A tale of two ladders, the “right” one and the broken one.


The books being reviewed:

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton University Press)

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf)

The key point to me is this single sentence: “They can’t get beyond wanting to get people on the good ladder, and not dismantle the system of two ladders.”

To Be Studied, or Pitied? Two books try to understand the other America, 
and stumble along the way, by Chris Arnade (The American Prospect)

It is easy to get lost in the frustration of navigating a demanding career as a well-educated professional. The absurd cost of college, the low-paying internships and adjunct positions that have to be navigated, and the out-of-reach real estate prices in the few neighborhoods close to those jobs can erase any thoughts of privilege.

For much of America these problems are luxuries, because they come with expectations of something better, and a feeling that someone will listen to you. You might be on the lowest rung of a ladder, but you are on the “right” ladder, and with enough hard work and enough complaining, you can move higher or change things.

Go outside the handful of neighborhoods where professionals cluster, and their problems will immediately seem small. Go to Gary, Indiana, and see street after street of boarded-up homes, abandoned after factories closed. Those who couldn’t leave, almost all black, now live in perpetual decline. Go to Wheeling, West Virginia, and see empty lots of discarded needles, thrown away by people numbing their pain.

In these communities, people are not on the right ladder. Hard work isn’t going to move them higher. Their complaints won’t be published in a New York Times op-ed, and won’t generate thoughtful discussion. Instead they will often be dismissed as the lazy, dumb, racist, or angry ramblings of someone who doesn’t know their place.


While a good job is essential and a more robust health care and social safety net helpful, large parts of America have lost a sense of stability and purpose. The ladder they are on has one rung. That rung is shaky, and they know it. Their parents used to climb that ladder, moving from part-time jobs in high school to a factory job that enabled them to buy a home, marry their sweetheart, build a family, go to church, join a softball league, and then watch their children and grandchildren do the same thing. That ladder didn’t require college. It didn’t require getting into a résumé arms race with your neighbor, and certainly not a bunch of people 8,000 miles away.

Now that ladder is broken, and the people who left town, who went off to Princeton or Yale, climb a ladder that goes into the stratosphere. Many of them look down at the people they left behind and sneer, or laugh, or express pity, if they bother to look down at all. It is humiliating and strips people of their dignity.

A windfall of targeted programs and expanded empowerment zones and a greater social safety net, while helpful, won’t solve this problem. The two ladders are the problem. People who are on the “bad” ladder are not there only because they didn’t have the right opportunities. Many of them didn’t want to go to college. It’s not their thing, it isn’t what they value. They have different priorities, ones that put a premium on faith, place, and family.

Understanding that is hard when you are in academia.


Despite this hard work and genuine empathy, the authors can’t break out of their worldview. They can’t get beyond wanting to get people on the good ladder, and not dismantle the system of two ladders. They don’t emphasize devaluing the meritocracy, as Case and Deaton do, but rather take on the easier feel-good task of figuring out how to get talented young people on their preferred path. Or to use their metaphor, have access to the escalator, so they can escape.