Land of (unequal) opportunity

A little late to the game, the NY Times has quite a good piece by Jason DeParle on the well-established finding that the US is not only the most unequal of developed societies but is also at the bottom of the scale for social mobility.

I’ve been arguing since the Triassic era of blogging that this isn’t a coincidence – a society with highly unequal outcomes can’t sustain equality of opportunity, but until this year (in fact, until the emergence of the Occupy movement) I didn’t see any evidence that the facts were sinking in, even among the majority liberals. Now it’s as if a dam has broken. Some thoughts, cautionary and otherwise over the fold.

* As I mentioned a while back, the research evidence of low social mobility in the US has been around for at least a decade, but seemed to have no impact on the policy debate. That’s changed, but I doubt that Americans who don’t follow the debate closely have had their beliefs on the subject challenged. In this context, I’m not sure if the NYT piece will have much effect. It was very briefly on the front page of the website earlier today (Oz time) but is now almost impossible to find unless you know what to search for.

* It’s striking how limited, and ineffectual, the pushback from the right has been. There’s been a huge effort to deny the glaringly obvious increase in inequality of income and wealth. By contrast, social mobiity is hard to measure and it’s never difficult to find examples of people who’ve done very well despite deprived backgrounds (Obama, for example). Yet even  the National Review has accepted the evidence on this point (OTOH, DeParle quotes a lame rejoinder from Heritage and some predictable spin from Reihan Salam).

* The most significant move on the right is Rick Santorum’s adoption of this theme. It’s not hard to work out the political logic of concern about the emergence of a society where your prospects depend mainly on who your father was. But it raises some interesting possibilities. For example, how long before Santorum, or an attackPAC working for him, runs an ad with this “money shot” photo?

Posted via email from John’s posterous

19 thoughts on “Land of (unequal) opportunity

  1. the neo-inequality ain’t just an American trait.

    i suppose one way of looking at it is to compare how easy it is to buy ones own abode(not “investment property”) here,now,in Australia,compared to the beginning of the 1990’s.

    and the percentage of home owners now,compared to the beginning of the 1990’s.

    where i am in the west the (corporatised )homeswest public housing body has demolished houses when tenants leave and just has empty blocks.

    don’t ask me why.

    there is a bit of a demonisation program going on about “tenants-from-hell”,so any one who has a homeswest dwelling keeps quiet about it because that means admitting to being “homeswest scum”.

  2. The U.S. is the land of inequality precisely because it is NOT a democracy. The founding fathers and republicans today (small “r” and big “R”) have emphasised continually, with pride and dogmatic insistence, that; “The US is a republic not a democracy.” We ought to believe them.

    “Montesquieu included both democracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government.” – Wikipedia.

    Following Montesquieu’s definition, we can identify the US correctly as an oligarchic republic. The U.S. constitution is specifically framed to limit democracy and entrench oligarchic rule. The Founding Fathers had a suspicion of full democracy as the “tyranny of the mob” (a rationalisation to legitimise their own tyranny by property) and it is clear that the constitution is carefully written to ensure the patrician rule of the landed and monied class.

    It was often the case historically that Monarchs struggled to maintain rule against the power of the Barons. The American Revolution itself was basically a revolt of the American Barons against the English Monarch. These American Barons had no intention of creating a democracy.

    John Adams “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

    Chief Justice John Marshall “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

    “When the Constitution was framed,” wrote historian Charles Beard, “no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat.”

    We might add that a “respectable person” of that time belonged to the landed and monied class.

    The American civil war was nothing more or less than the a struggle between two competing oligarchies. The quasi-aristocratic landed class struggled against the newly monied class of industrial capitalists. The win was a win for the new capitalist oligarchs and the US continued as a country (as it does to this day) yet to have its democratic revolution.

  3. hey so i just read your book zombie economics and have to say im pretty imperessed

    i was just wondering if you could say how it was workin with that chick lisa, i saw her on colbert and shes smokin hot

  4. @Ikonoclast
    I disagree – the distinguishing feature of America has been the failure to build a political party of labor.

