Paul Krugman and the Ivy Fallacy

Paul Krugman has a notably sloppy column today, about which one could write words of criticism outnumbering the words in the article. (And, as it turns out, I have.) His argument is that Mitt Romney, and Republicans at large, do not really care about the equality of opportunity they are fond of celebrating. Because, as you know, conservatives hate the poor, their hatred for poor men being surpassed only by their hatred for poor women and poor children, which itself is surpassed only by their hatred of clean air and water. (If there were poor homosexuals, Republicans would hate them the most, but of course no Republican ever has encountered a poor homosexual.) Everybody knows this, if by “everybody” one means Paul Krugman and the voices in his head.

What is particularly irritating is that Professor Krugman’s opening gambit includes the Ivy Fallacy, the act of implicitly generalizing from the circumstances of elite institutions and the people associated with them to the general public. Professor Krugman’s opening data point:

At the most selective, “Tier 1” schools, 74 percent of the entering class comes from the quarter of households that have the highest “socioeconomic status”; only 3 percent comes from the bottom quarter.

Muppet News Flash: Nobel laureate economist sifts the data, engages in esoteric statistical regressions, and concludes that Princeton is expensive. Allow me to posit that attendance at our most selective, Tier 1 universities is not the best indicator of the general accessibility of the good life in these United States. But if you are the sort of person who finds it impossible to believe that one might achieve a satisfying and productive life without having attended Princeton—or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, without having secured a college degree at all!—then Tier 1 admissions stats are the first data point that leaps to mind, apparently. Tuition (just tuition) at Princeton runs about $148,000 for four years, or about 300 percent of the median household income in the United States, or 111 percent of the median price of a home in the Midwest. Four years of tuition at Princeton costs about as much as an Aston Martin Vantage, ownership of which, I am willing to wager, also is concentrated among the top quarter of wage-earners. Not every Tier 1 school is Princeton expensive, but they fall in the aggregate on the spendy end of the education market. It takes a special kind of economist to be surprised that very expensive goods are disproportionately consumed by the well-off.

It is because of this kind of thinking that the battle over affirmative action has been waged at places such as the University of Texas law school. Which is to say, it has been waged on behalf of the people who are the least likely to need intensive institutional help in life: If you are right on the edge of being admitted to UT law and do not get a little nudge to put you over, your next stop  is not Skid Row—it is UCLA. And that’s not so bad. I am not much worried about who goes to Tier 1 schools. I am worried about who drops out of high school and why. You can tell yourself a very pleasing story about the relationship between Tier 1 admissions and Head Start, food stamps, or your favor welfare program, but that is not the same thing as doing the intellectual work of figuring out the facts.

Professor Krugman is right to be concerned about the relative lack of economic mobility in the United States, which does lag behind many other developed countries on that front. But of course it is easier to assume bad faith on the part of the other side than to engage the other side’s ideas. As it turns out, even the running dogs of plutocratic privilege at your favorite magazine are concerned about the state of economic mobility. To care about improving the prospects of the poor is not the same as improving the prospects of the poor. (Merely to say that one cares is another degree of separation removed from reality.) So, what to do? Professor Krugman writes:

Someone who really wanted equal opportunity would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system. He would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children. He would try to improve the quality of public schools. He would support aid to low-income college students. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a universal health care system, so that nobody need worry about untreated illness or crushing medical bills.

Notice that Professor Krugman, when confronted with the high price of college, seeks not to lower the price but to increase the subsidy, i.e. to extract more money from taxpayers, including middle-class and poor taxpayers, and shunt it into the institutions from which Professor Krugman, his professor wife, and his professor colleagues draw professor paychecks. Confronted with the poor quality of public education, he seeks not to reform the system with choice and accountability on behalf of the poor but to fortify the position of his political party’s upper-middle-class financial benefactors. Because he cares about the poor so much that he is willing to have his friends and benefactors and colleagues accept more of your money on their behalf.

One might as easily write: If Paul Krugman really wanted equal opportunity, he would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system. He would support education reform that would bring more choice and resources to the poor instead of entrenching an overcompensated public-sector monopoly insulated from even the most rudimentary forms of accountability. He would support initiatives to reduce tuition at public universities. He would support entitlement reforms that helped the poor to build wealth across generations instead of consigning them to lifelong welfare dependency. He would support reforming a perverse and shameful welfare system in which only 35 percent of all transfer payments go to the poorest 20 percent of Americans. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a sensible immigration  regime, so that neither the social safety net nor the lower end of the labor market would be strained by the large-scale importation  of poverty.

Or he could save himself (and us) 795 words and just write “Republicans bad! Ooga-booga!” next time, which is what he has written amounts to.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

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