Writing for The Nation, New York Times columnist/perennial Bush basher Paul Krugman hauls out the tired old left-wing argument that capitalism makes the poor poorer. Krugman’s evidence is a recent study by Business Week magazine pointing out that during the first 30 years after World War II, 23 percent of adult men whose fathers were in the bottom 25- percent income bracket had made it to the top 25-percent bracket by 1978. By contrast, only 10 percent of today’s sons of lowest-quartile men make it to the top bracket. Krugman blames the decline in social mobility on–guess what–Dubya’s tax cuts of the last couple of years. You know, slashing the estate tax (although God knows what that has to do with social mobility), reducing taxes for corporations and people with high incomes, etc. I guess the idea is that if you make the top quartile poorer, the bottom quartile will look richer.
Krugman’s solution for the supposed social stasis consists of Ye Olde Great Society: Let’s make government bigger: Here he is castigating Bush for not doing same:
“Meanwhile, on the spending side, you’d cut back on healthcare for the poor, on the quality of public education and on state aid for higher education. This would make it more difficult for people with low incomes to climb out of their difficulties and acquire the education essential to upward mobility in the modern economy. And just to close off as many routes to upward mobility as possible, you’d do everything possible to break the power of unions, and you’d privatize government functions so that well-paid civil servants could be replaced with poorly paid private employees.”
Mickey Kaus calls Krugman’s bluff in a few well-chosen words:
“Economic inequality’s clearly growing, because the rich are rapidly getting richer. What I resist is the idea that the average worker is getting poorer in absolute terms’. Arguing in this fashion that capitalism doesn’t “deliver the goods” is a mug’s game. It’s the one thing capitalism does! The New Left knew that. The Newer, Hack Left seems to have forgotten. Have Krugman and [“the NYT’s perpetually gloomy Louis”–Kaus] Uchitelle been to Best Buy and seen all the average families buying big-screen TVs? Casual empiricism suggests that the vast majority of citizens are also getting richer, just more slowly–i.e. not enough to stop the rich-poor “gap” from widening. That gap creates lots of profound problems, but the progressive immiseration of the citizenry is not one of them.”
But there’s more at stake here: Those upwardly mobile poor guys of the 1930s through the 1950s didn’t have a Great Society. There was no such thing as Medicaid, much less big federal dollars for education. What they did have, generally speaking, were intact, father-headed families and a public school system that functioned on such old-fashioned principles as teaching kids something solid. The reasons for today’s economic stagnation at the bottom are likely to be moral as economic. Maybe it’s worth looking into the real reasons why 10 percent of lowest-class young men are actually succeeding big-time, while many others, as Kaus points out, manage to attain comfortable if not huge incomes.