Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.

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5 thoughts on “Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

  1. No argument from me, Paul. I was taking one of Kristof’s points and running with it because I think it helps illustrate the futility of reform in the face of increasing inequity. I generally respect his perspective, certainly more than many of the others at the NYT, but not more than yours.

      • I can appreciate the problem with the market view of the economy but as long as politicians run a country, no matter what the system , those with the power will use it to their advantage. I can think of South Africa where the ANC has betrayed its ideals and become corrupt , Russia – it is the same people who are in power etc. Governments are always short of money and are cutting back on spending. The question is whether educators can do something for kids that will make an impact. Private capital maybe more of an advantage than a college degree , but the question we should be asking will a college degree , 2 spouses working , be able to support a family. My question is can other countries learn from Finland. What I have in mind is the high powered vocational training that close to half of 15 year olds choose as opposed to the academic path. It is more learning by doing and at the end of the day , kids have more chance of being employed and earning a living than college graduates

  2. The NYT article should be called, “How to Remain an Idiot About Inequality”.
    Sure, his points are [mostly] correct, but show me how they differ from what has been plastered all over media outlets for the past two years. Kristof gives a statement at the end: “…and there are policy tools that can make a difference.”
    What tools? How much of a difference? He states this as though he knows what they are and offers no clues as to what they might be.
    He spends his entire article offering us boiled–down, condensed versions of what he even admits people have heard before (“…talk too much about ‘inequality’…”) and chooses to spend no space talking about the tools which could make a difference.
    Does he assume that, although we lack the motivation to get through more than 30 pages of Piketty’s book, we’ll surely find the gumption to discover his magical policy tools now that we’ve heard him regurgitate the same insufficient dribble that’s even being put forth by politicians on both sides of the isle?

    Why didn’t he choose to highlight the possible solutions Piketty may have proposed in his book? (I haven’t read it, myself, so I don’t know if there are any.)
    Why not write, instead, “The Idiot’s Guide to Reducing Inequality”? Certainly that’s what many of Krugman and Reich’s articles seem to be (capital–apologists as they may be).

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