E.J. Dionne — A challenge to conservatives

It’s good that conservatives are finally taking seriously the problems of inequality and declining upward mobility. It’s unfortunate that they often evade the ways in which structural changes in the economy, combined with conservative policies, have made matters worse.

Occupy Wall Street, whatever its future, will always merit praise for placing inequality at the center of our politics. The biggest sign of the Occupiers’ success: Conservatives once stubbornly insisted that inequality wasn’t a problem because the United States was the land of opportunity and upward mobility. Now they are facing the fact that we are by no means the most socially mobile country in the world.

Reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and others show that social mobility is greater elsewhere, notably in Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden and Germany.

What do these countries have in common? Not to put too fine a point on it, all have national policies that are, in right-wing parlance, more “socialist” or (to be precise) social democratic than ours. They guarantee their citizens health insurance. They have stronger union movements and more generous welfare states. They tend to keep higher education more affordable. In most cases, especially Germany’s, they have robust apprenticeship and job training programs. They levy higher taxes.

The lesson from this list is not that cutting back government, gutting unions and reducing taxes on the rich will re-create an America of opportunity. On the contrary, we need more active and thoughtful government policies to become again the nation we claim to be.

We also need to be more candid about the large forces that are buffeting the American middle class. Writing in The Nation about Timothy Noah’s excellent new book “The Great Divergence,” William Julius Wilson, the distinguished Harvard sociologist, nicely summarized the factors Noah sees as explaining rising disparities of wealth and income.

They included “the increasing importance of a college degree due to the shortage of better-educated workers; trade between the United States and low-wage nations; changes in government policy in labor and finance; and the decline of the labor movement. He also considers the extreme changes in the wage structure of corporations and the financial industry, in which American CEOs typically receive three times the salaries earned by their European counterparts.”

Most conservatives accept the importance of education, but then choose to ignore all the other forces Noah describes.

Recently, my friends David Brooks and Michael Gerson used their columns to address the decline in mobility. It’s to the credit of these two conservatives that they did so, yet both found ways of downplaying the challenge inequality poses to conservatism itself.

Brooks cited a fine study by Robert Putnam, also a Harvard scholar, noting that the different parenting styles of the upper middle class and the working class are aggravating inequalities. Brooks’ conclusion: “Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.”

Yes, parenting (including the time crunch that two- or three-income working-class families face) is part of the issue, which is why I also admire Putnam’s study. But the balance in Brooks’ call to arms is entirely false. It’s not 1969 anymore. Progressives — including Wilson, Barack Obama and, if I may say so, yours truly — have been talking about the importance of family breakdown for decades. Brooks rightly acknowledges the need for measures to help those skidding down the class structure. The barrier here is not liberal attitudes toward the family but conservative attitudes toward government.

Gerson also said sensible things about promoting a “broad diffusion of skills and social capital,” but then closed by accusing liberals of wanting to “soak the rich” and insisting that “economic redistribution is not the answer.”

Actually, liberals are not for “soaking the rich,” unless you consider the Clinton-era tax rates some kind of socialist bath. And as the experience of the more social democratic countries shows, a modest amount of “economic redistribution” — to offset the radical redistribution toward the very rich of recent decades — can begin the process of restoring the kind of mobility we once bragged about.

My challenge to conservatives worried about inequality is to follow the logic of their concern to what may be some uncomfortable conclusions, especially in an election year.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.