Fair Makes Equal
When I am intoxicated, having inhaled the Occupy Wall Street vapors, I dream that this time, in this election, the fight against inequality will finally carry the day. In my sober moments, I realize that building on the American yearning for fairness is a much safer bet. But then I found a way to have it both ways.
Attacking inequality head on is very seductive. Inequality is much more severe than it has been for decades. The promise of social mobility is increasingly a mirage. The fact that OWS’s most successful slogan by a country mile is “We Are the 99 Percent” suggests that people are recognizing the injustice of it all. Wall Street’s shameless shenanigans are on everyone’s lips. Polls show that raising taxes on the rich, and specifically the Buffett Rule (instituting a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on all earning more than $1 million a year), are winning issues.
Second thoughts give me pause. Most progressive leaders are quick to explain that the equality they envision is not of results but of opportunities. The government aims not to ensure that the differences in what we get or have will much decline, but to remove the barriers that prevent us from participating in the race to succeed. However, as has often been noted, even when that race is open to all, without equality of results, the starting point itself remains unequal, hampering those who begin the race farther from the finish line. And many run with cannonballs tied to their legs, made up of previous injustices not compensated for.
Yet putting equality of results on the agenda may still be politically suicidal. Many liberals subscribe to the lesson imparted by leading progressive economist Arthur Okun. He held that the government works to temper income differences, but also noted that such efforts risk creating disincentives to work and investment. He argued for limiting the transfer of money from rich to poor so as not to lose much economic growth, which he showed required that those who work and save more gain extra rewards. Okun advanced this thesis some thirty-five years ago, when inequality was much less steep than it is now, and he wrote that his conclusions only held under conditions of lower unemployment than the United States currently faces. However, as Charles Lane commented, “The American public intuitively shares Okun’s concerns.” Indeed, according to the December 2011 Gallup poll Lane cited, roughly 82 percent of Americans believe growth to be either “extremely” or “very” important, while only 46 percent feel that “reduc[ing] the income and wealth gap between rich and poor” is “extremely” or “very” important.