44 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: Mormonism, Utah and Equal Opportunity

I believe in equal opportunity.

I believe all kids—all of them—should have a fair shot at life.  For me, that’s an American ideal.  Everyone should get a fair shot, no matter how much money their parents make, or where they live, or whether they have two moms, two dads, just a grandma, or no parents at all.

I was raised Mormon, and right now the most Republican state in the U.S. is Utah.  The state is 60% Mormon, and Mitt Romney leads Obama by nearly 50 points.  People there are generally healthy, fairly well-educated, fairly prosperous, and they claim a sincere belief in God and in doing good.  It is also a state, unfortunately, where otherwise intelligent people—people who are otherwise decent, caring, and competent—claim that “collective” efforts to create an economic system that provides equal opportunity for everyone not only isn’t good public policy, its actually “sinful” because is deprives individuals of the opportunity to engage in “voluntary” charity that would be more meaningful.

I suspect that a religion-induced case of groupthink prevents individuals in the state from thinking clearly.

First, we do not live in a barter economy.  When Salt Lake builds a sport stadium, for example, it doesn’t invite the citizenry down to “volunteer” on the weekends to help build it.  In an advanced economy with a high degree of specialization, there are all sorts of reasons we don’t have doctors, taxi drivers and public school teachers spending their weekends pouring concrete and setting structural beams at public work sites.  The bottom line is that it doesn’t make sense to do so (for quite a few reasons).

Second, we do not fund public goods on a “voluntary” basis.  Are we all less “free” because we are “forced” to contribute to our military.  Why not turn our military over to the market?  Defense contractors can go door to door explaining their proposed projects and asking people to subscribe.  For example, if a contractor wants to build a new destroyer, it can solicit $100/month subscriptions until it has enough money to build it.  If it can’t get enough subscriptions, then the market has spoken, right?  I might actually support this approach, since it would almost certainly lead to 90%+ reduction in military spending, not because we don’t value our military, but because of basic incentive problems created when public goods are “voluntarily” funded (free-rider problems, etc.).

And third, it’s not about “forcing” anyone to do anything.  It’s about designing a self-sustaining economy in which equal opportunity is baked in, so to speak, as a structural component of the system.  Most people have played monopoly.  Imagine rewriting the rules so that one lucky player would likely quickly dominate the game (and other
players, regardless of what they do, could not reasonably hope to win).  Although these rule changes would make the game considerably less entertaining, that is exactly what we’ve done, over time, with our economic system.  We’ve rewritten the rules and changed the character of the game.  It isn’t about looking at the game and then deciding to redistribute the winnings once the game is over (although that would be one way, if it were done in a consistent and predictable way, of making the game more fair).  I believe a better approach is to restructure the system so that the same systemic problems don’t occur the next time the game is played.

Unfortunately, these common sense arguments have no purchase in Utah.  The state dominated by the religion in which I was raised honestly believes, when it mocks the poor and the needy as “dependent” and “unwilling to take responsibility,” that it is on God’s side.  The state of Utah, somehow, perhaps because of an inability to comprehend the numbers involved, seems to believe that its dominant religious institution—the Mormon church—is an example of how collective (or government) charity should be managed.  By it’s own admission, the Mormon church allocated a total of $30.7 million in cash to non-Mormon charity work from 1984 to 1997.  Total Medicaid spending in Utah in 2011 was close to $2 billion.  There is a reason why the Mormon church has a policy against paying for medical bills (and actively encourages members seeking financial assistance to first take advantage of all government programs, including Medicaid).  If the Mormon church, as a global institution, were to attempt to pay for the medical expenses of just the poor in the state of Utah, it would quickly go bankrupt.

And so it goes in Utah.  If the people of the good state need a bridge or a sports stadium, the typical political and economic channels are used.  If the objective is to build an economic system in which there is equality of opportunity, then collective action—the same approach used to build highways and sports stadiums—is sinful because it violates God-given individual agency.  Never mind that Joseph Smith openly taught (and enshrined in Mormon scripture) the responsibility to act through government for the collective good, and that King Benjamin, in addition to numerous other Mormon prophets and, of course, Christ himself, have (inconveniently, for Utah Mormons these days) outlined the responsibility of the capable to care for the poor, the weak, and the needy.

At the end of the day, Utah is a state where, if you’re poor and stranded on the side of the road, someone will stop and give you $10 for gas, but then smugly vote straight-ticket Republican because they don’t want to encourage “dependency” or “force” others to engage in charity.  Utah is a state where, if you’re poor, your neighbors will bake you cookies, and then cheerfully go to the ballot box and vote to take away any hope of your children having the same opportunities as their children.  And they’ll do it because they think that’s what God wants.  And they’ll feel self-righteous about it.

