WASHINGTON — On economic policy, Barack Obama has left Mitt Romney an opening. The president has responded to a severe, continuing labor market slump with a four-year-old, marginally counterproductive tax increase proposal. His current economic agenda has little relevance to anything except his current political requirements — picking a political fight on tax-code equity to distract attention from his economic stewardship.
In response, Romney put a single, characteristically hesitant, toe through the opening. His NAACP speech featured rich themes of promoting “equal opportunity,” building “human capital” and lifting people from poverty. But Romney's supporting policy — from health care to energy to education reform — was resolutely untailored and uncreative.
To fill out an opportunity agenda, the Romney campaign might start by perusing a new report by the Economic Mobility Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which offers some challenging instruction across the political spectrum.
The Pew report analyzes how the income of families today compares to that of their parents' generation. The good news: On every rung of the economic ladder, median income has gone up — not equally but significantly. Even among the bottom 20 percent, income rose 74 percent between the two generations. Liberals need to accommodate the fact that the poor have not gotten poorer. The benefits of economic growth have been shared.
But relative mobility — the chance of rising to a higher income quintile — is stalled, particularly near the bottom. Conservatives must take seriously that America's poor are starting lower and rising less easily than in other developed nations — a problem often related to educational attainment and family structure. Income is not the only thing that matters. In the absence of mobility, inequality hardens into class division. The American ideal requires a realistic prospect of turning ability into achievement.
Witnessing a serious political discussion on the topic of mobility would require a plane ticket to London. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's recent speech to the Sutton Trust indicted an economic system characterized by “entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other” and touted a series of interesting policies to close the educational attainment gap between rich and poor. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband countered, in typical Labour fashion, that leveling equality is more important than opportunity.