America Should Be An Opportunity Society

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Come January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be unable to effectively govern America without at least a modicum amount of bipartisan cooperation in Congress. While we will not know until the Georgia January 5th vote which party will be in control of the Senate, for Biden the very best congressional balance scenario is that the Democrats will keep their very thin House majority, while they will gain control of the Senate with a one vote majority, thanks to the tie breaker vote that will be cast by Vice President Harris. This not so rosy scenario is based on the rather optimistic assumption that the two Democratic candidates will win both Georgia Senate seats on January 5th, a possible but rather improbable outcome.

The outlook is not promising

So, if it all goes splendidly well, President Biden will be able to rely on an extremely small and fragile Democratic majority in Congress. If things do not turn out well in Georgia, we shall have divided government, at least for the next two years, until the 2022 midterm elections. If the Democrats fail to win both Georgia Senate seats, President Biden will have to deal with an unfriendly, if not positively hostile, Senate Republican majority that will do its best to block anything remotely ambitious Biden wants to push.

How will Biden be able to govern?

Given the narrow margins allowed by this political alignment in Congress, let’s look at what is possible for America. We have Joe Biden, a mostly centrist Democratic President, who will have to navigate between a restless and noisy left within his own diminished party and a strong Republican congressional opposition still hostage of a defeated Trump who to this day claims –crazy but true– that he, not Biden, won the presidential elections. Will these Congressmen and Senators feel free to negotiate with an open mind with an “illegitimate” Biden administration? Hard to believe it.

Sadly, these are the extraordinary challenges facing the new administration. Given these constraints, can Biden do the virtually impossible and bring at least sections of both parties together in order to advance a constructive bipartisan national agenda? I believe that Biden has both the inclination and the experience to attempt to do this. But it is going to be extremely complicated.

Promote an Opportunity Society Agenda

That said, assuming that there is a possible opening in the road ahead, here is my idea of a broad national agenda that may get the support of at least the centrists in both parties, and may be other factions.

I am talking about Biden articulating and then promoting an “Opportunity Society Agenda”.

The worn out but (surprisingly) still accepted national myth is that America actually “is” an Opportunity Society. Indeed, many would still claim today that America is “the” Opportunity Society. Supposedly, we all live in the America where “everything is possible”.

The old myth

This is the America of rags-to-riches stories well described in so many popular books by Horatio Alger Jr. more than a century ago. According to this fantasyland narrative, America is the country in which all individuals have a chance because they are free. Being free, they can use their freedom to achieve anything they want. No matter a person’s birth and unfavorable individual circumstances, there are no legal or social barriers to personal and economic advancement. All Americans are free to become whatever they want to be. In America, hard work, persistence and law-abiding behavior will get you anywhere you want to be.

Well, this is a nice representation. But it is mostly fiction. Not because most Americans do not have self-advancement desires –most of them do. But because many are held back by strong impediments they cannot overcome on their own.

Remove the impediments

I believe that most Democrats and Republicans would agree that removing all or most of the impediments that prevent millions of Americans to formulate and then pursue their own dreams of academic, economic and social advancement, this way gaining their rightful seat at the proverbial table, is an eminently worthwhile goal.

In a genuine “Opportunity Society” literally everybody wins. Those who cannot get ahead because they lack access to quality public education will get it. Those who are engaged in business but feel the daily constraints created by a skewed playing field that favors some while pushing other back, at the same time burdening most with unnecessary, heavy regulations, will be freed from them. Those who have carved out special rent positions for their economic sectors will have to compete fairly, according to the rules that apply to all.

Assuming that it is possible to forge a bipartisan consensus on the broad contours of this vision of America as Opportunity Society, then it may be possible for President Biden to articulate a broad reform agenda that will identify the blockages and welcome diverse contributions from both Democrats and Republicans aimed at designing concrete tools to remove them.

Education is priority one

I would think that access to quality public education for all American children should be at the top of any list. Now more than ever before, given the hyper competitive global economy in which we all live, it is almost impossible to think that any American child or young person can have a decent shot at a good job or career as an adult without the benefit of a good or superior education. And we also know that if young Americans do not get a good education while they are in school, getting it later on, as adults, will be much, much more complicated.

Fix the schools

However, the grim reality is that many if not most American children in low income families lack access to a good education. Sadly, while public education reform has been debated for decades in America, we do not seem to be able to go beyond rigid partisan views as to the models that should be followed to improve its quality.

We know that the Democrats overall favor the strengthening of the public education system as it exists today, notwithstanding ample evidence of too many systemic failures. Reformers and conservatives propose more experimentation made possible by the charter schools formula, among other alternatives.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that many charter schools operating in low income neighborhoods have succeeded beyond all expectations in delivering high quality education to mostly disadvantaged children. Think of Success Academy Charter Schools, originally Harlem Success Academy, founded in New York City by Eva Moskowitz. These are schools where poor children get an excellent education, therefore gaining skills that will translate into opportunities after they graduate.

