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Code Red

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Cathy F says that not all liberals think alike, and I agree with her–not all conservatives think alike, either, and neither do all libertarians.

She posts a link to an article by Nicholas Kristof to illustrate that and wonders why I didn’t reference it–and there’s the rub.

I didn’t reference it because I didn’t think there was any fundamental difference between the two articles.

Kristof may admit that there are dysfunctional behaviors among the white underclass while Krugman tries to dismiss the idea–but in the end, it’s all about–income inequality!

Income inequality is causing all this!  It’s not the programs–it’s income inequality!

We’ve gotten with income inequality this year the way we got with climate change a few years ago. 

It doesn’t matter what happens, anywhere–even things that it would take a stretch of the imagination and Harry Potter’s wand to connect to the “explanation” du jour–there it is, yet more evidence that what’s really wrong is what we’ve been saying is wrong.

Kristof’s would have been a different article if he’d said, “I’ve looked at it long and hard and I’ve determined that the very programs I’ve been advocating are causing the increase in dysfunctional behaviors.”

But no, we’re bakc to “income inequality”–even though we can demonstrate that there were periods in this country’s history when income was far less equal than it is now, and yet these dysfunctions were literally light years less prevalent.

I’ve got a rule of thumb for judging what people really want in public policy–no matter what they say, what they really want is what they will not give up.

In that way, I think the Mitt Romney wing of the Republican Party is, indeed, concerned not with lower taxes overall or the fate of the middle class, but keeping taxes low on the richest Americans–because that’s what they won’t give up.

Faced with a tax plan like Santorum’s, which would, in fact, drastically lower taxes on the middle class, make the tax code transparent and make it adhere to a single standard, but in the process raise taxes at the top–oops, don’t want that.  Lower taxes on the top is what they will not give up.

For most of the liberals I read, social programs are what they will not give up–not help for the poor and the needy, not a safety net, not support for the middle class, but the programs themselves.

 And by the programs themselves, I mean the army of social workers, case workers, therapists and bureaucrats “helping” by futilely trying to modify human behavior.

We know how to run a program that will get money to people who need it without encouraging passivity and fecklessness.  We call that program Social Security, and it consists of beneficiaries getting a check in the mail every month and nobody even bothering to ask them what they do with it. 

If we decide to increase spending on social security, we do it by sending bigger checks, not by expanding the bureaucracy or erecting a system that encourages people to be passive in general and to define themselves as patients or helpless in particular.

But the point of the social programs is not really “income inequality,” it’s precisely the employment of that vast bureaucracy. 

That’s what they won’t give up. 

But the other thing they won’t give up is the isolation thing, so let’s get to that.

In the US, antidiscrimination law is written and administered in such a way that if your school/workplace/program has a higher percentage of members of one race (white or Asian) than another (black or Latino), that fact in itself is evidence of “systemic discrimination.”

The assumption–never really spelled out, but always there–is that there can be no possible reason for such a gap except racial discrimination (or gender discrimination, in the case of math and science courses, programs, and occupations).

In the real world, however, there are often lots of other reasons why there might be such a disparity, including some nobody will talk about publicly (but everybody admits privately).

Even disregarding any possible genetic differences in ability, there are the simple and undeniable facts on the ground:  races and ethnic groups do not have equivalent home environments, family backgrounds, and that kind of thing.

A kid whose mother teaches him to sing the alphabet song and count to 100 before he ever enters preschool, who lives in a house full of books and reading, who sits down at the dinner table every night and listens to discussions about science and politics and current affairs, and whose family takes its vacations by touring the nation’s capital or spending a week in Rome is going to have an edge up on a kid whose single mother sticks him in front of the television set for ten hours a day, who eats watching the tube, who sees neither books nor newspapers in the house, and who shows up at preschool without a clue as to what a letter is.

And that advantage is only going to increase over time.

Is this fair?

No, of course not.  But curing “income inequality” will not fix it, because the issue isn’t money, it’s the commitment of the family and the culture of the family.

And fair or not, the simple fact is that by the time you get to junior high, there are going to be vast and not ethnically neutral differences in the ways in which students are capable of handling academic work.

Now, the sensible thing would be do address the actual problem.  I don’t know if it could be addressed in a single generation. 

To address the actual problem, however, would be to admit out front that your analysis has been wrong, and that your programs aren’t the right ones.

