Tag Archives: society

Is Economic Mobility Destined to be a Zero Sum Game?

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury


In the New York Times, Richard V. Reeves is smacking sacred cows, positing that there is no way for everyone to win in our society. Writing on “The Glass-Floor Problem,” Reeves looks at mobility and “sticky floors,” noting:

It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.

Even the most liberal parents are unlikely to be comfortable with the idea that their own children should fall down the scale in the name of making room for a smarter kid from a poorer home. They invest large amounts of economic, social and cultural capital to keep their own children high up the social scale. As they should: there is nothing wrong with parents doing the best by their children.

The problem comes if institutional frameworks in, say, the higher education system or the labor market are distorted in favor of the powerful — a process the sociologist Charles Tilly labeled “opportunity hoarding.” The less talented children of the affluent are able to defy social gravity and remain at the top of the ladder, reducing the number of places open to those from less fortunate backgrounds.

Many New York Times commenters rejected this framework entirely – the idea that someone else has to lose for another to win was too unsettling to consider. And yet, when we compete in an economy of “elites” and there are limited spots available for the most desired schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, that is exactly what has to happen. However, what interested me more than Reeves’s initial argument was a large piece of his solution: access to more elite colleges.

College matters a lot for social mobility. For someone from a poor background, getting a four-year degree virtually guarantees upward mobility. Elite colleges act as gateways to the best career paths. Getting more poor kids into colleges, and getting the brightest into the best colleges, ought to be a national mission.

In essence, Reeves wants to solve a problem by reinforcing the foundation of the problem. Continue reading

The People You Meet When You Write About Race

by Guest Contributor Crommunist, originally published at The Crommunist Manifesto

Racism Bingo

This post was inspired by Pervocracy’s “The People You Meet When You Write About Rape.”

Mr. History

    “Black people were enslaved like a million years ago. They’ve had enough time to get their act together, but they’re still whining about their problems. I don’t want to hear about transgenerational wealth gaps and discriminatory hiring practices! Their problem is that they’re lazy! Case closed!”

Ms. Kumbayah

    “We need to recognize that everyone is just the exact same on the inside. Why do we bother using labels like “black” and “white” anyway? Even though the way society treats people falls along racial lines to the detriment of some and benefit of others, we should ignore that! Aren’t we all just members of the human race?”

Mr. Hear No Evil

    “It’s people like you that are the real racists! Most people don’t think twice about someone else’s race! Talking about race is what makes racism happen, not entrenched ideas that won’t change unless they’re discussed!”

Ms. Myopia

    “I’m a black person, and I haven’t ever felt mistreated because of it. Therefore, nobody else has any business complaining about racism – I’m living proof that it doesn’t exist!”

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Quoted: Holly on Interpretation of Culture


OK, I have a bunch of stuff I want to say about the infamous Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” that gives this post its title. And it is infamous ― it’s one of those sayings that has spread throughout the English-speaking world as a way of characterizing Japanese culture. I’m curious about your partner’s interpretation, and what I understood him to mean was that if any of those Asian-American kids were to try to survive socially alone, they would be like a lone nail standing out, a target for the hammer of white privilege without support of other “nails.” In a group, they’re safer ― maybe not from the hammer, but at least maybe it’s harder to get bashed down when you are amidst support and those like you.

That’s actually a nice and positive spin on that saying ― valuable, even, in that you were help to connect it with the need for community support from people of shared experience, and share your thoughts in this post. At the same time… it’s very radically different from my own experience of that saying, which (in English) has been used for decades to other (and denigrate, subtly) Japan as a culture of conformity and group-think where being different or special is punished. If you google “the nail that sticks up” you will see plenty of examples of English-speaking “discussion about Japan” that basically amount to that. Most of the people that talk about this saying are not Japanese ― most of them are probably white. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a whole discourse about this “emblematic, characteristic of Japan” proverb that’s been foisted on Japan, in addition to and separate from what it actually originally meant. I understand that your partner had a different spin (and I actually kind of like it) but for personal as well as political reasons ― since this “saying” and associated ideas had a big impact on me culturally, racially, individaully ― I feel like it’s important to acknowledge those bigger contexts and history.

So, it’s a complicated subject and I decided to call an expert ― my mother, who has written on the topic in both languages and never gets tired of railing against American scholars and journalists who can’t stop essentializing Japan and using it as a bizzare opposite mirror to rationalize the Way That America Is. I talked to her for about an hour just now, as a sanity check because I know too many different, conflicting things about this saying. But she basically summed it up: “Japan ‘experts’ here use it to say that Japan is a conformist society, unlike America which is all about individualism and merit.”

What too many American ‘experts’ think this means
: Don’t be different. Conform to the ways of the group, don’t stick out. Otherwise you will be crushed, and rightfully so. This is the way of Japanese society.

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