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Growing wealth concentration threatens to end American opportunity as we know it

The American creed of equal opportunity is in danger of becoming Hollywood fiction. Wealth concentration, manufacturing's demise, and technology eliminating jobs are destroying upward mobility. We must invest in education, training, and R&D. We must also pay for it.

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In short, any attempt to restore the aspirational faith in mobility and opportunity will necessarily pit the top and the past against the future. What has been made clear by the re-election of President Obama – and the continuing battle over the "fiscal cliff" – is that most Americans are in no mood to sacrifice their promised social benefits on behalf of investment in the future if the plutocrats are left off the hook.

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We got a hint of how this all might be sorted out in California’s recent elections when Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund elementary education, the University of California, and the CalState system succeeded by a surprisingly large margin. It was the Latino, Asian, and youth bulge that put it over the edge.

The true import of this election is that a powerful new constituency has emerged for investment in the future, affirming a key tenet of the American creed: Education, particularly affordable public higher education, is the best guarantor of upward mobility for all citizens.

Soaking the rich alone is not going to renew the clogged meridians of mobility and opportunity for most Americans. In the end, a society only works if everyone who shares the benefits also bears the costs.

But what the vote in California tells us is that most Americans believe that the aspiration to write one’s own narrative is the right of everyone, not the privilege of the few.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media. He is coauthor with Nicolas Berggruen of “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.”

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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