically trumps a dry statistic every time.

My wealthy companion at that Christ Church dinner personally knew a few individuals like himself who went from rags to riches. And of course there are other popular anecdotes to draw on re Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and even Bill Clinton (all supposedly rags-to-riches individuals).

These anecdotes really resonate with people in a way that graphs and statistics demonstrating a lack of social mobility do not. When you personally know the individuals concerned, they resonate even more. As I point out in my book Believing Bullshit ("Piling Up The Anecdotes"):

Anecdotal evidence may be largely worthless as evidence, but it can be highly persuasive. Humans love a story, especially if it’s shocking, weird, or emotionally arresting. We enjoy comedies, tragedies, stories of wrongs righted, of revenge, of ghosts, aliens. One reason we find such stories appealing is that they tap into our tendency to feel empathy with others. We enjoy imaginatively putting ourselves in the subject’s position, imagining how it must have felt to exact that bloody revenge, see a ghost, or be abducted by aliens. The more emotional impact the story has, the more memorable it is. 

As a consequence, a juicy story can psychologically trump a dry statistic, even when the statistic is rather more informative. The result of a double-blind clinical study of the efficacy of prayer is a dull set of figures easily forgotten, whereas a handful of emotionally arresting anecdotes about prayers answered may resonate with us for a long time.

The fact that it's possible to trot out emotionally arresting anecdotes about US individuals who have gone from rags to riches does not, of course, show that there are comparatively high levels of social mobility in the US. The statistics  show the opposite is true. But people will always be persuaded by such anecdotes, nevertheless. That's how snake oil salesmen peddle their miracle cures. It's how you peddle the American Dream.

[Post script: I also met a US academic earlier this year with whom I discussed this. Again, he was incredulous re the suggestion that the US did not lead the field in terms of social mobility. Even smart, college professors believe the Dream].


Jean Hollywood said…
Very interesting. I feel like I should say to all of these people "yes as much as you've got a Cinderella story or two of your own, why don't you stop and think, of ALL THE PEOPLE YOU KNOW, how many are Cinderellas? Or in the world. Hollywood isn't (and can't be) filled with EVERYONE."
I guess when you've made it, you would think like that. :\
wombat said…
In this case the myth plays to other cognitive biases as well

1) Optimistic bias. Just as 95% of people think they have a better than average sense of humour, the majority of people will think that they will be the Cinderellas not the ugly sisters.

2) The Endowment effect whereby a higher value is placed on something simply because you have it. (See here ) In this case American citizenship. Obviously this will not apply to non-Americans but will apply to those Americans who have not yet "made it". There is value in opportunity sure, but people are lead to over value the opportunity they have.

It would be interesting to know what all the upwardly mobile Swedes and Norwegians think though.
Jim Moore said…
JT Adams actually says that the American Dream is "for everyone". At least that what this blogpost claims. Re-read if you must. Didn't Berners-Lee say that was who the Internet he helped create was for? So in fact the US riich have perverted what Adams said. Well wouldn't you if you had stolen the commonwealth and lived in a nation with a proud history of armed revolution and where everyone has the right to bear arms? If you'd asked those rich you had dinner with what their biggest fear was, it would be that one day the suckers would realise how they had and were being scammed, and come gunning for them while they slept.
The Swede said…
Thanks for yet another interesting article. Encouraged by wombat, I will add some comments from a Swedish perspective (which no doubt all Swedes, let alone Norwegians, would agree with).

Stephen say that Sweden is a "supposedly socialist" country. Maybe Sweden is a socialist country compared to the US (and probably compared to the UK. But the conservatives/liberals have now been in government for some six years (by taking a step to the left, some would argue). I belive that it is safe to say that access to free education is no right /left issue in Sweden - we regard it as a fundamental right in a democratic and equal society. The thought that money should prevent a talented person from going to university is very odd to most Swedes. On the other hand, the US system with a different approach appear to be very effective in picking up talents (a very large portion of the Nobel prizes winners come from US universitities) so other systems may work just as well in this regard.

