Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- Passing the tax compromise between President Obama and congressional Republicans would be a notable achievement -- but mainly a negative one. It would avoid a contraction of the economy in January, when tax rates are scheduled to broadly rise. Deficit hawks are unhappy with another round of borrowed stimulus. But the first step in the recovery of economic health is the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds. On this commitment, at least, bipartisanship has returned.

Yet the deal also sparked an ideological argument on the nature of economic fairness. To some on the left, the refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy was a moral failure -- a surrender to inequality. Conservatives generally countered that economic inequality is a matter of indifference, as long as the economy is growing. Both arguments are notable for their shallowness.

The liberal case was carried by Bernie Sanders, who provided eight hours of outrage on the Senate floor concerning the unjust concentration of American wealth -- assuming the roles of both Mr. Smith and Mr. Engels. Progressives, who have dismissed the charge of socialism as a libel, seemed happy to accept ideological leadership from a self-described democratic socialist. The message was clear: If the Democratic Party were pure and courageous, it would be the British Labor Party.

The problem with this view is not that it is too radical but that it is too simplistic. Economic redistribution can meet some basic needs. We provide food stamps to relieve hunger or vouchers to make housing more affordable. But social equality is not achieved through redistributing cash. "Our research," argue Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, "shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent."

So the main reasons for inequality are failing schools, depressed and dysfunctional communities and fragmented families. For the most part, inequality does not result from a lack of consumption by the poor but from a lack of social capital and opportunity. Addressing these challenges is more complex than fiddling with the top tax rate.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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