Sunday, January 23, 2011

Krugman: On Inequality of Opportunity in the U.S.

People seem to either love or hate Paul Krugman, largely based on their political persuasions, but I thought this might be something that could appeal to almost everyone:
The first thing one should say is that our system does reward hard work, up to a point. Other things equal, those who put more in will earn more.
But a lot of other things are, in fact, not remotely equal. These days, America is the advanced nation with the least social mobility (pdf), except possibly for Britain. Access to good schools, good health care, and job opportunities depends on lot on choosing the right parents.
So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.
Now, I don't expect to ever be able to achieve literal "equality of opportunity" - for example, I don't expect for every child in the U.S. to be able to attend the private, $30,440-a-year Ethical Culture Fieldston [Pre]School in New York City. But, I think that giving everyone access to a legitimate opportunity, reasonable opportunity, or whatever you want to call it - though quality public education, access to decent health care, proper nutrition, etc. - would be a good societal goal and would almost certainly help maximize overall societal wealth.

I'm reminded of a paper I read at CEU on the situation of the Roma in Hungary - this paper did the calculations and determined that if the Hungarian state would ensure proper education, housing, heath care, nutrition, etc. for its Roma minority, it would actually save around $40,000 over the lifetime of the average Roma citizen, since the Roma would then pay taxes, and the state would save the costs of long-term unemployment, incarceration, drug addiction, and other costs of chronic poverty. I can't lay my hands on the paper at the moment, but if I run across it, I'll add the reference.

P.S. After I wrote the first draft of this post, Krugman published a follow-up. Here's the key section:
As I pointed out, the typical conservative line about equality of opportunity, not results, really implies the need for a radical restructuring of our society, which doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling equal opportunity. At this point, however, there’s a tendency to think about what that restructuring would involve — and because it’s basically impossible, to throw up one’s hands.
The point is that you don’t, in fact, have to be that radical once you drop the rigidity of the conservative position. If you admit that life is unfair, and that there’s only so much you can do about that at the starting line, then you can try to ameliorate the consequences of that unfairness.
My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be.
 So, should we do anything to make our societies more equal? If so, what?

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