• As ambitious as you want to be, not as ambitious as you have to be

    Sorry. I have to post this again:

    I was watching the Republican convention last night, and I was struck by how every single person speaking claimed to have come from nothing. Do no politicians ever come from the middle or upper class? Everyone struggled, everyone had hard times. The Romney’s ate a lot of tuna and pasta, and had a desk that was a door on two sawhorses. Paul Ryan waited tables, washed dishes, and mowed lawns. You’d never know that both came from prominent families with many connections.

    This struck me because I’m just as guilty of this practice. When my kids complain about not getting one thing or another, I often fall back on the old “I had it so much worse when I was a kid” routine. When my oldest complains about his friends going to Europe, I tell him how I didn’t even get on my first plane until I was in fifth grade. When my middle child complains about the temperature in the house, I tell him we didn’t even have central air when I was growing up. When my youngest complains about not having a TV in the car, I tell her about the unbelievable lemons my parents drove when I was a kid.

    Yes, my children have it much better than I did when I was their age. My dad made a shockingly little amount of money as a resident and a fellow. But… come on. I went to private school for twelve years before spending an embarrassingly large amount of money on college and medical school. I lived in moderate to large houses in nice suburban neighborhoods. I didn’t drive a Mercedes when I turned 16, but we did have a vehicle that was considered “mine”.

    I was never hungry. I never worried that the power might go off. I had an unlimited supply of books. And I had a safety net in the form of family that was inviolable.

    It’s tempting to try and make every tale into a hard luck one. We all want to believe we came from meager beginnings to where we are today. It’s the American Dream. It’s a story that sells.

    There sometimes seems to be a lack of perspective out there. We all like to think we built what we have from nothing without recognizing that “nothing” isn’t even in many of our vocabularies. I think of this when I write about doctors complaining about “making ends meet“. I think about this when I read stories about how people in Manhattan complain about living on half a million dollars. I think about this when I read stories of people making $200,000 complaining about how hard it is.

    And I think about it – and feel guilty – when I see myself saying similar things to my children.

    I think we’d all do better, myself included, if we recognized how good we actually had it. We’d be more honest if we recognized that being worse off is relative, and that there are many for whom “struggling” has actual meaning. I think we’d do better by the next generation by teaching them that safety nets – in all forms – have value, even if they only provide you the safety and love to give you the space to better yourself.

    I also think that we would do better by paying the debt of that safety net forward instead of imagining that it’s making people complacent. It didn’t do that for us.

    Some of us are as ambitious as we’d like to be. That’s not the same as being as ambitious as you have to be. There’s a difference.


    Guess I wasn’t the only one who felt this way:


    • I agree with what you say but I also think it is impossible to subsidize the middle class and so the safety net should be for the poor only. SS, medicare and Government education look like attempts by politicians to fool the middle class and rich into thinking that they are getting something for nothing but the middle class and rich pay the full price (every dollar!).

      Also there are incentive effects, like huge marginal taxes on the poor that we could easily avoid and so should. We should also acknowledge that we subside single motherhood, unemployment and family breakup to much and so always be on the look out for better solutions. One improvement might be to abandon the current welfare programs and replace them with a wage subsidy. We could also start to charge the everyone above median income the full direct cost of education their children if they choose to put them in Government schools.

      • I’d be more sympathetic to this line of argument if people weren’t going after Medicaid harder than anything else. There’s no way to argue that Medicaid isn’t for the poor, or that it isn’t more than a safety net. But it gets lumped in there with everything else.

        • They are going after medicaid because the middle class and rich do not like to subsidize the poor, and yet they like get subsidies themselves which is just ignorance them being fooled by the politicians. It is the median vote that is the problem. The most important arguments are between ignorance and knowledge.

          I am with you do more for medicaid and less for medicare. I think that all Federal Government employee’s healthcare and all medicare should be through the medicaid.

