I was on BART yesterday, coming home from meeting Professor Jacobson, when I spotted a dormant issue of the SF Chronicle. Sad, sad paper with little to read that’s worth my time. I was looking for something to hold my attention, when I saw an editorial by E. J. Dionne. The columnist alleged to find a solution to restore upward mobility in America. He starts of:
It’s good that conservatives are finally taking seriously the problems of inequality and declining upward mobility.
Thank you E. J! Even our dense heads figured it out. I’m all ears.
Reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and others show that social mobility is greater elsewhere, notably in Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden and Germany.
What do these countries have in common? Not to put too fine a point on it, all have national policies that are, in right-wing parlance, more “socialist” or (to be precise) social democratic than ours. They guarantee their citizens health insurance. They have stronger union movements and more generous welfare states. They tend to keep higher education more affordable. In most cases, especially Germany’s, they have robust apprenticeship and job training programs. They levy higher taxes.
They have that in common with other nations, such as Greece and Spain, and those two, for all I know, might also exhibit more social mobility and equality than the United States. Norway, by the way, is a major petroleum exporter, which might have something to do with it’s socio-economic structure.
In 2007, before the election of our transformative President, median household income in the US was higher that in any of those “social democratic” countries. It could be that there is more social mobility in poorer countries because it’s easier to become relatively wealthy (or poor) when there isn’t much difference between the wealthy and the poor. If the United States continues raising taxes, our millionaires and billionaires will probably continue to split, and the difference between the rich and the poor will be easier to cover too. With this kind of policy we might, in fact, achieve greater social mobility, but we will lose wealth in all economic brackets. A non-envy based economic policy that favors wealth creation will probably result in both a greater gap between the rich and the poor and greater good for all.
Despite that, David Brooks proposed to bridge the conservative and the liberal approaches to inequality:
“Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.”
That out-of-nowhere bit on “marriage [...] before childbearing” is the nod to the finding that the gap between the rich and the poor is really a gap between the married and the non-married: To quote the GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney:
A study from the Brookings Institution has shown that for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job and wait until 21 before they marry and then have their first child, the probability of being poor is 2 percent. And if those factors are absent, the probability of being poor is 76 percent.
What’s amazing about this statistic is that one can do everything wrong and still have 24% chance of escaping poverty. It can’t be all children of the 1% doing well financially while going that rout.
In the 1990s, Israel signed an agreement with the PLO promising to hand over the land the country won in a defensive battle in exchange for promises of secession of hostilities on the part of the terrorist group. The country gave up something tangible (land) for words (promises to end violence), and in less than 10 years’ time it got war. David Brooks’s idea of combating lack of social mobility is very similar in its structure to the Israeli land for peace deal. Conservatives are asked to cave in on something real and central to conservative ideology, to accept higher taxes and new entitlements. In return, liberals will offer a strongly-worded warnings to the troops.
Seeing a weakling argument, E.J. Dionne rejects the liberal deal out of hand:
Yes, parenting (including the time crunch that two- or three-income working-class families face) is part of the issue, which is why I also admire Putnam’s study. [Three-income families? Huh? -- ed.] But the balance in Brooks’ call to arms is entirely false. It’s not 1969 anymore.
Meeting every concession with new demands, E.J. Dionne is Arafat to Brooks’s Peace Now:
My challenge to conservatives worried about inequality is to follow the logic of their concern to what may be some uncomfortable conclusions, especially in an election year.
In this election year, our concern should be wealth creation and balanced budget along with family values. I don’t think there is a sign anyone right of center (except for David Brooks, of course) is willing to give up our core principles and further restructure our economy in the direction of socialism if only the liberals will promise to behave. Why would they? The welfare state is designed to replace the family.