In fact, we not only won’t address it, but any time anybody tries to address it, we’ll scream and yell and have a fit about how any person who tries to address it is a racist bastard, because that’s the only reason why anybody would say that such discrepancies are the result of anything but systemic racism and income inequality.

So we won’t do that.

So far so good, but then we hit another problem–once our school or program or occupation has been hit with the disparate income proof  of its discriminatory nature, the ONLY solution acceptable to the powers that be will be increasing the percentage of minorities in that school, program or occupation.

If your program requires that students be able to handle calculus, a foreign language to a high reading standard, a reading in English level high enough to handle Dostoyevski and Shakespeare, and two lab sciences–well, you’ve got two choices.

You can either keep the standards where they are, admit a group of kids who could not have been admitted otherwise because they weren’t academically ready for the program, and let the chips fall where they may–except that, if a higher percentage of protected minorities flunk out than whites and Asians, the disparate impact people will be back.

Or you can dumb down the standards to make sure you can admit AND pass all the right numbers.

Or you can do what’s called “race norming,” which is grading students only against other students of their own race or ethnicity, so that the curve works out better.

And no, I’m not making that last one up.

But people in the educated upper middle class don’t want to do any of these things.  They especially do not want the academic level of the studies their children take in elementary and high school to be lowered, because they are intent on getting those children not into college, but into Harvard.

They are therefore left with two possibilities–if we’re talking about schools, now–to get the high-level academic courses they want for their children:

a) go private, where competitive admissions standards are coupled with tokenism to make sure that the  number of possibly underperforming minorities is small enough that they can be dealt with on a case by case basis.  It’s a LOT easier to prove that Susan doesn’t have the background than that 85%  of everybody in a category doesn’t.

b) live in an area where zoning laws raise house prices and discourage “affordable housing” of all kinds, thereby limiting the number of possibly underperforming minorities within the district, leading to the same situation as in private schools.

Anybody who has been paying attention here will notice something–that the underlying assumption here is that underperforming minorities are congentially incapable of doing first tier academic work.  That is, that underperforming minorities are not victims of racial discrimination, but that they’re just largely stupid.

And having been around academia for a long time, I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the people I work with think this.

JD posted that it’s too bad that we ruined our educational system–but we haven’t, exactly.

Public schools in places like Winnetka, Westport, West Hartford, Beverly Hills, and like that are among the best in the world.  They’re better, in many cases, than our top-end private schools.  Your kid will get a better education all around at the public high school in Wilton, Connecticut, than he would at Exeter, or Eton.

But Wilton, Connecticut is one of those places.  The zoning laws are written so strictly that it’s virtually impossible to build apartments at all, and what apartments you can build are going to be very, very expensive to rent.  There are restrictions on building or operating businesses of all kinds, no manufacturing, virtually no fast food restaurants, no big box stores. 

If you’re the kind of person Wilton doesn’t want, you can’t afford to live there anyway and there’s nowhere for you to work without a very long (and, in these days of $4 gas, expensive) commute.

So you’re safe. Wilton can go on offering Latin and ancient Greek, AP courses out the wazoo and a full theater program, and nobody will hit you with disparate impact.

I think that the people having fits about the Murray book these days–yes, including Kristof and Krugman–are far more worried about someb0dy blowing the whistle on the self-isolation of the educated upper middle class than they are about income inequality, or even the exposure of “social programs” as dysfunctional in themselves.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2012 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'Code Red'

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  1. I entirely agree with the major point that what people really want in public policy is what they won’t give up–and that for liberals, that’s the programs. It makes even more sense when you consider that the liberal “base” is generally the people employed by those programs, and the liberal “spokespeople” make their bread tweaking–and defending–those same programs. There were reports a while back about an Obama job summit, with some outsider pointing out that there were things the government could do to raise employment which didn’t involve spending money. He was quickly shut up, because government spending was the point. And, yes, it’s a good quick way of distinguishing the country club Republicans: lower taxes for them are the objective and not the means.

    In absolute fairness to doctrinaire liberals, though, while Murray talks of the social isolation of the new ruling class, he doesn’t explore the steps they take to physically isolate themselves, and in the worst of the “superzip” clusters–his “Big Four” of Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles–they haven’t shoved the rest of the population out of the area and hence the public schools. (Perhaps because the areas are too large?) They’ve just pulled their own children out of the public schools, and lost interest in how bad those public schools are. (Though they’re always interested in a “solution” which involves paying more doctrinaire liberals with second-rate degrees, or paying the existing ones more.)

