Will the Real Horatio Alger Please Stand Up?

The classic Horatio Alger myth -- the rags-to-riches tale of someone from a humble, working-class background who attains a modicum of wealth and stability in American society -- is virtually an evergreen political meme, waiting to be co-opted by whichever political party wants to be perceived as siding with the “little guy.” At this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions, both parties have floated their own versions of the Horatio Alger myth, each offering their own take on how America’s under-class can make it again. On one side, you have the Romney-Ryan-Rand Republicans, arguing that it's still possible to make in America, given the right tax breaks and laissez-faire approach by government. On the other side, you have the Democrats, who claim that all that hard work and rugged individualism will go for naught without the active support of big government.

So who's right? Will the real Horatio Alger please stand up?

On the first evening of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Latino keynote speaker Julian Castro espoused a form of “you can make it in America” optimism for America's under-class, targeted to immigrants and the increasingly influential Hispanic-American voting bloc. As Castro explained, his version of the Horatio Alger myth is for government to give the common worker a helping hand. He argued that it's too difficult to go it alone, that government must take on the role of creating opportunity for the under-class, especially when it comes to education.

In the lead-up to the Democratic Convention, the New York Times suggested that the Bootstrap Optimists comprise one of the most important voting blocs in the Democratic Party. They are typically people of color or immigrants, making less than $30,000 per year and "financially stressed," yet who are optimistic about the ability to make it in America through hard work and a protective safety net provided by government. Castro gave a nod to this bloc in his speech, when he pointed out that people from his home state of Texas "actually still have bootstraps" - yet he did not once point out an example of an entrepreneur or small business owner who "bootstrapped" his or her own business. 

In his speech, Julian Castro also suggested that the American Dream is about to be downsized permanently, bootstraps or no bootstraps. He referred to the American Dream as "not a sprint, not a marathon" but a "relay race," with each generation playing a role in slowly aggregating wealth and passing it down to the next generation. 

But what about the real "Bootstrap Optimists" - the men and women of Silicon Valley and other innovation hubs across the nation - who parlay their hard work and modest capital into successful, thriving businesses? Who bootstrap their businesses by maxing out personal credit cards? Forget waiting for modest gains to be relayed to the next generation - this is wealth that can be achieved within the current generation. These should be the role model for today's generation of immigrants and low-income Americans.

So which version of the Horatio Alger myth will it be for America? The hard-working member of the under-class who gets ahead with the help of government programs and makes a "decent" living -- or the hard-working entrepreneur who thinks up an entirely new business model based on his or her personal struggles and uses the latest technology to make it a reality?

The answer to that question really depends on what kind of economy you want in America. Ahead of Julian Castro’s talk, The Atlantic ran a great piece on what Castro stands for – and more importantly – what his city of San Antonio stands for. There are no high-tech industries and no venture capital money sloshing around in the city, just government expenditures on healthcare and military. All of that leads to slow, plodding growth rather than fast-growth high-tech, and less emphasis on entrepreneurial start-ups. As a result, the most vibrant socio-economic class in America - the immigrants and people of color - are dissuaded from fast-growing, high-tech businesses.

Agreed, things are tough in America right now. But there's no need to define down the American Dream or put it on temporary hiatus. The Internet makes it possible for quick-thinking entrepreneurs with a modest amount of capital to turn the Horatio Alger myth into a reality. Entrepreneurs are raising millions of dollars through crowdfunding programs, risking everything they've ever saved to take advantage of new technologies, and leveraging the power of the Web to reach huge audiences cheaply and easily. And it's not just Mitt Romney look-alikes who get loans from their parents are having success -- just look at how many Silicon Valley start-ups were launched by immigrants new to the country but optimistic about the future.

This is way the Horatio Alger myth was drawn up at the turn of last century - as a celebratory tale of what is possible with enough hard work in America - not as a resignation that the American Dream may need to be deferred indefinitely. What was it that Langston Hughes once wrote about "A Dream Deferred"? If you buy into the notion that the economic future of America is built on its ability to innovate rapidly – then America needs to embrace the Horatio Alger myth as a way for the new generation of immigrants and people of color to create a vibrant, high-tech society filled with entrepreneurial risk-seekers - not as just a modest way to make a decent living.

image: Small Business Portrait / Shutterstock

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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