Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is America's economy fair?

That's the question in this week's Scripps Howard column, following up on yesterday's Gallup poll and President Obama's State of the Union comment that "We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules." My take:
"Fairness" can be a slippery concept, so let's use Obama's formulation as our guide. In the American economy, does everybody get a fair shot? Does everyone do a fair share? Does everyone play by the same set of rules? No. Yes. No.

No, not everybody gets a fair shot. Sixty-five percent of American men born poor stay poor, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Sixty-two percent of those born rich stay rich. Other studies show that it's much easier to rise from humble circumstances if you're a native of Canada, Norway, Finland or Denmark than in the United States. The poor often lack the education and resources to advance in today's high-tech economy.

Yes, the people who are able to obtain jobs do their fair share. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that American workers doubled their productivity between 2008 and 2009, and then did it again in 2010. Some of that is due to workplace mechanization, but some is surely due to American workers continually finding ways to "do more with less."

No, not everyone plays by the same set of rules. Banks get bailed out by taxpayers and their executives still collect bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but homeowners stuck with bad mortgages are sneered at as "losers" by television pundits. If you're rich, it's tough to stop being rich, no matter how badly you screw up.

If you're less well off, one mistake can doom your whole life.

It didn't used to be this way in America. There were once opportunities to rise from humble circumstances. That's not really the case anymore. Horatio Alger may have become famous writing rags-to-riches tales about opportunity in America. But Horatio Alger is dead and mostly forgotten. And it's not fair.
I guess I could've applied the test posed by John Rawls and asked if this economic system would've been agreed to by most Americans if they were blind to whether they'd be advantaged or disadvantaged by it. My guess: No. But I don't think the tweaks would actually be all that massive under such a scenario.

Ben thinks the economy is unfair ... to free enterprise. Bwahahahaha!

No comments: