Not Everyone Has the Tools to Become Rich: How Our Childhood Shapes Our Ability to Succeed

Monkey in Harlow's Isolation ExperimentMonkeys can teach us a lot about economics. Emotionally, their brains are very similar to ours. As fellow mammals, monkeys and humans both develop strong emotions that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom — emotions that govern our lives, our society, and our economy.

In the early 1990s, a team of psychologists set out to determine how a mother’s attentiveness affects her children as they grow up. They took two groups of monkeys and placed them in two different environments. In the first environment, the mother always had access to food. She didn’t have to spend any time looking for it. She could focus all her attention on her baby. In the second environment, the food was harder to find. The mother had to spend so much time looking for food that she often neglected her child.

The results were tragic. The second group of babies grew up with noticeable despair and anxiety issues. Their brains literally looked different. Their brain cells couldn’t regulate emotions like their healthier peers’. Once they became adults, the second group of monkeys was shy, clingy, weak, and socially awkward. They had trouble making friends, and they never became leaders.

They were forever scarred — and their potential forever stunted — by their distracted mothers.

In a way, the same experiment is taking place in American society today. Some mothers have easy access to the basic necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care — but many do not. Millions of mothers live paycheck-to-paycheck, working multiple jobs and long hours, leaving them too busy and too exhausted to give their children the same attention as their wealthier peers.

How Childhood Neglect Affects Brain ActivityThe difference is so drastic that children raised in poverty have brain activity that looks like it’s been damaged by a stroke. Study after study show that these early scars last long into adulthood, affecting everything from job prospects to marital happiness.

It would be cruel and illogical to argue that these children are responsible for their lot in life, but every time I write about income inequality, that’s exactly what I hear. “I strongly disagree with your statement that more people ‘deserve’ the opportunity to succeed,” one reader told me recently. “Success is in everyone’s face. One has to reach out and grab it.”

But clearly not everyone is staring success in the face after childhood. In fact, many children are raised not to reach out and grab it.

Psychologists have spent decades studying the different attitudes that people develop by living in different social classes. According to a recent article in the Annual Review of Psychology, they’ve come to some striking conclusions.

First, higher-income parents encourage their children to follow their dreams. They encourage critical thinking and support expression of likes, dislikes, feelings, and thoughts — and then give them opportunities to pursue those interests. Lower-income parents tend to emphasize toughness and pride in the face of adversity. They emphasize rules that must not be broken — and then let the children figure out the rest on their own.

From there, the children go to school, where higher-income children are given opportunities to work independently, think creatively, and ask questions. Their parents take an active role, challenging practices that they disagree with. Their teachers treat them like adults and reward students who speak up and take initiative. Lower-income children, on the other hand, usually find themselves in a more regimented environment. They walk through metal detectors and aren’t trusted with basic classroom equipment. Their parents want to be involved, but they don’t assert themselves. Their teachers demand respect and reward students who show deference.

By the time they enter the workforce, it isn’t hard to see how these two groups have been ingrained with two different attitudes toward success. The higher-income children have learned leadership skills like taking initiative, treating authorities as equals, and thinking outside-the-box, while their lower-income peers have learned to keep their heads down and do only what they’re told.

For those Americans who have been materially successful, it may seem like everyone else simply chose not to follow the same path, but the reality is that most Americans don’t know how to find that path. And in the greatest tragedy of all, for many Americans in today’s economy, the path may not even exist as long as they live.

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This op-ed was originally published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

An Open Letter to the One Percent

Back Cover of "Letter to the One Percent"Congratulations. You are the richest class of human beings in the history of the world. Collectively, you own 26 percent of this nation’s wealth. Add in the next richest 5 percent of Americans, and you have more money than everyone else combined. Nowhere else in the world would you be able to earn so much and give back so little.

You worked hard for that money. No one can deny that. You have been rewarded for your talent, your intelligence, your risk-taking, your creativity, and your good fortune. The notion that you should change a system that has worked so well must seem downright stupid.

