Returning from a two-week speaking tour to Finland, Norway and Sweden, I kept thinking about that scene early in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film "The Departed" where Leonardo DiCaprio's character is grilled about his personal background by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who want him to become an undercover agent for the Boston Police Department.
"Families are always rising and falling in America," says Mr. DiCaprio's character, quoting 18th century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But are they? Americans like to believe that class mobility is a natural consequent, if not birthright, of our caste-less, meritocratic and capitalist society. And in the United States today, families do still rise and fall.
The sad truth, however, is that America is becoming less economically mobile. In fact, right now American families are less likely to rise and fall from one generation to the next than are families in those evil "socialist" countries of Scandinavia I just visited, where a person's income is far less dependent upon his or her parents' income than it is here in the United States. In contrast to the U.S., Scandinavian countries are less class-anchored and more egalitarian and feature higher rates of political participation — all features that we aspire to have here in America but which have vanished in recent decades.
Income mobility is also related to income inequality. Depicted by what's known as the "Gatsby Curve," rising inequality tends to be associated with lower intergenerational income mobility. This makes intuitive sense: When income and wealth are largely inheritable, the ability of families to "rise and fall" from one generation to the next abates.
The current state of affairs is no accident; in fact, it is the product of willful political design. In the three decades following the Reagan revolution, America became both more unequal and more class-rigid because powerful, wealthy forces steadily constructed and reinforced a stratified society. How did this happen?
You first have to create disparity. So you prosecute a state-by-state assault on unionization in favor of "right to work" legislation (that is, "right to work for less"). You resist raising or even inflation-adjusting the minimum wage. You attack the pension and health care benefits of these less-powerful, lower-paid workers — if you haven't already replaced them with part-time or foreign-based substitutes who qualify for little if any benefits. Soon enough, the ratio between the incomes of corporate chiefs and their lowest-paid workers widens.
Next, you cement these disparities for the longer term. To do that, you gradually shift the tax burden from wealth (inheritance and capital gains) to work (payroll, income taxes), making gains more inheritable. You rely on a property tax-based public education system that perpetuates advantage by providing the best schools to the communities already at the front of the economic queue. And you cling to an antiquated, employer-based health care system in favor of a universal-coverage system, making it difficult for poorer, part-time workers to maintain coverage.
Finally, you make sure that voters in a democracy are unable to use the ballot box to reverse this state of affairs by pushing for populist correctives. To thwart them, the wealthy and well-connected spend a sliver of their resources to protect the rest. And although the Democrats have their corporate minders and trade association connections, when it comes to skewing the political process in favor of the haves over the have-nots, conservatives and Republicans are without peer.
The Citizens United case granting corporations and wealthy Americans vast influence over campaigns was authored by Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is working to systematically limit ballot access in states. Heck, some on the right are even calling for a repeal of the 17th Amendment and a return to the pre-1914 practice of state elites appointing U.S. senators. Why not go the last full step toward a Colonial revival and have state legislatures choose presidential electors and reimpose 18th century property qualification for voting, too?
Should anyone dare complain about the conversion of America from a meritocracy into a plutocracy — or rather, back into the plutocracy it once was —just start screaming about "class warfare." The only thing left to do is find a plutocratic poster boy.
Enter Mitt Romney: the son of a wealthy politician who, if elected, would become the wealthiest president since the Colonial era. Now, here is a man whose time has come.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @schaller67.