Sunday, November 29, 2009

A paradox of plenty - hunger in America

Brend Debusmann, writing for Reuters in his article "A paradox of plenty--hunger in America" (Nov. 24th, 2009), gives both a false analysis of equality in America, and offers a poor comparison of opportunity in America to opportunity in Europe.
After all, a bedrock belief in America held that this is the land of unlimited opportunities where every citizen has an equal chance to succeed and become rich.  That requires an assumption that the system is fair.  How many Americans still believe that?  Last summer, a pair of political scientists, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, published a study whose findings included that just 28 percent thought the present distribution of wealth is fair.
The author's evidence has nothing to do with his claim.  Although more than two thirds of Americans may think that Bill Gates does not deserve his billions, that it is "unfair" that he is so wealthy, this in no way informs wether or not each of these displeased Americans had the opportunity to obtain, for example, the schooling necessary to become their own Bill Gates.  Drive, of course, is a pre-requisite to obtaining wealth.  Ex post inequality of outcome does not presuppose ex ante inequality of opportunities.

Also, the article falsely implies that the chance of joining the middle class for poor children in America is lower than in other European nations.
More evidence that the gap between myth and reality is shrinking comes from the American Human Development project, a research group which found that "social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other affluent nations...a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar curcumstances."
 To see why this is a misleading statistic, imagine that half of American children are poor, and half middle class.  Suppose also that assignment into adulthood social class is random, so that a poor child has the same chance as a middle class child of ending up either middle class or poor.  Then, the chance of ending up middle class is 50% for a poor child, just as it is for a child born in the middle class.  Suppose now that 80% of European children are middle class and only 20% are poor.  Then, suppose that class re-assignment is random, so that a poor child has a 80% chance of entering the middle class in adulthood.    We see that under such a random assignment, the chance that a poor child becomes middle class depends completely on the size of the middle class relative to the lower class.

In fact, middle classes may not be comparable.  For example, in Soviet Russia, the probability that a homeless child entered the "middle class" was likely quite large, but the child's living standard, quite low.  All of this implies that expected future income of poor children should be as relevant a measure of lower-class mobility as the probability that those children rise to the ranks of the middle class.  Given this information, we may find that a poor child would quite prefer to take a chance on more in America over less in Germany.

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