That Embedded Myth

Some things are lost in time, but persist in the American imagination, those Horatio Alger stories – those late nineteenth-century tales of impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. No one reads those now. They’re out of print, but they became myth – and the myth was about attaining the American Dream – the rags to riches story. All you need is hard work, determination, courage and honesty. Honesty is very important. Liars and cheaters always lose in those books. Just work hard. You’ll be fine.

That myth persists. At the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, Herman Cain said of the protesters – “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Those Occupy Wall Street protesters should “go home and get a job and a life.”

Cain thought that was obvious. Anyone can get rich. Get off the street and get a job. Hard work will get you to the top. He knew. Cain saw himself as a sort of Horatio Alger character. He made it all on his own, on the basis of hard work, determination, courage and honesty – from a minor computer guy at Pillsbury to running their Burger King operations, to Pillsbury appointing him as chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. After that he became the CEO of the National Restaurant Association and fought long and hard, and successfully, to keep the wages of waiters and waitresses at a buck and a quarter an hour, because they made all their money – good money – in tips. That was as it should be.

Cain was a rags-to-riches success story – and then he ran for president. The sexual harassment allegations did him in – or all the interviews where he couldn’t keep the details of the issues straight, and hadn’t even heard of some of the issues. It seems those Horatio Alger virtues are non-transferrable. He finally suspended his campaign and endorsed Mitt Romney.

That was okay. The Republican Party is the party of Horatio Alger. That seems to be the central myth for them – a fanciful story that frames a concept – that illustrates it. It’s not true, precisely, or at all, but the concept is as true as true can be, and Mitt Romney worked the myth. He was a self-made man. He created Bain Capital all on his own – even if his father had amassed a fortune as president of American Motors, and had served several terms as Governor of Michigan, and young Mitt over all the years had come to know all the right people, the important people, and everyone in the family was awash in money. That didn’t matter. His success was his own, and that led to that forty-seven percent comment:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…

Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect… so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful.

What happens in a room full of wealthy donors doesn’t stay in a room full of wealthy donors. You don’t call nearly half the country morally inadequate slugs, but he was taking about Americans who had no sense of personal responsibility, who expected their government to do things for them with the tax money it collected from everyone else – money the good people had paid to the government. That money was for other things. These people should get off their lazy fat asses and make something of their sad little grubbing lives. They should take responsibility for those basically immoral lives. These people had not read the Horatio Alger books.

His point was strategic. He had decided to write off these people. These morally inadequate people were going to vote for Obama anyway. His plan was to win the votes of everyone else, the good people, and he really wasn’t trying to be insulting. He was explaining how he’d make the most of his donors’ money, how he would use it efficiently. They were sitting right there in front of him. This was for them. He was just explaining his general plan to win the presidency to those who would finance it – but when the video of his comments went public, even with the shaky images and bad sound, people were insulted. They had thought they were good people, struggling hard to just get by, and thus actually chock full of personal responsibility. Who the hell was this guy? He was a rich and powerful jerk from a rich and powerful family. What did he know about personal responsibility?

But this was about the myth. There are the Makers and the Takers. There’s the Horatio Alger character and the whining brat in the corner who expects the world to do things for him. The whining brat always loses. That’s how the story goes. Forget him – and forget the forty-seven percent.

That didn’t work out for Mitt Romney, but that Horatio Alger myth in embedded in the Republican Party’s bones. Now Donald Trump is playing on it. He has his message. He’s rich, really rich, and this kid from Queens made it all on his own. He’s the ultimate self-made man – even if his father was a wildly successful real estate developer. Trump joined the firm:

One of Trump’s first projects, while he was still in college, was the revitalization of the foreclosed Swifton Village apartment complex in Cincinnati, Ohio, which his father had purchased for $5.7 million in 1962. Trump became intimately involved in the project and with a $500,000 investment, turned the 1200-unit complex with a 66 percent vacancy rate to 100 percent occupancy within two years. In 1972 the Trump Organization sold Swifton Village for $6.75 million.

The college kid, with a thirty-five million dollar trust fund, used a half a million to make whole lot more – and the rest is history. Trump would go on to wheel and deal in Manhattan, then everywhere. He became a thousand times richer than his very rich father – so that must make him a self-made man – and now he’s running for president too. But he’s not ragging on the forty-seven percent. There are other Takers. They’re the Mexicans among us, the rapists and murderers. These people come here to take our jobs and live large on our services, for free. They must be stopped. It’s the same myth, with different bad guys. Maybe it’ll work this time and Donald Trump will be our next president. Romney picked on the wrong people. Trump picked on the defenseless.