The blind spot that modern Mormonism creates in the minds of those that subscribe to it, apparently, is that equal opportunity for everyone doesn’t just happen.  It’s doesn’t just pop up out of the ground like daisies.  It takes work and sacrifice.  It take collective action.  It requires a careful and judicious government.

Selling the “market” as a way of providing equal opportunity, like so many Republicans do these days, is easy.  It’s doesn’t require us to actually “do” anything.  In fact, we can even “do” less than we’re doing now, and delude ourselves into thinking we’ve actually done something.  The truth is that linking “market” solutions to the idea of equality opportunity is like selling more sex as a cure for gonorrhea.

For example, the kind of equal opportunity I support requires us to face up to the shameful (and it is truly shameful) differences in our schools.  Right now, in the United States, if you are poor, there is a good chance you won’t get half the education that somehow lucky enough to be born to parents in a higher income bracket.  How shameful are these differences? Watch this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpfMD9gWNf8.

Not only do we need to face to these disparities, we need to commit ourselves to fixing them.  Abandoning schools to the “market” won’t do it.  When have markets ever produced “equal” outcomes?  Economic markets are wonderful things, and in the right context, they do a magical job of aligning incentives and creating economic wealth, but markets are fueled by self-interest and the possibility of reward based on individual contribution.  Markets lead to differentiation.  Markets give us $10 tennis shoes—and $200 tennis shoes.  They give us $15,000 economy cars that can be leased for less $150 month—and $75,000 SUVs that use as much gas as school busses.

What is it about market outcomes—outcomes that we see every day in the market place—that gives people that idea that markets would produce equality of educational opportunity? We have a market for housing.  It produces startling inequality (e.g. trailer parks and mansions).  We have a market for automobiles ($500 clunkers and cars that cost as much as respectable homes).  As a society, we accept these outcomes for various reasons (that’s a discussion for another day), but do we really want the same kind of outcomes for educational opportunity? Do we really want the circumstances in which someone is born to constrain their access to educational opportunities?  Selling the “market” as a means of providing equal opportunity is, for many of the relatively well-off that support it, a self-serving delusion.  For those stuck is failing schools who see the market as a form of rescue, it is a mirage.

K-12 schooling is just one piece of the puzzle.  Healthcare is another.  Kids—all kids—deserve access to basic medical care, to eye exams and glasses, if needed, to basic dentistry, and flu shots.  Walk into a public school in a poor neighborhood and ask if there are any kids that need glasses but whose parents can’t afford them.  You’ll be shocked—or you should be—at the response.

Education, healthcare, food, shelter—these are the building blocks of equal opportunity.  The social programs designed to level the playing field in these areas aren’t a safety net—they are a leveling exercise.  They are a way of making sure that everyone in the next generation lines up at the same starting line.

It took me years to recognize that when Republicans talk about equal opportunity, they don’t mean it.  What they mean by equal opportunity is a kind of individualism that smells of Darwinism.  What they mean is that they want those who have made it—who are able to fend for themselves, or who believe they are able to fend for themselves—to be free of the responsibility of making sure that the door stays open for those coming behind them.

When Utah Mormons—or at least the 90% of Utah Mormons voting Republican these days–talk about equal opportunity, they aren’t talking about the heavy lifting of actually creating opportunities for those that lack them, they’re talking about giving the fortunate the opportunity to abandon the less fortunate.  In Republican hands, these words are in no way linked to a commitment to equal opportunity—just the opposite.  For these Republicans, what they mean by “freedom” and opportunity” is that neither the freedoms nor the opportunities of the fortunate should be constrained in any way in order to expand opportunities for others. 

This kind of thinking turns the ideal of equal opportunity into a zero-sum game, and Utah Republicans have clearly decided whose side they’re on. This kind of thinking is narrow, cynical, and based on an infantile and reductionistic view of the social contract.  It is short-sighted and grounded in a naïve faith in the collective benefit of a slavish adherence to theory over practice.  In short, it is wrongheaded.  It is dangerous.  And it is fundamentally un-American.

