Do you like to see high wire acts performed without a net? I don’t. In fact, lack of a net makes the whole thing far less entertaining to me. Knowing that the performer might die if he makes a mistake takes most if not all of the fun out of it. I do, however, understand that seeing a performer without a net might heighten the excitement of the event. But it also implied that the viewer doesn’t mind the prospect of watching the performer die.
I think the same thing is true of the conservative campaign against the social safety net. Sure, when someone manages to claw his way out of extreme poverty, it is thrilling. It’s far more impressive than if he had all his basic needs met and been given a good education. But it also implies that watching people born into poverty live unfulfilling and short lives is not a problem. That’s where I have to differ.
The problem with looking at social policy this way is that it is the same as watching a circus act. But a man’s life is not a circus act. There is no pretending. And such a man didn’t decide that he would rather be born into poverty without any help. He’s innocent in this real life drama. He is also not in control. Social policy is set by people who were not born into poverty—people for whom life did work out. And these are exactly the people who should not be making such decisions.
I thought about this because Robert Reich wrote a very good article over at his website, Why Widening Inequality Is Hobbling Equal Opportunity. It is about an issue that I’ve written about a lot around here. There cannot be anything close to “equality of opportunity” if absolute equality is as out of balance as it now is. As Reich points out, “Since the ‘recovery’ began, 95% of the gains have gone to the top 1 percent, and median incomes have dropped.” In other words, the top 1% got 95%; the next 4% got the remaining 5%; the next 5% got 2%; and the bottom 90% lost 2%.
The big problem here is not that the rich are getting richer. The problem is that as the rich get richer, they get more political power to warp the economy ever more to make them even richer. But don’t even get hung up on that. Instead, think about the simplest issue of political power: voting. Why don’t the poor vote at as high a rate as the rich? A big part of it is that the rich have lots of leisure time. If necessary, they can take the whole day to vote. (Of course, in rich areas, it never takes a whole day to vote.) The poor have to be on time to work. The poor have to pick up their kids. In other words, the poor have a lot of other things they have to do with their time and voting is often not an option.
Even aside from this aspect of the unfairness of our system, there is the fundamental problem with the very idea of meritocracy. In such a system, the best and hardest working are supposed to be rewarded with the most wealth. But what are these “winners” supposed to do with their wealth. One of the most natural things is for them to provide the best opportunities for their children. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that the children of these people will have better health, better education, and better connections than the children of poor people who are otherwise identical. Thus, within just one generation, we no longer have a meritocracy.
This isn’t just theory. Last year, Sarah McBride did a study of which Silicon Valley start-ups got funded by venture capital firms. And as no one should be surprised, pedigree was the most important thing. “A prestigious degree, a proven track record and personal connections to power-brokers are at least as important as a great idea. Scrappy unknowns with a suitcase and a dream are the exceptions, not the rule.” Or in the world at large, my favorite example: Tagg Romney.
So the whole argument that we should work toward “equality of opportunity” and not “equality of outcomes” is just nonsense. It is a way for the power elite to deflect attention from the real issue. And the real issue is that we have an economic system that grossly magnifies differences. A man who is 5% more useful to the economy than another man ends up getting 500% more. And sadly, it isn’t even the case that winners in this system are the best or most valuable people. And that’s not a good system; that’s just a system that hasn’t been fine tuned. But the people who are winners, want to keep the system as rigged as it now is and hopefully make it even more rigged as time goes on.
If we are to provide more equality of opportunity, we must get our absolute equality more in line. I’m not talking about absolute equality. No one thinks that is a good thing, because it doesn’t give people incentives to try. But we have effectively created an aristocracy in this country. The poor are to the point of thinking there is no point in trying. So high levels of inequality are as bad as absolute equality when it comes to incentives. The question is whether we are going to do anything about it. And the very least we can do is to make our social safety nets stronger.