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Who has economic opportunity, and who doesn't?

Steve Haycox

It's a civic blessing for Anchorage to have the vigorous opinion and editorial section of the Anchorage Daily News where one still can read independent local writers with diverse points of view and styles of expression. Not every daily paper in the country would provide space for an exchange of arguments on equality in America. Gratitude is surely proper.

In his two-part assertion that inequality in America is not as bad as the data on income distribution might suggest (ADN, May 14 and 15), unfortunately marred at its start by an imprudent ad hominem, Jeff Pantages argues that spending is a better way to measure standard of living, that everyone in America is better off than the wealthy of ages past, that community is advanced by the pursuit of individual self-interest and that conservatives don't lack compassion

Most of the reasoning offered in support of these claims is beside the point that the current maldistribution of wealth and income contributes to inequality.

Simple data on the qualifications for and the amounts of safety net transfers (food stamps, rent supplements, Medicaid, school lunches) show that the purchasing power of transfer recipients does not approach that of people with middle class incomes, let alone the top 20 percent.

But more important is the question of how to measure a standard of living. Is living always from paycheck to paycheck with little disposable income and dismal prospects to be considered a desideratum? Most would say that's a circumstance to avoid, not perpetuate.

The promise of America, equal opportunity, rests on an assumption of social mobility, not permanent poverty. Several recent studies confirm that a large income gap in society has a negative effect on social mobility (Alan Krueger: Institute for Fiscal Studies, e.g.): "Income differences exert the most powerful influence on social mobility yet identified." As President Obama told a BBC audience last December, " ... gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try."

The apt comparison for standards of living is not between the ancient world, or a few generations ago, and now; it is between who has opportunity now and who does not, and how we understand that gap. And the salient question is, what limits the opportunity of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale? It is often a cultural context, frequently stretching back generations, and exacerbated by current overt or latent prejudice. Being the object of repeated discrimination, declarations of incompetence and low expectations deflates ambition, acting as a substantial disincentive to mobility.

What is most galling to liberals is not the notion that individual self-interest can have a morally beneficial effect for society, a phenomenon easy enough to identify. It is, rather, the separation of personal and occupational motivation, the refusal to recognize that callous behaviors rejected in one's personal life are too often abstracted and justified as the "way of business" (see Borgerson and Schroeder, "Cutting Edge Issues in Business Ethics"), and an unwillingness to acknowledge the resulting deleterious effects on individuals and classes of people. When coupled with a careless social Darwinism (what else should we make of Newt Gingrich's insistence that unemployment benefits are stupid because they pay people for doing nothing?), the pursuit of self-interest becomes a callous disregard of social consciousness.

There can be no doubt that many successful people inclined to a conservative political and economic philosophy are demonstrably, deeply compassionate in regard to their fellow citizens. We have wonderful exemplars right here in our community. But what of the others, those who prey on the helpless and ignorant and who trample the public trust and close their eyes to the social consequences, all justified in the name of free enterprise and individual initiative, exemplars of which abound? Murdoch, Abramoff, Bill Allen.

To argue that the disadvantaged are on their own is not good enough. We are born into the social contract. It does not work to leave the public good only to the pursuit of private interest, for when private interest is corrupt, decency flies and tragedy ensues. That's when we need the instrument of society's collective power: government's equalizing shield.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.