One side thinks government is the problem; the other, that it is the solution.
Those of us who consider ourselves political "moderates" see the logic of both arguments and tend to think the right answer is somewhere between the two extremes.
But that isn't always true.
Consider David Brooks' column in the New York Times. He writes about a recent study showing that "the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities."
Brooks is citing research by political scientist Robert Putnam. In some ways, it seems to confirm conclusions drawn by Charles Murray, a political scientist at the other end of the political spectrum.
But that doesn't mean, as Brooks suggests, that conservative and liberal policy makers should meet in the middle to find a solution. The answer is not necessarily a combination of tax and spending cuts in some arbitrary proportion.
Putnam's data is alarming. He discovered that the affluent spend more time with their kids, invest more in their kids' extracurricula activities, and just generally pay more attention to them, especially in infancy when cognitive development is at critical stages. And when he looks at outcomes, he sees a stark difference. The children of the less affluent don't do as well in school, they participate less in sports and other activities, they volunteer less.
Looking ahead, Putnam predicts “There’s a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life. A social mobility crash is coming." He says everyone who’s looked at the data agrees.
Determining the cause of this state of affairs is critical. If you blame government programs that undermine poor people's self-reliance and initiative, leading to eroding social structures, as Murray does, you will come up with starkly different solutions than if you think the causes lie elsewhere.
Putnam, for example, tends to agree with Laura Bush, who has said: “If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids.”
Putnam's research, which probably won't find its way into a book for another two years, is alarming. He draws a straight line from family income, to the way kids are raised, to their social mobility and opportunties in life.
As the conservative thinker, Arthur Brooks, aptly put it: "The real question is whether America is an opportunity society. If it is, then inequality is fair. If it isn't, then inequality isn't fair."
Most of the available data suggests that opportunity for the less affluent has been in decline in recent decades. Tax reductions, government transfers, educational investments, and job openings have all favored the most affluent among us.
That's the problem we should be addressing.