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Michael Brenner Headshot

The Opportunity Ladder and Social Justice

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There are moments in life when you receive an unmistakable sign that the game is over. That it's time to fold your tent, to pull up stakes, to pack it in, to furl the flag, to luff the sails, to let go of a lost cause. At best, to wait for next year. In the extreme, to write it off permanently. And if one chooses to breast the tide, to do so stoically.

One of these "scales-dropping-from-the eyes" phenomena hit us last week. A few days before Barack Obama's State of the Union address, we learned that his much heralded war on inequality was being replaced by a clarion call for a Marshall plan to build "ladders of opportunity." Some folk in the White House, it was reported, had gotten the wrong fix on the focus group dynamics. They decided that efforts on behalf of the have-much less and have-nots were "divisive" - in contrast to the one percenters' sustained pillaging of the 80% which already had shifted a couple of trillions of nation wealth into the pockets of the super rich. "Opportunity" is less contentious. Just what ladders of opportunity did Mr. Obama have in mind - the number of rungs, what they would lean against, who can kick them out from under you? We awaited breathlessly for them to be revealed in his SOTU.

"Opportunity" vs Economic Justice

The opportunity project proved to be a far cry from the promised war on inequality. Tepid and tentative best describe it. Mr. Obama's calling off the war before the first shot was fired carries a blunt lesson. America today is a plutocracy. Talk of how national wealth is distributed upsets those who garner the lion's share. It smacks of 'class war," i.e. the exploited, the short-changed, the neglected and the strugglers may get into their heads the "un-American" notion that the game is rigged - that government policies favor the well-placed, that appeals to that same government for relief are rejected as unacceptable abuse of the system which is theirs alone. Mr. Obama obviously had heard and listened to them between December 4 when he gave his inequality speech, "inequality is the defining issue of our times," and January 24 when he changed the mission. Fifty days is a short war even by Don Rumsfeld's standards.

Obama's shift into the "opportunity" theme is surrender to the mythology that so neatly serves the Republican philosophy and those interests it promotes. It literally is music to their ears. The unhappy economic plight of the less well-off is no longer defined as the result of structural features of the American economy as fostered by government policy (or passively accepted to the extent that they stem from global forces). It is transformed into an individual matter whereby persons are deprived because they have not managed to climb the latter of success. The availability of such ladders is one issue. Another, even more important, is the condition of those who have no access to the ladder and/or that the reward for their work has dropped because of the way power is distributed and used in America. Most people are not going to reach the top or anywhere near it - that is an impossibility. But that does not mean that they should be denied a decent life.

By concentrating on opportunity alone, Obama evades the hard issues of public policy. And evading hard issues is what the Obama presidency is all about. Moreover, he ignores simple logic. It makes no sense to encourage people to climb the ladder of success when their conjectured ability to do so promises riches that are unavailable. Not everyone can be as well-off as today's 1% is, or the 5% or the 10%. There is not that much money to go around. Nor are there that many managerial/entrepreneurial jobs - who will do the work of the "working man?" In other words, improving the standard of living of salaried Americans whose share of national wealth actually has declined steadily for 40 years, who are worse off today in absolute terms than they were a decade ago, demands a shift in some portion of the wealth concentrated at the top to those lower down the scale. That is the arithmetic of it. The shift upward that has occurred has to be reversed - not just stopped.

Obama's State of the Union address confirmed the substitution of opportunity for social justice. His one concrete initiative aimed at inequality is the promised Executive Order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for workers employed on contracted projects for the federal government. The new terms will not apply to current employees. The will be phased in over three years. Still, this is meaningful since the numbers are substantial. One is compelled to ask, though, why he did not do this five years ago. It would have stimulated the economy and been to his electoral advantage. That make one skeptical as to how much heart and conviction there is in the new-found interest in reducing inequality. Is this another one-shot gesture that makes little impression on a lingering and festering national problem.

Let's bear in mind a few facts. During Barack Obama's time in the White House, federal government spending relative to GDP has dropped faster and further than at any other time in American history - the post-war years excluded. It is now at 19.2%. That is well below what is was under the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. Since spending on Homeland Security, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies has gone up, that means that social programs have been cut to the bone or eliminated completely. Medicare, too, has been cut; and Obama twice has agreed to cutbacks in Social Security as part of his "grand bargains" with the Republicans. So, the wage-earner earns less while support programs of all kinds are reduced. Against this reality, the placing of a few aluminum ladders against the commanding heights of the economy (whose denizens continue to ride the express elevator) will mean little or nothing for remedying the historic inequality that we are experiencing.

Goals and Values

Moreover, the opportunity ladder metaphor disparages all those who work hard at the myriad jobs that the large majority of Americans occupy. Are they to be respected as diligent contributors to the national welfare - or deserving only of thin rations since they failed in a universal competition to scale the ladders that lead into the boardrooms, trading floors and real estate development sites of America? Does "making it" mean anything other than hustling at a hedge fund after paying your way through college by dealing three-card monte outside Bloomingdale's in Manhattan every summer? Who won the election - Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

The stress on opportunity also sends an unhealthy message as to what goals are worth aspiring towards, as to what has value, as to what the appropriate balance should be between self-enrichment and the public good. Do we want a society wherein the young are instilled with the dream of becoming Jamie Dimon? Do we want them to see that as the measure of success, of a fulfilling life? Do we want them to calibrate how each dollar spent on their education translates into what income? Do we want all young Americans to enroll in business schools so that they can reap Wall Street bonuses? To take this tack is to reinvigorate an American myth that does more to inflict harm than to inspire good.