But, as the philosopher Amartya Sen reminds us, “What we can see is not independent of where we stand in relation to what we are trying to see.”

From where you’re standing, things must look pretty good. In the world you live in, economic growth is strong. Unemployment is brief, rare, and softened by ample savings. Health insurance is affordable. Education is among the best in the world. Food, shelter, and transportation are never hard to come by. And retirement will surely be comfortable.

It’s not perfect. You may get fired. You may lose money. You may experience stress and sacrifice and sorrow. But you will not struggle to survive. You will not be denied the American Dream.

So it’s only natural that you believe this path is open to everyone. But this could not be further from the truth.

In the world outside the One Percent, economic growth is sluggish — and has been so, on average, for more than thirty years. For most Americans, in fact, it has been nonexistent. Unemployment is a common and devastating threat. Retirement is an uphill battle. Education is a crapshoot. Food, shelter, and transportation strain the budget. And until recently, health insurance was a luxury afforded to some but not nearly all.

You’ve read these complaints before. You’ve heard the voices shouting outside your office windows. You’ve seen the faces protesting on your television screens. But, in all likelihood, you haven’t seen the world through their eyes. And that makes all the difference.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, taught that we cannot know what is the right thing to do until we have looked at a situation through the eyes of an “impartial spectator.”

“In solitude,” wrote Smith, “we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves… The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to still a better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty.”

That duty is great, for you wield immense power.

A few years ago, the political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting record of U.S. Senators on issues where the rich, the middle class, and the poor disagreed. He found that the Senators sided with the rich 50 percent more often than they sided with the middle class, and they always sided with the rich and the middle class over the poor.

In a sense, they’re protecting their own. After all, the average legislator is six times richer than the average citizen.

They also have more reasons and more opportunities to hear what you have to say. Corporations, which you own and run, spend significantly more money lobbying and have significantly more high-level government allies than their opponents. The result is that corporations win lobbying battles far more often than unions or citizen groups.

You have an obligation to use that influence responsibly. Since the 1970s, you have failed in that duty. By tilting the playing field away from the 99 Percent, you siphoned an increasing share of the nation’s resources, until the country was drowning in debt, struggling to keep up, and unable to fuel the recovery it so desperately needed. Once you had climbed the ladder of success, you pulled up the ladder so no one could come up after you.

I don’t believe you did so with malicious intent. After all, many of you are my friends and colleagues. Rather, I believe you were practicing what the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “innocent fraud.”

“It is innocent,” explained Galbraith, “because most who employ it are without conscious guilt. It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.”

As opposed to general interest, the interest of all Americans. There is a way to become rich without impoverishing everyone else — and we as Americans celebrate that sort of success — but that’s not what has happened in recent years.

To be clear: It is not your accumulation of wealth per se that lies at the root of our problems. It is the manner in which that wealth was accumulated: through the systematic demolition of the tax code, regulations, public spending, and labor market institutions that created the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

The good news is, all that wealth gives you the ability to undo the damage. You are the most powerful citizens of the most powerful country in the world. Your country needs you. You have the influence, the means, and the brainpower to turn this economy around, but you must know the facts. You must hear the cold, hard truth.

No, I’m not trying to start a class war. Quite the opposite. I’m asking you to end the class war. I’m asking you to construct an economy where everyone benefits, rather than the few at the expense of the many.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” said Warren Buffett in 2006, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

You probably don’t see it that way. “War” is a strong word. But that’s because it’s not your standard of living that’s been under near-constant attack for thirty-plus years. Your piece of the pie has been growing. Your voices have been heard. And that’s why you’re the ones who have to step up.

Nothing less than what Sen calls “the freedom to determine the nature of our lives” is at stake. That’s something that you have and most of the 99 Percent doesn’t. That kind of freedom only comes with a good job with good benefits in a growing economy where good schools and a safe neighborhood in a clean environment create real opportunity. Not only is that kind of freedom at the heart of the American Dream; it’s also our natural birthright as human beings. Yet it’s been slipping out of reach for more and more Americans with each passing year.