    And, as Murray points out, the other “superzips” are not particularly liberal. So you can make a pretty good case that the liberal rich are perfectly happy to have the quaint natives in the area–complete with exotic food, music, costume and customs–so long as they don’t impinge on the separate liberal rich world, and that Krugman & Co are quite right to focus on ignoring Murray’s attack on their programs.

    If Murray had proposed changes to zoning laws so rich and poor would attend the same public schools, his main point might be being missed by a completely different group of columnists.


    11 Feb 12 at 2:38 pm

  2. A couple of naive questions from an outsider,

    What happened to compulsory school bussing? The “superzips” would be an obvious target for that?

    Is the talk about income inequality a means of diverting attention from the national debt? The last I looked, the US budget deficit was 1.3 trillion dollars. Obama was talking about “millionaires and billionaires”. A billion is a 1000 million and a trillion is a 1000 billion so I doubt that raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” will solve the deficit.

    A few weeks ago, there was a fuss about Apple sitting on 95 billion in cash. It doesn’t look so impressive if its written as 0.095 trillion.

    I noticed this in the NY Times.


    note that he wants to tax wealth but calls it an income tax.


    11 Feb 12 at 3:16 pm

  3. A couple of things, FYI.

    First, bussing applied only to a very few school districts, and only WITHIN districts, NOT between them.

    In the US, each separate city and town maintains its own separate school district, except in some rural communities that band together to form regional high schools.

    So, Boston was a school district, and its bussing required it to bus students between NEIGHBORHOODS so that the schools were more racially mixed than they would be if neighborhood children went to neighborhood schools.

    But Boston could NOT bus children into Cambridge (a superzip) public schools, because Cambridge was a separate school district.

    Wilton is its own school district. West Hartford is its own school district. Westport is its own school district.

    That means that the courts cannot require that these towns accept bussed students from Bridgeport or Hartford, which are also their own school districts.

    So, no. There could never have been any bussing into superzips, or even into nice middle class towns, from high-minority areas like inner cities.

    Second, the article deals with tax law I know little about, so I won’t comment absolutely.


    I do know something about “mark to market.” It’s what pretty much caused the S&L meltdown, and also a large part of the present subprime mortgage mess.

    This is because mark to market is fatally flawed on its basic premise–which is that the price of the asset (house, stock, whatever) would NOT be affect if everybody decided to sell this morning.

    In the case of Mr. Z, mark to market would only work IF the price of FB stock DID NOT go down if Mr. Z dumped all of it for sale at once.

    In the real world, of course, the price of the asset almost always goes down when there’s a lot of it out there for sale, and it often goes down a lot.

    So I’m skeptical.



    11 Feb 12 at 3:41 pm

  4. Okay. I don’t know what happened.

    So, third–

    I think the attempts at self-isolation work as well for conservatives in the new educated upper middle class as liberals.

    Conservatives in this class also don’t want to eliminate the programs, because the programs are cover–that’s what “compassionate conservatism” is all about.

    The programs fence in and help to regulate and monitor a population that is perceived to be physically dangerous, and as long as they exist, they insure that no other policies–that kind that might actually work but that would certainly make everybody uncomfortable–are instituted instead.


    11 Feb 12 at 3:46 pm

  5. We *do* know what works. Good prenatal care and good nutrition and less lead and pesticide exposure, followed up by programs to teach new parents how to talk and listen to and play with their kids, followed up by good quality preschool programs, followed up by good quality schools. When you do all that, the low SES and racial minority kids can do whatever the high SES white and Asian kids can do.

    I will agree that the vast majority of neither the liberals nor the conservatives will follow the data. But I do, and I think it at least hypothetically possible that policies and programs could.

    Cathy F


    11 Feb 12 at 3:59 pm

  6. But Cathy, you’re doing it again–their programs don’t work, but WE’VE got BETTER PROGRAMS.

    First, I do not agree that what you’re describing will make it possible for los SES kids to do anything that higher SES kids can do.

    Nope, I don’t think low SES kids are stupid.