  5. @MikeH

    A political party of labour certainly helps to stablise a capitalist focused economy. But that help doesn’t last forever, one condition is that the labour party would have to have to courage to standup for workers and legislations that would benefit the economy as a whole but would harm the super profits i.e. mining companies in Australia; the ALP have lost its courages and unless some changes will take place I believe it will only be time until it becomes another Right party with a Leftist name. Many other things include corporates gains too much power that it is able to stand against the government, the unwillingness of the general public to learn about economic policies, the media and the education system in the the past decades are also destorying Left politics.

  6. So this may not be the best place to do my shameless plug, but it is a great cause that relates to opportunity. I’ve been a patron of this very meaningful charity since the coverage by Lawrence O’Donnell, a popular liberal TV personality in the US. Here’s the link:

    If you are interested, please look up some YouTube videos about the KIND fund.

  7. @MikeH

    MikeH writes – “the distinguishing feature of America has been the failure to build a political party of labor.”

    I agree it seems significant. Cause and effect is always hard to attribute in the sociopolitical arena. It would be too long a bow to draw to say that the undemocratic nature of US Constitution caused the failure to build a political party of labor. More likely, both are outcomes of a deeper dynamic in US culture, involving at the very least the early and continued dominance of forms of ownership which concentrate wealth and political power in a loose, shifting but persistent and effective oligarchy.

  8. @Ikonoclast
    Yes, the Democrats are part of the 1%. Pelosi made a bundle on the Visa IPO. Other Democrats in Congress made cash by trading health care stocks using private information about the content of the bill. Then they pretend that they are part of the 99%.

  9. @I M Green

    Yes , America is rotten to the core at the top but then most countries are corrupted and rotten in one way or another at the top. This fact in itself is not a reason to give up on the 99% who are mostly decent people.

    All people are innately corrupt and dishonest to some petty extent but the 99% have internalised behavioural limits which set up boundaries beyond which they will not normally go. The 1% typically lack these boundaries (being essentially sociopathic in nature) or have come up against the extreme temptations of wealth and power which would corrupt almost anyone except the true Gandhi-style personalities among us.

    Another reason to limit wealth and power and keep things very equitable is to ensure that people are not exposed to excessive and corrupting levels of wealth and power. Such extreme temptation and dislocation from common life and mores never does anyone any good; not the subjects in question nor the people who become their oppressed objects.

  10. @Ikonoclast
    There are a raft of reasons for the failure to build a labor party in the US although lack of labor militancy is not one of them. That two major capitalist parties already existed is probably the main one. The union leadership attached themselves to the Democrats for little reward. When the anti-union Taft-Hartley act (still on the books) was passed in 1947, more Democrats voted for it than against. The US has perfected the racket of capitalism alternating between Republican and Democrat in a appearance of democracy but as we have seen with Obama almost no change in policy. That is not to say that the ALP is much better but the transmission of pressure from militant unionists in the ranks (of the unions as well as the party) to the leadership is more direct and harder to ignore – hence the repeal of Workchoices.

    However to a large extent that horse has bolted. I note that unions in the US are working with the Occupy movement. This seems to offer the best way forward if they are able to prevent themselves from being sucked into organising for the Democrats. And even better still if they can join forces with an environment movement (excluding the greenwashers) dealing with climate change. A more equal sustainable society – I would get off my lounge chair to fight for that.

  11. MikeH unions in America have been made extraordinarily weak and those who would be natural unionists in other countries are left low paid to the point where they need to work 2 or three jobs to survive and are constantly needing to ingratiate themselves with the bosses because of the insecure nature of their employment. So the reasons for low unionism are both economic and social.
    The Howard government was keen to emasculate the union movement as well and make it irrelevant in setting wages and conditions. That there were enough workers awake to this and who voted the Howard government down was not an accident but a deliberate course of action paid for by the many to help out the apathetic who would have been scratching their heads in a few years wondering why opportunity to prosper had gone to the 1%.

