Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #054. First published in the St. Cloud Times Jan. 24, 2012

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Equally true, and equally dangerous, is this: Those who misremember the past will screw up the present.

In the months between now and Election Day 2012 we will be subjected to endless portraits of America’s past, painted by people who want to get our vote by striking a chord that resonates with our nostalgia, whether that chord resembles reality or not.

A particularly striking example of this is the saluting of Ronald Reagan by Republican presidential candidates. As many commentators, including conservative ones, have pointed out, Reagan would have choked on some of the economic and social policies that have become Republican orthodoxy.

Reagan was conservative, of course, but he was no ideologue, and to ask a dead president who raised taxes 11 times to bless a rigid “no new taxes” pledge today is an act of misremembering that borders on blasphemy.

Getting Reagan wrong is plain, straightforward misremembering. It can be debunked simply by pointing to incontrovertible facts: He raised taxes — many times.

There’s another kind of misremembering that’s subtler, but no less insidious.

As I grew up, I learned that America sets the standard for mobility; everyone can move up the social and economic ladder. Unlike countries with ancient class divisions or planned economies, ours was a nation in which barriers to improvement of one’s status were not built into the system. The American dream was not a fantasy.

This isn’t a gross misremembering of history. But it is misremembered when credit for the mobility is given exclusively, or even mostly, to the spunk and drive of the individual. When misremembered in this way, the reality of mobility gets twisted into a call for deregulation, starving (even “drowning”) government, letting the unfettered market have full sway.

Properly remembered, America’s deserved reputation for mobility is credited not only to our work ethic and sense of optimism, but — and just as important — to social and economic policies that undergirded equality of opportunity, so that the playing field was level, or was at least kept free of gaping crevasses and unscalable bluffs.

Recent studies have shown that other nations, including Canada and several in western Europe, now have more intergenerational economic mobility than we do. One way for a candidate to ignite a crowd is to accuse an opponent of wanting to make us “like Canada” or “like Denmark,” but I would like us to emulate those countries when it comes to mobility.

Of course there are many reasons for this loss of a key feature of American exceptionalism, but rising inequality is widely acknowledged, even by some conservative economists, to play a big role. When wages for the middle class stagnate or even decline while the incomes of the top 1 percent grow at a furious pace, deep crevasses and steep bluffs block movement.

Americans stuck in place, who hear narratives from their parents about moving up, think it’s a fairy tale. And then some candidates, misremembering history as though it were a story simply of gutsy individuals, tell these people stuck in place that they’re losers.

In a recent Time cover story Warren Buffett, not exactly a poster child for socialism, highlights the problem of inequality, which he calls bad for the economy and for his companies. He says that Washington needs to “stop coddling the superrich.” “People who make withdrawals from societies’ resources — like me with my plane — should have to pay a lot for it.” And Buffett challenges a cornerstone of conservative ideology: “I find the argument that we need lower taxes to create more jobs mystifying, because we’ve had the lowest taxes in this decade and about the worst job creation ever.”

Buffett’s view of capitalism (if anybody speaks with authority on the subject, he does!) is grounded in history remembered correctly: Resources are common, they belong to us all. Recognition of this fact is a start toward restoring America’s claim to being the land of opportunity.