Google’s Ngram, which charts the use of written words over time, tells us something profound in its display of the opposing trajectories of “inequality” and “opportunity.”
As “inequality” enjoys the growing inequality between the two terms, the chance for “opportunity” shrinks. Given the chart abruptly stopping in 2008, a dreadful year that helped catalyze the Occupy movement pitting the 99 percenters against the one percenters, subsequent events indicate an even greater gap between the have word and the have-not term.
The fixation on inequality from world leaders is certainly evident in President Obama, for instance, regarding inequality as “the defining challenge of our time.” While clearly seeing a symptom of what ails us, this fairly common obsession over leveling outcomes gets the solution horribly wrong. Even in communities expressly dedicated to eradicating class differences, profound disparities persist. Ironically, the leveling impulse can make the whole worse off when attempting to narrow gaps between rich and poor.
The Occupy Wall Street activists decrying the advantages of the one percenters and the Trump Belt denizens donning “Make America Great Again” caps vote differently, but their grievances look similar. Opportunities grow scarce, inequality looks built into the system, and the American Dream proves increasingly chimerical. They use different words but aim for similar results, an America where all Americans possess a good chance to make it. We want to arrive at the same place even if we rely on separate roadmaps to get there.
Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt not only appears to have a better bead on the issue of inequality than the former president, his take contains a means by which Left and Right can find common ground as well.
“Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable,” he writes in On Inequality. “From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
While the to-each-according-to-his-needs vibe underlying Frankfurt’s thought invalidates it when applied to most goods — Should an able-bodied person refusing to work receive “enough” cable television, cell phone minutes, and bus passes? — the call for “enough” over “equality” on health care and education makes sense. Hospitals generally don’t turn away the ailing and tax-supported schools offering free education date back to 1639.
Health care and education represent two ways in which a better society yielding greater opportunities can come about. A government policy, even one that rigs the system, can’t produce a desired outcome. People can if given the opportunity through sound policies.
Annual health care expenditures in the United States exceed the gross domestic products of every country on the planet save China, Japan, and Germany. About one in six dollars generated by the American economy goes toward health care. Average individual health care costs exceeded $10,000 for the first time in 2016.
The richest nation in the world offers students a decidedly mediocre system of education. The Program for International Student Assessment found that U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 38th in math, 24th in science, and 24th in reading against their peers in 70 other countries. This, despite the fact that education at the state level, like health care at the federal level, ranks first in tax dollars spent.
The reasons liberals and conservatives offer for reforming health care and education may sound unreasonable to the opposing camp. Many Democrats regard reform as a moral issue stemming from the inherent inequality in the services delivered to Americans in hospitals and schools. Many Republicans regard reform in more utilitarian terms in that the current system — outdated in the case of education, the victim of too many schemes in the case of health care — creates a massive drag on the economy. Both camps want change, which speaks well of the prospects for change.
The health of the citizenry’s minds and bodies are at stake in this debate. So, too, is the health of the economy, which grew at less than one percent in the first quarter of this year. Though tax cuts and regulatory reform may unleash growth, systemic issues regarding health care and education will continue to hold the United States back until prudential change occurs.
On this site in the coming months, we offer solutions to what ails us to create a society with greater opportunities for all. Health care and education appear as two areas ripe and ready for reform.
It is evident that something must be done. More obviously, something will be done. The big question is: What thing?
Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of five books.