Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Justice of Economic Mobility

Michael J. Gerson


November 11, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

From Occupy Wall Street to the presidential campaign, American politics is now focused on the issue of economic inequality.  The left tends to support the achievement of greater equality through redistribution.  The right prefers to talk about individual freedom and economic growth. 

As this national debate moves forward, it is worth keeping four points in mind:

First, capitalism assumes and requires greater rewards for greater effort.  Income inequality can be just – but only if it is accompanied by economic mobility.  People must have a reasonable expectation that their effort will matter.  In the absence of mobility, economic inequality becomes a caste system, incompatible with the American ideal.  Social mobility is important to the moral standing of the capitalist system. 

Second, while there is still significant mobility in the American middle class, economic advancement is stalled in America on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  The overall level of economic mobility in our country is lower than in the countries of Canada, Denmark and France.  This is a serious problem—and a challenge to our national identity.

Third, while there are many structural reasons for this problem, there are some reliable paths of mobility for individuals.  Americans who complete high school, work full time and marry before they have children see their chance of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent. 

Income transfers to the poor can be important to prevent hunger and destitution.  But the greatest need for many lower-income Americans is social capital, created in effective schools, stable communities and committed families. 

Fourth, both parties have something to offer when it comes to the mobility agenda.  Policy experts from left and right have ideas about encouraging teacher quality, savings and wealth building, quality pre-school programs, child health, financial literacy, good parenting skills, high school and college completion.  Recently I attended a policy summit in New York City called Opportunity Nation, which highlighted many of these innovative approaches. 

Our current economic debate generally ignores these matters.  Building social capital and encouraging economic mobility won’t be achieved through a millionaires’ tax, or through a flat tax – whatever the merits of those ideas.  Expanding mobility requires private institutions that bring hope to individual lives.  It also requires public institutions – such as successful schools – that prepare people for advancement in a competitive economy.  To thrive, men and women need both good values and good skills. 

And building an opportunity society will require citizens who understand and raise this issue.  The news coverage of American politics is often dominated by polls and scandals.  But these are less important than the economic hopelessness experienced by millions of Americans. We should insist that leaders of both parties confront this challenge.  The justice and promise of our country depends on it. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”