As to social mobility, free schools, free healtcare and highly subsidised childcare means that all people, irrespective of backgrounds can life a decent life and (at least in theory) climb on the social ladder. But the high tax economy also means that the difference between classes are less noticable than in other economies. We have a very large middle class and few people who are poor (or belong to the lower class) by an international standard. With a high marginal tax, a doctor may earn thrice the salary of factory worker but only about half the net salary. Recent major tax cuts have been aimed at the lower and middle class.

Even though we have free education, it is clear that tradition play a very great role - people from working class homes are less likely to go to university. Children in areas with a high portion of immigrants does not get the same opportunities, not becaus of the system, but because the environment they grow up in does not encourage higher education. The movement within the large middle class may be high (I have moved from middle/middle to upper/middle), but the movements from the lower class to middle class or middle class to upper class does not seem to be very great. This problem has proved very difficult to address. (I should add that I find the term "class" problematic but I use it in lieu of a better term).

Finally, as to the American dream, I believe that there is a difference in mentality that goes back to almost hundred years of socialist party ruling. It is not considered glorious to be rich in Sweden. People with money does not show it. It is not socially acceptable to show it. We sometimes speak about the "Swedish jealousy". Swedes tend to strive for a high quality of life and a decent income rather than earning the extra bucks. People sacrificing their family to further their careers are often treated with considerable suspicion. We have 12 months paid maternity leave (to be shared between parents as they please). Everyone takes at least four weeks summer holiday. The American dream is not (to most people) the Swedish dream. The suggestion to make it easier to become rich would mean political suicide (even though it might benefit the economy as a whole).
wombat said…
Any Norwegians reading?

Interestingly Sweden has almost as many billionaires per head of population as the US but both have way more than France Germany or the UK. (see dodgy article here )
Mark Nunes said…
This post brings this passage to mind...

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Anonymous said…
Yes, there are Norwegians reading. I don't know how being Norwegian affects my opinions, though. I suppose, when I lived in the US for a year, people spoke about rags-to-riches stories in a way that reminded me of an old British comedy series where the Soviet Ambassador brags to the British that in the Soviet Union, they have "scores of beefs!! Almost an entire cows worth!".

Norway is a rich country that quite recently was poor. Like the Soviet ambassador, they were trying to impress me with the existence of something I had never considered there might ever be a shortage of. Social mobility depends on your drive and ambition, and untill that point I had never emtionally realized there might be other limiting factors.

But years later, I spoke to a friend who does social medicine and public health. He said that by far the biggest factor in social mobility is free access to higher education. I believe that is relevant to your dinner companions anecdote. The greatest opportunity comes to those who take everything they can from the Scandinavian systems -education, languages, nutrition, health care, etc- and then leave for environments where they have leapfrogged all the barriers restricting the natives, and where the taxes are light, from lack of need to provide opportunity for the next generation.

In conclusion, I have occasionaly read about people in the Dark Ages who worked their way up to being a warlord or baron from humble beginnings. That this occasionally happened toes not indicate that the Feudal System had good social mobility.
James James said…
Depends how you measure social mobility. If you just measure it by looking at how many kids from poor backgrounds become rich, without controlling for IQ, then you're going get it wrong.

Even in a country where anyone with ability could make it, you'd expect observed social mobility to decline over time. Successful people tend to have successful children, so after a few generations, children with ability would tend to be born already up the social ladder.

In philosophical terms, you can't assume your conclusion. You can't assume that because rich people have successful children, and poor people don't, this shows there is no possibility of social mobility. You can't assume that low observed social mobility is because social mobility isn't possible.
Stephen Law said…
You might similarly argue that the reason blacks tend to be much poorer than whites in the US is very likely to be that possess less native intelligence and talent than white people, right? Stats on social mobility re race give is little reason to think otherwise, do they..?

I am glad the widespread middle class view - that the middle class are genetically superior to the working class in terms of IQ and talent, and that we do already have something like a meritocracy in this country, notwithstanding such social mobility stats - is now at least being expressed publicly.
Stephen Law said…
Here's my theory about the middle class - that the marketplace will select for those with ability to succeed, so that over generations, those with the greatest inheritable native ability will be found in the middle and upper classes and those with the least in the lower classes. Moreover, inheritable characteristics that significantly enhances success include being a shallow, materialistic, selfish, ruthless, two-faced scumbag. Which is why these features are so grossly over-represented among the middle classes.

Would you agree?
wombat said…
9 dnerayrn"Which is why these features are so grossly over-represented among the middle classes."

Are they? If they are then I suppose it might be true. It seems there are a few possibilities

1) ruthlessness etc really are genetic and confer a reproductive benefit. Therefore selected.

2) ruthlessness etc really are genetic but are _not_ strongly advantageous rather they are simply indicators of something that is. Like baldness is (supposedly) linked to masculinity. Its simple a by product that evolution hasn't yet weeded out.

3) ruthlessness etc. really are genetic but emerge as a developmental effect of something which is advantageous. e.g like men have nipples even though they don't produce milk often. Maybe the ruthlessness et al are produced by the same hormone (or whatever factor) increases intelligence.

4) A non-genetic explanation.

What tells us it's (1)?

(Genuinely curious here because it seems similar to the issues with Chris Woodhead which I never fully understood.)
Mike said…
As an American I suspect that a lot of the over-confidence in our own meritocracy has to do with intergenerational economic advancement. We became much more wealthy in the 20th century, especially in the first few decades following World War II. Most people understood themselves to be significantly better off materially than their parents, and (in the first decades after the war, at least) understood the country to be significantly better off than other countries. That's all changing, of course.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Wombat. That was a joke (I don't nec think ruthlessness is over represented in m class - though it might be) with a point (people are quick to insist m class genetically more intelligent to account for a lack of social mobility, but not other less attractive attributes that might have at least as much effect).

Anyhow, as you remember, we did this topic to death a while back. But there's something worth adding here...

In response to cross-country differences on social mobility, it's suggested by James (if I have understood him correctly) that these countries might all be good meritocracies, the lack of mobility being explained by lack of genetic IQ.

But then why would the differences in mobility correlate so well with how much they tax and spend on free, good quality education and other social provision and benefits.

That would have to be put down as just a coincidence.

Moreover, the suggestion that those countries that have effective meritocratic systems will show comparatively little social mobility after a while assumes several dubious things, such as that what makes people successful economically is mostly inherited (and that's pretty obviously false, I'd say, even while acknowledging there's an important genetic component).
Paul P. Mealing said…
I read your link to George Monbiot and liked his reference to Gina Rinehart (Australia's richest woman and one of the richest women in the world).

She notoriously made a video where she claimed Africans will work for $2 per day, which begs the question: would she work for $2 per day.

Regards, Paul.
Begemont said…
Dear Mr. Law,

I wonder what your opinion is on this rather unrelated to your article question. I wonder and cannot quite make up my mind on the answer. Not yet, perhaps.

By giving life to posterity, we condemn it to die. We create life knowing that it will be taken away. We give life to our children with the clear understanding that they will inevitably parish one day. Does that make us directly responsible for our children’s deaths? After all, they would not die had we not created them in the first place. Are we all guilty of unpremeditated murder? Or even worse-are we guilty of premeditated one? It is believed that there is nothing worse than a mother losing her child. But doesn’t a mother always lose her child? It is only a matter of whether or not she will live to see it, or not. A child is always lost, regardless of whether or not there are witnesses. Or does death exist only if there are witnesses?

I suppose those are two questions, but I am really more interested in the former one. Thank you!
James James said…
"You might similarly argue that the reason blacks tend to be much poorer than whites in the US is very likely to be that possess less native intelligence and talent than white people, right? Stats on social mobility re race give is little reason to think otherwise, do they..?"


"Here's my theory about the middle class - that the marketplace will select for those with ability to succeed, so that over generations, those with the greatest inheritable native ability will be found in the middle and upper classes and those with the least in the lower classes. Moreover, inheritable characteristics that significantly enhances success include being a shallow, materialistic, selfish, ruthless, two-faced scumbag. Which is why these features are so grossly over-represented among the middle classes.

Would you agree?"

Yes, that would happen, but only if genes for being shallow, materialistic, selfish, ruthless or a two-faced scumbag were already significantly represented in the gene pool, AND there weren't countervailing selection pressures the other way, e.g. religion (the genetic reasons for which we still don't really understand).

"But then why would the differences in mobility correlate so well with how much they tax and spend on free, good quality education and other social provision and benefits."

