Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unseemly Cause

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 22, 2014 --  

Left-wing Americans use rising inequality as a weapon to attack their enemies. Innovative thinking and sincere solutions are sorely needed.

Rising income inequality has become a hot-button political issue across America, and nowhere more so than New York City. Last fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office largely on a platform of fighting for the working class, and now, lefties that the City University of New York have taken to hiring celebrity economists to help solve the inequality problem.

Unfortunately, celebrities don't come cheap.  Paul Krugman's role in the university's "inequality initiative" will set the public institution back $225,000 per year in what Krugman's acceptance calls "remarkably generous", according to documents received by as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.1

Krugman's defenders point out that his stature is worth the money, and taking the position isn’t hypocritical because he targets his criticism at earners in the top 0.01 percent.2  Maybe true, but it does nothing to alter the unseemliness of a university program fighting inequality by engaging in it when convenient to the cause.

The problem with most left-wing thinking on the issue, including Krugman's is that it is overly focussed on disparaging high income  earners. That isn't the real problem.  Nobody would care about executives making $20 million a year if working class Americans were making $100K.  The real problem is that working class Americans have high unemployment and disability rates and often work at or near near minimum wage jobs with little hope for advancement.

The leftist solution is always the same blunt club with three sides: limit executive pay, raise taxes on the rich, and increase the minimum wage.  Note the 2:1 ratio of punishing the rich over helping the working class.  And even initiatives to raise the minimum wage in actuality are often thinly disguised tools to punish the left's enemies.  Recall the recent failed attempt in Washington DC to impose a higher minimum wage on Walmart than other large retailers in the city.3

It wasn't always like this.  Less than a mile from the new Walmart in Washington DC is the grand Renaissance Revival building that was once the Armstrong Manual Training School.  It was built in 1902 during the last great scare about inequality and back when progressives were true to their name.  While originally segregated to black students, it was dedicated by Booker T. Washington4, and served for decades to train kids in skilled trades that they could use to provide incomes throughout their lives.  Graduates include radio pioneer Rufus P. Turner5 and civil rights leader and DC politician John A. Wilson.

Today, Armstrong is no more.  Neighboring Dunbar High School, built to replace Armstrong, is known more for athletics than vocational training.  And like other schools across the city, it is now focussed on meeting academic standards set by standardized tests.  And it is failing miserably — only 30 percent of the student body is proficient in reading and only 20 percent in math.6

How will Krugman being paid $225,000 for the City University's inequality initiative help Dunbar's graduates?  Will limits on executive pay get them good jobs?  How about higher taxes on the rich?  Maybe if Washington, DC succeeds in imposing a new punitive minimum wage on Walmart, graduates can get one of the scarce high-paying jobs stocking shelves. 

To be fair, left-leaning Americans sometimes do look to education as a tool to solve inequality. But more often than not, it is in support of increasing government spending on 50-year-old government programs like Head Start, rather than on making meaningful reforms on an educational system that has been failing poorer students for years. When it comes to educational reform, lefty Americans are far more apt to defend the status quo, especially when it comes to defending teacher’s union jobs.

When it comes to inequality, the prescriptions of America’s left wing are simply wrong. By contrast, the prescriptions of the American right are almost nonexistent. The unfortunate truth is that America's new inequality problem has no easy answers.  The men who built and ran Armstrong Manual Training School did not have all the answers either.  But is a good bet that they had far better ideas than anything you will ever hear coming out of the City University's inequality initiative.

Related Web Columns:

Treating the Symptoms, November 12, 2013

Nothing to Lose, October 1, 2013

Not Quite Cruelty-Free, September 13, 2013

Please Paint My Ceiling, August 21, 2012

Dead Wood
The Unemployable Working Class, November 3, 2009

Worse than Worthless

The Coming Dependent Majority
, October 25, 2005


1., Income Inequality Institute Will Pay Paul Krugman $25,000 Per Month, April 16, 2014

2. Slate, Paul Krugman Isn’t a Hypocrite, April 16, 2014

3. Washington Post, D.C. Mayor Gray Vetoes ‘Living Wage’ Bill Aimed at Wal-Mart, Setting Up Decisive Council Vote, September 12, 2013

4. The Booker T. Washington Papers: 1901-2, Booker T. Washington, University of Illinois Press, 1977

5., Rufus P. Turner Biography, as posted, April 22, 2014

6. US News and World Report, Dunbar High School Overview, as posted, April 22, 2014