The U.S. now ranks lower than most European countries in terms of social mobility.  A recent study found that the U.S. and the United Kingdom ranked at the bottom of nine developed countries in intergenerational vertical social mobility.  Denmark, Norway, Finland Canada scored significantly higher.  The American dream, it seems, is alive and well—in Denmark, Norway, and Finland.  A good measure of income inequality is the Gini coefficient (the CIA uses it).  Based on this measure, we rank embarrassingly low.  Our neighbors on the list: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The real crisis in the U.S. isn’t debt.  It’s a crisis of equal opportunity.  The American dream isn’t a viable aspiration anymore.  It’s become the equivalent of a lottery ticket.  And when people realize that the odds are stacked against them—and that regardless of what they do, someone else wins—it undermines the confident hope that has made America great.

Listen closely to the Republican rhetoric of dependency.  In the Republican mind, creating equal opportunity—i.e. funding the programs that level the playing field in terms of schooling, basic healthcare, nutrition, and shelter—fosters dependency because it removes incentives.  In reality, just the opposite is true.  Opportunity leads to hope, and it is hope that fuels the imagination.  Getting everybody to the starting line—the same starting line—and making it clear that the same rules apply to everyone—is what motivates people to run the race.  Making sure a 6-year old has glasses so that he can learn to read doesn’t create dependency, it creates opportunity.

In a thousand ways, our economic system is designed to perpetuate privilege and class.  Investors can pool their money, for example, and join together in the creation of legal entities that are given life and protected by numerous normative, legal, and social institutions. Investors can then bargain collectively—through corporations—for the labor these entities need to  function.  There is no attempt to limit the size of corporations or call into question the collective nature of their participation in the labor market.  Is the same normative, legal, and social deference given to employee efforts to ban together to counter the collective bargaining power of large corporations?

We need to apply the Republican rhetoric of dependency where it’s appropriate.  We should be skeptical of the growing web of ownership claims and legal maneuvers that facilitate the intergenerational transfer of wealth.  Passing wealth down from generation to generation has the potential to create impermeable social classes, and an economic aristocracy is incompatible with a commitment to equal opportunity.  Using the same logic that the Republicans apply so easily to the poor, large inheritances create a powerful disincentive to work.  They create dependency.  An aggressive estate tax would free the next generation that burden.  Might such a tax force a family to “sell the family farm” when parents go on to greener pastures?  Absolutely.  And that is precisely the point.

We should apply the Republican concept of responsibility where it needs to be applied.  We all have a responsibility to work toward equal opportunity.  To advocate for it, and to contribute to it.  It is an investment in our future, as an economy and as a society.  It isn’t about taking from one hard-working individual in order to give to someone else, it’s about designing an economic system in which the burden of perpetuating the system itself is, in a fair and transparent way, born by all.  It is about building an economic system in which participants—particularly businesses—are expected to pay for the public inputs they use.  If a business requires educated employees in order to function, for example, then the cost of a portion of that education must, according to basic economic theory, be priced into the product that that business produces.  Roads, transportation infrastructure, courts, police and fire protection, a stable currency, and a thousand other inputs should be paid for by those who use them—and particularly—by the businesses that rely on them.

Consumers will pay for these inputs indirectly, of course, and that is how it should be.  When taxpayers subsidize the wages of Wal-Mart employees with Medicaid dollars (and other safety net programs), for example, then the price that the company charges for it’s products and services doesn’t reflect their full cost.  As beginning economics students learn, goods and services have to be properly priced if economic markets are to yield allocative and productive efficiency.

Businesses do not need more incentives.  Neither do entrepreneurs.  The last economic boom occurred under President Clinton and tax rates were significantly higher.  Ten years of Bush tax cuts have yielded relatively little, on the other hand, in terms of economic growth.  What we need is a commitment to equal opportunity.  We need a commitment to the kind of equal opportunity that will restore the faith of many Americans that are wondering if the system really is fair, and if they really can make it if they work hard and play by the rules.  The trend over the last thirty years towards greater wealth and income inequality has eroded the trust that fuels the desire of millions of Americans to work toward a better life.   It has undermined the social mobility that anchors the American dream.  A recommitment to equal opportunity can restore that trust—and bring back those incentives for millions.

We need a president that is committed to delivering that opportunity—at least symbolically—to the next generation.  It has to be somebody with a guarded optimism in our ability to act collectively, through government, to make the system more fair, and more transparent. It won’t happen by abandoning public responsibility to the “markets” or by advocating for more “freedom” from our mutual social obligations.  The only way to get there is to commit—truly commit—to creating equal opportunity for all.  Not the Republican kind.  Not the kind preached from the pulpit in Utah.  The real kind.

[Prior MCS Post: 43 Why the Church Changed the Missionary Age]