While I was looking at sources for my post on declining middle class access to first-tier college education, I came across this piece by Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute His main point is the possibility of reducing education costs through low-cost distance/online learning, on which I might say more another time. What struck me, though was this passage (emphasis added)
my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.
The change on this point has been striking in a matter of a few years. When I was writing Zombie Economics in 2009 and early 2010, I spent a lot of time citing work going back to the 1980s and 1990s to show that the US has less intergenerational income mobility than most European countries. At that time, the conventional wisdom was definitely that the US was characterized by equality of opportunity – there were still plenty of hacks willing to deny that inequality of outcomes had increased, including plenty at AEI.
The Occupy movement played a big role in focusing attention on the general issue of inequality, and once attention was focused, the facts pretty much spoke for themselves. At the other end of the political spectrum, the intellectual collapse of the political right became more and more evident, to the point that they were unable to put up any effective resistance. Instead we got arguments like this from Tyler Cowen, suggesting that maybe social immobility isn’t so bad after all.
It seems to me that this is happening across a wide range of issues. A common way of talking about this is to suggest that the Overton Window has shifted. But I’m not sure this is quite the right story. The standard view of the Overton window is that there is a set of insiders who define the range of views that are taken seriously – in the US, this set runs from the centre-right of the Republican Party to the centre-left of the Democratic Party, but its most prominent members are “centrist” pundits and journalist, the archetypal examples being Tom Friedman and the late David Broder.
What we seeing now, is not a shift in the Overton window, but a challenge to this whole approach to determining what views should be taken seriously, a challenge that started with the appropriation by the left of the “reality-based” label pinned on us in Karl Rove’s famous interview with Ron Suskind, and has continued (though very imperfectly) with the rise of fact-checkers. The new approach is based on the shocking idea that objective truth, rather than political acceptability, should be the criterion against which factual claims are tested.
If this view is right, then the most important single development was probably Nate Silver’s successful prediction of the 2012 election. Silver was up against both the pseudo-science of the Republican “unskewers” and the faith of centrist pundits (historically exemplified by Broder) that their deep connection with the American psyche was worth more than any number of least-squares regressions. Given the centrality of horse-race journalism to the pundit class, their defeat by relatively straightforward statistical analysis of opinion polls was a huge blow.
Coming back to inequality, the negative is that the only reason the left can make such a convincing case is that the objective facts show that, for the last 20 years at least, progressives have been defeated on every front by the 1 per cent and their hired guns. They have managed to grab most of the increase in income for themselves, to buy off the rest of the top 20 per cent with more modest benefits, and still to get plenty of voting support from the 80 per cent of Americans who have lost ground, and lost the hope that their children will do better.
Still, I’m an incurable optimist. When the hired gun occupying the most prestigious single position in the right’s intellectual parallel universe accepts growing inequality and social immobility as uncontroversial background assumptions, we have at least won the battle of ideas. The 1 per cent have entrenched power, but even they can no longer pretend to believe that their huge wealth benefits everyone else.
fn1. My own experience is similar, but in reverse order. I got undergraduate degrees the traditional way, at the Australian National University (except that I was mostly part-time), but my PhD was done long-distance at the respectable, but less prestigious University of New England. So, I agree with Brooks that this can work, but I doubt that it can work for the typical high school graduate
fn2. It’s much harder to show that US social mobility has declined since, say, the mid-20th century. We’re talking about differences in differences between generations, after all). But there are good reasons to think that the image of the US as a land of opportunity was valid in the past, so presumably there must have been a decline at some time. Brooks clearly assumes somehting of this kind.
fn3. It’s particularly amusing that Republicans rhetorically espoused this position in the “Science Wars” of the 1990s, just as their parallel universe of pseudo-science, spin and talking point generators was being perfected.