Equal Opportunity Is Not Enough

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author

We middle-class professionals are a crafty bunch, especially our intellectual elite.  One of our cagiest moves recently involves our expressions of concern about increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  While eloquently expressing how guilty we feel about our privilege, we never come close to suggesting that some money be moved around.  “Redistribution” is either not in our vocabulary or “something we need to discuss,” which is our standard way of ending discussion by putting it off to an indefinite future.  But our craftiest move is how we routinely slip and slide in our discussion of the inequality of money (which is what income and wealth are) into ways to improve equality of opportunity.

Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It is a reductio ad absurdum of this crafty slip sliding, but Reeves makes two important contributions.  First, he widens the target from the top 1% to the top 20% of households.  Second, he inadvertently demonstrates the absurdity of applying equality of opportunity to income classes and of understanding social mobility as simply about equalizing opportunities to be in that top 20%.  Worse, though a generous soul gently tweaking our class privilege, Reeves ends up recommending that the primary solution to equalizing opportunities is for our class to improve “human capital development” in the working class, including “home visiting to improve parenting”!

As misguided as I think Reeves is, Dream Hoarders is well worth reading because he pulls together a lot of recent research on how professional-middle-class privilege is being passed on across generations to such a degree that the U.S. has become an “hereditary meritocracy.”  In doing so, he shifts the focus from merely the top 1% of households whose average income tops $1.6 million to a much larger group ranging down to $121,000 a year (in 2016).  This is the top 25 million households, whom he rightly says are “the single most dangerous constituency to anger” because we are “wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting bloc.”  While often humorously chiding his own behavior, he shows the wide range of ways middle-class professionals use our social and cultural capital to improve the chances of our children and grandchildren ending up in that top 20%.

He argues convincingly that that’s not fair and proposes a number of remedies that would make things somewhat more fair, such as eliminating legacy admissions to universities, forbidding unpaid internships, curbing exclusionary zoning, and rejiggering federal loans to make them more affordable for low- and middle-income college students.

But he is very chary when it comes to moving money around.  He wants to greatly improve K-through-12 public education, for example, but rules out spending a lot more money or reducing class sizes.  He even has a great little section on how federal income tax subsidies disproportionately benefit the top 20%, but concludes: “My point is not that we should tax our way to more income equality” but merely to illustrate “the fact that if we need additional resources for public investment, it is reasonable to raise some of them from the upper middle class.”  Note the weasel language here: the “if” leaves him uncertain about whether we actually need more money for public investment (as our roads and bridges crumble and our water systems sometimes poison children), but if we do, only “some” of it need come from the top 20%.  Reeves thinks he knows what will most piss off “the single most dangerous” voting bloc, and he tippy-toes around it.

Having excluded progressive tax reform and knowing that checking a whole series of class privileges like eliminating legacy admissions would not make much difference, Reeves has nowhere to go but to reform the working class’s “human capital formation.”  He seems to have no idea how fraught with conflict this has been in American working-class history.  From the Pullman Palace Car Company’s paternalistic rules for living in its company town to the Ford Motor Company’s infamous Sociology Department, workers have fiercely resented and resisted all attempts from people in authority who think they know how to make them better human beings.  If you want to convert the rest of the working class, including people of all colors, into Trump voters, systematic government “home visiting to improve parenting” among the bottom 80% is probably the way to do it.

It’s not that it couldn’t be helpful to have more parents reading to young children, more use of time-outs rather than spanking for discipline, or more parental involvement in schooling among working-class families. The problem is that the people doing the home visits would likely deliver a program that implicitly says the goal of life is to score well on written exams, go to college, and become one of those professional or managerial phonies so many working-class parents spend a lifetime trying to avoid or resist.  It may be hard to believe – and that’s a big part of the problem! – but many (probably most) folks  don’t want to be people like us, no matter how much they might envy our incomes and working conditions.

And this is Reeves’s biggest, but illustrative mistake.  He is trapped in an equal-opportunity frame that is perfectly applicable for blacks, women, and other groups who have been and still are being denied equal opportunities in education and jobs, in where they live, or who they love.  But to apply that framework to income classes, as Reeves quite rigorously does, doesn’t and can’t work.  His singular goal is to equalize people’s life chances to be in the top 20% of income-earners while, as his subtitle highlights, “leaving everyone else in the dust.”  He is quite clear in explaining that this is how relative social mobility works across income quintiles: upward mobility for those born in the bottom four quintiles requires an equal amount of downward mobility for those born in the top quintile.  This is a worthy goal for those who aspire to a genuine meritocracy where pay is related to performance, but it will not and cannot do anything to reduce our outrageous and still increasing levels of income and wealth inequality – which, by the way, are reducing most people’s life chances day by day and year by year.

Absolute social mobility, on the other hand, is and always has been the more widely shared American Dream.  Sometimes referred to with the metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that’s but one way to achieve it.  Absolute mobility simply means getting ahead of where you were before, not necessarily getting ahead of others as you do so.  It means that the next generation will have a better life than their parents had – with more income and more free time for what you will.  Stronger economic growth as a “rising tide” can make that more likely, but only if it is shared across all income classes, which it was for the three decades after World War II, but hasn’t been for the last 30 or 40 years.

To achieve shared prosperity, we need to move some money around, starting with a more equitable tax system.  Taxing investment income the same as income you work for, collecting sales taxes on the purchase of stocks and bonds just as we do when people buy pants and soda pop, and taxing financial assets as well as property would simply be more fair.   But less class-biased taxes like these would also raise hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools and our rotting physical infrastructure and to fund increases in public subsidies for day care, family leave, public transportation, and many other public goods that would reduce daily living expenses – all of which would benefit all income classes, while disproportionately benefiting the lower income quintiles.  Reeves’s upper-middle class would get nicked a bit with these tax changes, but most of those hundreds of billions would come from the top 1% or 2% — because that’s where most of the money is.

A class-neutral tax system would be a significant move toward the kind of “equality of condition” Alexis de Tocqueville once thought was what made America exceptional.  And I’m betting that a majority of “the single most dangerous voting bloc” would sooner give up a few thousand dollars a year in taxes than the formidable array of privileges which Reeves so clearly shows help keep us and our progeny in our place.


Reposted from Working-Class Perspectives