Books

Must-Reads for 2017: Rethinking the American Dream

"Dream Hoarders" challenges the top 20 percent to help the bottom 80 move up.

Not necessarily the 1 percent.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dream Hoarders,” Richard V. Reeves’s book about the upper middle class, deserves the attention it's received since its publication earlier this year. Reviewers have rightly praised it for focusing on the highest-earning 20 percent of U.S. households, a broad swath of relatively affluent Americans far more numerous than the easy-to-caricature top 1 percent. Reeves raises hard questions about the way the upper-middle-class lives and how it passes its advantages along to its children.

Reeves made me question whether there should be limits for what we do for our children. He and I agree that bribing a college admissions officer would be immoral. But Reeves argues that it is also immoral to email a friend to see if your son can intern at his company, or to lean on your alma mater to admit your daughter into its freshman class. Those who do this, he argues, are “hoarding opportunity.”

What does he mean by that phrase? Reeves defines opportunity hoarding as enabling the allocation of “valuable, scarce opportunities” to be “influenced by factors unrelated to an individual’s performance.” This is a reasonable definition, but ultimately I object. Non-performance factors will always play a role in allocating scare opportunities, and practical ethics should take this into account.

In the real world, scarce opportunities — Reeves focuses in large part on internships — are allocated in part based on an applicant’s personality, looks, whether she picked up a strong work ethic from her parents, the quirks of the hiring manager, whether the interviewer is operating with a good night’s sleep and myriad other factors unrelated to the applicant’s performance. So long as I believe that these factors play a role in deciding whether my kid gets an internship, I’d have no problem pulling strings to push the outcome in his favor. (The ethics of the hiring firm in these situations is another matter, and another column.)

Indeed, a more general challenge to Reeves’s thesis — “that material inequalities generated by market competition are fair to the extent that the opportunities to prepare for the competition are equal” — is that such opportunities to prepare will never be equal, because so many of those opportunities depend on the accident of birth, including genetics, intelligence and being born to the good parents.

This challenge to Reeves’s thesis is also a challenge to my fellow conservatives, whose rhetoric champions equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. To make the distribution of opportunity look remotely close to equal would require a bigger government than many conservatives are comfortable with. Reeves’s book, which meditates on opportunity, should for this reason make conservatives uncomfortable.

Reeves tackles the nature of the American dream itself. He argues that a version of the American dream is “that those born at the bottom can rise to the top.” But he errs when he argues that rising to the top is part of a zero-sum game, where my success requires you to be worse off.

His argument stems from his focus on relative, rather than absolute, social mobility. Absolute social mobility measures, for example, whether today’s 40-year-olds are better off than their parents were when they were 40. Under this metric of mobility, everyone can be upwardly mobile. Relative mobility asks whether your rank in the income distribution curve — e.g., if you earn more than 75 percent of the population — is higher than your parents’ rank was when they were your age. For you to go up in rank, someone else has to go down.

Reeves prefers the latter definition. I prefer the former, in part because relative mobility is so hard to interpret. Reeves reports that 37 percent of children raised in households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution remain there as adults. He argues that this is too high, and suggests we have too little social mobility relative to the American ideal. But how does he make that determination? I might argue that the U.S. has a high degree of social mobility because 63 percent of kids raised in the top 20 percent fall to lower income ranks as adults. I would certainly argue that there should be some stickiness, because proper parenting should help at least some kids who are born in the top 20 percent to stay there as adults.

In addition, supporting absolute upward mobility is morally straightforward — who is opposed to everyone in society doing better than their parents? — whereas supporting relative upward mobility requires supporting relative downward mobility, which is ethically trickier. (To his credit, Reeves addresses this fact head-on.)

The ultimate flaw in Reeves’s analysis is in this foundation: Opportunity, along with the dreams it inspires, is not finite. They are not part of a zero-sum struggle of class versus class or child versus child. The U.S. may only have so many slots for Ivy League freshman every year, but taken as a whole, America is dripping with opportunity.

The challenge we face is how to create on-ramps to opportunity, and ultimately to flourishing lives, for all Americans, too many of whom find opportunity inaccessible. Our goal should be to pull more Americans up so that they can take advantage of all the opportunity available. That can be done without pushing opportunity away from the top 20 percent and toward the bottom.

At several points in his challenging and important book, Reeves — who was born in the U.K. on the Fourth of July — discusses with enthusiasm and pride his status as an American citizen. Viewed in light of his new passport, “Dream Hoarders,” which is at its core an inquiry into the distance between the reality of American life and our defining national ideals, is a significant contribution to a serious conversation about what America is at our core. It's a welcome act of citizenship from a new citizen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Michael R. Strain at mstrain4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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