From Oppression Narrative to Opportunity Narrative

by James A. Bacon

I have fallen into a trap — a snare of my own making. Day after day, Americans are subjected to a barrage of commentary and “news” on the topic of racial/gender-driven victimhood and grievance, the most recent example being today’s New York Times‘ 16019 Project, which reinterprets American history through the lens of slavery and racism as if they were the sole defining attributes of the American experience. And I react to this stuff. When the issues hit home at a state/local level, I devote article after article detailing the falsehoods, unfounded assumptions, and sins of omission. Because there is a never-ending supply of victimhood-and-grievance stories, a never-ending rounds of rebuttals is called for. As a result, I spend far more time writing about what I’m against than what I’m for.

Today I shall devote myself today to outlining in broad brush strokes a positive vision for Virginia going forward. In the long run, parsing the  flaws of the Victimhood and Grievance Narrative will take us only so far. If those espousing conservative/libertarian principles wish to win converts, they need to formulate an alternative narrative — what I’ll call the Opportunity Narrative — that appeals to all peoples and creeds.

The Victimhood and Grievance Narrative is inherently backward looking, dwelling on past injustices to stoke the resentments of racial/ethnic groups. (It is important to note that some on the Right have adopted the rhetoric and logic of group-based grievance and victimhood, making them guilty of sins similar to those of the Left.) The forward-looking Opportunity Narrative asks, how do we empower individuals, regardless of racial/ethnic/gender identity, to improve their lives?

The Opportunity Narrative builds on a critical proposition: In the long run, after happenstance and luck and economic cycles are filtered out, an individual’s earning power is based upon his or her economic productivity. In other words, you get out of the economy what you put into the economy. This rule does not explain all variability in economic outcomes, but productivity is the key driver that dwarfs all others. To enjoy shared and widespread prosperity, we must bolster peoples’ labor productivity.

Many factors determine an individual’s productivity. One set of influences revolves around one’s character: one’s ambition, work ethic, perseverance in the face of setbacks and hardships, and willingess to defer gratification for future reward. Another set of influences — those that are more amenable to manipulation by public policy — consists of the knowledge and skills that an individual acquires. Americans, especially early in their careers, derive much of their economically useful knowledge and skills from the education system, both K-12 and higher education.

The Opportunity Narrative has a moral dimension. It says that the bourgeois virtues — hard work, thrift, perseverance, etc. — are not limited to particular racial/ethnic groups. (It is a libel to suggest, for instance, that excelling academically is “acting white.”) Anyone who embraces the bourgeois virtues can experience upward social mobility. Those who spurn the virtues will likely experience downward mobility… or just spend their lives at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap.

The Opportunity Narrative has a practical dimension as well: People need to avail themselves of educational opportunities in order to learn skills (reading, writing, etc.) they typically cannot acquire from their families. In the realm of public policy, the most important thing we can do is ensure that children receive a solid education. It is not realistic to expect schools to make up for all the deficiencies of a child’s upbringing and dysfunctional social environment, but they should provide core skills for those willing to learn.

For the most part Virginia public schools are pretty good, at least when judged by U.S. standards. Arguably, we should aim higher. In the meantime, we need to focus on the small subset of public schools that are manifest failures — schools that, for whatever reason, chronically under-perform peer institutions when educating children of comparably challenged backgrounds. We should endeavor to help those schools  reform themselves. If they cannot, then we should create mechanisms — charter schools, private-school vouchers, whatever — that allow parents to seek educational alternatives for their children. Society’s core commitment should be to the children, not to public schooling as an institution.

Most jobs require some education beyond high school. The Opportunity Narrative finds dignity in all types of work, whether white collar, blue collar, whatever. The Opportunity Narrative recognizes that different people have different skills and aptitudes, and that not everyone benefits from attending a four-residential college. Indeed, millions of Americans have endeavored and failed to earn four-year degrees, and they now drag around tens of thousands of dollar in student debt as a result. The Opportunity Narrative champions middle-skill occupations that can be acquired at the fraction of the cost of a four-year degree.

While not everyone is well advised to attend four-year colleges, we must make advanced education more accessible financially as well. Higher ed in Virginia, as it is nationally, has been captured by academic constituencies that put institutional interests before those of students. The result has been a soaring cost of education in exchange for negligible gains in educational value. The Opportunity Narrative calls for stripping down higher-ed to its core educational mission and passing along the savings to students and their families. Other missions are superfluous and should be dropped. Some missions, such as research and development, need to find other funding sources than students tuition and fees. As with K-12 pupils and schools, the Opportunity Narrative prioritizes the needs of college students over the needs of the colleges and universities as institutions.

The Opportunity Narrative has much to say as well about taxation, housing, health care, economic development, energy & the environment, public safety, and quality of life. But the top priority is ensuring Virginians access to a solid education at affordable cost to parents and taxpayers. What people do with that opportunity is up to them.