A nation of hopeful idiots

Far be it from me to blame a fellow novelist for our troubles, but Horatio Alger may have done America more harm than good.

You’re probably familiar with Alger’s legacy if not his work. He wrote over 270 dime novels in the nineteenth century all based around a central theme: that in America, anyone can become rich through hard work and dedication. Alger was as responsible as anyone for the meme of the “rags to riches” can-do American spirit that has become so central a part of our culture that it influences people to act against their own best interests.

A good example of an Alger story would be Barack Obama. Raised by a single mom and her working-class parents, Obama has gone from foodstamps to the favorite to become the next President of the United States. Obama himself will tell you that his story is an American story, that things are possible here that are possible nearly nowhere else on Earth.

Possible. Not necessarily probable.

See, that’s an important distinction. Just because someone like Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher might be rich someday doesn’t at all mean that he will be. In fact, he almost certainly won’t be. Because the game is now stacked against him like it hasn’t been since the Guilded Age, the last couple decades of the nineteenth century dominated by robber barons with names like Vanderbilt and Astor. Today the robber barons are called Exxon-Mobil and Haliburton, but the situation is largely the same. There’s the rich, there’s everyone else, and very little way to get from the latter to the former.

But that doesn’t deter most Americans from voting in favor of the rich, on the theory that they’ll be rich themselves someday. For the vast thundering majority of them, that never happens, but in the meantime we get increasingly regressive taxes (I’ve heard middle class people who are damn well capable of doing the math speaking out in favor of a flat tax as though it was actually a good idea for them), healthcare we can’t afford and ever rising costs of living. Most Americans have been duped into thinking that they’ll be millionaires any day now, and then it’s fat cat city.

Which just goes to show you how far we’ve fallen. Millionaires are just barely rich anymore. The middle class has been frozen in the $30-90k range for most of my adult life. But let’s face it. If you’re only making $50,000 a year with a family to support, you’re not middle class anymore, you’re barely getting by. The rich are now multi-billionaires, not paltry millionaires, and they’re so far away from the rest of us that they may was well live in another country, and in a very real way they do.

Don’t fall for the hype, people. You may do well for yourself, you may have a comfortable and productive life. But most of you will never, ever be financially rich. So quit voting to support those who already are. Vote to help yourselves, right now, in your current circumstances. Or none of us is going anywhere.

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