Monday, November 03, 2008

Dream Inversion: the Trickle Up Effects

The rags-to-riches story—that staple of American biography—has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success. “New York merchants preferred to hire country boys, on the theory that they worked harder, and were more resolute, obedient, and cheerful than native New Yorkers,” Irvin G. Wyllie wrote in his 1954 study “The Self-Made Man in America.” Andrew Carnegie, whose personal history was the defining self-made-man narrative of the nineteenth century, insisted that there was an advantage to being “cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty.” According to Carnegie, “It is not from the sons of the millionaire or the noble that the world receives its teachers, its martyrs, its inventors, its statesmen, its poets, or even its men of affairs. It is from the cottage of the poor that all these spring.”

Today, that interpretation has been reversed. Success is seen as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage. The mechanisms of social mobility—scholarships, affirmative action, housing vouchers, Head Start—all involve attempts to convert the poor from chronic outsiders to insiders, to rescue them from what is assumed to be a hopeless state. Nowadays, we don’t learn from poverty, we escape from poverty...

Malcolm Gladwell on Goldman Sachs.

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