    The garnering of support from the many to make a political statement not only helped to get rid of the Howard Government but also helped to elect President Obama. While he is indebted to big business he is also indebted to the many who chipped in what they could afford to help his campaign. This is a strategy which works because once a person donates even a small amount to a political campaign they are more likely to encourage others to do the same and to vote against big business.

    Your analysis of transmission of pressure from militant unionists to the leadership of the ALP ignores the ability of the ordinary person to be involved and create their own pressure.

    A more recent example in the USA, is the Occupy movement which despite being ignored and then derided has garnered a lot of support worldwide.

    However to suggest that the unions shouldn’t organise for the Democrats is just silly when you see the results of Republican wins after the mid-term elections when in many states in the USA, workers lost jobs, pay, conditions and pensions as a result of the election of radical Republicans. That was in 2011 not 1947. History is relevant but recent history is of greatest import when deciding what a group of people may be likely to do if elected.

  12. To be clear, is it predictable spin to suggest that America’s uniquely excessive incarceration regime has an impact on both relative mobility and absolute upward mobility? I wish this issue figured more prominently in U.S. debates. And the fact that the foreign-born share of the population increased from 3.8% to 12% in the space of 40 years strikes me as at least somewhat salient, particularly when we consider the skill distribution of older vs. younger cohorts.

  13. The issue of inequality in outcomes within society and the left’s failure to build an effective counter argument runs much deeper than current structures of governance and the ascendance of neo-liberal policies. I see the issue more as a failure of the left to reconcile the advances in the scientific understanding of life and being with a meaningful understanding of community and society.

    The right has effectively hijacked the argument for society as being essentially mean, competitive, brutal and relentless. This has now become the most plausible understanding of society (as in Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’). The result is that social justice outcomes are pre-judged as having failed while truly dystopian manifestations of the invisible hand of the market are free to run amok.

    As I see it there are two main pillars to this argument. The first is that since the majority of societies that adopted socialism ended up as totalitarian regimes then it follows that the any move to a more ‘socialist’ organisation of society will end up as some form of totalitarian repression. It is then a small step to argue that all moves towards social justice are utopian and will always lead to a dystopia.

    The second is that the family is a special case where mean, competitive, brutal and relentless are replaced by caring, co-operative, generous and adaptable. To maintain the fiction of a dichotomy between family and society they then elevate the family as a special case that has become sacrosanct. Any attempt to argue against the special case for the family is howled down as an attack on the family.

    The answer is to counter this dominant view of society. This is of course easier said than done, and I offer perhaps lines of reasoning that may be employed. The first it is much easier for science to study the individual physical entity of a person than to study the much more amorphous concept of a society (as in, is social science real science?). This has led to the conclusion that through knowing the individual is our only way to really understand humanity. It is this meaning of our scientific understanding that needs reform; that an individual is more meaningful than his/her social context. To me that is a much diminished view of humanity.

    The second is too counter the ‘attack on the family’ line by arguing that the elevation of the family to sacred standing is a deliberate construct to de-legitimise a wider social context of individuals as community.

    So what does socially just society look like? I like elements of Noel Pearson’s approach to his community on Cape York where severe social breakdown is deliberately addressed through processes that are both accountable and rewarding, not only for the intended beneficiaries, but also for the implementers (see for example the Direct Instruction program) . On a broader scale a socially just society may look remarkably like a Scandinavian democracy, where both market forces and social inclusion blend in an accountable environment to deliver positive social outcomes.

    Unfortunately I see that while the left ignores the larger underlying picture and focuses on short term pyrrhic victories like ‘gay marriage’ its relevance and contribution will continue to be eroded, and social injustice will continue to increase.

  14. Prof. Quiggin, you’ve written about it in 2003, if not earlier somewhere else, but, it is still your fault!

    According to the man who wrote “The End of History”, a political theorist by the name of Francis Fukuyama, who is no stranger to you, the fundamental problem of our time is an intellectual one and it is ‘the left’, the social democrats, who failed to come up with new ideas.

    You being a self-declared man of ‘the left’ and write a blog on the social democratic perspective, …

    Its as easy as that for the political theorist. After “The End of History”, he writes “Future of History” without blushing. (Fin Review, 6 January 2012).

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