How Much Equal Opportunity Do We Really Want?

Matt Bruenig's post yesterday on upward mobility raises a profoundly important question: how much equal opportunity do progressives actually want in America? 

In Bruenig's ideal world, every kid born in America would have the exact same chance and opportunity to wind up on the top of the income ladder as on the bottom -- or in the middle. And optimal mobility trends would have some Americans moving down the economic ladder, while others move up. 

Bruenig embraces downward mobility for today's affluent families in order to allow newcomers to rise. He writes

If you support upward line mobility for some, you also necessarily support downward line mobility for others. There is no other way to do it because that's how relative mobility works.

By this logic, Bruenig isn't concerned with the problem I raised in my earlier post about how many upper-middle class Americans are falling downward economically. Because most of these kids still end up doing better than other Americans (if not better than their parents), they are benefitting from a "rigged system." 

There is an attractive moral purism to Bruenig's argument. Yes, equality would be radically advanced if we had the kind of socioeconomic churn that Bruenig is talking about, with millions tumbling downwards and millions rising up to take their spots.

But it's impossible to imagine that this vision could ever form the basis for a successful politics. Most people want their children to do better than them. We want our hard work in building up financial assets and social capital to translate into protections and advantages for our kids. At the very least, we want to make sure our kids don't end up falling downward economicallly.

No parent -- at least any parent who has achieved a middle class or higher level of success -- wants their kid to have the exact same chance and opportunity as everyone else. Instead, we want to pass on whatever cumulative gains we've made to the next generation and hope for steady upward mobility over generations.

Is this unfair? In many ways, yes, because a child's success will so often reflect the gains their parents or grandparents made before them. In extreme cases, kids are born on third base. But even being born on first base can give you a big edge less fortunate kids -- which is anathema to the pure ideal of equal opportunity. 

On the other hand, advocating that every generation should start from scratch without any baked-in family advantages just doesn't square with the basic human desire to make cumulative intergenerational gains.

So herein lies a basic challenge: While progressives can all agree on polices that help more kids get to the starting line and compete equally, there's far less agreement -- or even thought -- about how much we should seek to strip away pre-existing advantages. 

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