    What I DO think is that your “parenting programs” will produce exactly one primary result: it will tell the parents that they’re really nothing, just stupid morons who don’t know how to raise their own families, they have to sit still and take the advice of the EXPERTS because it’s SCIENCE and “science” is much better than anything they could think up on their own.

    The US government, and the government of the states, should NOT be in the job of telling citizens how to raise their children.

    It should really not be in the job of doing that if there are rewards for the “clients” for complying and punishments (loss of revnue, for instance) for refusing.

    If we want to provide a safety net, then let’s provide it–in cash, no strings attached.

    If you want to provide “programs” at all, then make then ENTIRELY voluntary and without rewards or sanctions–come in and have these parenting lessons, if you want. Or not. We can’t do anything to you any way.

    The problem is not that some programs are bad programs.

    The problem is that all programs are programs.

    And programs NECESSARILY teach passivity and helplessness.

    As to lead and toxins–enforce the environmental and housing laws as they exist. In CT, at any rate, it’s illegal to use lead paint.

    But I don’t think mental retardation due to lead paint is a leading or even a significant cause of the problems I see.

    I think passivity and helpless is, and I think both are learned–from the very fact that there are “programs.”


    11 Feb 12 at 4:18 pm

  7. Jane, I will guarantee you that that the program outlined above–shall we call it Super Headstart?–will work. Only consider:

    More OSHA/EPA inspectors looking for lead paint banned a generation ago, or deciding what pesticides to ban. Banning–or not banning–pesticides can be a very profitable business. This is where “speaking fees” and lobbying money wind up. And all those inspectors will be members of AFGE–meaning they’ll kick back to politicians.

    The pre-natal care programs and the parenting programs will be staffed with yet more government empoloyees making house calls. (Just what we all look forward to!)

    The “quality preschool” is a master stroke: no more leaving the kids with Grandma or a neighbor. There will be a certification program, and the graduates will have to join a union. More government jobs for the certification program, and more union money gong to the right politicians from the people chivvied into the union. (And no more kids staying home with their mothers being taught unacceptable things before the school can reach them.)

    And, of course, good “quality” schools. On form so far, this means the kids will still be taught by the lowest quartile of the college bound, hired and fired by a combination of seniority and racial quotas, and without regard to performance–if any. But the same number of students will take twice as many teachers and three or four times as many “administrators”–all menbers of NEA.

    Headstart has gone on for almost 50 years now, cost more than all scientific research and space exploration, and achieved, statistically, nothing. A Headstart high schooler is absolutely indistinguishable from one who never attended. SHS should be good for another 50 years, by which time Extra-Super Headstart will be the program of choice. I don’t see how it can fail.

    Oh? The kids?

    This has nothing to do with the kids. It never does.

    CA, if I’m being savage, it’s because I’ve seen this movie too often. Offer me an approach whose only sure beneficiaries aren’t the Nurse Ratcheds and I promise to look at it seriously before mocking it.


    11 Feb 12 at 7:27 pm

  8. Jane, thank you for the explanation of school bussing. It started after I moved to Australia and was presented as bussing between districts.

    Second, I agree with you completely about mark to market, Wealth is on paper unless its a bank account. Taxes have to be paid in cash and taxing wealth results in forcing fire sales.


    11 Feb 12 at 8:27 pm

  9. JD, may be worth noting that this is one of the features of “white flight.” It tended to be worse in the east, where the cities–in a legal sense–tended to be small and surrounded by already incorporated (formed into a municipal government) land. You could move out of the worst-hit school districts without changing jobs. This was less true in, say Indiana or Texas. Move just outside the city line, and they’d just move the city line.

    But the IRS does a bit of “mark to market” as it stands with the commodity market. I don’t know the details of the law, but I know a case a few years ago. The IRS was trying to collect taxes on some unfortunate’s “winnings” in the copper market. By the time they wanted the money, the price of copper had collapsed, so his entire holdings plsu his home wouldn’t clear his tax bill.

    I notice Zuckerberg isn’t mentioning a consumption tax, nor the inheritance tax, which I think is scheduled for a comeback anyway. Of course any inheritance tax is a tax on capital, but hey–it’s not as though we wanted more people building factories, is it?


