Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 22, 2002


Paul Krugman writes that "[t]he official ideology of America's elite remains one of meritocracy," but that America is betraying this ideology by tolerating a "spectacular increase in American inequality" that"has made the gap between the rich and the middle class wider, and hence more difficult to cross, than it was in the past."

Here, as often, Professor Krugman misses the interesting, stranded issues that float - refugees in a frail dinghy - below the arc of his broadsides. Specifically, if it is true as Professor Krugman and the man he describes as his "Princeton colleague Alan Krueger" assert that "inherited status is making a comeback" then where are the twits? That is, where is the spectacular increase in incompetent people holding positions for which they are not qualified that should correspond to this supposed "spectacular increase in American inequality?" For example, one of the principal examples of the advantages of inherited "status" in the past was the ability of unqualified students to attend elite colleges. Has the quality of Princeton undergraduates or applicants - or undergraduates in the Princeton economics department - recently declined, for example? Professors Krugman and Krueger could easily determine that - why don't they say? (Professor Krueger certainly spends a lot of text on education in his discussions of his posited growing "inequality" - even proposing summer school vouchers while avoiding advocating full school vouchers, a dichotomy whose intellectual honesty the reader is invited to evaluate for herself.) Indeed, one also receives the impression from some quarters that if there has been a decline in some parts of the student body at places such as Princeton, it is often attributable to affirmative action programs - not to any brand of inherited privilege.

Professor Krugman does provide some examples of this "broader phenomenon" to which he sounds the alarm, but they only raise the interesting but ignored issue more prominently:

"America, we all know, is the land of opportunity. Your success in life depends on your ability and drive, not on who your father was. Just ask the Bush brothers. Talk to Elizabeth Cheney, who holds a specially created State Department job, or her husband, chief counsel of the Office of Management and Budget. Interview Eugene Scalia, the top lawyer at the Labor Department, and Janet Rehnquist, inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services. And don't forget to check in with William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and the conservative commentator John Podhoretz."

James Taranto points out that this list suggests another agenda on Professor Krugman's part:"To be precise, Krugman is upset that so many prominent Republicans' children are in positions of political prominence. He doesn't mention Al Gore, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Patrick Kennedy, Jesse Jackson Jr., Nancy Pelosi, Harold Ford Jr., Richard M. Daley, Bill Daley, Andrew Cuomo or Evan Bayh."

Mr. Taranto is, of course, completely correct. But the list has another remarkable feature: Professor Krugman provides no support for his implication (or, in the marvelous neologism of former Chicago Mayor Daley, Professor Krugman's insinuendo) that these people are not at least as accomplished as those who previously occupied their positions. That is, there appear to be no listed twits. The presence of William Kristol on the list is particularly telling: He is a brilliant political observer and writer (and the son of another) who almost single-handedly perceived that the Clintons' health care proposals would not be supported by the American people if adequately explained to them, and were, in fact, a political debacle for the Democrats. Mr. Kristol not only understood all that, but he convinced then-terrified Congressional Republicans to stand up to the President and the media on that basis. His accomplishments far exceed in the scope of their influence on matters of national economic significance anything that Professor Krugman can claim for his own. Is there some reason Mr. Kristol should not enjoy prominence? Similarly, Mr. Scalia and Janet Rehnquist both graduated from top law schools and held serious positions or responsibility before their current appointments. Nor are any other people on Professor Krugman's list reported to be incompetent in their positions. (Professor Krugman's references to the "Bush brothers", who within the past few weeks have each accomplished spectacular political successes, is not worth further mention.)

Yet, Professor Krugman entirely ignores Mr. Kristol's accomplishments and writes dismissively: "Mr. Scalia's principal personal claim to fame is his crusade against regulations that protect workers from ergonomic hazards, while Ms. Rehnquist has attracted controversy because of her efforts to weaken the punishment of health-care companies found to have committed fraud." But Mr. Scalia makes a convincing case that the "ergonomic hazards" he opposes are a figment of junk science, and the central purpose of regulation of health-care companies is to provide good health-care to patients, and malefactors should be "punished" only to the extent that central goal is not compromised. Professor Krugman may disagree with Mr. Scalia and Ms. Rehnquist, but he provides no basis for his implication that they are underqualified or beastly.

Of course there will always be twits and always have been twits. Both Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Patrick Kennedy, and perhaps Andrew Cuomo, have at least arguably operated in positions far beyond their personal competence - probably because of family influence and connections. But these two little mentally undernourished Kennedys and a possibly stray Cuomo are scarcely evidence of a "spectacular increase in American inequality."

Is the number of powerful twits increasing - "spectacularly" or otherwise? Or have Professors Krugman and Krueger unwittingly stumbled across a new kind of national "inequality" - an "inequality" which does not install less competent people in valued positions, but nevertheless somehow favors the children of accomplished parents? If so, should one be concerned?

Unfortunately, Professor Krugman's outdated rhetoric of class warfare almost completely obscures whatever economic substance may be present in the topic.

POSTSCRIPT: The focus here is on missed opportunities. This post is not intended to unpack the highly dubious analytics supposedly supporting the positions taken by Professors Krugman and Krueger. But MinuteMan labors cheerfully and diligently in that field. Suffice to say here that Professor Krugman's affection for Alan Krueger and his disapproval of Eugene Scalia perhaps have something to do with Professor Krugman's attitude towards perpetrators of junk science generally. In Professor Krugman's words, Alan Krueger's "main claim to fame" is his study and book advancing the argument that increasing the price of labor (minimum wage) "modestly" does not reduce the demand for minimum wage employment. Economics Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, for example, has noted that the methodology of the original study was "seriously flawed" (actually it was a textbook case of junk science) and Professor Krueger has been thoroughly discredited by Kevin Murphy, among others. But Professor Krueger wilfully refuses to abandon his position in that case - essentially restricting his responses to the weakest of his many critics' arguments.

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