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Planning the American Dream

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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama loudly agree on at least one issue. Obama wants an America where "everyone gets a fair shot" and there are "ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers." Romney calls for an America where "every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon."

Fairness, horizons, ladders, dreams -- standard fare for political speeches. In more prosaic terms, both candidates are saying they want an America with more economic mobility. An America with a weaker link between the circumstances of your birth, and your chances in life. Obama and Romney are reflecting a broader bipartisan spirit on this issue. In July, an Economic Mobility Caucus was launched in the Senate. Warm words were exchanged between politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Right now, words where the agreement ends. When it comes to policy -- on education, welfare, affirmative action, or health care -- the two sides offer markedly different prescriptions. For decades, there has been unity on the rhetoric, fierce disagreement on the remedies -- and precious little in between.

This won't do any more. America has a sense of itself as a land of opportunity, but US levels of economic mobility are lower than in most Western nations. Wasted talent means higher welfare bills and lower productivity. This is no longer just a wistful American Dream. It is an American economic imperative.

So what can be done? I hesitate to say it, but old class-bound Britain may offer some clues. The UK Coalition Government was the first in the world to declare mobility as the primary goal of social policy, and has made a series of supporting institutional innovations. The trick is to bridge the gap between rhetoric and policy with a robust framework of measurement, accountability and sponsorship.

First, stop mouthing platitudes about mobility and start measuring it. We need to know what success looks like. We have robust policy debates about how to promote economic growth or reduce the budget deficits -- because we know the numbers. The Bureau of Economic Analysis publishes GDP figures; the Congressional Budget Office independently assesses and forecasts taxes and spending. We need a similar empirical underpinning to our debates about mobility.

Regardless of who wins in November, a bipartisan Economic Mobility Office should be established, tasked with the production of an annual report on rates of economic mobility. The UK Cabinet Office now publishes an annual statistical report on mobility, with 17 leading indicators of short-term progress. The Economic Mobility Office should similarly develop a 'dashboard' of early warning signs on mobility, such as high school drop outs, early learning, teenage pregnancy, and so on.

Second, ensure accountability. In the UK, a new statutory commission has been established - with Alan Milburn, a high-ranking Labour politician in the chair -- to report on national trends and progress on mobility. The co-chairs of the new congressional caucus, Senators Wyden and Moran, could perform a similar function here. Better still, give a platform to a prominent individual. If Obama wins he should appoint Jeb Bush a genuinely independent 'mobility czar', licensed to roam and criticize.

Third, give the issue of economic mobility real sponsorship in the executive branch. In the UK, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has taken public responsibility for pushing the mobility agenda across government and chairs a powerful cabinet committee. The next President should give their Vice President the additional title of Cabinet Secretary for Mobility. Or revive the Office of Economic Opportunity -- launched by LBJ and killed by Reagan -- with an explicit focus on mobility.

Of course none of this will take the politics out of economic mobility. Nor should it: arguments over how to create a more open America, where talent can rise, go to the very heart of political debate.

And a relentless focus on facts and trends is likely to create discomfort for both sides. Poverty does influence the chances of upwards mobility, which goes against the Horatio Alger grain of contemporary Republicanism. Obama is attacked for extending food stamps. But hungry kids can't get educated, and only educated kids can get on. Simply cutting welfare is not likely to be an evidence-based policy for promoting mobility.

But there will be equally tough messages for Democrats. Poverty only matters up to a point. Character and responsibility, especially in parents, matter more. Very often, the mobility-value of a dollar spent on pre-school or after-school activities will be greater than a dollar on welfare to prop up the income of the parent. And some Democrat vested interests will end up in the firing line, too. As the recent skirmish in Chicago demonstrated, teaching unions are fickle friends when it comes to tackling the educational failures than dampen mobility.

These debates over mobility will rage between and within the main political parties. But they should do so on firmer ground. The nuts and bolts of congressional and government machinery -- offices, czars and committees -- make poor copy for soaring campaign speeches. But the American dream sorely needs some planning.

Richard Reeves is former Deputy Director of Strategy to the UK Government, now based in Washington DC.

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