May be there is a chance to bridge this ideological divide, so that all children –supposedly the beneficiaries of all education efforts– get the best education they can get, and therefore the tools enabling them to make real progress in life. Can President Biden inspire bipartisan cooperation, so that we can improve access to quality public education for all American children?

Massive welfare programs did not deliver

If education reform is absolutely essential, we also have to look at other impediments that make it difficult for those who do not have a seat at the table to get one. Unfortunately, well-meaning public policy initiatives aimed at helping the poor designed long ago have failed, in most cases miserably. The “War on Poverty” programs rolled out with great hope in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson failed –in a spectacular manner. After 50 years and 21 trillion spent (in today’s dollars) poverty levels have not changed in America.

May be this is about having chosen and pursued the wrong approach. The main shortcoming is that a host of public assistance programs at best managed to make poverty tolerable, as opposed to offering a meaningful path out of poverty. Various forms of subsidies and public assistance help poor people to survive. But they have failed to change the fundamentals, so that more confident and better skilled individuals will have both the tools and the self-confidence to engage and move up in the world.

Skills more valuable thank checks

Changing the structure and the goals of public assistance will be very complicated. But it is an immensely important goal. If we want everybody to have a fair chance in America , then we should do our best to create the enabling environment that will make this possible for millions who are or feel like outsiders, with no chance to join the mainstream.

In order to have a chance, poor people need tools that will help them get out of poverty. First and foremost they need marketable skills, along with some income security and health care services. Monthly checks alone, while useful, will not do the trick. Guaranteeing subsistence is better than condemning the poor to starvation. But it does not help them move up in the world. It will simply make them perpetual dependents on public welfare.

With Joe Biden in the lead, can our national leaders overcome partisan prejudice and work together so that our society will be able to benefit from the contributions of millions of people who are currently marginalized, simply because they are trapped in an endless, multigenerational cycle of poverty and dependence on ill-conceived welfare programs?

If at least some Democrats and Republicans could agree that removing impediments to access is an essential precondition for the creation of a truly inclusive Opportunity Society, then the next step is to improve the ecosystem in which all individuals and corporations operate.

The level playing field does not exist

The old myth still accepted by some is that all Americans, by virtue of being free citizens, are free to do pretty much whatever they want in the economic realm, within the limits of the law. Not so. If this were ever true, certainly it is not true today.

As noted above, lack of access to quality public education for millions of children created a de facto two tier society. The well educated in tier one have a chance to engage and succeed. All the others in tier two, without the benefit of the skills gained via good or at least decent education, struggle for the low paying jobs accessible to the uneducated. If they ever did, the Horatio Alger stories do not apply anymore.

Lobbies created privileged sectors

That said, even within the boundaries of the tier one well functioning economy, equal access to opportunity, a level playing field where all compete and the best succeed, is a myth. Constantly pressed by the lobbies of way too many special interest groups, politicians and policy-makers through carefully crafted laws, set asides, tax exemptions and regulations have created privileged economic categories who do better than they should thanks to the privileged status created by political protection secured by highly paid lobbyists.

Too much regulation

To make matters even worse, policy-makers and bureaucrats over many decades have also created an almost impenetrable regulatory thicket that makes it extremely hard for many would-be entrepreneurs to launch a new venture or run an established one. The combined effect of all this is both unfair and very wasteful. Picking winners and losers based on arbitrary choices leads to the misallocation of finite resources. Unnecessary bureaucratic complexity adds confusion to lack of fairness. All in all, these are not the ingredients for building a vibrant, innovation driven US economy.

Ideally, all lawful economic activities should enjoy the same level of access and legal protection. No more special treatment for anybody. Of course, some regulations are necessary. But they should be sensible, not punitive. They should be about safeguarding public health and preserving the environment according to acceptable, common sense, scientifically supported modern standards. For example, environmental impact reports for new infrastructure should not require years and years of studies and revisions, this way obstructing the implementation of new projects.

The way forward

Well, you get the picture. On account of basic inequality when it comes to access to education, and unfairness created by legislated privileges and exclusions, combined with the obstacles created by a regulatory jungle, America is no longer the Opportunity Society that attracted throngs of immigrants for such a long time.

Can President Joe Biden rally bipartisan support around an agenda aimed at removing barriers and privileges, so that all Americans will have a seat at the table and therefore the opportunity and the will to engage and thrive? I really hope so.

Doing nothing or just nibbling at the edges of these massive problems will deepen already sharp class divisions and widespread feelings of alienation, while preventing America as a whole from growing as much as it could. This is a tall order, I recognize it. But this is a worthwhile endeavor for President Joe Biden.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.

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