As Professor Farnsworth would say, “Good news, everyone!” Economists have looked at the data and it turns out that economic mobility has not gotten worse over the past several decades. Of course, as usual with such “good news” claims from Professor Farnsworth, it is actually bad news. You see, the reason that economic mobility hasn’t decreased is that it’s been terrible all along. Last month at The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explained it all in, The Mobility Myth.
What’s really bad is even if you look at countries like Sweden, there isn’t much mobility. The truth is that focusing on mobility is just a way to avoid looking at equity. And we are really good at that in this country. Both sides of the political spectrum fetishize opportunity as though it would be fine to allow some people to starve as long as they had an equal chance to be rich.
It goes further than this, however. People are only willing to talk about “equality of opportunity” in high tones. When it comes to practical measures, no one is interested in doing anything to improve the situation. This is where the partisan divide comes. Although Democrats don’t want to do anything to help equalize children’s chances in life, Republicans want to make it worse. In education, we have a terrible situation where school funding is dependent upon local taxes. So poor communities get worse schools than rich communities. But this situation that actively helps the children of the rich is not good enough for the conservatives. They want to subsidize the rich sending their children to private schools with vouchers. That is, by the way, what is behind the whole charter school movement.
All of this annoys me because the issue is equality and not meaningless notions like equality of opportunity. Surowiecki notes that from the 1940s through the beginning of the 1970s, it didn’t much matter that people were stuck in the middle class. The entire class saw its incomes double during that time. That was because workers actually got part of our productivity gains. But that all came to an abrupt end in the late 1970s with the rise of the New Democratic movement (regardless of the fact that it wasn’t call that then) and the embrace by Republicans of supply side “trickle down” economics.
When the government decided that the way to make the economy grow was to give more and more money to the rich, we saw two things. First, we saw only modest growth—nothing like what we saw before that period. Second, we saw that all of that growth went to the people at the top. There was no trickling down. And this was hardly surprising. As conservatives are fond of saying, “Incentives matter!” Lowing the taxes on the rich only gave them greater incentives to give themselves more money.
The United States does not have much economic mobility. The United States has never had that much economic mobility in an absolute sense. Michael Harrington was exactly correct when he wrote in The Other America: Poverty in the United States:
Of course, I’m not willing to even yield the point about inequality not decreasing in this country. The study cited by James Surowiecki looks at mobility in the context of quintiles. We know that the story of inequality in this country is not the story of the top 20%; it is the story of the top 1% or the top 0.1%. I suspect that if we looked at that, we would see much mobility decreasing, because the truly rich are in so much better a position to pass on wealth than the simply upper class.
But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter. Talking about “opportunity” is just a way of not talking about inequality. Mitt Romney and his ilk would have us believe that the liberal concern about inequality is just a way to enact a dictatorship of the worker. That’s just rhetoric, because I don’t even know of any socialists who believe in that. All we are talking about is a more just distribution of resources. This is a debate we should have—and one that liberals would win. That is why the conservatives want to stop us from even discussing it. We shouldn’t allow that.
 Simply because our economy greatly rewards some kinds of endeavors doesn’t mean there is anything natural about it. Patents, for example, are orders of magnitude more profitable today than they were 200 years ago. This is because of things like manufacturing technology. But that doesn’t mean inventors should be richer today than they were then. What’s more, it is an argument for reducing rather than increasing intellectual property protections. But with economic power goes political power. Thus, we’ve only seen increases in intellectual property protections. Certainly Disney has made enough from Mickey Mouse.