Excellence vs. Equality: Can Society Achieve Both Goals?
reviewed by Dennis Condron - April 20, 2018
In Excellence vs. Equality: Can Society Achieve Both Goals? Allan C. Ornstein wrestles with numerous important questions pertaining to the high degree of economic inequality facing the contemporary United States. The books basic questions are: How much excellence do we want to stress? and How equal do we want to be? (p. 5). However, in reality, Ornstein takes on pretty much every issue that swirls around in the minds of those of us who are concerned about social stratification. Unquestionably, economic inequality has been rising for about four decades now. This trend serves as the backdrop against which Ornstein problematizes high inequality and favors greater equality of opportunity. The author laments many downsides to society having too much inequality: a large portion of human potential is curtailed (p. 94), excessive inequality reduces economic growth (p. 96), society becomes more divisive leaving those at the bottom marginalized, rejected and disenfranchised (p. 97), and extreme inequality... shrinks the middle class and destroys the common purpose and common good of society (p. 97). For Ornstein, reducing inequality and equalizing opportunity will require more than the kinds of changes that we typically hear about, such as ensuring that schools are equally funded and putting robust safety nets in place. Indeed, the author goes much further in proposing caps on income and wealth:
More equality is possible in a democracy if citizens choose it. What the people need to do is use their voice and vote for political leaders who will put people before property, legislate a floor and ceiling in income and wealth, and pay people based on how their performance (or job) influences the common good and not as a profit vs. cost factor. (p. 171)
Readers must be patient; it takes time for Ornsteins perspective and main arguments to emerge. Early on, he is searching for talent and drawing on the work of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, leaving one to wonder where this train is headed. Eventually, though, Ornstein sounds like a Marxist:
Capitalism naturally leads to inequality, where a tiny minority controls the capital, equipment or land and runs the show. The remaining populace offers their labor and work skills to earn a living... the U.S. capitalist system is characterized by a tiny minority making piles of money while millions of Americans are plagued by debt, struggling with unemployment or underemployment, and worried about how much money they have left for retirement and their childrens college education. (p. 166)
Along the way, the chapters and sections of chapters often do not coalesce around main points that support an overall argument. As a side note, although the book does have a list of references, it is littered with instances of specific information not being backed up by citations of the informations source. This is especially true of Chapter Three, Socio-Economic Class and Mobility, which addresses topics ranging from the meaning of a just society to the distinction between equality and equity to the wages of Wal-Mart workers, but concludes disappointingly that achieving the right balance between equality and excellence is a balancing act... that perhaps someone... can figure out... as our leaders and statesmen cannot come to a consensus (p. 105). This point leads me to three critiques.
First, the author could have spent less time describing the current state of affairs and more time grappling with ways forward. Clearly, the U.S. is experiencing a high degree of political polarization currently. We and our representatives are divided on all kinds of issues, not the least of which is the role of government in regulating the economy. Readers are likely to be frustrated, then, by Ornsteins lack of elaboration on his own suggestion that we implement caps on income and wealth as a way to reduce inequality. He frames this idea as a basic one in a democracy: Every nation that professes to be democratic, humane and/or just, needs to implement a floor and ceiling regarding income and wealth (p. 136). However, in reality, this is a very radical idea in a country in which the government does not provide single-payer healthcare or tuition-free college or even mandate that employers provide workers with a minimum amount of vacation time. How, then, do we work toward caps on income and wealth? Who is even talking about this? Where do we even begin?
Second, speaking of government-funded healthcare and college tuition, the book lacks discussion of other affluent societies that wrestle with the same excellence-versus-equality questions. Ornstein very clearly notes that we choose our level of inequality, but for some reason does not deem it worthwhile to discuss other affluent countries strategies for maintaining lower levels of inequality than we do. Ornstein is quick to celebrate the idea that the U.S. has a greater degree of opportunity compared to poor countries, but how do we do compared to other affluent societies? Surely we can learn from countries that maintain high standards of living but lower levels of economic inequality.
Third, the book overlooks the role that racial stratification plays in shaping overall economic inequality in the U.S. Ornstein is concerned with racial intolerance on a global level in Chapter Two, but otherwise he includes only a very brief (one-paragraph) discussion that explicitly addresses income and wealth disparities between blacks and whites in the U.S. This issue is directly related to the rise of overall income inequality that, as noted above, serves as the backdrop to his main arguments. In the decades following the implementation of FDRs New Deal legislation (which excluded most blacks), income inequality declined. Following the passage of several pieces of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, many whites, especially in the South, shifted their support from the Democratic to the Republican Party, and for decades have elected representatives who have chipped away at the progressive policies that had been reducing inequality (see Massey, 2008, for an elaboration). While it is worth pointing to large-scale changes such as technological advancements and globalization as key sources of rising inequality, it is critical to remember that racial division led to the political realignment that has produced policies that have increased income and wealth inequality. For example, the top income tax rate plummeted from 70% to 28% under Ronald Reagan (Massey, 2008). The benefits of tax cuts for the wealthy were supposed to trickle down, but income inequality has continued to rise, mostly due to gains at the top. The point is, the Great U-Turn (Harrison & Bluestone, 1988), the moment when income inequality reversed course and began to rise, was fueled in part by racial division.
Ornstein briefly mentions in the introduction that the real losers are the people who vote against their own economic interests because of some racial or cultural rational [sic] (p. 4), but this does not do the issue justice considering the implications for the future with which Ornstein is so deeply concerned. Given the continued racial stratification and tension in the contemporary U.S., how are we going to achieve Ornsteins goal of capping income and wealth in order to reduce inequality? Reducing overall inequality would produce disproportionate gains for disadvantaged minorities, since they are overrepresented at the bottom of the stratification system. The history discussed here suggests that action to significantly reduce economic inequality is highly unlikely until whites are comfortable with minorities making gains. The book does not adequately consider this barrier to reducing economic inequality.
Equality vs. Excellence leaves readers with an unresolved tension between optimism and pessimism that makes it difficult to imagine a way forward. On the one hand, Ornstein reminds us repeatedly that the U.S. is a great country and suggests ways in which we need to work toward greater equality of opportunity for all. Presumably, he believes it is possible to do that. On the other hand, he drives home the point that inequality has become extreme and that we are heading toward the creation of a new aristocracy much worse than the autocratic world that our Founding Fathers feared and tried to avoid (p. 139). Which is it? What are we to conclude from the material presented to us in the books 172 pages? Ornstein is to be commended for raising hugely important questions and giving us much to think about, but I am not sure that the book helps move us beyond our current class, racial, and gender divides to forge a clear path toward reducing inequality and boosting opportunity.
Harrison, B., & Bluestone, B. (1988). The great u-turn: Corporate restructuring and the polarizing of America. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Massey, D. S. (2008). Categorically unequal: The American stratification system. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.