“Obama’s Rawlsian Vision”

Steven Mazie, "Obama's Rawlsian Vision," The Economist, February 19, 2013.

LAST week’s state-of-the-union address received unexpectedly low marks from some commentators. For Paul Krugman, it was “not very interesting”. For countless other observers, it was a mere “laundry list” of proposals that have no chance of passing the Republican-led House of Representatives. Leaving aside the obvious questions (does anyone make actual laundry lists anymore? is a pair of dirty socks really the right metaphor for, say, universal pre-school?), another one strikes me: if Mr Obama’s speech did not fit the bill for an admirable state-of-the-union address for a recently re-elected president who campaigned on fiscal responsibility coupled with fairness in healing America’s vast inequalities, what would?

In our live-blog of the speech, I summed up the evening this way:

This was a good night for Mr Obama. The speech communicated with passion and swagger his administration’s priorities in his second term: a mixture of proposals that will appeal to both parties (immigration reform and spending cuts, most notably) and some that are a lot more controversial (further tax increases, gun control, climate-change policy). That’s an appropriately audacious agenda. Perhaps he overreached a bit at times in setting goals to end AIDS and world hunger, but drawing Americans’ attention to the globe’s neediest human beings seems appropriate in this forum. The first state-of-the-union address of a president’s second term is no time to be timid, and it was an admirable choice to bookend his proposals with appeals to good citizenship and a call to civic duty and reciprocity.
Looking at the speech a week later, I am even more convinced Mr Obama hit it out of the park. Yes, he presented a grand vision with a lot of policy proposals. But on the other hand:he presented a grand vision with a lot of policy proposals! Who else is advancing a legislative vision for the coming year? Marco Rubio, in rebuttal, offered a pitch that was identical to Mitt Romney’s platform in last year’s losing effort to take the White House. The would-be emperor had new clothes, a surprisingly irrepressible thirst and convincing anti-plutocrat credibility, but he had nothing new to add to the Republicans’ electoral platform of 2012. Let’s hear it for some new ideas!

And Mr Obama’s ideas—expanding public pre-school, raising the minimum wage, means-testing Medicare, raising taxes on the wealthy, creating more jobs for the middle class, making college more affordable, finding a humane path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—fit together as a coherent response to the increasingly yawning inequalities in America. As Emmanuel Saez, an economist at Berkeley, recently showed, the economic recovery has thus far benefited only the wealthiest Americans:

The numbers…show overall income growing by just 1.7 percent over the period. But there was a wide gap between the top 1 percent, whose earnings rose by 11.2 percent, and the other 99 percent, whose earnings declined by 0.4 percent.

Mr Saez, a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, an economic laurel considered second only to the Nobel, concluded that “the Great Recession has only depressed top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s.”
There is a lot to clarify and squabble about in Mr Obama’s proposals to reverse the trend Mr Saez identifies: research supporting the president’s proposal to expand pre-school is not unambiguous, as my colleague pointed out; an increase in the minimum wage, some say, may come with a price tag of higher unemployment; higher tax rates for the wealthy may not go far enough. These are all issues on which serious debate is needed, and one virtue of laying out a broad, bold agenda is to let a thousand debates bloom over the details.

Another virtue of this approach is to provide an overarching vision for the republic. The narrative Mr Obama articulates to frame the debates seems to flow directly from the pages of John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”. In that 1971 masterwork and in “Justice as Fairness” (2001), Rawls developed a political philosophy of liberalism that puts a premium on the value of equality. Though he was no strict egalitarian (Derek Parfit argues that his theory is better construed as “prioritarian”), Rawls hoped to identify the principles of justice that hold for a democracy where people cooperate productively and see each other as moral equals. Rawls’s first principle of justice, calling for “equal political liberties”, takes precedence over efforts to ease socioeconomic inequalities. But within these bounds, Rawls tried to identify and account for the “social, natural and fortuitous contingencies” that help shape “inequalities in citizens’ life-prospects”.

Boosting the chances of children whose life-prospects are otherwise hampered by their social class is precisely the case the president made for expanding public pre-school:

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.
Enhancing what Rawls calls “background justice”—the fair functioning of social institutions necessary for true equality of opportunity—is the moral impetus behind Mr Obama’s proposal. As Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in the New York Times over the weekend, this is exactly what America needs right now. It is also the essence of the justification behind the proposal to increase the minimum wage modestly (E.J. Dionne thinks too modestly) to $9.00 from its current rate of $7.25. In one of the most effective lines all night, Mr Obama coupled a Rawlsian defence of a livable income floor with a paean to the American work ethic: “[L]et’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”

One of the most controversial elements of Rawls’s theory is the so-called “difference principle” according to which inequalities are only justified insofar as they serve to maximise the position of the least well-off members of society. Income disparities are not inherently problematic, for Rawls or for Mr Obama; they are unjust only when they come at the expense of the poor. Recent research from Mr Saez shows this is exactly what is happening: as the pie is expanding, only the rich are getting an extra slice while the poor and middle class are stuck with the same portion, or less. Rawls’s principle may be too demanding, but its gist provides an excellent heuristic for policymakers. Whether Mr Obama’s myriad policy suggestions fit the bill is for Congress to decide, but the vision he heralded in his speech—the imperative to build real equality of opportunity for all Americans—has never been more apt.

The Economist