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Protesters hold a sign reading, Fight Poverty Not the Poor. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Breaking Free from Three Deadly Thought Traps

The assumption held by many Americans that our nation enjoys relatively equal opportunity in part reflects widespread lack of awareness of how extreme U.S. economic inequality has become.

Frances Moore Lappé

For decades I grappled with one puzzle. Why would we homo sapiens, supposedly the brightest species, be creating a world together that as individuals none of us would choose? I'll bet no one turns off the alarm in the morning and begins plotting to worsen world hunger or heat the planet.

The danger is this: We humans see our world filtered through culturally determined frames. So, we simply cannot see what does not fit within them.

Then, something clicked. I became aware of a special feature of our powerful minds. Of course, our complex brains illuminate a lot we need to know to thrive; but a special feature of human consciousness can, literally, destroy us.

The danger is this: We humans see our world filtered through culturally determined frames. So, we simply cannot see what does not fit within them.

Einstein nailed it when he declared "It is the theory which decides what we can observe." So, while we often hear the expression "seeing is believing," the opposite is true. Believing is seeing.

I'll go so far as to claim that today, Earth as we know it cannot survive unless we grasp and grapple with this human handicap. 

Here are three current and dangerous filters I call "thought traps," from which we must break free.

One: In our free-market economy, all have the opportunity to succeed; so those struggling must be losers. They just need to try harder.

Two: What threatens America's healthy economy and culture is "the other." For some, the other includes minorities and immigrants. For others, they are Trumpists or liberals.

Three: American democracy is among the best in the world. Yes, we've slipped somewhat, but our goal is to regain the status we've long deserved. 

I'll take each in order. 

About equal opportunity?  We're not doing so great: Measures of upward economic mobility are a key indicator of opportunity, and by this measure a 2016 Stanford study found that among two dozen industrial countries, we ranked 16th, just below Argentina. 

The assumption held by many Americans that our nation enjoys relatively equal opportunity in part reflects widespread lack of awareness of how extreme U.S. economic inequality has become. World Bank data reveals that income here is now more tightly concentrated than in more than 100 countries. We place between Bulgaria and Peru.

To spark necessary hope, we can spread the word that America's economy has, in the past, been much more equitable. From the 1940s to the 1970s, all income levels doubled real family income. It was only in the '80s that income started rushing to the top echelons. 

So, when we find ourselves in the middle of an argument about some version of "Americans should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps!", we might slip in news about these deep roots, perhaps softening the tendency to blame those blocked by our built-in forces generating inequity. 

One piece of evidence of barriers to advancement: While income has stagnated for most income strata, the average home price in 1950 that was about $80,000 (in today's dollars) is now over $400,000.

Once adjusting for inflation, today's average wage has no greater purchasing power it did 40 years ago. Wage gains have "mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers," reports Pew Research Center. 

The second thought trap I call "othering." 

We humans are especially vulnerable to its hazards because, of course, we'd rather not acknowledge any responsibility for other people's pain. But there's an additional aspect to this thought trap that makes it so hard to escape.

We are deeply social creatures who evolved in tribes, within which we found security, meaning, community, and a sense of agency. All that sounds positive. But, unfortunately, focusing on differences, as we engage in "othering," can feed a comforting, empowering—but dangerous—identity within a tribe. To get beyond the harms of othering, we can first recognize its not-so-subtle appeal and then help each other see that by pointing fingers we hurt ourselves: We divert our attention from the deep, system-wide rules and norms harming all of us except the super-rich. 

Even if we ourselves are doing better than the "other," a nation of extreme inequality is a much less desirable place to live than one with greater equity. Countries like Finland, Norway, and the Czech Republic rank near the top in economic equality and happiness alike, while countries like South Africa rank near the bottom in both.

Economic inequality, for example, correlates with higher crimes rates across countries. In fact, inequality correlates with a wide range of social dysfunction, from imprisonment to poor educational outcomes, according Equality Trust

In other words, othering defeats us all.

The third thought trap assumes American democracy is among the best in the world, even if, as of late, we've slipped somewhat. 

This long-held view of "American exceptionalism" doesn't hold up. Credible institutions rate the United States' democracy as of lower quality than many nations. For example, the Swedish institute V-Dem includes our country among the worst democratic "backsliders" over the last twelve years, placing us outside of the top 10% of nations in the Liberal Democracy Index. In Freedom House scoring, we do even worse, lagging behind 60 nations.

No human institution—from marriage to school to government—can improve itself without a realistic assessment of its weaknesses. So, let us spread the word. Yes, it is painful to acknowledge how far we are from our commonly held self-image. But imagine how much worse it would feel if we learned of our democracy's deficits while also believing we're the best. We'd be robbed of inspiration and practical lessons about how we can realize democracy's promise.

So, let us all work to break free from these deadly thought traps and join in growing democracy movements—especially arising among the young—intent, for example, on reversing Republican efforts that limit voting rights and fuel gerrymandering. These courageous Americans aim to remove the power of private wealth and corporate influence over our elections and governance. 

With the fate not just of our own people, but now—given the threat of climate change—the future of life on our small planet, many are discovering that democratic action is not a dull duty but a thrilling experience, meeting deep human needs of agency, meaning and connection.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

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