The most persistent argument advanced by the Republican Party at its convention was a general view, often put forward through implication rather than explication, about wealth and opportunity. Speaker after speaker touted their humble origins — or, if lacking humble origins, as many of them do, the humble origins of their parents or grandparents or perhaps those of some striving businessperson they knew. All this was deployed in service of a case (that Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio leaned into most heavily) that President Obama is destroying the chance for people to rise in America. His “attacks on wealth,” which are imaginary, or his proposals to increase taxes on the most affluent, which are real, will (or have) shut down the upward mobility pipeline that is the American Dream.
But when you move from the abstract to the particular, the argument quickly falls apart.
First, is it true, in general, that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are in tension with each other? Not at all. In fact, the opposite is true. We can quantify this. There are statistical measures of intergenerational mobility — the frequency with which a child rises above, or falls below, the economic class in which he was born. And there are measures of inequality. As the economist Miles Corak has shown, countries with high levels of intergenerational economic mobility also have higher levels of equality, and countries with low equality have low mobility. There are many countries with substantially higher levels of intergenerational mobility than the United States, and all of them are much more equal. This makes perfect sense, because one of the things people do with greater wealth is deploy their resources toward buying greater opportunities for their children.
Another way to examine this question is within the context of the American policy debate. Obama proposes to repeal the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 a year. Is there any evidence that these tax cuts contributed to economic mobility, or broader growth in any way? None that I can see. In fact, the strongest period of rising wages for the poor occurred after Bill Clinton jacked up the highest marginal tax rate in 1993, a period that ended around the time George W. Bush reversed course. This doesn’t prove that tax cuts for the rich harm growth, but it certainly suggests that returning top rates to Clinton-era levels would not harm the incentive to get rich.
The policy debate also concerns the treatment of the poor in addition to the rich. The most dramatic policy changes on the table are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s proposals to slash spending targeted to the poor by somewhere on the order of half. Many liberals would concede that it’s possible for some programs for the poor to be designed in such a way as to harm the work incentive and trap the poor. But I have yet to see a serious case that Romney and Ryan’s plans to do things like slash funding for children’s health insurance and raise the tax burden on the non-rich would increase opportunity to make it in America.
The Republicans have no serious argument that, in return for higher inequality of outcome, they would create “equality of opportunity,” or even less inequality of opportunity. They would bring about more inequality of both.
The real role opportunity plays in their argument is to serve as a justification for their plans to increase inequality of condition. You see, they tell us — we (or those who came before us) made it out of humble origins. Therefore we deserve our wealth and should keep as much of it as possible. The working class strivers the wealthy Republicans extol are not the actual working class but merely an idealized version of themselves.