December 12, 2013

Holiday Wish Lists: Mine vs. President Obama’s

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Recently, in a speech to the nation, President Obama put me to shame sociologically. I know that Michelle Obama has a BA in sociology and that the President once worked as a community organizer—a job that is often filled by sociology graduates. But still, I live and breathe sociology—and of course I also teach it for a living. I like to pretend that I have the DNA of Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills coursing through my veins. How could I have let the President outdo me sociologically?

In his December 4th speech at THEARC in Washington D.C., President Obama outlined his vision for the economy.


Given the time of year, the President’s address really sounded more like a holiday wish list than a policy speech. When I compared his list of wants to mine, I could barely look myself in the mirror. The President’s list was not just sociologically informed, it was sociologically inspiring. My list, on the other hand, was mostly selfishly informed and not really inspiring. See for yourself.

Here are some of the things that I told my family I was hoping to get this holiday season (keep in mind that we adhere to a $15.00 limit per adult which is about the only sociologically mindful thing about my list):

  • Some wool cycling socks so that I can keep riding my bicycle even when the temperature dips below freezing.
  • A new scarf to replace the scratchy, homemade one that I’ve been putting up with for years.
  • A novel (such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich—which I have not read since graduate school) or a book of poetry (such as Aimless Love by Billy Collins) so I can take a break from reading sociology.
  • A box of dark chocolate raspberry bonbons from my favorite vegan chocolatier.
  • A reusable water bottle with a tight-fitting lid to replace the one that keeps leaking in my book bag.

Even with the modest spending requirement, my list is pretty self-centered. The things I want are for my hobbies and my conveniences. Like most Americans who are compiling a holiday gift list, I’m looking to acquire more consumer goods—as if I/we don’t have enough already. Sure, some of things I want are somewhat utilitarian, but they still undoubtedly revolve around my self-interests.

In contrast, consider President Obama’s wish list along with his explanation of why he wants these things:

  • A higher minimum wage so that “airport workers, fast-food workers, nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off are [not] living at or barely above poverty.”
  • More affordable higher educationso that young people are not burdened by enormous debt when they make the right decision” to attend college.
  • A renewed commitment to career and technical educationso that workers young and old can earn the new skills that earn them more money.”
  • Tougher collective bargaining lawsso unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.”
  •  Federal nondiscrimination policies in the workplaceso workers can’t be fired for who they are or who they love.”
  • High-quality preschool for every child in America because research demonstrates that these kids “grow up likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own.”

If this list were not enough to embarrass me with its sociological underpinnings, the evidence President Obama offers for these things is right out of my curriculum notes. In outlining what he hopes for, the President did not rely on unfounded political rhetoric; instead, he used statistical data and analytical points that are often invoked in Introduction to Sociology and Social Inequality courses:

  • “Since 1979, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent.”
  • “The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income -- it now takes half.”
  • “In the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.”
  • “A family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.”
  • “A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.”
  • “The painful legacy of discrimination means that African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity, higher unemployment, higher poverty rates.” 
  • “Women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.”
  • “The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race, and that gap is growing.”

The underlying point that President Obama is making in this speech is one that sociologists have long recognized: the American Dream is a myth for most and a reality for just a few. The overwhelming majority of people are more likely to stay in the social class they were born into rather than move upwards into a higher class. Today, this lack of social mobility is even greater than it was in the past—a fact that is acknowledged by even conservative publications like The Wall Street Journal. In short, instead of living in a meritocracy—where success if measured by effort, our society is more aptly characterized as a plutocracy—where success is measured by having large sums of wealth.

Although I realize this is probably not his actual holiday wish list, I’m certainly impressed and appreciative that President Obama is calling attention to these issues. The ominous (and ongoing) rise in social inequality and stagnating social mobility are not going to be fixed magically. It’s going to take some social engineering to get this country to the point of practicing what it preaches: equal opportunities for all. It’s also going to take each of us to do our part—“individuals out there, striving, working, making things happen.” So as you compile your holiday wish list this year, you may want to think about how you might make it more sociological (like President Obama’s) and less self-indulgent (like mine). 


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