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Paul Ryan's Blunder

Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo reports that Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) committed a hilarious gaffe when he gave a speech yesterday about income inequality.

Here's the problem passage:

"In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of 'capital' and 'labor' are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.
"The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class.
"The United States was destined to break out of this bleak history. Our future would not be staked on traditional class structures, but on civic solidarity. Gone would be the struggle of class against class.
"Instead, Americans would work, compete, and co-operate in an open market, climb the ladder of opportunity, and keep the fruits of their efforts."

It's an excellent debating point: America has more opportunity but less equality, while hidebound Europe has more equality but less opportunity. So there! The trouble is that it isn't true. Europe these days has more equality and, to the extent we have data on this, more upward mobility too. It's a floor wax and a dessert topping!

Beutler cites a report from the Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project that shows the U.S. has fallen behind France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. The only criticism I'd make of Beutler's methodology is that he forgot Australia and Spain, which also enjoy more mobility than the U.S. And, in fairness, Beutler forgot Italy, which joins the United Kingdom in having less mobility than the U.S. (See page 7 of this OECD report.) Thank goodness someone does.

As I wrote last year in a Slate magazine series about income inequality, survey data shows that Americans believe in the possibility of upward mobility more fervently than do people in European countries that actually experience it more. We think we have more upward mobility. But we don't. Ryan, despite his wonky reputation, apparently is among those who embrace this widely-held illusion. Perhaps he thinks it would be unpatriotic to do otherwise.

Ryan and his aides must not be watching the Republican debates, because (as David Frum and my TNR colleague Alec McGillis have pointed out) Rick Santorum keeps using them to bring up America's lagging upward mobility relative to Europe. You can't really blame it on Obama because the international comparisons date to the Bush administration (2006 for Pew, 2007 for OECD). But bully to Santorum for bringing it up at all. Bully to Frum, too.

The Republican congressional leadership is now 0 for 2 in tackling income inequality with anything even approaching coherence. (See my earlier "Eric Cantor, Lake Wobegon Egalitarian.") It's a tough issue for them, and if I were hired to advise them I'd say just shut up about it, because it will only help Democrats tax the job-creators. (Santorum can't win with his mobility musings for similar reasons, but since the Republican nomination is another thing he can't win I say go for it.) An alternative for the GOP congressional leaders would be to minimize income inequality or try to argue that it doesn't exist at all, as some conservative intellectuals have done. But that's risky because it requires fanciful interpretation of extremely compelling data assembled by their very own budget office. No, I'm afraid the only thing for Cantor, Ryan, McConnell and the rest to do on income inequality is stonewall.