13 February 2012
At the risk of turning this blog into a Ross Douthat fan club, I want to examine yesterday’s column by The New York Times‘s token conservative.
Actually, it’s hardly fair to call Douthat a mere token in the effort to balance the NYT‘s editorical page. All by himself, he outweighs Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, and Nicholas Kristof combined in intellectual gravitas—as opposed to Pavlovian reflex action. As for Frank Bruni, Maureen Dowd, and Gail Collins, they scarcely even pretend to seriousness.
The only two liberals on the NYT‘s staff who are worth reading are Joe Nocera and, occasionally, Charles Blow. But they are more than matched by the centrist, David Brooks.
So, one might argue that—judged on the basis of the number of op-ed inches devoted to thoughtful reflection—the NYT is actually quite a conservative newspaper!
Back to the Douthat article from yesterday: It is called “Can the Working Class Be Saved?” I have adapted his title somewhat for my own, on the premise that if the working class goes competely under, America goes with it.
Douthat’s essay is another engagement in the remarkable campaign being fought in the American media over Charles Murray’s brilliant book, Coming Apart. It’s been a while since any similar work has had the immediate public impact that this one has had.
In fact, this will be my third column devoted to its themes, following my initial reporting on the book and my discussion of Paul Krugman’s predictable attack on it last week (not to mention my colleague Denyse O’Leary’s fine ongoing series in this space on the same theme).
This amount of attention is justified, however, both by the penetration of Murray’s argument and by the vital importance of his theme.
To recapitulate once more, very briefly, Murray argues on the basis of a careful statistical study that the white working class in this country is in grave danger of foundering in a slough of moral despond which, if it were an individual person, might be diagnosed as a case of clinical depression. The main symptoms are: sky-rocketing out-of-wedlock pregnancy and illegitimacy, applications for disability and welfare payments, and crime, together with cratering educational attainment, industriousness, and church attendance.
We can debate the relative contributions of moral and economic factors to this predicament forever, but even liberals like Krugman hardly bother to dispute that the statistics indicate a real crisisof epic proportions is in the making.
What is interesting about yesterday’s op-ed piece is that, unlike he rest of us who have been mainly agreeing or disagreeing with Murray’s diagnosis, Douthat actually has a prescription—some ideas that might make the patient better.
What does he suggest we do?
He looks at four of Murray’s specific findings, and has sensible things to say about concrete measures we can take in each case. I can hardly do better than quote his own words.
First, on the question of industriousness:
[I]f we want the poor to be industrious, we should do everything possible to make their industry pay off. The current tax-and-transfer system imposes a tax on work — the payroll tax — that falls heavily on low-wage labor, and poor Americans face steep marginal tax rates because of how their benefits phase out as their wages increase. Both burdens can and should be lightened. There are ways to finance Social Security besides a regressive tax on work, and ways to structure benefits and tax credits that don’t reduce the incentives to take a better-paying job.
Second, with respect to family breakdown:
[I]f we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young. There are left-wing approaches to this issue (European-style family-leave requirements) and right-wing approaches (a larger child tax credit). Neither is currently on the national agenda; both should be.
Third, on the subject of low-wage jobs and global competition:
[I]f we expect less-educated Americans to compete with low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America, we shouldn’t be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with them domestically as well. Immigration benefits the economy over all, but it can lower wages and disrupt communities, and there’s no reason to ask an already-burdened working class to bear these costs alone. Here the leading Republican candidates have the right idea: We should welcome more high-skilled immigrants, while making it as hard as possible for employers to hire low-skilled workers off the books.
[I]f we want low-income men to be marriageable, employable and law-abiding, we should work to reduce incarceration rates. Prison is a school for crime and an anchor on advancement, and there’s a large body of research—from scholars like U.C.L.A.’s Mark Kleiman and Berkeley’s Franklin E. Zimring—suggesting that swift, certain punishment and larger police forces can do as much to keep crime low as the more draconian approach to sentencing that our justice system often takes.
While I’m at it, I might as well quote Douthat’s own conclusion:
This agenda would not require the kind of radical (and implausible) transformations of government that both libertarians and liberals often pine for. Neither, admittedly, would it radically transform the lives of the people it aims to help. But it would do good at the margins of a large and growing problem, and that is no small thing.
No small thing, indeed!
In this department, pragmatic and incremental gains are certainly not to be sneezed at, and I haven’t read anyone who has made the case for them better than Douthat.
On the other hand, Murray’s suggestion that the upper-middle classes who continue to live far more traditional lives with respect to family arrangements and work, but who give lip-service to moral relativism, ought to begin “preaching what they practice” is another essential piece of the puzzle.
A combination of bad ideas and economic forces got us into our current predicament, and it is going to take action on the both the practical and the ideological fronts to get us out of it.