Jeb Bush wasn’t that smart:

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Wednesday that in order to grow the economy “people need to work longer hours” — a comment that the Bush campaign argues was a reference to underemployed part-time workers but which Democrats are already using to attack him.

During an interview that was live-streamed on the app Periscope, Bush made the comments to New Hampshire’s The Union Leader answering a question about his plans for tax reform.

“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.”

Already the Democratic National Committee has pounced, releasing a statement that calls his remarks “easily one of the most out-of-touch comments we’ve heard so far this cycle,” adding that Bush would not fight for the middle class as president.

The Los Angeles Times’ Kathleen Hennessey takes it from there:

A blitz of disparaging news releases and tweets followed fast. “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers,” tweeted Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Bush’s Democratic rivals.

He should have known better:

The “longer hours” remark seems quickly destined to take its place in the annals of campaign gaffes that haunt candidates for some time. It has all the required elements: It sounds terrible. It’s caught on video. The context requires multiple sentences of explanation, maybe even some economic policy jargon. And, most important, it reinforces a theme opponents already are pushing.

The most recent predecessor in this category is “you didn’t build that,” the ill-conceived clause that gave President Obama trouble for much of his 2012 reelection campaign. Obama uttered the phrase in Roanoke, Va., in July 2012, borrowing from an Elizabeth Warren riff about how the government and educators help the wealthy get to where they are. Republicans quickly cast the president as trying to give the government credit for those successes. It became the stuff of billboards, T-shirts, talk radio, bumper stickers and attack ads.

(Democrats dished it out that year too. Mitt Romney suffered through “binders full of women” and “I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me.” The latter was made into a ringtone.)

That Bush’s statement is essentially accurate may not do much to stem the tide of trouble.

And now there is trouble:

Whether you believe Bush’s 4% target is realistic or not, the thrust of his argument about employment isn’t terribly controversial. Economists generally believe that addressing the number of people who work part-time but want to work full-time would increase economic growth. Roughly 6.5 million fit into that category.

“They are earning $30,000 less than those who are fully employed and they are falling behind,” Bush said in a blog post Thursday as he tried to contain the damage. “In New Hampshire this week, I talked about these struggling Americans who deserve the opportunity to work, who understand the value of work and who want to achieve earned success for their families.”

He then took a shot at Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton made it clear she disagrees with me. She thinks the economy is doing just fine. She thinks American workers are doing just fine. I’m not surprised. Hillary Clinton’s economic agenda can be summarized easily: Whatever Obama is doing, let’s double down on it.”

Oh SNAP! Or something, but Keven Drum offers this:

Lots of people are mocking Bush for suggesting that Americans don’t work long enough hours. But aside from being tone-deaf, he didn’t really say anything wrong here. Economic growth is the product of hours worked and productivity growth, so he got that right. It’s true that Bush’s use of “productivity” in the third sentence is a bit confusing because he’s suddenly using it in its generic sense, not its formal economic sense, but that’s no more than the slight clumsiness that’s inevitable in live settings.

In any case, an aide later explained that when Bush talked about longer hours, he was referring to the underemployed and part-time workers, not suggesting that Americans in general needed to work more weekends. That’s fine. No one has a problem with that. The real issue here is different: Bush is once again merely stating economic platitudes. He wants 4 percent growth. Of course he does. Everyone wants that. He then repeats himself: he wants higher productivity and he wants the underemployed to work more hours. It’s like saying his goal is to lose weight, and then “explaining” that this means more exercise and fewer calories. No kidding. But what’s the plan for making it happen? That’s what we’re interested in.

Times’ Philip Elliott says it’s more than that:

The comment comes the week after Bush released tax returns that show he made almost $29 million between 2007, when he left the Governor’s office, and 2013. Coming from the son of one President and brother to another, the remark instantly gave Democrats a chance to paint him as an out-of-touch elitist. … John Podesta also weighed in: “Americans are working pretty hard already & don’t need to work longer hours – they need to get paid more.”

In fact, a study released this year from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found worker productivity rose 74% between 1973 and 2013, while wages were only up 9%. In other words, Americans were indeed doing more work with scant increase to their compensation. And among the top earners – the 1% – incomes were up 138% since 1980, while the bottom 90% of workers saw wages rise just 15%.

Someone might have mentioned that to Jeb:

Bush tried to clean up his mess later in the day, telling reporters he was talking about the need for Americans to find full-time work, not part-time jobs. “You can take it out of context all you want, but high-sustained growth means that people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success, they have money, disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than getting in line and being dependent on government,” Bush told reporters.

Bush later tweeted: “Anyone who discounts 6.5 million people stuck in part-time work & seeking full-time jobs hasn’t listened to working Americans.”

