The Opportunity Ladder and Social Justice

Excerpts from the writing of Dr. Michael Brenner, professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh:

Two . . . “scales-dropping-from-the eyes” phenomena hit us last week in quick succession.  First, there was MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell curtly interrupting an interview with Jane Harman from Davos on the prospect for reining in NSA to give us a live, breaking news feed from Miami.  What was this monumental event?  Justin Bieber was having a brush with a traffic cop in Florida.  So Canada’s candidate for the most vapid celebrity personality this side of Kim Kardashian eclipsed a probing appraisal of the 4th amendment’s rescission with a member of the National Intelligence Board.

The next day, we learned that Barack Obama’s much heralded war on inequality was being replaced by a clarion call for a Marshall plan to build “ladders of opportunity.”  Someone in the White House, we were told, had gotten the wrong fix on the focus group dynamics.  They decided that efforts on behalf of the have-much less and have-nots were “divisive” – in contrast to the one percenters’ sustained pillaging of the 80% which already had shifted a couple of trillions of nation wealth into the pockets of the super rich.  Just what ladders of opportunity does Mr. Obama have in mind – the number of rungs, what they would lean against, who can kick them out from under you?

* * *

Obama’s shift into the “opportunity” theme is surrender to the mythology that so neatly serves the Republican philosophy and those interests it promotes.  It literally is music to their ears.  The unhappy economic plight of the less well-off is no longer defined as the result of structural features of the American economy as fostered by government policy (or passively accepted to the extent that they stem from global forces).  It is transformed into an individual matter whereby persons are deprived because they have not managed to climb the latter of success.  The availability of such ladders is one issue.  Another, even more important, is the condition of those who have no access to the ladder and/or that the reward for their work has dropped because of the way power is distributed and used in America. Most people are not going to reach the top or anywhere near it – that is an impossibility.  But that does not mean that they should be denied a decent life.

By concentrating on “opportunity alone,” Obama evades the hard issues of public policy.  And evading hard issues is what the Obama presidency is all about.  Moreover, he ignores simple logic.  It makes no sense to encourage people to climb the ladder of success when their conjectured ability to do so promises riches that are unavailable.  Not everyone can be as well-off as today’s 1% is, or the 5% or the 10%.  There is not that much money to go around.  Nor are there that many managerial/ entrepreneurial jobs – who will do the work of the “working man?”  In other words, improving the standard of living of salaried Americans whose share of national wealth actually has declined steadily for 40 years, who are worse off today in absolute terms than they were a decade ago, demands a shift in some portion of the wealth concentrated at the top to those lower down the scale.  That is the arithmetic of it.  The shift upward that has occurred has to be reversed – not just stopped.

* * *

Let’s bear in mind a few facts.  During Barack Obama’s time in the White House, federal government spending relative to GDP has dropped faster and further than at any other time in American history – the post-war years excluded.  It is now at 19.2%.  That is well below what is was under the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. Since spending on Homeland Security, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies has gone up, that means that social programs have been cut to the bone or eliminated completely.  Medicare, too, has been cut; and Obama twice has agreed to cutbacks in Social Security as part of his “grand bargains” with the Republicans.  So, the wage-earner earns less while support programs of all kinds are reduced.  Against this reality, the placing of a few aluminum ladders against the commanding heights of the economy (whose denizens continue to ride the express elevator) will mean little or nothing for remedying the historic inequality that we are experiencing.

Moreover, the opportunity ladder metaphor disparages all those who work hard at the myriad jobs that the large majority of Americans occupy.  Are they to be respected as diligent contributors to the national welfare – or deserving only of thin rations since they failed in a universal competition to scale the ladders that lead into the boardrooms, trading floors and real estate development sites of America?  Does “making it” mean anything other than hustling at a hedge fund after paying your way through college by dealing three-card monte outside Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan every summer?  Who won the election – Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

* * *

Politicians are held in near universal contempt even as the populace vote for current office holders. Indeed, they vote for the scoundrels repeatedly as evinced by the huge electoral advantage of incumbents. Gross actions by public officials that transfer trillions in national wealth from one group of citizens to another are passively accepted with equanimity as ritual invocation of the words ‘tax reduction’ or ‘limited government’ make feathering the nests of the favored appear like an exercise in civic virtue. Moves to repeal all manner of regulation that serve the commonweal and/or protect the unprivileged are cast as acts of individual liberation that get government off the backs of the ‘people.’


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