Rugged Individualism

The American creed of rugged individualism and self-reliance, born of another age, endures. Americans are led to believe that they are masters of their fate. Even when victimized by forces beyond their control (the financial crisis, globalized labor markets, natural disasters), they feel
deep down that their resourcefulness is being tested. They may like help from public authorities or the 'community,' but in the end the core belief persists that a person, or family, must and should rely on oneself.

Blaming the finger of fate is a cop out. Accusing those responsible is politically incorrect. In places like Texas, that attitude prevails even when a chemical plant blows up destroys a town because it has eluded inspection or not met standards for decades. In Oklahoma, tornadoes kill school children because public authorities feel no responsibility to build storm cellars or safe rooms. Editorial writers warn that the gravest danger is that soft "liberals" will exploit these disasters to mount a campaign for state regulation that will encroach on the freedom of the local citizenry. An additional worry is that any remedial action could cost money - raising the dread prospect of "tax and spend" public policy.

These ideas are deep-seated in the American experience. According to the national narrative, it was individuals who defied nature, tamed the wilderness, pursued the good life and often found it. Individual shortcomings registered in their failings to fulfill aspiration. For those who didn't quite make it, hope was transferred to children for whom a lifetime of striving and struggle promised something more and better.

Communities of church and kin could help. They could not be expected, though, to protect individuals from facing squarely the testing of their moral fiber and their observance of the work ethic. The visible results of their life project provided the evidence.

The physical circumstances in which early Americans lived are
part of the explanation for this peculiar creed. The Protestant Ethic is another.
The instrumental liberal philosophy that shaped thinking about matters
public and private, economic and political, made the peculiar seem
universal and natural. These elements were woven into the fabric of
American life. An individualist view of oneself, of interaction with one's
fellows, became the cultural/social norm. It took on a life of its own,
imbibed by generations of immigrants from a medley of diverse
backgrounds. Those far removed from the creed's founding by time,
distance, religion and domestic mores readily became true believers
without being aware of it.

The creed worked as a one size fits all national superego. It
constrained and channeled social impulses as well as personal ones. It
ironed out differences of circumstance, of capability, and of
temperament - or, at least, muted any expression of grievance about them.

How do we explain the durability of so arduous a social ethic?
Certain conditions of American life played a part. One was less likely to
be utterly destitute than in the Old World or other places. The country's
bountiful wealth, especially cheap food, made a difference. You were not
firmly pinned in place due to religious persecution, fixed emblems of
social status, or speech. Moreover, you could hope - thanks to seemingly limitless
space and near universal elementary education. Provided, of course, that
you were not black or Native American.

Perpetuation of the American creed was not entirely an organic process. It well-served the interests of the rich, the dominant WASP establishment, and - from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards - industrialists. They fostered the ethic, stressing self-reliance and mythologizing socio-economic mobility.

Substitute 'business' for 'industrialist,' remove the word WASP, and the
dictum still holds today. Ideas and interests always have a strong affinity
for each other.

American individualism, like all ideologies, is a package of
untruths and partial truths laced with just enough truths or near truths
to make it credible and palatable. The creed's vitality is evident in current
public discourse. Government is a term of derogation, despite
everyone's dependence on it for the essentials, and some of the nonessentials,
of their lives. State, as concept, simply does not exist.

Politicians are held in near universal contempt even as the populace vote for
current office holders. Indeed, they vote for the scoundrels repeatedly as
evinced by the huge electoral advantage of incumbents. Gross actions by
public officials that transfer trillions in national wealth from one group of
citizens to another are passively accepted with equanimity as ritual
invocation of the words 'tax reduction' or 'limited government' make feathering the nests of the favored appear like an exercise in civic virtue. Moves to repeal all manner of regulation that serve the commonweal and/or protect the
unprivileged are cast as acts of individual liberation that get government
off the backs of the 'people.'

This phenomenon, which marks the present era of American life,
is inexplicable without recognizing the tacit complicity of a very large
slice of the population. People protect their well-being or their sense of
well-being by keeping unwelcome facts a secret from themselves. They
are sublimated. Our political class, and this Democratic president, mean to keep it that way.

Perspective and Prospect

The United States moved beyond the primitive myth of rugged individualism over the course of the 20th century. Progressive social legislation reconciled it with both the realities of industrial life and a less unfeeling humanist ethic. The myth did survive and co-existed with the new ethic. There were those, though, who found living in a country that did not reify the myth intolerable. These reactionaries joined hands with powerful economic interests to reverse the tide of history. Their signal success over the past thirty years is the overriding reality of public life in the United States today. Few acknowledge it. Mr. Obama clearly doesn't - unless we were to infer from his actions that his attitude is evolving in the direction of reaction. The arc of history bends both ways.