The Republicans Should Promote a Genuine Opportunity Society Creating a sound macroeconomic environment is not enough. Millions of poor Americans have no access to education and real jobs


WASHINGTON – Despite recent electoral victories, US Republicans may be condemned to irrelevance. And this is because of their inability to understand the profound inadequacies of the basic intellectual references at the foundation of their economic and social message.  

Sound policies

Let’s focus on the most obvious. The Republicans honestly believe that the main goal of good public policy is to create and sustain a sound macroeconomic environment. Fiscal prudence, combined with low taxes and light regulations, will allow the private sector to flourish. A thriving private sector in turn will do its magic. In a competitive, rules based capitalistic environment strong, innovative companies will emerge. They will generate jobs, and therefore wider prosperity.

It is that simple. Do not over tax, do not over regulate, make sure that government lives within its means, and the capitalistic system will take care of everything else. Indeed, “A rising tide will lift all boats”.

A nation of entrepreneurs?

Well, there is a lot to be said in praise of this simple set of principles. But the problem is that they are inadequate. Indeed, these principles rest on the implicit assumption that all Americans are budding entrepreneurs; all of them eager and willing to respond to the incentives of a truly open and competitive economic system. Given a chance to take advantage of opportunity, all Americans will jump right in, trying to do their best.

No boat

But, unfortunately it is not so. Yes, in principle a rising tide will lift all boats. Except that, today, millions of Americans do not have any boat, not even a raft. And others have seriously damaged boats that are not sea worthy. And a different set of Americans do not know how to operate a boat, even if you gave them one, free of charge. 

In principle, America is an Opportunity Society. Perhaps “the” Opportunity Society. But, in practice, there is real opportunity only for those who already have the tools to take advantage of what a free society can offer.

And here is the challenge.

In order to make opportunity real for all or most Americans, we have to make sure that all citizens have the tools that will allow them to compete, so that they can have a fair shot at the American Dream.

And this is where the Republicans fail, because they have almost nothing to say when it comes to constructive ways to create real opportunity for the millions who have none. The fact is that today’s America has become a two tier society.

At the top there are those who have a good education, skills, a supporting family environment, and more. At the bottom there are millions who were born out of the main stream, while they lack the skills to get into it. As a result, they and their children are condemned to perpetual poverty and marginalization.

Despite failures, welfare programs are still in favor

The Democrats have many ideas when it comes to poverty alleviation. They always do. And here is the irony. The Democrats have a lot of ideas, but they are mostly wrong. There is plenty of empirical evidence showing us that the vast majority of anti-poverty programs promoted and implemented by the Democrats have failed, some of them in a major way.

There is plenty of evidence that tax payers-funded, costly welfare measures at best stabilize poverty, creating at the same time a perverse incentive to develop  dependence on public assistance. Because of these incentives, temporary relief measures inevitably become permanent subsidies.

And yet, despite all these demonstrable failures, the welfare-is-the solution-to-poverty message still resonates. And this is mostly because there is nothing else.

There is no alternative message.

The poor will listen to those who give them something

Put it differently, if you are poor in today’s America by default you will listen to those who offer you something tangible now, (the Democrats), as opposed to those who tell you that, once they will have fixed the macroeconomic environment, a flourishing capitalistic system eventually will lift you out of poverty, (the Republicans).

The challenge for today’s Republicans is that they have to understand that their principle of “the rising tide lifting all boats” works well only when all Americans know how to sail, and have a sea worthy boat. The evidence shows that millions of Americans do not fit in this category.

Which is to say that public policy should encourage the creation of more and more navigation schools and boat building facilities. If we want America to be a real Opportunity Society, then we have to make sure that there is real opportunity for all.

This is difficult. But it has to be done.

The urgency of public education reform

The most obvious task is to get serious about reforming  a mediocre to bad or horrible public education system, so that all children, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged, can be properly educated.

It is a well-known fact that poor US children in most cases attend bad schools where they learn almost nothing. And this means that as young adults these uneducated Americans are automatically cut off from the main stream: that is good jobs likely to open up promising careers.

These are the millions who have no boat. They never went to sailing school. You can do whatever you want about tax reform or deregulation. A semi-illiterate inner city Black kid simply has no access to any meaningful economic opportunity that would give him a shot at upward mobility.

Empowerment, not charity

And here is the thing. Teaching young people about “boats and sailing” is not charity. It is not welfare. It is not temporary relief. It is not about creating another form of unhealthy dependence.

It is about teaching young people how to use tools that have practical value. It is about helping kids to become self-reliant and self-confident. In the end, it is about genuine empowerment.

If the Republicans understand all this, if they start thinking about ways to craft policies that will promote this type of education, they will become the party that will relaunch America as a true Opportunity Society.

This way they will gain the support of millions of disadvantaged Americans. And they will so staying true to their fundamental principles.


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