Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mobility, politics, parties and Gerson

I have tried before to climb far enough out of my winter doldrums to write here again, and in fact I’ve written a dozen or so comments that I never posted.  For some reason I think I want inspiration---so I wanted, for example, to respond to a fairly recent trend from Brad DeLong claiming, possibly to be controversial, that our national debt is too small for the twenty-first century.  I like the idea of being contrary on this issue, but my response got very abstract, and so I never posted it.  I think now that what I need to do is go back to the real stimulus that prompted most of my prior posts: not vaulting intellect, but plain old-fashioned irritation. 

So I guess I’ll respond to something that irritated me from yesterday’s (Saturday’s) Washington Post op-ed page.  Michael Gerson, probably my favorite Republican columnist, was talking about the two parties’ attitudes toward economic mobility and equality of opportunity.  And in the process I think he managed to trivialize both sides of the debate: his point was that the emergence of economic mobility as a campaign issue is a compromise, of sorts, and that Democrats in general would rather talk about inequality (of final outcome), while Republicans would rather talk about growth.  As he says it:

When Democrats refer to stalled mobility, they are generally still talking about inequality. When Republicans embrace mobility, they often mean cutting taxes and reducing regulations.”

And he claims that to Democrats,

“the job of helping the poor is inseparable from cutting the 1 percent down to size.”

I’d actually reverse the causality in the first quote, and flatly deny the second.  Because I think this is one of the areas where thinking conservatives and thinking liberals have the same very basic goal, and only differ in how to achieve it. 

I think that when Republicans talk about growth they are really hoping that growth alone will create more opportunity, and more economic mobility.   And if growth is widely distributed, rather than hoarded by the top 10%, they might be right.  (I don’t agree with their belief that the best path to growth is through cutting taxes and reducing regulations, but that’s a different topic…)

And I think that when Democrats complain about inequality, they are most concerned that extreme inequality of wealth and income interferes with mobility and opportunity, which are the ultimate goals. 

I can’t speak for all progressives, but for myself I can say that I really have no big emotional response to the lifestyles of the 0.1%.  To me they are like Lectroids from Planet 10: they inhabiting a separate universe in a parallel dimension, and are unlikely to ever interact much with the rest of us.   I care that most of the income growth of the last 35 years seems to have gravitated toward the top 10% of the population not because of any envy that they have it---why should I care what they have?---but because it leaves the rest of the population with stagnant incomes and declining opportunity. 

And that is the whole of it.   

This isn’t something I just made up in response to Mr. Gerson’s column.  Here’s what I said in this post from over a year ago:

the path to a more equal distribution of opportunity and more equal reward for work and talent may run through a more equal distribution of income, and … no amount of effort to provide opportunity can compensate for the disadvantage of being born into a poor family in a culture with extreme income inequality.”


“opportunity is neither free nor distributed equally across the population.  Those who begin with high family incomes can buy more of it, for themselves and for their children, than those who do not.”

What I didn’t say in that post is that the marginal value of money spent on opportunity declines pretty rapidly after a certain level is reached: once you have the opportunity to eat and sleep, to go to school and study in relative security, and attend college without crippling the rest of your life under the Kryptonite boulder of student loans, you’ve achieved a very great deal of what money spent on opportunity can buy.  Yes, if your parents are 0.1-percenters, or even 1-percenters, you may be able to buy your way into elite schools and elite jobs, but those are the special opportunities on Planet 10, available only in a distant, alien dimension in the Hamptons.  Let’s start with a wider distribution of just the basic opportunities back here on earth.

Gerson’s advice to Republicans is, at least at the start, exactly right, and it’s his ability to recognize things like this that makes him my favorite Republican columnist.  He says that

The entry-level commitment for Republicans in this debate is a recognition that equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement.”

Yes.  It is a social, political and economic achievement that requires eternal vigilance, and that disappears when it is left unguarded.  It takes a good deal of commitment, and (in this progressive’s view) strong government determined to maintain real opportunity, to achieve what Gerson says is

“America’s most urgent domestic priority: resisting the development of a class-based society in which birth equals destiny.” 

But if the entry level commitment for Republicans is the admission that universal opportunity is something that the culture, and the country, must provide through effort, what is the conversation’s entry-level commitment for Democrats?

I’d suggest that it is the open recognition that the purpose of all of this discussion of income inequality is not to harm the rich, or resent the rich: it is to enable those below the top 10%, particularly the poor; it is to provide everyone with a real opportunity to pursue their own future with hope, and to make sure that everyone has what Elizabeth Warren has been calling a “fighting chance”.

Of course, even if each side can agree to start at their entry-level commitment, and we can agree that we all have a common goal of widespread opportunity, we still can’t hope for political agreement or policy progress.  Because progressives don’t believe for a minute that tax cuts and deregulation, the policies of choice for the last 40 years under both Republicans and Democrats, will get us there; in fact, I would say that if there is a general agreement on anything about economic policy among progressives, it’s that the constant habits of tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation for businesses are actively harming economic opportunity for the poor by diverting all economic reward upward (and harming economic growth by starving investment in infrastructure, research and education, and much else). 

And conservatives, of course, are true believers in tax cuts and shrinking the government, and will accept no whisper of any other solution to any problem.