In a debate near the end of her premiership, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was faced with a questioner who complained that while “the prime minister has achieved substantial success with the economy…the gap between the richest ten percent, and the poorest ten percent in this country, has widened substantially.” Thatcher shot back with sneering disdain, “What the right honorable gentleman is saying is that he would rather the poor were poorer provided the rich were less rich.”

It’s hard not to read that precise sentiment in Sean McElwee’s recent article in the Huffington Post. McElwee, best known only for transparently tendentious articles on how to convince one’s presumptively crazy conservative uncle to become a liberal, apparently takes umbrage at the GOP’s attempt to speak in the language of upward mobility. To quote McElwee:

The only way to increase upward mobility is more government spending[…] Republicans want a strong, upwardly mobile middle class and a weak government, but the two cannot coexist.

Never mind that small government and weak government are not the same thing, for that’s the least of the problems with McElwee’s essay. Or that the entire piece is almost too contentless to rebut. Its sophomoric analysis is just simply too lazy to pass unremarked upon.

It would be very easy to nitpick McElwee’s article by questioning his statistics or defending the policy analysts he dismisses out of hand. For the sake of argument, I’ll even concede some of McElwee’s points, just to show where they lead. Let’s stipulate that he is correct that:

  1. Government spending increases upward mobility.
  2. Redistribution props up the middle class.
  3. Inequality hinders upward mobility.

With respect to the first point, we do have to ask, government spending by whom and on what? Most of the sorts of programs McElwee favors – expanded spending on education, daycare, etc. – are, in our system, state responsibilities. Republicans largely agree that such state programs require additional support, but they propose offering that support via block grants, which McElwee opposes. He argues that “if you’re not increasing spending, you’re just shifting around authority at best and sneaking in cuts at worst.”

Moving on to redistribution, McElwee cites programs like the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, the employer-provided healthcare tax exclusion, Social Security and Medicare as examples of good redistributive policy. Ironically, none of these represent particularly progressive policies. The mortgage interest deduction only helps those who itemize deductions and provides disproportionately more relief to those with bigger homes and those in the higher income tax brackets. The employer-provided tax exclusion only applies to those who have employer-provided health care, and similarly provides disproportionate benefits to those in the upper income tax brackets. As for Social Security and Medicare, an argument can be made they are deeply regressive, given that they take money from millennials (a relatively poor generation) in order to fund Baby Boomers (the richest generation currently living, if not in history).

When it comes to the negative impacts of inequality, McElwee deploys some of his strongest rhetoric:

Mobility in many parts of America is abysmal. In some cities, children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Across the country, a child born in the poorest quintile has a 60 percent chance of staying in the bottom two quintiles.

It’s a two-part problem. First, there is opportunity hoarding at the top, wherein the wealthy invest heavily in their children’s education and job prospects, while also passing their wealth on to their children. Then there is stagnation at the bottom, caused largely by reverse trends, economic and racial segregation, awful schools and poor parents without much money to invest in children.

Notice that McElwee doesn’t make the case for equality being a good thing, in and of itself. It’s solely important insofar as it increases mobility. This effectively means that he’s conceding the premise that Republicans start from, even if he thinks their policies won’t get us as far as we need. That’s an awfully big concession for someone who claims to care so much about inequality.

Imagine a society where everyone’s wages were legally mandated to stay exactly the same until they were 30, at which point their wages were mandated to increase by, say, $5,000. This would surely be both an extremely equal society and an extremely upwardly mobile one, because 100 percent of the bottom quintile would inevitably reach the top quintile, yet one doubts that it would be particularly prosperous.

What if you had a society where some people were working at subsistence level and others were working at just slightly above subsistence level? I would wager that upward mobility between the top and bottom of the income distribution would be very high, not because people would be getting meaningfully better off, but just because there would be such a small distance to travel in terms of incomes. By McElwee’s standard, this would be a preferable society to the one we have now because it’s more equal and more mobile. In short, better to have the poor poorer, provided the rich are much less rich.

There is little doubt that in our increasingly globalized, technological world, America faces challenges in maintaining a vibrant middle class. The fact that Hollywood and Silicon Valley dominate American exports is surely a mixed bag. While both industries carry the potential for volcanic mobility, they are also two of the last hotbeds of Darwinistic competition. The rise of the machine-like efficiency of outsourced workers has rendered the cozy entitlements of a union job increasingly obsolete, and America’s education system is still desperately playing catch-up. These are economic problems, but they are also hard and complicated cultural, social and generational ones, and not likely to yield to the partisan reductionism of unserious, pedantic redistributionism.

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