Evidence please.

Also, from a philosophical point of view, there is an alternative explanation for this which you haven't considered. If money is taken from the clever rich and spent on educating the stupid poor, then this could have an equalising effect which would enable movement between the classes.

It really disappoints me that you, Stephen, stop considering all philosophical possibilities. Emotion seem to make your philosophical skills go out the window when considering politics.
Stephen Law said…
"Evidence please."

I wasn't aware that the claim that the Nordic countries tax more and spend more on health education and other benefits than US, and UK was controversial!

Stephen Law said…
James, I said:

"You might similarly argue that the reason blacks tend to be much poorer than whites in the US is very likely to be that possess less native intelligence and talent than white people, right? Stats on social mobility re race give is little reason to think otherwise, do they..?"

You said: "Exactly."

Perhaps you'd congratulate yourself on being a tough, rigorous thinker not afraid to face politically unpalatable truths?

Well, actually I too am quite prepared to countenance the possibility that there are genetic differences in IQ between the races. Ditto class, actually.

But to actually assert, without supporting evidence, not just that it's very likely that blacks are innately less intelligent than whites, but also that this is probably why black people tend to be significantly poorer than white, is to demonstrate such an amazing lack of awareness about how racism works that I'm, well, kind of gobsmacked.

I don't know what it is that your exhibiting there James, but I'm pretty sure it isn't academic rigour.
James James said…
"First: shift the burden of proof to the converse of your unsupported hypothesis, defining it as the null hypothesis - true until proven false. Second: raise the standards for proving it false to an absurd and unsatisfiable level. (See this for a typical attempt to clear the ever-rising bar.) Third: declare victory."

"'Evidence please.'

I wasn't aware that the claim that the Nordic countries tax more and spend more on health education and other benefits than US, and UK was controversial!"

Can you point us to the evidence? (N.b. whether I find it convincing will depend on the definition of social mobility.)

What I'd really like to see is you using your philosophical skills to discuss the philosophy of social mobility. I find it disappointing that you haven't even defined the term yet/subjected it to scrutiny.

Possible questions for consideration:

What is social mobility?
How can we measure it?
Under what circumstances is it a good thing?
Is it the same thing as meritocracy? Is meritocracy a good thing?
Jack Hartland said…
Are middle class people more ruthless?

In S. Africa the most ruthless are from the lower classes. Our crime statistics will bear that out. Its the Wild West here, where AK47 toting bandits rob malls every other day. I guess they are upwardly mobile. Likewise our taxi bosses who run their organisations like the Mafia, an industry that is worth R80 Bil but escapes the tax net.

Our government policies are socialist, but without a strong capitalist base. So needs outstrip the needs of health care, education, job creation and decent living standards, all blamed on the legacy of apartheid. They ignore the sad fact that most African nations, who have had independence for sixty years, are generally worse off that South Africa, which is why we are flooded with economic migrants from the North. We have Xenophobic violence because they are generally more educated, skilled and motivated, taking jobs from the working class.

The new upper class prosper due to political connections regardless of education or intelligence. According to an article in The Argus, "Only 30 percent of managerial posts in government institutions are occupied by suitably qualified personnel".

On 'upward mobility' a medical Professor, not particularly wealthy, said, "the people who live in these fancy houses, the richer they are, the lower their academic qualifications, but they all run businesses".

During my career I did business with scoundrels who ripped me off, but most of my clients were honourable.

The American dream or the American Nightmare?

A friend from Las Vegas said, "Its all smoke and mirrors", built on other people's money... the whole pack of cards came tumbling down during the sub prime banking collapse.

Redistributed from the workers funds to the bankers and brokers. Strange that since the Banking Crises the amount of Billionaires doubled.
Some investigation needed

Do genetics play a part in wealth creation? .... only if you are handicapped.

White people are not smarter than black people but environment makes a difference and believing you can achieve any thing you put your mind to. Learning how to access information and how to use it, is probably of utmost importance today, accompanied with good people skills.

Of course being wealthy and well connected will be a huge advantage for a start in life, but then many rich kids sniff it all up their noses or piss it down the toilet. As Solomon said "What's the point of building empires... when you don't know whether your son will be a wise man or a fool".