Things can get worse. Let us hope they do not. Of course, it’s one thing to hope; it’s quite another to act. But act you must. In my new book Letter to the One Percent, I explain why. To learn more, visit www.LetterToTheOnePercent.com.

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This op-ed is an excerpt from my new book Letter to the One Percent, published this month by Lulu Press, Inc.

My New Book Has Been Published! Just in Time for the Holidays…

Letter to the One PercentAvailable in hardcover from Lulu Press, Inc:

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Available in e-book format from Lulu Press, Inc:

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Available in Kindle format at Amazon.com:

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 What It’s All About…

Letter to the One Percent is exactly what it sounds like: a letter to the richest one percent of American households. It is a call to action, a plea for compassion, and a manifesto for the future. It tells the story of their extraordinary success — and how the other 99 percent of Americans missed out. It explains how this divergence caused household income to stagnate, forced millions of Americans into poverty, and triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It appeals to the better angels of their nature to bear a higher burden — by paying higher taxes, empowering labor, and cracking down on white-collar crime — in order to reverse the damage done in the past three decades.

No other writer has dared to speak these truths directly to power. Every other mainstream book preaches to the choir. Only Letter to the One Percent is brave enough to challenge the rich to do what the country needs them to do. It is not an attack. It is not class warfare. On the contrary: It is a challenge to end the class war that the One Percent has been winning and the 99 Percent has been losing.

No other political subject is as timely as this one. No other economic trend is as pivotal. From the financial crisis in 2008, to Occupy Wall Street in 2010, to the presidential election in 2012, the divergence between the One Percent and the 99 Percent has been the most talked-about issue in American current events. And yet, no one has synthesized the causes and consequences of it in a succinct, yet comprehensive, book. No one has translated the protests and the politics into the simple pocketbook impact that it has had on the average American household. This is the biggest story of our time, and Letter to the One Percent is the first book to tell it fully, accurately, and unflinchingly.

Advance Praise for Letter to the One Percent

“In just 85 pages, the brilliant young economist Anthony W. Orlando analyzes the events of the past thirty-five years and thoroughly explores the rise of the One Percent at the expense of the rest of us. It is truly a manifesto for the 99 Percent and should be read by every one of us.”

— Reese Schonfeld, founding President and CEO of CNN

Letter to the One Percent is an excellent primer and refresher course on macroeconomics. It helped me understand why the U.S. is experiencing the current economic state of affairs. It is also a compassionate call to action. At first, one may not agree with the basic thesis, but it makes complete sense. I am now a believer and highly recommend this read.”

— Mark Itkin, Co-Head of Worldwide Television at William Morris Endeavor

“Anthony W. Orlando has written a short dossier and critique of America’s descent into a very troubled and vulnerable society. He presents it in the original form of a letter chastising the One Percent for these policy failures and urging them to get hold of themselves and opt for decency and long-run survival. But he also provides a small storehouse of ammunition for the 99 Percent to use in their self-defense.”

— Edward S. Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, bestselling co-author of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

“Anthony W. Orlando has the unique ability to translate complex economic phenomena into everyday, nuts-and-bolts language. He speaks for a brave new generation with a voice that deserves to be heard.”

— Susan M. Wachter, Professor of Real Estate and Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

“…this well-researched, carefully cited book is a valuable resource for understanding how the country got in such a perilous position and what can be done about it. Using a clear, authoritative writing style,…Orlando…manages to present an impressive number of facts without overwhelming readers. In particular, the statistics he presents are startling, even for those who closely follow the state of the economy.”

— Kirkus Reviews

Geography: The Latest Front in the Class War

Upward Mobility Across America

At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.

Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.

We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.

The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.

The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.

The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.

This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.

The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.

Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.

“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”

In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.

I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.

But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.