Democrats and Republicans alike were skeptical about Bush’s explanation that he was talking about Americans with part-time jobs. “I don’t buy it,” a senior adviser to a Republican rival said. “Give me a break,” another said.

This was a major gaffe:

“Jeb Bush’s economic plan seems to be demanding middle class Americans work longer, while refusing to do anything to actually help the middle class get ahead,” Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Holly Shulman said Thursday. “Raising the minimum wage? Nope. Ensuring women are paid equally for the long hours they work already? No comment. Repealing quality, affordable health care? Sure. I wonder how much harder Jeb Bush wants Americans to work – 47% more?”

The Horatio Alger myth bit the Republicans in the ass again, and Salon’s Joan Walsh piles on:

Back in March, of course, Bush came out against the federal minimum wage talking to a South Carolina group. “We need to leave it to the private sector,” he told the audience. “I think state minimum wages are fine. The federal government shouldn’t be doing this.”

And he’s on record saying the Social Security retirement age needs to be raised to 70. “We need to look over the horizon and begin to phase in over an extended period of time going from 65 to 68 or 70,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last month. “And that by itself will help sustain the retirement system for anybody under the age of 40.”

Sadly, Bush seems not to know that the retirement age has already been raised from 65 to 68 under the deal struck by Ronald Reagan in 1983. In remarks last month, he also seemed to back his brother’s failed push to at least partially privatize Social Security.

Finally, on the same day as his “work longer hours” comment, Bush dismissed the debt-free college plan unveiled by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as an example of Democrats providing “more free stuff.”

This is what it is:

Seriously, here’s what we know: either Jeb Bush is a stone cold plutocrat who wants workers to labor for longer hours, with no federal minimum wage, and not retire until 70 – or later, if their privatized Social Security accounts go down in another stock market crash. Or else he’s a terrible politician who says those things but doesn’t mean them. We’ll see if the Bush approach brings in the white working class voters who were cool to Mitt Romney.

Matthew Pulver is a bit harsher:

It’s possible that you can forgive Jeb Bush for not knowing about regular people, when in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader on Wednesday, he demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation for how hard Americans work – and for how little. Perhaps you can also forgive him for not recognizing that, in fact, Americans work more than their counterparts in other industrialized countries – that we get less vacation time, less maternity leave, and retire later than most anyone else, and that that trend is only intensifying. He’s from a family of millionaires, after all, whose parents were the millionaire children of yet other millionaires before them. It’s an unfortunate reality that the elite who enjoy that sort of privilege simply don’t have the means to understand the lives of those above whom they reside in luxury.

This is a structural problem:

It’s nearly impossible to shed your elite wealth and power, so you might forgive Bush for doing right by his powerful family to maintain it. He’s a good son, grandson and brother. So perhaps you can think of him more like a prince than a former governor: Princes perform their princely duties to uphold the family’s prestige. That’s just the way it goes. (Forgiveness doesn’t preclude wanting a confiscatory estate tax to halt the aristocratic trend, however.)

But what shouldn’t be forgiven is when someone like Jeb Bush, entirely ignorant of how the rest of us live, seeks to tell us what we’re doing wrong; when he blames us, indicts us and thereby makes demands. And what’s most egregious is when it’s in the service of his fellow elites, when telling us to work even harder and longer is precisely what fills the pockets of his wealthy friends and supporters. It shifts the blame from the banks and the job off-shorers onto everyone else, and then presents the solution as something that hurts us more and pads the profits of those very same culprits.

“We have to be a lot more productive,” said Bush to the Union Leader’s editorial board on Wednesday, somehow unaware of how U.S. worker productivity has risen some 80 percent since the 1970s, or that we’re actually the most productive workforce in the world, yet with little in the way of commensurate wage and salary increases since the time his father joined President Reagan in the White House in 1980.

And this is kind of obvious:

“People need to work longer hours,” Bush proposed. “That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut.”

Oh, is it, Jeb? I seem to remember a Wall Street crisis in the last year of your brother’s tenure, and millions of people losing their jobs because of it, but I don’t remember any sort of “productivity crisis” or “laziness crisis” on our end. I saw a crisis of financial capitalism in which the capitalists wrecked the ship and we lost our jobs. We didn’t abandon them. We’ve been taking care of our end of the bargain, us workers. It’s your lot that’s dropping the ball. …

You don’t know why Americans are kept working 30 hours per week? How can you not know that? They don’t choose to work less, it’s that their employers (you know, your buddies) have weekly thresholds that determine full-time work, and full-time work means that the company must provide benefits in addition to wages. The Affordable Care Act mandates that large employers are liable for employee healthcare for workers putting in more than 30 hours per week on average. That’s why Americans are kept under thirty hours. …

A dynastic front-runner of the GOP, swimming in millions and millions in corporate and Wall Street elite donations and literally swimming at his vacation estate, tells us that we’re the problem, that we’re living too easy. He does know that we’re the ones who hire him, right?

