Column: The Public Eye: The Death of the Triumphant Individual By Bob Burnett

Friday January 27, 2006

In a March article in The New Republic, Robert Reich wrote of four essential American stories. One of these is “the triumphant individual,” the little guy who pulls himself up by the bootstraps. Thanks to the Bush administration, that story has died for most Americans. 

Reich explained that the triumphant individual “works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. The moral: With enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States.” 

American culture has always been characterized by the optimistic belief that no matter how humble the circumstances of our birth, we could rise above them. Now, due to the policies of the Bush administration, this mythic belief has evaporated. 

At its core, the story of the triumphant individual depends on three elements: perseverance, access to education, and fair treatment. Americans believe that if they stick in there and work hard, they will eventually succeed. However, working hard is no longer enough to get ahead in America. One in four American workers—30 million—are mired in low-wage jobs that do not provide for a life with dignity. Why has this happened?  

The answer is that worker’s wages are no longer tied to productivity. In July, Jonathan Tasini wrote in, “For decades, workers’ wages were tied to productivity … Historically, increased efficiency flowed to workers in the form of higher wages.” 

Now that link has been broken. 

“Productivity has grown almost three times faster than wages since 2001,” he wrote. “During that time, 70 percent of the nation’s income growth has gone straight into corporate coffers as profits—presumably to continue to finance staggering pay and benefits for executives—a complete reversal from the previous seven business cycles when 77 percent of the overall income growth went to wages.”  

Simply stated, the heart of the American notion of productivity has been broken. When workers improve their output, this gain no longer benefits them or society in general; it goes straight to corporate profits. American productivity is no longer something we can all be proud of—it is a cruel hoax, a broken promise to Americas workers. 

The second essential element in the story of the triumphant individual is access to quality education. There is compelling research that shows that compensation is closely related to level of education. Most Americans understand this and routinely return to school to upgrade their skills. However, the Bush administration, as a side-affect of their duplicitous “no child left behind” program has denied the American educational system the resources it needs to ensure that our workers remain competitive in the world economy. During the past five years, the total funds allocated to worker training have diminished. The ancillary services that many workers need to receive, in order to take advantage of this job training, have also been cut: child care, vocational counseling, and the like. 

Finally, the president and his friends have set a dreadful example for the average citizen. The subliminal message from this administration is that one does not succeed on merit, but rather through connections—it’s not your competence that counts, but your cronies. George W. Bush was a failure as a CEO; one after another his businesses tanked—nonetheless, he was continuously bailed out by family connections. 

Dick Cheney provides another—and continuing—example of succeeding because of connections rather than competence. Michael “Brownie” Brown’s tenure as FEMA head is merely the most notorious of a series of crony appointments by the Bush White House. Recent events indicate that the administration learned nothing from the debacle following Hurricane Katrina; they continue to appoint cronies to senior governmental positions regardless of their lack of qualifications. 

The last Gallup poll on “opportunity” was conducted in January 2005. It contained a question regarding the respondent’s satisfaction with “opportunity for a person in this nation to get ahead by working hard?” Sixty-six percent were “very” or “somewhat satisfied.” 

In the same time period, The Economist reported that while Americans continue to believe that anyone can change social class through hard work, “A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.” 

The underlying ethos of the United States has always been characterized by optimism; the confidence that the myth of the triumphant individual continues. What will happen when Americans realize that they have been tricked; that the Bush administration has corrupted the American Dream? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at