Knocking Opportunity

The word of the day appears to be “opportunity”, whether in Paul Krugman’s column:

Last month President Obama gave a speech invoking the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt on behalf of progressive ideals — and Republicans were not happy. Mitt Romney, in particular, insisted that where Roosevelt believed that “government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities,” Mr. Obama believes that “government should create equal outcomes,” that we should have a society where “everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk.”

As many people were quick to point out, this portrait of the president as radical redistributionist was pure fiction. What hasn’t been as widely noted, however, is that Mr. Romney’s picture of himself as a believer in a level playing field is just as fictional. Where is the evidence that he or his party cares at all about equality of opportunity?

Let’s talk for a minute about the actual state of the playing field.

He goes on to mount a spirited defense of the Women, Infants and Children program, Pell grants, and the PPACA. Whether those programs are worthwhile or not I’m not certain there’s a straight-line connection between them and equality of opportunity. Even with those programs are all kids equally likely to attend Yale, become economics professors at Princeton, Nobel Prize winners, or New York Times columnists? Surely not. Doesn’t work ethic, inherent ability, family culture, the benefits that your family can give to you, or family connections count for anything?

As I mentioned last week in a very homogeneous society you would expect chance to be the primary determinant of outcomes. In a very diverse society you would expect less equality of outcomes and, indeed, of opportunity.

Coincidentally, in another article from the NYT opinion page eight columnists muse over whether America is still the “Land of Opportunity”. The mix of opinions is pretty much what you’d expect from the NYT opinion page and I don’t think they really add a great deal to the discussion.

Turning to the Washington Post scholar and advocate Michael F. Ford debunks five myths about the American Dream:

  1. The American dream is about getting rich.
  2. Homeownership is the American dream.
  3. The American dream is American.
  4. China threatens the American dream.
  5. Economic decline and political gridlock are killing the American dream.

This snippet jumped out at me:

While money may certainly be part of a good life, the American dream isn’t just about dollars and cents. Thirty-two percent of our respondents pointed to “freedom” as their dream; 29 percent to “opportunity”; and 21 percent to the “pursuit of happiness.” A fat bank account can be a means to these ends, but only a small minority believe that money is a worthy end in itself.

On the other hand, 34% of respondents listed financial security as their definition of the American Dream and I can’t help but wonder if they see a direct connection between opportunity and financial security. I strongly suspect that many Americans are relatively indifferent to opportunity and would actually prefer a good stable (government) job where they can work 9 to 5, never get fired, and retire at 65 with a generous pension.

I suspect that most of my readers are familiar with Winston Churchill’s definition of success:

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

However, I equally suspect that most have never considered its inherent class prejudices. The consequences of failure depend not only on your personal responses and abilities but on your station in life. For the upper class or upper income there may be an indefinite number of chances to fail without irrevocable consequences. For the middle class there may be a few. For the poor or lower class one bad failure may be enough to stunt a life. To me that’s the very definition of class.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of increasing equality of opportunity. I just don’t know how to accomplish that.

As I’ve said before I’m skeptical of higher education as a means to increased opportunity or better lives for that matter. I strongly suspect that waiters, sales clerks, or garbage collectors with college educations (and piles of educational debt) is not precisely what anybody has in mind when they think of opportunity or a better life. I don’t believe that more people with college educations automatically creates more jobs that require a college education or bring the benefits we associate with such jobs. I think it’s more the reverse: more jobs that require the skills you can acquire through higher education brings those benefits and also incentives people to pursue higher education. We’re not presently creating those jobs other than in areas that are receiving massive government subsidies. If it’s the subsidy that makes the difference rather than the education it would be better policy to eschew the educations and eliminate the middle man.

Low rates of on-time high school graduation from inner city schools have been frustratingly persistent for generations. I’m not sure what to do about that. Smaller, less centralized, less bureaucratic school districts? Breaking the teachers’ unions? Compulsory birth control? I just don’t know.

3 comments… add one
  • Drew

    We are experiencing some of the Superman problem as we speak. Our daughter transferred into the local (and generally fine) public school system from Catholic school and has been unable to break into AP or other equivalent advanced classes purely because of administrative rules and rulers. And trying to deal with these people is like trying to have a discussion with an inanimate object. They are bureaucrats in every unflattering sense of the word.

    So……….. This week she takes the Benet test and we escape public education. If its this bad in Naperville, what chance do other districts have?

  • TastyBits

    Limiting the Opportunity to fail also limits the Opportunity to excel. The lower bound is matched by an upper bound. The relationship is probably proportional, but I have not fully worked it out. By forcing people to operate in narrow bands of Opportunity, there will be little Opportunity for them to move upward in the socio-economic structure.

    One would expect: the poor to stay poor, the rich to stay rich, and the middle class to remain the middle class. In addition, one would expect: the poor to become poorer, the rich to become richer, and the middle class to get screwed.

    A static model assumes that a gain by one person(s) is matched by a loss by another person(s). Feedback loops provide positive and negative output, but to eliminate the negative output, the Feedback loop is eliminated or re-configured to allow only positive output. This causes distortions in the System, and a dynamic System tends to function as the static model being used.

    When there are no losers, there are no winners, but in good times, this can take a while to become apparent. The soft sciences were developed/enhanced during good times, and they tend to work during good times. During bad times, they tend not to work, and the adherents tend to grasp at anything to support their model. When the model becomes one’s reality, it is difficult for one to think outside of it, and it must become more and more complicated to support. Hence, epicycles.

    “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see”

  • Drew

    The statistics, if you believe them, suggest incredible movement between income strata.

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