When I was at UC Berkeley, I had two good professors from whom I actually learned something. One of them was Sheldon Rothblatt, who then taught a class covering England from the Industrial Revolution to the dawn of World War I. He was a delightful teacher, able to infuse life and color into what would have been, in less skilled hands, a drab recital of capitalist oppression and Marxist struggles.
Looking back, I realize that Professor Rothblatt, unlike the usual Marxist cohort in Cal’s history department, viewed people as individuals with wants and desires, rather than as mere cogs in an endless struggle between oppressed masses and oppressive upper classes. Prof. Rothblatt’s recognition that individuals count may go a long way to explaining the answer he gave when someone asked why the Industrial Revolution was petering out in England at the beginning of the 20th Century while, in America, it kept roaring on.
If I remember correctly, Prof. Rothblatt said that the end of the Industrial Revolution in England lay with the working classes. The problem wasn’t that they were too oppressed. Instead, between the downward pressure from the class system (“an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him“), and the rising level of (comparative) luxury brought about by the Industrial Revolution, working-class Englishmen simply stopped trying very hard. They knew that, no matter the effort they put in, they wouldn’t be able to break through the class ceiling. Additionally, provided that they weren’t living in abysmal poverty, they had more creature comforts than they could ever have imagined. So why work?
In America at the beginning of the 20th Century, things were different. The working classes knew that, with effort, they could rise up and their children could rise up even more. Heck, John D. Rockefeller went from a very shabby childhood to being one of the richest men in the world. Andrew Carnegie, the son of a Scottish weaver, did the same. While most wouldn’t reach those rarefied heights, there was no doubt that, with hard work, geographic mobility, and America’s open class system, a man or a woman, or that man’s or woman’s descendents, could realistically attain middle class or even wealthy status. In addition, as the original poor gained economically because of the Industrial Revolution, thereby leaving the working class behind, there was a constant influx of (legal) immigrants to provide fresh, hope-filled labor for the factory floor. Yes, many people fell by the wayside, but even more people ascended American society’s ranks — and that was itself an incentive for continued effort.
America has changed dramatically since then in three very significant ways. First, we’ve lost our geographic mobility. I know that sounds funny in a day and age of trains, planes, and automobiles, but it’s true. We are heavily weighed down by both tangible and intangible assets. If my husband were to lose his job (God forbid!), and if there were no employment prospects here, moving to find work would be reasonable. Nevertheless, we would find it incredibly difficult to move. Every room in our house is crammed with stuff that would have to be sorted, sold, packed, and transported and then, at the other end, we’d have to unpack, re-sort, and probably sell some more. Unlike people in days of old, who might have had only a few clothes, a Bible, and a cook pot, we have four computers (one for each of us), hundreds of clothes (between the four of us), thousands of books (mostly mine), televisions, kitchen gadgets, appliances, dishes and cookware, cleaning supplies, furniture (too much, since my husband can’t bear to part with old when we buy new), family photographs, art work, knick-knacks — and that’s probably only a partial inventory of the tangible clutter that is a modern life.
A move also requires transporting our intangibles. We have to engage in the tiresome task of changing our bank accounts. In the old days, you’d just deposit or withdraw money. Now the paperwork of setting up a new account to comply with the bank’s requirements, the state’s requirements, and the fed’s requirements can take hours. We have to sever all our ties to cable companies, phone companies, and utilities, and then recreate new ties at our destination. We need to change our address with credit card companies and make sure that Amazon ships more clutter to our new address not our old. As I remember from my last move, it was almost a year before I’d managed to transfer every bit of data from my old address to my new one.
Second, illegal immigration means that our new crop of workers remain as perpetual bottom feeders, stultifying America’s former dynamic of moving from the bottom of the heap up to the middle or beyond. We give the illegals marginal jobs, welfare, and food stamps, but they are, as their community organizers like to say, stuck in the shadows, something that severely limits upward mobility. The appropriate course of action for our nation to take, of course, isn’t to grant amnesty, which is an invitation to yet another large batch of economically stultifying illegal shadow workers. It is, instead, to shut down our borders, deny welfare to illegal immigrants and education to their children, put pressure on companies that employ them, and watch them self-deport. Meanwhile, if we do indeed need all these workers, we should dramatically boost our legal immigrant quota and enable more people to come here freely and work openly.
Third, and most significantly, we’ve now got Obamacare, which acts as a disincentive to hard work. John Podhoretz neatly summarizes the key points of the CBO’s most recent report about Obamacare’s effect on employment:
If you accept his book “Dreams of My Father” as being aglorifying statement of what Obama most admires of his father’s Marxist dreams,( ‘to make all those they consider the colonialist capitalistic empires, no better than the most lowly of nations.’) the only way to bring about this dream is to destroy them and bring those nations to their knees. No where has Obama ever denounced his father’s dream for America.