    12 Feb 12 at 8:00 am

  10. No, Robert, I’m totally cool with doing it without “programs.”

    Reverse income tax or some other cash benefit that, in most cases, would be used for food. Single-payer health care that would cover prenatal and other preventive care for free. Offering support for new parents, but not mandating it. Universal early childhood education. (And yes, you can tell a Head Start grad from a non-Head Start grad at high school. Even more so a grad from the Perry Preschool Project or the Abecedarian project.) Changing how schools are funded to keep the poorest places from also having the poorest schools. (Somehow, despite the fact that all those Education majors suck, the ones that work in the suburbs are generally excellent.)

    Oh, and the lead problem at this point isn’t paint; it’s soaked into the ground these kids play on. And no, of course it isn’t the whole problem, but it is one. So is chronic asthma treated only by intermittent ER visits.

    Cathy F


    12 Feb 12 at 12:58 pm

  11. And taxing the millionaires’ capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income (especially for those for whom it is actually income)–not to solve the deficit, no, but a matter of fairness. Perceived fairness is important. Right now, it looks like the rich bought themselves a sweet deal, and that sucks.

    And the income inequality thing? Not talking about fixing it by fiat. Talking about it as a symptom. When all of the rewards of increased productivity etc. go to the owners rather than the workers, it is a marker for a screwed up social contract. Motivation to invest is a great thing. Motivation to play statistical numbers games with money? Not so much.

    Cathy F


    12 Feb 12 at 1:03 pm

  12. I’d agree that things are claimed as capital gains which aren’t, but real capital gains are a risk which ought to be acknowledged–especially when we’re hurting for investment. I’d say do two things: enact the Santorum tax code or something very like it instead of our present bookshelf of bought and paid for special clauses, and rework our regulatory system to get rid of contradictions, ambiguities and waivers. Then see what happens to incomes. the flatlining of working and middle class wages seems to coincide pretty closely with a sharp rise in government intrusiveness. Long term, detailed government is only going to benefit the well-connected. There is, of course, no prospect of either thing happening. We may see the hike in taxes, but never the simplification of the tax code, and certaily not a clear, comprehensible regulatory system. There would be no money in being a politician, regulator, lobbyist or “activist” under such a system.

    Still seems to me you’d have to eat a LOT of dirt to be in serious trouble over lead, and all the German experience and our own indicates a dirtier background results in less asthma.

    Last figures I saw on Headstart showed no statistical difference even by junior high–though there’s always someone with a study proving that the next program will be a vast improvement. (Liberals mock WWI generals a good deal, but they imitate them all the time–applying the same failed tactics on a grander scale, convinced this time will be different.)

    DC public schools were running about $15,000 a head last time I checked. If you can’t buy textbooks, keep a safe, clean building and hire a competent teacher for half a million dollars for a 30-kid classroom, I don’t think it’s going to happen for $20,000 a head either. A district spends its own money as it wishes. Before it gets to spend someone else’s, I think we should find out where the first money went.


    12 Feb 12 at 3:57 pm

  13. Head Start grads (and grads from the other preschool projects I mentioned) are more likely to finish high school, go to college, and get jobs, and less likely to drop out, get pregnant, or commit a crime. I call those differences.

    And I didn’t say they got more asthma; I said it was more likely to be poorly controlled due to lack of health care.

    I wasn’t talking about “just” giving more money to the poor districts. I’m talking about setting up a school system that is not funded primarily by local property taxes and that is not segregated by township lines. I know it isn’t going to happen, but that system is the root of some of this and I’d like to stop it. One of the problems, I think, is that the school system in a big, inner city is a major employer and source of patronage and contracts. But they are also competing for teachers and other front-line school employees with suburbs that can pay more and offer better achieving kids and MUCH better working environments.

    Cathy F


    12 Feb 12 at 7:51 pm

  14. “Head Start grads (and grads from the other preschool projects I mentioned) are more likely to finish high school, go to college, and get jobs, and less likely to drop out, get pregnant, or commit a crime. I call those differences.”

    I would too. My first question would be “who says so?” and my next question would be “how much more (or less) likely?” The last time I did this was about 3-5 years ago, and the polite description of the results was “short-lived.” I ran a check just now, and didn’t do any better, though there’s always some pilot program which is GOING to do better. “This time for sure!”

    Not counting volunteers, Head Start has paid staff on a scale with the USMC. Two hundred thousand people working for fifty years ought to make a serious dent in a problem.


    13 Feb 12 at 5:10 pm

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