What’s so special about equality of opportunity?

July 16, 2012

Larry Summers has an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning arguing that our economic policy should be centered around maximizing equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcomes. This is a common sentiment across the political spectrum. Rep. Paul Ryan, for one, has repeatedly defended his budget as promoting equality of opportunity.

Which is funny, because the distinction between equality of opportunity (usually phrased in terms of upward income mobility) and equality of outcomes (the raw distribution of income or wealth in an economy) is not as big as it sometimes appears. More specifically, countries with high inequality of outcomes (as measured by the Gini index of economic inequality) tend to have low social mobility (as measured by the association between parents' and childrens' incomes) as well. This was the point of chief Whited House economist Alan Krueger's famed (or at least famed among wonks) "Great Gatsby" curve, which plotted various countries' Gini indices against social mobility. At the time of Krueger's speech, economist Miles Corak - whose work Krueger cited - put together this more comprehensive chart:

Now, obviously this correlation isn't perfect, and the countries below the regression line have figured out how to have more social mobility than their Gini coefficient would suggest. What's more, Krueger's numbers have encountered some criticism (which, in my humble opinion, is unfounded). But the fact remains that every country with substantially more mobility than the U.S. is more equal in terms of outcomes as well. The distinction between equality of outcomes and opportunity has some theoretical appeal, but in practice, you get both or neither.

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Suzy Khimm · July 16, 2012