Equality vs. Sufficiency: Opportunity Edition

Ezra Klein is out today with an interesting piece on the concept of equality of opportunity vs. sufficiency of opportunity. To quote at length:

Take equality of opportunity. Everyone in American life professes to believe in equality of opportunity. But nobody really believes in it. Equality of opportunity is often set in opposition to equality of outcome. Communists believe in equality of outcome. Capitalists believe in equality of opportunity.

In truth, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome aren’t opposites. They’re partners. Companions. Inseparable amigos. You can’t have real equality of opportunity without equality of outcome. A rich parent can purchase test prep a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can usher their children into social networks a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can make donations to Harvard that a poor parent can’t…

When people say they believe in “equality of opportunity,” they really mean they believe in “sufficiency of opportunity.” They don’t believe all children should start from the same place. But they believe all children should start from a good enough place. They believe they should have decent nutrition and functioning schools and a safe community and loving parents. They believe they should have a chance.

I typically agree with most of what Ezra Klein has to say, but today I have to contest a substantial chunk of what Ezra has written above—even if we would probably mostly agree about the ideal policy solutions to the problems preventing equality (or sufficiency) of opportunity. I think a useful place to start, however, would be with defining equality of opportunity—something that Klein neglects to do. For me, it’s basically about the means to an end—two children of equal ability that expend equal effort should be able to obtain the same position later in life regardless of socioeconomic background, race, religion, etc.

To this end, I think Ezra has made the huge mistake of conflating equality of access with equality of opportunity. Sure, the rich will always be able to afford relatively more for their children than those less well-off. And, today, I certainly don’t think that we have anything resembling equality of opportunity in our country, and I think that access is a part of the problem right now. However, I think that access has significantly diminishing returns beyond a certain point, and that it is possible to obtain equality of opportunity without necessarily obtaining equality of access.

For example, let’s say that every child in America had access to the best public school in the country. In this scenario, every student with the ability to score well on the SAT and AP tests would receive the necessary education to perform equivalently to their ability level; at this point in time, a rich parent’s ability to afford a test prep class for their child is an insignificant advantage over the child of the poor parents that was still able to score a 2200 on his/her SAT and pass a number of AP tests with the help of his/her excellent teachers in his/her excellent public school.

OK, so we’ve significantly minimized the achievement gap between the poor student and the rich student—the rich student will still have an advantage over the poor student when applying to Harvard, because his father (the alum) made a significant donation and his SAT score is slightly higher (as a result of the SAT test prep course). [I imagine that would be the argument from Klein.] In response, I would say that this argument is a conflation of equality of outcomes in high school with equality of opportunity to succeed in college. If you believe the admissions departments of most (highly selective, at least) colleges, each individual is evaluated with respect to their background in a ‘holistic and individualistic’ evaluation process. Thus, the access that the rich student had in high school is actually discounted by the admissions committee, because with more access, that student should have been able to achieve more in high school. (For me, it is an open question whether this is actually how admissions committees operate—based on my experience, I am open to the idea that there is, at least, some of this going on in college admissions departments). And, as I’ve written before, I also think it is an open question (and, in fact, quite likely) that alumni donations matter very little in admissions decisions. So, in this scenario, with just the basic access to a high-quality education, the poor student has an equal (or, as close to it as you can get) chance to get into a top top University.

Of course, you can go on and argue that there is insufficient opportunity for the poor kid to attend Harvard because of tuition and financial aid practices that advantage the wealthy (I’m in agreement here); you can argue that after Harvard, the poor kid will be at a disadvantage in the labor market because his/her parents don’t have the connections that the rich parents do (I’m in agreement here as well). These are difficult problems, but I think they are solvable problems, and solvable in a way that doesn’t require complete equality of outcomes to the extent that Klein implies. The financing of higher education is not conceptually difficult to solve (though the policy solutions may be difficult to implement). Overcoming the network access advantages of the rich in terms of finding employment may be more difficult, but here I think the combination of access to the social networks of highly competitive universities (and their alumni) combined with the democratizing impact of technological social networks (LinkedIn, in particular) can greatly reduce the advantage of being the child of a ‘well-connected’ parent.

So, do I agree with Ezra that we need equality of outcomes for equality of opportunity? Absolutely not. Do I agree with Ezra that what we have right now doesn’t even approach sufficiency of opportunity? Yes. And I think we would agree that many of the obvious policy solutions require a larger role for the state—cheap and widely available access to health care; extremely high quality public schools; more comprehensive (and affordable) financial aid, reduced gang/youth violence, etc. The key here, for me, is two-fold: access to a home environment that minimizes childhood stress (stress that has been demonstrated to have a significantly negative impact on educational performance) and access to a high-quality educational system.

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One thought on “Equality vs. Sufficiency: Opportunity Edition

  1. Pingback: The not so great Gatsby | lil stevie's econ blog

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