Chutes, Ladders, & Progressivism

I came across this comment a while back, and I think it summarizes the experience of many of my fellow law and MBA classmates (all of whom are recent graduates or current students):

I don’t know how it was elsewhere, but the game my friends and I were sold had breezy constant ladders and shallow painless chutes. Now the ladders are falling apart or growing queues, and the chutes have proved to be sudden and devastating.

Now, on the one hand, it’s almost never rational to expect wonderful career opportunities to be awaiting one at every turn. And the graduates he’s talking about – people with sparkling resumes from the most prestigious undergrad and graduate schools – are hardly Dickens-level sympathetic protagonists. On the other hand, endless career opportunities are what many grad school admission offices are selling. And for many students and recent graduates of these institutions, six figures in debt with rapidly eroding job prospects,  the recession has been a rather traumatic experience.  This is certain to have a number of consequences, but I’ve been idly speculating that twenty to thirty years down the line, when they will be in a position to influence public policy, these individuals are likely to be more sympathetic than they might otherwise to redistributive policies. And, as it turns out, there is actually a recent academic study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that supports this idea. Here is the abstract:

Do generations growing up during recessions have different socio-economic beliefs than generations growing up in good times? We study the relationship between recessions and beliefs by matching macroeconomic shocks during early adulthood with self-reported answers from the General Social Survey. Using time and regional variations in macroeconomic conditions to identify the effect of recessions on beliefs, we show that individuals growing up during recessions tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, support more government redistribution, but are less confident in public institutions.  Moreover, we find that recessions have a long-lasting effect on individuals’ beliefs.

The full study can be found here. I think, all in all, this a healthy thing. Individualism, particularly of the type fostered by a series of meritocratic triumphs in the classroom, is a dangerous illusion. None of us can claim credit for the genes, good health, and various environmental factors that have gone into any of “our” successes. All of us were dependent upon the kindness and generosity of others for the opportunities which we were afforded. And it ill becomes us, then, to refuse assistance to the needy, whether by private or public means (when necessary). Additionally, a healthy skepticism towards public institutions is certainly preferable to a naive faith in an all-knowing technocracy.

My chief worry is that the political currents most sympathetic to exercises of public solidarity are extremely hostile to a Catholic vision of the human person.   To the extent the experience of the most serious economic downturn since the 1930’s pushes the country towards progressivism, it may push the goal of protection for unborn life further out of reach. I am not sure how to address this fear in the short-term, or the long-term, but it’s worth thinking about.

3 Responses to Chutes, Ladders, & Progressivism

  • Good point, John. I suppose the other influencing factor might be how quick and what kind of a recovery we see in the years to come.

  • After this administration I expect the political pendulum to swing strongly against anything smacking of government redistribution of wealth for a good long while. In this administration I think we will see a New Deal that is a flat failure. (It is arguable that the first New Deal was also a flat failure but such was not the opinion of a solid voting majority of the American public.)

  • I was more thinking of the different ways that economic downturns seem to have affected people. My dad’s parents were both 19 in 1929, so they had a very, very depression era mentality. Nothing was ever thrown away which might be useful, a huge emphasis on savings and paying off debt, always working extra hard and squirreling things away for the expected next crash.

    Compare that to people who weathered the 1980/1982 recession, or like me who came out of college in the post 9/11 slow-down. Maybe my co-workers and I are way a-typical, but aside from a tendency to brag back and forth over beer about layoffs that we’ve seen or experienced, seeing a couple years of rough employment doesn’t seem to have slowed anyone down much or changed their habits.

    I think the big determining factor will be: in 2015 or 2020, will people remember long years of uncertainty and hard times, and feel like they need to save all the time and avoid debt in order to be prepared for the next one, or will they talk about how they worked up from the bottom and had it as hard as everyone, but from the vantage point of having basically “caught up” within 2-3 years?

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