When Republicans consider the bigger picture and talk about the relationship between the government, the populace, and the economy, it’s uncommon to hear them characterize a dispute between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome.”
The latter, GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney argue, is what Democrats want: everyone ends up with the same resources, regardless of how hard they work or the value of their labor. This isn’t even close to what Democrats actually want, but it’s the foundation of Republican attacks on “socialism.”
Equality of opportunity, however, is supposed to stand in contrast as a superior alternative – everyone won’t end up with the same wealth, but government can at least ensure that everyone has a chance at success.
The irony of this debate is that contemporary Republicans oppose both sides. Obviously, “equality of outcome” has few if any champions in American politics, but GOP talk notwithstanding, “equality of opportunity” isn’t really what Republicans have in mind, either.
Ezra Klein notes Paul Ryan’s efforts last year to present a credible, conservative vision to address income inequality, based almost exclusively on upward mobility. But a closer look at Ryan’s vision suggests he doesn’t even know how to try to reach his own ostensible goals.
Ryan’s presentation was persuasive. He’s right that the growth of social spending on the elderly is crowding out spending on the poor. And he was more convincing because he seemed to admit a hard truth that Republicans often deny: that government programs for the poor are a crucial way of ensuring income mobility, and as they get squeezed, so, too, do the life chances of those born at the base of the income ladder.
But it is difficult to believe that Ryan’s budget was written by the same guy who wrote this paper. Because in Ryan’s budget, Social Security is untouched. The cuts to Medicaid and other health programs for the poor are twice the size of those to Medicare. The cuts to education, to food stamps, to transportation infrastructure and to pretty much everything else besides defense are draconian. As for the tax reform component, it cuts taxes on millionaires by more than $250,000, but it doesn’t name a single loophole or tax break that Ryan and the Republicans would close.
In the end, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of the cuts come from programs for low-income Americans and 37 percent of the tax benefits go to the few Americans earning more than $1 million.
This is important because Ryan’s cruelty matters, but it also matters as a question of ideological coherence – the Republicans’ leading voice on budget issues says he wants to promote social/economic mobility and the equality of opportunity, but the Ryan budget does the exact opposite, making it vastly more difficult for the poor to have a shot at success by punishing families who are already struggling.
As Ezra concluded, “[N]o millionaire’s child will find that Ryan’s budget ends her hopes of a college education. But plenty of lower-income children will. And in the long run, that’s bad for mobility, bad for growth and bad for the country.”
President Obama explored this in some detail in a speech earlier today. We’ll have more on that story this afternoon.