Equal opportunity is both impossible and necessary. Impossible because differences in family background and individual preferences and abilities will always mean that some people do better than others, even from the same starting point. But necessary, because only when we strive for the ideal can gaps in opportunity be held at acceptable levels.
This is why the American Dream is vital the very idea of America itself. It is how an individualistic culture delivers on the nation’s founding egalitarian promise. James Truslow Adams was told in 1931 that he could not call his book The American Dream: his publishers told him that Americans were a practical people, who would never buy a book about a dream. How wrong they were: the Dream itself was bought!
And what is it? “A dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman,” according to Truslow Adams, “unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being…”
The need and impossibility of equal opportunity are highlighted in an important new book, Bottlenecks – A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, by legal philosopher Joseph Fishkin. As his title implies, Fishkin is concerned with key transition points that over-determine your path through life. Bottlenecks are, in his conception, “narrow places through which people must pass if they hope to reach a wide range of opportunities that fan out on the other side.” A college education is perhaps the quintessential contemporary bottleneck.
Fishkin suggests the goal of policy is to get more people from more diverse backgrounds through these bottlenecks. This is a key concern, as elite colleges cater increasingly for affluent kids: the average annual household income of a Harvard undergraduate’s parents is over $400,000, it is, as Thomas Piketty points out.
The next goal is to get more folk around the bottleneck. In this instance, that means ensuring that a college degree does not become the only way to achieve success in the labor market. Within-career upward mobility looks to be declining in the U.S., according to work by Katherine Bradbury at the Boston Fed. More attention needs to be paid to post-secondary learning opportunities that do not lead to BAs. And more firms need to follow the example of companies like Chipotle, and create clear pathways for upward promotion, without an artificial glass floor of a college degree being imposed.
But Fishkin also poses a deeper challenge: to replace the current “unitary” opportunity structure of the U.S. with greater opportunity pluralism, with more paths leading to a broader palette of successful lives. Right now, any parent looking at the opportunity structure of the U.S. would be crazy to do anything other than get their children to as good a college as possible, and keep them there long enough to get a four-year degree. Vox.com lists 16 ways in which college graduates are different, ranging from higher marriage rates to a preference for Starbucks over McDonalds. But the big differences are in higher wages, better health, more upward income mobility, greater job security, more interesting work, greater personal autonomy, and so on. Again: if you’re a parent, you’re crazy not to want these things for your kids.
The problem is that if possession of a BA becomes virtually a pre-requisite for many of the good things in life, we all become, as Fishkin points out, “locked people into a series of concentrated zero-sum competitions with our peers.” The stakes of certain contests become too high, especially given declining within-career mobility opportunities. Opportunity starts to look more like a high-jump contest, in which one performance over one bar is what counts, rather than hurdles, where success and failure can be found all the way along the track.