Friday, November 22, 2002
It's obvious you're run out of ideas when...: You're Paul Krugman and you come up with this as the basis for your column.
In Friday's column, Krugman attacks some Republicans for having successful progeny.
[A]merica, 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.
What's interesting is how little comment, let alone criticism, this roll call has occasioned. It might be just another case of kid-gloves treatment by the media, but I think it's a symptom of a broader phenomenon: inherited status is making a comeback.
Making a comeback? It's always been the case.
Look, it's a fact of life that the wealthy and powerful are able to send their kids to the best schools. The best schools give them access to the best jobs. They have more chances to be successful. They also have more pressure on themselves to succeed -- and farther to fall if they fail. All in front of the public. (Witness Noelle Bush.)
Krugman seems surprised that the children or relatives of the high muckety-mucks of the Bush Administration get some jobs. What's surprising is that it doesn't happen more often. Seriously, how are ambassadorships often passed out? By both parties. Of course, Krugman sees no evil when Democrats do the exact same thing.
It has always been good to have a rich or powerful father. Last week my Princeton colleague Alan Krueger wrote a column for The Times surveying statistical studies that debunk the mythology of American social mobility. "If the United States stands out in comparison with other countries," he wrote, "it is in having a more static distribution of income across generations with fewer opportunities for advancement." And Kevin Phillips, in his book "Wealth and Democracy," shows that robber-baron fortunes have been far more persistent than legend would have it.
But the past is only prologue. According to one study cited by Mr. Krueger, the heritability of status has been increasing in recent decades. And that's just the beginning. Underlying economic, social and political trends will give the children of today's wealthy a huge advantage over those who chose the wrong parents.
The myth of social mobility? What a bunch of hokum. Most statisticians can get numbers to say anything they want. While social mobility may be difficult, unlike most societies, it is a possibility. My grandfather rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps to retire a chief warrant officer. My father was the first member of his family to graduate from college for generations (unfortunately, his genealogical research turned up ancestors a couple of hundred years who had college degrees) -- and he also earned a Masters degree. Both of his children have bachelors degrees.
Here's another thought. Some people aren't "upwardly mobile" -- by choice. In the real world, some people choose lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs because that's what they want to do. Journalists and schoolteachers come to mind.
For one thing, there's more privilege to pass on. Thirty years ago the C.E.O. of a major company was a bureaucrat -- well paid, but not truly wealthy. He couldn't give either his position or a large fortune to his heirs. Today's imperial C.E.O.'s, by contrast, will leave vast estates behind -- and they are often able to give their children lucrative jobs, too. More broadly, the spectacular increase in American inequality has made the gap between the rich and the middle class wider, and hence more difficult to cross, than it was in the past.
Of course, this all comes down to definitions. According to Democrats, the "rich" would be a schoolteacher married to a police officer (in many areas the two would make more than $100k a year). If Krugman is speaking of the filthy rich, those like, say Terry McAuliffe, then he's certainly correct. You won't see me defending CEO salaries -- until I'm a CEO, that is. I'll be worth every stock option they give me.
Meanwhile, one key doorway to upward mobility -- a good education system, available to all -- has been closing. More and more, ambitious parents feel that a public school education is a dead end. It's telling that Jack Grubman, the former Salomon Smith Barney analyst, apparently sold his soul not for personal wealth but for two places in the right nursery school. Alas, most American souls aren't worth enough to get the kids into the 92nd Street Y.
Also, the heritability of status will be mightily reinforced by the repeal of the estate tax -- a prime example of the odd way in which public policy and public opinion have shifted in favor of measures that benefit the wealthy, even as our society becomes increasingly class-ridden.
Maybe it's because, unlike the loony left wing of the Democratic Party, many people don't think you should use the tax code to punish someone just because they're rich.
As for Grubman, well, he's a little nutty.
So, the public school education is a "dead end." Is this an argument for some system of vouchers? Krugman's surprised me before. This is an interesting development.
It wasn't always thus. The influential dynasties of the 20th century, like the Kennedys, the Rockefellers and, yes, the Sulzbergers, faced a public suspicious of inherited position; they overcame that suspicion by demonstrating a strong sense of noblesse oblige, justifying their existence by standing for high principles. Indeed, the Kennedy legend has a whiff of Bonnie Prince Charlie about it; the rightful heirs were also perceived as defenders of the downtrodden against the powerful.
Here's the rub. Krugman does recognize that people of all political persuasions are filthy rich. But people of the right (left?) political persuasion get a free pass. Never mind the failure of LBJ's Great Society program, that well-intentioned series of programs that kept the people it was intended to help in dependency.
But today's heirs feel no need to demonstrate concern for those less fortunate. On the contrary, they are often avid defenders of the powerful against the downtrodden. 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.
I don't know the specifics of either case, but let's just say it wouldn't surprise me if Krugman was coloring the truth a little. Just a guess.
The official ideology of America's elite remains one of meritocracy, just as our political leadership pretends to be populist. But that won't last. Soon enough, our society will rediscover the importance of good breeding, and the vulgarity of talented upstarts.
For years, opinion leaders have told us that it's all about family values. And it is -- but it will take a while before most people realize that they meant the value of coming from the right family.
What a bunch of hokum.
Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Paul O'Neil...all the children of wealthy, powerful people.
*UPDATE* Tom Maguire has more on the issue, including references to several studies on social mobility which demonstrate my point that clever people can make numbers do anything they want.