Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, offered a rather narrow view of opportunity in a recent interview (Luscombe, 2012). Stiglitz seemed to propose that opportunity can only be measured by what people actually do with opportunity, by whether people improve their lot in life at all economic layers in the United States. Stiglitz proposed that other countries have surpassed the United States as the so-called land of opportunity; while this may be the case, as measured by upward mobility, is this truly a reflection of lack of opportunity or does it more accurately reflect comparatively lower levels of motivation or execution resulting in capitalization on those opportunities?
Stiglitz raised a key factor in economic growth, which seems otherwise ignored, or at least under-considered, in the overall harm done to the economy if society either takes steps to restrict access to opportunities by economically disadvantaged people or does not consciously provide mechanisms to improve that access. Stiglitz asserted a artificial yet de facto restriction of access to the potential of people at or near the bottom of the economic ladder. I have long supported the premise that a key to sustainable improvement in business performance or the greater economy is to take strategic and tactical steps to raise the performance of those currently performing below their capabilities and capacities. On this point, I seemingly can agree with Stiglitz; however, even the best leaders cannot force people to do what they consciously or unconsciously elect not to do.
Leaders, whether political, academic, business and organizational, community, or religious and social, can encourage, empower, and inspire people to live into their potential. The opportunity to live into one’s potential is an insufficient driver of realized potential. The unasked question is whether systematic or systemic barriers prevent the realization or whether something else may be going on? Stiglitz approached the unasked question when he offered that free markets, in reality, are a false premise because laws and regulations shape all, or most, markets so access to opportunity may be artificially, yet legally, constrained.
If laws and regulations are constraining access to opportunity or it’s realization, then political leaders should take steps to identify those constraints and remove or change them. The people positioned to propose those changes are members of the so-called 1%, a term which Stiglitz also takes credit for first offering. Insufficient attention seems to get paid to the reality that a 1% will always be in a better position to do something than a 99%. We simply do not live in a society or world in which every is equal with equal resources, or equal power, or equal capacities, or equal potential. The labeling of people as members of “the 1%,” as if only one such strata exists, is also a false premise and is not necessarily or inherently a demeaning moniker.
The challenge that is greater than a simplistic label or cry of lack of opportunity is to develop the societal will to examine the causes for unequal access to and realization of opportunity and potential. How do leaders help members of society at all economic levels understand and seek to live into their potential. What defines opportunity and potential for individuals, for groups, and for society? Once somebody identifies their potential, we may find that the next major hurdle is getting people to want to live into it.
One of the biggest challenges I see as a graduate school professor land that I hear from my public school teacher colleagues is that students offer as a primary reason for not doing homework that they simply did not want to o it. Teachers cannot get students to work. Parents cannot or will not get students to work. Why should anybody expect the system to facilitate the attainment of a person’s potential when neither parent nor teacher nor, sadly, a large portion of students clearly demonstrate tat the will or the ability is not there?
Luscombe, B. (2012, June 11). 10 Questions, Time, 179(23), 66.