But that’s not what he meant at all, he says now. This is Mitt Romney territory. Perhaps Jeb Bush should have picked on the Mexicans – but his wife is Mexican. Drat. This myth of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty, and utter self-reliance, with no help from anyone at all, is killing these guys. But that’s how multimillionaires think. Each one of them is a Horatio Alger hero. There was no such person.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to That Embedded Myth

  1. Rick says:

    I remember, years ago, I would read some of those old Horatio Alger books about New York newsboys and whatnot, partly because my dad used to like them when he was a kid, but mostly because I was a history buff and the stories had vivid depictions of real-life New York City people and places back in the late 1800s, written by someone who lived there at the time.

    And while I realize it’s a natural thing for Republicans to idolize Alger, did they ever think twice about why this guy had such intense interest in young boys? One answer is found in Alger’s Wikipedia article, which talks about his early career as a Unitarian pastor in Massachusetts:

    Early in 1866 a church committee of men was formed to investigate sexual misconduct reports about Alger. Church officials reported to the hierarchy in Boston that Alger had been charged with “the crime of…unnatural familiarity with boys”. Alger denied nothing, admitted he had been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved, and left town. Alger sent Unitarian officials in Boston a letter of remorse, and his father assured them his son would never seek another post in the church. Officials were satisfied and decided no further action would be taken. …

    Alger relocated to New York City, abandoned forever any thought of a career in the church, and focused instead on his writing. He wrote “Friar Anselmo” at this time, a poem that tells of a sinning cleric’s atonement through good deeds. He became interested in the welfare of the thousands of vagrant children who flooded New York City following the Civil War.

    But yes, I do find it natural that all these rich Republicans would seemingly self-identify with Horatio Alger’s boy heroes, although few of them, especially the bigger-name ones, fit the rags part of the rags-to-riches profile, with more of them falling into former football coach Barry Switzer’s description, later famously borrowed by Ann Richards while referencing Jeb’s dad: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.

    And now, we have a good example of that from the son:

    Finally, on the same day as his “work longer hours” comment, Bush dismissed the debt-free college plan unveiled by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as an example of Democrats providing “more free stuff.”

    I tried and failed to discover whether Jeb had paid out of his own earnings for (or even took out a college loan for) his own University of Texas education, or whether, as I suspect, his parents did, as is quite common in families that can afford it. Still, many if not most American families can’t afford it, and so it seems a bit Let-Them-Eat-Cakey of candidate-for-president Jeb Bush to look right at those struggling to pay off student loans and not even come close to grasping their problem, but moreover, to begrudge them getting so-called “free stuff” — which is what he himself probably got, courtesy of his well-to-do parents.

    (Full disclosure: My parents paid for my first year of college, but while they could very well afford to have covered the rest, I insisted on paying my own way, partly from what I earned working in the school dining hall and mail room, and partly from a series of New York State college loans.)

    But while I certainly am not in danger of voting for Jeb Bush, I also cannot join the chorus of Democrats doing a version of “You Didn’t Build That” with his comments about productivity. One very big reason I won’t ever be a Republican is because they do shit like that, which was a huge “gotcha” about something they either knew wasn’t true, or were so stupid that they didn’t even know it wasn’t true.

    So when Jeb said this …

    … we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.

    I think he intended to say we need to allow those millions of people working part-time to work those longer hours, which is what they want to do anyway.

    But while I can forgive him his good intentions, the truth is he needs to examine this problem more closely, and he might start by going back in history, to something someone (who was probably not one of his favorite presidents) once said:

    “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

    And here’s another good one from FDR back then that has echos today:

    “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you … that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

    Okay, yes, the minimum-wage demands these days are closer to $11 per hour, but also today, the “calamity-howling” CEO is making more like $40,230 a day! (That’s based on an average $10.5 million per year in 2013, divided by the number of weekdays in a year.)

    The problem back then was very similar to the one we have today, which is how few of us, especially Republicans, understand the need that everybody who works has to be paid enough to live, and if they’re not, it causes problems for all of us. Remember that most people on public assistance have jobs, as do most people on food stamps, and the reason they have to take money from the rest of us is only partly because they don’t get to work as many hours as they’d like, but more than that, it’s that their employers don’t pay them a high enough hourly wage to keep them alive!

    And to keep those workers’ families from starving to death, someone has to make up the difference — and that someone is you and me! So don’t blame the victims because their employers, rather than dig into the trillions of reserves they’ve been sitting on for years, would rather not pay them enough to buy food and pay the rent.


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