Jonathan Mijs, an assistant professorial research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, recently published a paper documenting that in societies with high rates of income inequality, people are more likely to believe success is a result of individual hard work and effort than those living in societies with a more equal distribution of financial resources.
That may sound counterintuitive. But as inequality increases, people are less likely to meet and mix with people outside their cohort. “Money becomes more than a figure on a person’s bank account; it defines where people live, work, who their friends are and with whom they form a family,” Mijs tells me. “From their increasingly insular social circles, the world looks more equal and more meritocratic than it really is. When your friends, neighbors and colleagues share the same set of privileges or disadvantages, you no longer notice the structural forces holding you back or pushing you ahead.”
That’s almost certainly true in the United States, where more and more people are likely to live among those who earn what they do, whether they are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or collecting a trust fund check, and there are more people attending Yale University from families in the top 1 percent in income than those at the 60th percentile and below. It’s not surprising that one of Ivanka Trump’s friends, before the 2016 election, was one Chelsea Clinton.
But there’s another piece, too. In times of inequality, self-help tracts and lectures take on outsize importance. This is not unique to our era. The first Gilded Age was also a hotbed of self-improvement literature and movements. Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was published during the Great Depression. In our time, Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper has found that financially troubled families in Silicon Valley all but denied the reality of increasing income inequality on their lives, blaming credit-card debt on extravagant spending, which they defined as including (much to Cooper’s shock) groceries and repeating self-help gobbledygook.
This is how most originally discovered Donald Trump — not through reporting on his real estate and other business exploits, almost all of which were initially enabled by his multimillionaire father, but as the man who could get things done. This tale was sold to credulous Americans by Trump’s first autobiography “The Art of the Deal” and in subsequent books, by the tabloid press, by “The Apprentice” and, finally, by such Trump scams as Trump University. These various outlets combined to allow Trump to portray himself as a self-made man. The result: According to researchers at the University of Maryland, about half of voters were not aware that Trump’s father was a multimillion-dollar real estate developer.
Ivanka Trump is right about one basic thing: Most of us would prefer to live in a country where we get a fair chance to get ahead on our merits. That’s why we read books and consume podcasts telling us how we can do just that. But that country is increasingly not the United States, where Ivanka Trump, born to almost any other family, would more likely have been given the opportunity to sell a clothing line as a sales clerk behind a counter, not as celebrity with her own brand — and where her father is showering tax cuts on the wealthy, while taking the rest of us for chumps. Pity she can’t acknowledge that.