October 17, 2012 @ 9:40 pm
This post intrigued me, because my own family bottomed out when my dad's grandfather brought his young family back home to KY from a failed Midwest land rush and spent the rest of his life there, trying to farm with a bum leg. Nobody seems to know how he got injured, exactly. But it's been four generations of steady, workaholic upward progress. My grandfather was a coal miner just long enough to save up for his own farm (and get black lung). My dad, one of nine surviving children, buffered from the volatility of crop prices by my mom's teaching job, is an out-of-debt farmer. And at the moment, I'm solidly middle class, tottering along the tenure track, tossing the football back and forth between the fruit trees in the yard with my son. But I've been very lucky.
According to Wikipedia, my favorite Benjamin Franklin quote was actually by John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail in 1780:
"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.
Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture
in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
Even the Founding Fathers, who were pretty bright, thought that transformation would take at least three generations. I'm not dumb, but even without a war, after four generations I'm still mostly working on that second line.
Here's Gregory Clark's website, where I'll be digging into his papers eventually. Intuitively, this story makes perfect sense to me for one reason. At the same time that my family was trying to get ahead, so was every other family. The differences in intelligence or work ethic that we as a society make so much of personally in CEO memoirs and politically during elections are really not that big. So yes, our absolute material conditions have changed a lot, but so have everyone else's, so our relative social status is not all that different.