With no policies to explain or white papers to rewrite, Ezra Klein was sent scrambling on Friday to produce content for the Wonkblog. Working way outside any demonstrated competency he has, he produced this piece titled “Inequality isn’t ‘the defining challenge of our time’”. Now I know what you are thinking. What the hell is a “defining challenge of our time”? Isn’t that the kind of empty rhetoric that causes right-thinking people to never pay attention to the public speeches of politicians? Surely no one would take it as some kind of serious thing to be rebutted, right? Wrong. Ezra is on it.
Ezra proceeds to show, I guess, that unemployment is the real defining issue of our time. I stand still unsure of what it means for something to be a defining issue of a time, but I guess whatever the criteria are, unemployment fits them better.
His arguments for why this is the case are at some times hilariously incompetent and at other times alright provided you accept certain assumptions that he makes no argument for. Let’s start with my hands-down favorite (and perhaps favorite argument of all time in all of my life reading blogs):
But is inequality really the country’s most pressing problem? Imagine you were given a choice between reducing income inequality by 50 percent and reducing unemployment by 50 percent. Which would you choose?
What in the hell does 50 percents of inequality have to do with 50 percents of unemployment? Do we have just 50 percents of things to do? You can kind of see the neuronal triggering that produced this. The neurons conspired to say: if we are going to compare these two wildly divergent issues, we need some kind of similar comparison. But then that neuronal triggering fell into a ditch and said: I guess just say 50 percent versus 50 percent. I mean, that must be commensurable. It’s both 50 percent!
Of course, if we only have 50 percents of things to use, it would seem Ezra has made a fatal error. Instead of reducing unemployment by 50 percents, surely we should increase employment by 50 percents. Or, as Matt Yglesias pointed out on twitter, we could just use 20 percents on increasing employment, leaving the other 30 percents for other projects, maybe even the project of reducing inequality? I don’t know. The world of comparing percents of different units can be tricky.
Instead, here I want to talk about the interesting cultural space we live in and what it does and does not sanction as inappropriate, oppressive, and so offensive as to be above the pale of decent discourse. There is no reason why, if you want to talk about unemployment, you need to run down the problem of inequality. I have never seen an advocate of inequality reduction who was not also an advocate of balls to the wall fiscal and monetary stimulus to bring us to full employment. They don’t trade off conceptually or even fiscally due to the dynamics of what it means to be under capacity. One is a long-term structural issue, the other a short-term cyclical issue. So there is no reason, on the merits, to even put the two against each other like that. So why is gratuitously taking a run at those concerned with inequality even seen as OK within our discourse?
Ask yourself whether Klein would have been comfortable writing a post saying “the gender wage gap is not as big a deal as unemployment” or “the apartheid-like racial wealth gap is not as big a deal as unemployment.” Or how about “the mass incarceration of young black men not that important really relative to unemployment.” Or even “what’s all this chatter about sexual assault and rape culture about, unemployment is where it’s at.”
This is not a hard question and the answer is no. The liberal cultural space has generated substantial discipline against saying stupid shit like that. He would feel especially uncomfortable, as he should, being a white man totally gratuitously trying to work through whether unemployment is a bigger deal than racial or gender oppression. (What’s more important, reducing sexual assaults by 50 percent or unemployment by 50 percent?) If he somehow slipped up and wrote something like that anyways, the entire writerly internet would have exploded, and apologies would issue.
But we don’t do this with class issues and the class privileged. Ezra Klein is an especially interesting case of upper classness because he owes his whole life to being on the winning end of class inequality. In the sycophantic New Republic profile of him from earlier this year, we learn that Ezra Klein was actually a huge fuck up early in life.
Growing up in Irvine, California, where his father was a math professor, Klein was—in his own words—“a chunky nerd.” He was also a lousy student, graduating high school with a 2.2 GPA. […]
At the University of California, Santa Cruz—the only school that would accept him—Klein didn’t quite fit in. […]
Klein has spun these youthful misfires into a compelling mythology of humility and good fortune, a reason not to begrudge him his success. “I always think that I’m very, very lucky in the opportunities I’ve screwed up for myself,” he told me. What he’s glossing over, of course, is that he’s always been smart and curious; he could smell opportunity; and when he wanted to, he’d work.
In the last sentence, the boot-licking profiler makes sure you know everything is above board, but in the rest of it, it is quite clear that we have here a high socioeconomic status kid of a university professor being a substantial fuck up, but still making it. Although the profiler makes a little joke that UC Santa Cruz is some kind of crap school (it probably is in her mind because the media is so out of touch with reality), the US News rankings has it currently at 84. There are 4,500 higher education institutions in the country.
Are there poor kids with uneducated parents working low-paid manual labor jobs out there who pull down a 2.2 GPA in high school who have the kind of “luck” Ezra had? The UC-Santa Cruz admissions page lists a minimum GPA requirement of 3.0 these days. If you are a kid made poor by the horrors of inequality, fucking around in high school in a way that leads to you getting a 2.2 GPA puts you in a community college if anywhere at all, certainly not at a top 100 institution.
So we have here in Ezra a rich kid from a high socioeconomic status family living the good life as a blogger who made it big because of good timing taking a totally unnecessary run at inequality. We have here a man who owes his life to inequality and the way it allows rich kid fuck ups second, third, and eleventh chances. But there is no liberal sanctioning or disciplining strong enough to reach his head and tell him that maybe he should hold back on panning inequality reduction especially when it is totally gratuitous. The cultural sanctioning we have will certainly keep him and others from doing that kind of thing for other kinds of oppression, but unnecessarily downplaying inequality when you are one of its most prominent beneficiaries is still OK for some reason.
Now, those who have read this far may find themselves a bit disgusted. What’s with the pictures? Why call him an admitted fuck up? Isn’t this post extremely offensive, inappropriate, and gratuitous in its scope? Well I don’t know: is it?