How to stop worrying about class

Today’s New York Times contains a fine example of how ideology works at the high end: report information that might trouble the established order, but conclude on a tranquilizing note that allows the comfortable reader to turn the page (or click “close tab”) without changing his or her worldview. Both functions are important. Outlets like the Times do report tons of important stuff that one would be hard-pressed to learn otherwise. But, as Alexander Cockburn put it long ago, a primary function of the bourgeois press is reassurance.

The piece by Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show,” shows that “while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.” (The paper from which much of the data is drawn, by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, can be gotten here.) While it’s long been well known that parental income and education have a stronger influence on educational outcomes than schools themselves, the gap between kids from affluent and poor families is widening.

All that information, and then some, is nicely presented in the first half of the article. But the second half consists mostly of quotes from three right-wing sources: University of Chicago labor economist James Heckman; Bell Curve ghoul Charles Murray (newly famous for his cultural take on the crisis of the white working class); and Douglas Besharov, now of the Atlantic Institute but formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, where he ran the Social and Individual Responsibility Project. Heckman says the last thing we should do is give poor people more money. Murray says it has “nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture.” And Besharov chimes in with the inevitable “no easy answers,” because “no one has the slightest idea what will work.”

Nonsense. The answers are conceptually easy, though politically anything but. You take money from rich people and give it to poor people, and spend at least as much, maybe more, educating the children of the poor as you do on the children of the rich. But that might make the Times’ audience uncomfortable. Better to flatter them on their excellent parenting.

Disclosure alert: I know Sabrina Tavernise and like her a lot. I just wish she’d written this piece differently.

16 Comments on “How to stop worrying about class

  1. Thank you! I read the NYT peice this morning and concluded much the same as I thought about what goes on in my son’s low-income school. This is graciously and eloquently said.

  2. response to Disclosure alert – maybe then she would not work for NYT no more…

  3. Wonderful final paragraph, Doug.
    I just can’t believe these three fools were chosen to provide analysis on something of such sociological and political import. In the New York Times. I tried to convince Corey Robin to do a treatment of Murray’s latest opus, but I think he decided that it wouldn’t be worth the nausea that would be suffered reading it.

  4. Principles over outcomes. When will we start caring more about people than what we believe to be right and wrong?

  5. Surely we need to both give the poor more money and at the same time give them the kind of early educational (not to mention primary and secondary educational) support that Heckman’s research shows pays off. Of course, if we gave enough money to the poor they would then be wealthy enough to afford to pay the property taxes for decent schools and have the time to spare to cultivate their kids…

  6. Spot on, Doug. It’s easy to like liberals. Hell, I’d probably like Chris Hedges after sharing a pint of real ale. It’s hard to point to their TINA errors; but it is necessary. Thanks.

  7. I’m wondering if it’s not a question of how the article was edited that’s the real culprit. I once translated an interview with Nacha Guevara. The interview was really warm and Nacha came across very human, zany, warm, idiosyncratic. Unpredictable. Needless to say, by the time it “reached the newstands” the interview had lost all of that: not only had it been condensed, but segments had been sliced and moved around. Much was lost in that edit. It would be really easy to edit an article like this to match the Times’ “voice” and then publish it.

  8. Interesting. I owe a lot to the fact that my mother taught me to read before I started school. She also discussed my lessons with me and checked to be sure that I had done all of my homework. She was able to do all of that because, in the early 50’s, my father’s pay as a junior civil engineer working for the federal government was enough to support a family.

  9. It shouldn’t be a matter of merely giving more money to the poor but rather a matter of making sure they’re paid what they’re worth, which is a lot.

    When I was working at a fairly high level desk job with an income in the low six figures, I had occasion once (because I was trying to document precisely how much of my time was wasted futzing with a balky computer system) to time precisely the amount of clockable work I did, using a stopwatch. It came out to 1 hour and 11 minutes in a typical day.

    I was astonished. Before this I would’ve sworn I was sweatily packing at least 10 hours of work into an 8-hour day. May I venture to say that most people who work behind a desk may be similarly deluded about the amount of work they actually do, and in pretty comfortable climate-controlled circumstances at that.

    Meanwhile, I can well imagine that, say, shelf stockers at Walmart or just about anyone working outside in no matter how menial a job is working one heckuva lot harder than I ever did. And making a heckuva lot less for it. And probably making a heckuva lot larger contribution to the right functioning of society in a given day than I or my fellow workers did in a given year. This is not right and it’s a grave injustice in our world that needs to be corrected.

    This is highly unlikely, however, as the elites who run things are much like the deluded desk worker I once was, flattering themselves endlessly about their work ethic and indispensability no matter unsupported by clockable facts or tangible results.

  10. On your characterization of James Heckman, I wish you had written it differently. Tavernise’s quote was also misleading. Heckman is a strong advocate for early childhood intervention, supported by government and private sources of funding. His argument is that considering limited resources, funding quality early childhood education is more effective than transfer payments. His position is “provide early intervention,” but it comes across as in Tavernise’s article and in your post as “don’t give poor people money.”

    You also lump him together with the fresh water economists whose ideology overcomes evidence. Wrong again. He does good work and looks at the evidence. An example:

    Heckman: There was a lot of resistance among some in the academic community at Chicago to the idea that the government had played such a powerful positive role. . . .
    And to be honest, I found that some of my colleagues at Chicago were very hostile to this finding, and some remain so. Some want to believe that markets by themselves will solve problems like racial disparity. Markets do many useful things, but they did not solve the problem of race. Not in America. That’s probably heresy to admit it as a Chicago economist, but I became convinced that a doctrinaire notion that markets would solve the problem of discrimination is false. Civil rights legislation and civil rights activity played huge roles in eliminating overt segregation in the United States.

    The interview is at

    From that same interview, on The Bell Curve,

    Region: In 1995, you wrote a very strong critique of The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray’s book about IQ, genetics and ability, which argued that nature far outweighs nurture.

    Heckman: . . . So, I thought the book was important in raising that issue, but it failed totally when it focused so much on genetic determination of ability. It had no hard evidence on genetics. The youngest person in the Herrnstein-Murray sample was 14 years of age at the start of the sample. By the time they are 14, people are pretty well formed and environments play a big role. The idea that a test score measured at age 14 was a good measure of genetic determinism is absurd.

    Besharov must not be familiar with Heckman’s work, to put it kindly.

  11. Regarding Murray, the sad fact is the U.S. bourgeoisie only gave up on eugenics (now veiled in terms of class) because of its close association with the Nazi state. This is same reason that torture was considered out of bounds after World War 2. We won, and had to find ways to differentiate ourselves from the bad guys — indeed that was the entire purpose of the Nuremburg trials.

    World War 2 (as well as the USSR) safely behind ‘us’ historically, the ruling class feels they can go back to business as usual. You will be chastised by Godwin’s law for mentioning otherwise.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  13. Sabrina Tavernise deploys the “end on reactionary alibi” trope quite often.

  14. “No easy answer” liberals are as deluded as Thomas Frank’s fundamentalists. Maybe more so. At least the fundies get that there’s a conflict. That politics isn’t about performing some anova and creating a task force to implement.

    Timely article. I was just now trying to remember who said that Obama’s worldview was something like “let’s get all the smart people together in a room”. Any help?

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