    • From listening to the speeches you would never know that one candidate had a father who ran a car company and was a governor. Wealth and political connections, yet somehow, he just made it to the top on his own. Still, this is standard politics. The public image of the candidates is carefully groomed. Surprising how many people buy into it.


    • Why do you believe the “safety net” that comes from the government is somehow the equal to the “safety net”, frankly, the “spring board”, that apparently was the result of your parents’ efforts?

      You state: “I was never hungry. I never worried that the power might go off. I had an unlimited supply of books. And I had a safety net in the form of family that was invioable.”

      I share some aspects of your upbringing – with a firefighter father who died in the 1960’s when I was 17, and a mostly-stay -at-home mom of five (stay-at-home until my father died). My upbringing included 10 (not 12 years) of private school; while each of my four siblings did have 12 years of private school.

      You then stretch the efforts of your parents, including the taxes they paid in support of others while sending you to private school, as somehow creating for you and for me and others a “debt of that safety net”, something we should pay ” forward instead of imagining that it’s making people complacent.” That ” It didn’t do that for us.”

      But can you not see the difference? Your safety net (and mine) was not Medicaid. Your safety net was not SNAP. Your safety net was not Welfare. And that is the difference here. Some simply fail to see the government’s safety net as developing a cycle of dependency – a cycle you never fell into, and, despite the death of my father when my two younger brothers were ages 14 and 5, a cycle my mom never entered.

      President Obama would have you believe that your father and mother (and my parents too) “didn’t build” the successful family we each experienced. Success here measured perhaps not in financial terms, but successful nonetheless. He would argue that the success was not from their hard work and sacrifice, all the while contributing to society just as much as the next family – that your (and mine) success was not, in large part, from your parent’s hard work; or, as it was for me, watching my older siblings try, fail, succeed, over and over, setting a wonderful example.

      Your story, and mine, is not one of “hard luck” – and that was probably not the message intended or delivered – although frankly, all I know of the convention was what I read in the papers and the news shows. Instead, the message was one of personal striving to improve.

      This is not “hard luck” – but yes, it is a story of how many of us came from meager beginnings – compared to others of our generation, and certainly compared to the wealth (financial, spiritual and otherwise) that we have bestowed on our own children. It is the American Dream – and for you and for me it is real. I never feel guilty about my success, that of my siblings, that of my children, when I go to Ellis Island and look at my mom and my grandmother’s names on the wall of fame, and remember that they showed up here with a bag of clothes in 1924. I had it good, no really, I had it great. It wasn’t hard luck, it was good luck, good fortune that they took those risks to come here. No there wasn’t money and fine clothes nor even a used car other than the one my parents drove, and yes I wore my older brother’s used clothes, and got the hand me downs of baseball gloves, used books and other stuff. Yes, when I got the call, I served a couple of years “wearing the green”.

      But, “hard luck” – never. Great good fortune to be here. But, while I pay my more than “fair” share of taxes, participate in the process and vote, I do not owe some greater duty to a government safety net that I built with my tax dollars (versus those who are net recipients of tax dollars).

      I can make this statement because I will be a net taxpayer – I will never recover the value of the taxes I paid to support Medicare and Social Security. I will never recover the taxes I paid to support the safety net. My good fortune includes, so far, good health – such that, despite the fact that I am in my 60’s, I plan to be funding the “safety net” for decades to come.

    • I think the defining difference in this debate is captured in these two statements:

      1 Most poor people are in poverty because they make bad decisions, don’t work hard enough, and expect others to take care of them.

      2. Most poor people are in poverty because the cards are stacked against them due to inequities in or system or because they simply experienced bad luck.

      Obviously, neither is completely true. But if your belief system tends strongly to the first, then government safety nets make things worse, not better.

      I think the evidence is pretty strong that (2) is closer to the truth, but many people have shockingly incorrect ideas about how today’s safety net programs work and who benefits from them.

      I get especially cranky when I hear “keep benefits for Seniors intact” and “slash Medicaid” from the same person. An awful lot of Seniors will find themselves on Medicaid after an extended nursing home stay.