The game is rigged: We elected Obama to hold the 1 percent accountable. So why are they still running everything?
Sunday, Mar 16, 2014
The big news after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was that he didn’t really talk about the issues of inequality that everyone expected him to talk about. Instead, he shifted the “conversation,” as we call it, toward the subject of opportunity. He shied away from the extremely disturbing fact that when you work these days only your boss prospers, and brought us back to the infinitely less disturbing fact that sometimes poor people do get ahead despite it all. In a clever oratorical maneuver, Obama illustrated this comforting idea by referencing the success stories of both himself—“the son of a single mom”—and his arch-foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner—“the son of a barkeep.” He spoke of building “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” a phrase that has become a trademark for his administration.
The problem, as Obama summed it up, is that Americans have ceased to believe they can rise from the ranks. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said. “And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”
The switcheroo was subtle, but if you’ve been paying attention you couldn’t miss it: These were almost precisely the words Obama had used the month before (“The defining challenge of our time”) to describe inequality itself.
Well, the Democratic apparat heard it, and as one body did they sway and swoon. This was a move of statesmanlike genius, they said. “Opportunity” and social mobility are what Americans have always liked to hear about, they declared; “inequality” sounds like a demand for entitlements—or something much worse. “What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this,” said Paul Begala in a typical remark, “lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality.”
If you’re in the right mood, you might well agree with him. In the distant past, “opportunity” used to be something of a liberal buzzword, a way of selling welfare-state inventions of every description. The reason was simple: true equality of opportunity is not possible without achieving, well, greater equality, period. If we’re really serious about opportunity—if we’re going to ensure that every poor kid has a chance in life that is the equal of every rich kid—it’s going to require a gigantic investment in public schools, in housing, in food stamps, in infrastructure, in public projects of every description. It will necessarily mean taking on the broader problem of the One Percent along the way.
But that was what the word meant long ago. It’s different today. When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality, they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural—or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.