Whenever the subject of inequality comes up, conservatives usually say the same thing: Barack Obama wants equality of outcome, while we want equality of opportunity. The first part is ridiculously disingenuous, of course—no one could honestly argue that Obama's major goals, like raising income taxes from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, would bring us to some kind of pure socialistic society where everyone has precisely the same income and no one is wealthier than anyone else. But the second part is, I think, offered sincerely. Conservatives not only seek a world where everyone has the same opportunities, most of them think that's pretty much what we have already, so major changes aren't necessary, except in the area of getting government off your back. After all, this is America, where any kid, no matter where he comes from, can achieve whatever he wants if he's willing to work hard. Right? Which brings me to the story of Tagg Romney.
Today's New York Times has a story about the private equity firm Tagg and the chief fundraiser from his dad's 2008 presidential run started after that campaign ended, called Solamere Capital. They didn't do anything illegal or unethical, so it isn't an exposé of wrongdoing or a potential problem for the current Romney campaign, just a somewhat interesting tale about how "that familiar path from politics to profit" works. But here's the portion that jumps out. Though neither of the two original founders had any experience in private equity, using their contacts among people who had donated to the Romney campaign they quickly found investors who gave them $244 million to play with:
Solamere's founders dispute any notion that they have cashed in on their political connections, arguing that Solamere, like any fund, has had to persuade investors on its merits.
"No one we went to as an investor said, 'Oh, your dad is Mitt Romney, I'm going to give you $10 million," Tagg Romney said, noting that his father's political future was uncertain when the firm began. He added, "Our relationships with people got us in the door, but that did not get us investors."
Even so, Mitt Romney was the featured speaker at Solamere's first investor conference in Deer Valley in January 2010. Mr. Romney, who made his fortune in private equity at Bain Capital, also gave early strategic advice.
Does Tagg Romney actually believe that his dad had nothing to do with his successful entry into the private equity game, and the millions he has made and will continue to make are the result only of his own merit? That his life is radically different from those of the millions of people struggling to get by only because they don't work as hard as he does, or have his gumption and entrepreneurial spirit? Maybe he does. That may strike you and me as utterly insane, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit.
I'm not privy to the private conversations among folks like Tagg, but in public anyway, it seems that conservatives have become particularly vehement in defending inequality since the meltdown of 2008, insisting that in America, there is no such thing as privilege, money comes only from merit, wealth is a sign of virtue, and if we raise taxes a smidge on those at the top of the income ladder, we're only "punishing success." Repeat that to yourself and others often enough, and you can easily come to believe that we really do have equality of opportunity. But true equality of opportunity is actually nearly as radical an idea as equality of outcome. True equality of opportunity would mean that every public school would be equally good, for instance. But of course they aren't—people with means move to towns with good schools precisely so they can give their kids more opportunity than other kids get.
There are a thousand ways in which wealth determines the opportunities available to you, in large part by making things easy. Yes, if you're a poor kid being raised by a single parent who never finished high school, you can get to Harvard. But you're going to have to be one in a million. It's going to take extraordinary spirit, determination, and luck for you to make it. I'm sure Tagg Romney is a fine fellow, but the truth is that even if he was a lazy dolt he'd still do well. He went to the best schools, his parents gave him all kinds of enriching experiences, and he never had to worry about much of anything. He wasn't going to get pulled out of college and have to take a job if one of his parents got sick. When he decided this private equity thing looked interesting, there was an escalator waiting, and all he had to do was hop on. That's opportunity.
So when conservatives begin arguing that we don't want equality of outcome, just equality of opportunity, look closely at what it is they're arguing against. More often than not it's the most modest of efforts to make things a just a bit easier for people who aren't at the top. Not a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, just some student loans you'll have to pay back. Not free nose jobs, just a guarantee of health insurance, so you know you won't lose your home if you get sick. Not enough money to buy that Cadillac, just a minimum wage high enough that you'll be able to feed your family. Not anything like real equality of opportunity, in other words. But even that is too much.