Building Equal Opportunity

In Budget Politics, Education Reform, European Politics, Inequality, Political Ideology, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Social Democracy, Taxes on August 25, 2009 at 8:58 am

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, Howard University, June 4, 1965


If the object of reform is to construct a more just society, then policies that aim at abolishing poverty and reducing inequality have to be understood as a kind of foundation, clearing away the effects of the past and the present. However, as we have found in the forty years since the end of the Great Society and the War on Poverty, there is nothing permanent about the victories of social reform: poverty that was once reduced from 25% to 11% can rise if not continually checked; economic inequality that was reduced to the relative egalitarianism of the late 60s and early 1970s can revert back to the patterns of the Gilded Age.

Therefore, the larger question before us is whether, as we attempt to fix the past and the present, whether we can also create a more open and more just future.

The State of Social Mobility:

If America can be said to have a social creed, then it is the enduring belief in equal opportunity and social mobility. Social mobility is necessary to the American creed in a way that isn’t necessarily true of other nations – it is because we cleave so strongly at the same to beliefs about human equality and a commitment to unlimited individual striving, that we have to believe in them, because only if everyone at least has an even chance for success can we tolerate the kinds of inequality of outcomes that we do.

As we can see from this recent Brookings Report, the American faith in equal opportunity and social mobility is alive and well:

As you can see, 69% of Americans, far more than 25 other developed nations believe that ability and striving are still the cause of success. In some way, it is reassuring, almost quaint, to see how enduring Americans’ faith in meritocracy and individual effort is, and yet at the same time, how problematic it is that we let our belief in what should be interfere with our understanding of what is. Because, as we can see from this chart, the corollary of a faith in meritocracy seems to be a denial that privilege exists and should be fought. Now, it’s important to take this chart with a grain of salt. The data that it comes from is now a decade old, and came from a brief time in recent history in which the labor market was tight, wages were rising, and anyone could strike it rich by inventing a new e-business that would produce gold from straw. In the wake of two recessions, countless scandals, and the further acceleration of inequality, it may be that Americans are beginning to wake up to the reality of social mobility and equality of opportunity.

The reality of course, is that the United States is less socially mobile than supposedly class-riven European nations, and becoming less so all the time. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone – economic inequality perpetuates itself down generations, and inequality always affects mobility. And in contrast to the neo-conservative fiction that the welfare states creates an underclass of dependency and sloth – a heritage of Victorian attitudes towards the poor retooled by figures like Charles Murray into a partisan assault on Great Society Liberalism – generous social programs not merely address financial inequality, but also decrease the inter-generational influence of privilege.

Consider the life of a poor child born in a social democratic country – their parents might not be able to afford child care, but the state will provide high-quality child care that combines child-minding with nutritional programs and pre-schooling that helps to reduce the structural inequality of language created by class (note in the U.S, the average child of a professional family hears 11 million words by the time they’re four; the average child of a family on welfare hears only three million words in that same period) When they grow up, the chances that they’ll get a high quality public education are quite good, especially because education is not locally funded – and even if they don’t graduate from college, they’re almost certain to get an apprenticeship or vocational education that will provide them with a living wage job. If they live in a region where jobs and people are leaving, they can get relocation assistance to help them move to somewhere we more opportunities exist. In short, many of the normal ways in which barriers to social mobility are thrown up are avoided through government intervention, allowing people the freedom to make the most of themselves.

So how do we get from the American Dream to an American reality?

Building Opportunity:

To begin with, although I did say that programs to abolish poverty and end economic inequality were not sufficient of themselves,  it is the case that they will make a difference on the next generation – if children are pulled out of poverty with their families, their improved health, education, and material livings standards will remove potential barriers; similarly, if we redistribute wealth to the extent that 80% of American families now have an addition $8,000 a year per family, that $8,000 a year can make it much easier for poor, working class, and even middle class families to send their kids to college debt-free, and to provide a safety net in those first few years out in the job market.

However, I would counsel that even universal higher education, while worthy in itself, is not a substitute for policies that squarely aim themselves at structural inequalities.  First of all, providing universal higher education does not ensure that there is enough demand in the labor market for that many college graduates. Secondly, education by itself cannot counteract discrimination and inequality in hiring, promotion, housing, and credit that have created, for example, huge racial and gender variances even within economic classes, and huge class variances even within racial and gender groups.

Step 1: Tying a ~100% Estate Tax to Homesteads

On the material side of things, one of the major areas that has to be addressed in making taxation more progressive is the estate tax, because there is a major reason why the estate tax was one fo the first targets of the conservative counter-revolution in the 1980s and after. If unequal treatment of capital gains income versus wage income or other regressive policies can be said to have exacerbated inequality, then it is the decline of the estate tax that transmits inequality between generations. While a 100% estate might be politically impossible, the higher it gets, the less inter-generational transfer of wealth can occur, which greatly reduces inequality at the top. However, as I have said before, the more you can link taxation and spending, to show the subject and the object at the same time, the easier it is to fight for government action.

And while Hillary Clinton’s idea for a “baby bond” was widely ridiculed by Republicans during the 2008 primary, I don’t think it is a stupid idea – if it’s couched in more aggressive egalitarian terms. Providing a $5,000 savings account for every child born in America that can be redeemed at age 18 to pay for a college education, a first home, a small business, or the like on its own sounds like one of those rather marshmallowy-centrist Third Way ideas from the 1990s. However, couching it in terms of taxing the rich to pay for a common inheritance for all Americans is I think a much stronger case.

Step 2: Social And Cultural Capital

And yet it’s here that we hit a major snag in terms of spreading social mobility and equal opportunity: even if you were to establish perfect material equality for the next generation, you’d still see an alarming amount of inherited advantage due to the social and cultural capital that is also passed down from generation to generation. After all, the actual quality of education offered at a Harvard versus a University of California doesn’t differ that much – what does matter is who you’re socially networking with when you’re there.

And this is an area where it’s very hard for me to see how one can actually change this, although I’ll admit I haven’t thought this part through as much as I have the economic side. Socially, one thing that does spring to mind is the way that participation in programs like the Peace Corps or Teach for America have tended to have strong social networking effects, although it’s hard to tell how much of that is from the generally well-off nature of program participants to begin with. Perhaps expanding socially well-regarded service programs, and especially providing more generous stipends so that kids who can’t afford to do unpaid internships can participate might make a difference. Culturally, expanding access to free arts and cultural events and institutions might make a difference, but on the other hand it might not.

It’s hard to affect this, because in effect, you’re trying to teach people the secret handshake that the elite have decided makes you one of them – so trying to mass produce it relies on the elite not changing the secret handshake.


The merciful truth about social reform is that you don’t have to be 100% successful to achieve something valuable. The War on Poverty didn’t end poverty, but it did cut it in half. The New Deal’s attack on economic unfairness didn’t end inequality in America, but it did reduce the gap between the factory worker and his boss down to 1:60 (as opposed to the 1:400 it is today).

So let’s at least try to make the next generation more open than the one we’re living in now.

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