Arnold Kling  

James Webb's Macaca

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Electoral Deconcentration... Milton Friedman...

Senator-elect Webb writes,


The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system...America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools...

When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation's most fortunate. Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the "rough road of capitalism." Others claim that it's the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism.


I wonder if any of these corporate villains attempted to ask Mr. Webb what he intends to do about this economic inequality. In his op-ed, he offers to no policy recommendations, other than a whiff of protectionism. Winning the election required no concrete proposals, as his opponent's campaign self-destructed when candidate George Allen used a scatalogical term ("macaca") to refer to a reporter with Arabic facial features.

As for blaming America's public education system, I have to plead guilty. Here is an exact quote from the first sentence of a paper that was turned in by a student in my class at George Mason:


Social Security is a huge topic that is quite often read about in the newspaper and discussion about in the news.

I'll wager that this student did not go to private school. I'll also wager that when (if?) this student graduates, she will not be earning a salary that will make Mr. Webb jealous.

This student's command of English was somewhat below the median in my class, but she is not an outlier. Next time someone tries to tell Mr. Webb that the earnings distribution has something to do with differences in human capital, he might consider listening.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



TRACKBACKS (6 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/604
The author at Cafe Hayek in a related article titled Politicians Pursue Power, Not Truth or Understanding writes:
    Arnold Kling points out that Jim Webb's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal lacks any real suggestions for how to solve the problem that Webb allegedly believes now haunts America. If this lack of specifics means a lack of action [Tracked on November 15, 2006 11:59 AM]
The author at Daniel W. Drezner in a related article titled I, for one, welcome our protectionist overlords writes:
    Kos is right -- if this Wall Street Journal editorial is any indication, James Webb is no conservative: The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the like... [Tracked on November 16, 2006 3:31 PM]
COMMENTS (29 to date)
asg writes:

I thought "macaca" was an ethnic slur, not scatological (it being a variation on "macaque" which is a type of monkey).

Horatio writes:

That level of writing is typical of my students here at one of the Ivy-caliber institutions. It may be a bit below the median, but certainly less than one sigma. However, my students are mostly engineers.

Ed writes:

To heck with the class warfare and economic inequality, I'm still trying to figure out when the rich seceded from the union....

"It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country."

Fritz writes:

Webb also wrote: More troubling is this: If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest. Up to now, most American workers have simply been worried about their job prospects. Once they understand that there are (and were) clear alternatives to the policies that have dislocated careers and altered futures, they will demand more accountability from the leaders who have failed to protect their interests.

No kidding, but it is he that wishes to ignore the leading factor, public delivery system of k-12 education, and encourage class unrest for personal political gain. The $10mm villain CEO has little to gain from a growing underclass, unlike Mr. Webb. Democrats fear improvement in education that will lead to more Republicans!

john pertz writes:

The democrats have to deflect. They have no other option. The enormous problem that American childeren face today is that the democratic party has a dramatic incentive to acquiesce and fight on behalf of teacher's unions and public school boards. Those two groups comprise an enormous bulk of their constituency. Without the democrats they will be out of a job. As a result of the democrats presence in government, mediocrity reigns supreme in secondary education and the entire country is worse off because of it. I am sure as hell not a Republican but this part of the democratic platform is incredibly troubling and is probably it's largest weakness. If we are gonna point the special interest and cronyism finger at the Republicans then we have to call the democrats out on this one.

Swimmy writes:

I've seen far worse sentences. At the last school I attended, I had a roommate who had some, uh, very special problems writing papers. For instance, in a paper about composer Gustav Mahler:

Mahler was a composer as a stated before who composed very dreary and slow music. This type of music can be blamed on the life hood that he grew up with as a child.

Or this doozy in a paper comparing Napoleon to Lenin:

Napoleon a great leader had three main keys to his success as a leader, the terror he brought, his military, and he was a go getter.

It's pretty much all like that. I don't think he passed that many classes, but he was the football coach's assistant at a football school, so who knows?

Randy writes:

The solution is well known - panem et circenses. The plebs will always grumble, but it doesn't take much to keep them from revolting. Modern society has added the education industry, entertainment industry, and public service work, which allow people to feel useful even when they aren't particularly. The programs are useful, though certainly subject to cost/benefit analysis.

Buzzcut writes:

Come on, don't be a jerk. Clearly, that sentence just contained a typo. The student was guilty of not proofreading, nothing more.

Populist writes:

I'm hardly surprised that mocking the academic efforts of your undergraduates seems to bring you some degree of self-satisfaction. I always somehow suspected that beneath their eccentricities George Mason economists are essentially jerks.

By the way, your little blog posting includes at least two factual errors which I, for one, would find embarrassing. A commentary on the state of YOUR education, perhaps?

Arnold Kling writes:

Buzzcut, the rest of the paper has equally egregious sentences. What is the probability that they are all typos?

KipEsquire writes:

The capacity of Democratic politicians to lament the state of public education while continuing to embrace the teacher unions that brought it about never ceases to amaze me.

Randy writes:

I remember reading a book called "The Gettsbug War" (or something along that lines), which was a collection of quotations from student's history papers. It was one of the funniest books I've ever read. Maybe you should do one for economics.

Kent Gatewood writes:

Open borders make class warfare even more likely. Millions of low iq, poorly educated immigrants are going to make the yawning chasm better.

Will I be graded down for "yawning chasm"?

Timothy writes:

You might enjoy Rate Your Students. It's a variant of "Rate My Professor", except by people who can write.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Webb forgot the part about rich people driving on toll roads, using Macs, ordering books from Amazon, and having an occasional vente mocha at Starbucks. Whatta jerk.

Sebastian Holsclaw writes:

"Few among them send their children to public schools"

Same is true of Congressmen.

Why is that?

Barkley Rosser writes:

"Yawning chasm." It is enough to put one to sleep.

dearieme writes:

"mocha at Starbucks": what's the point of being a plutocrat if you have to drink that rubbish?

Niccolo Caldararo writes:

Dear Editor:

I think we need to look at the models that are current today. The term, "ownership society" which President Bush has been using to define his economic program of late was first used in a series of studies of the operation of price systems by Kenneth J. Arrow, Gerard Debreu and a group of other economists shortly after W.W.II. These studies showed that how a price system was structured had an essential role in the nature of profits. Ostensibly, these are "economies where the consumers own the resources and control the producers." (Gerard Debreu, Theory of Value, 1959, page 78), and this sounds at first blush like a feudal society where the lords own everything and peasants and artisans are their serfs. But more ominously it refers to a more insipid kind of control. Debreu argued that pricing could affect motivations and preferences of both consumers and producers so that the ability of one set of consumers to buy a product did not diminish the decision of others for it even if they were unable to do so. Rather, pricing could act to motivate people to shape choices to use scarcity to produce exclusivity. Here there is thus a shift from Adam Smith who argued that prices were related to distribution and supply, or that scarcity was related to demand and supply over time, that is, the corn harvest was priced by dealers to make the supply last until the next harvest.
If this is the meaning of President Bush's and his Neocom advisors' use of the term, then the new "Ownership Society" does not mean that most people will see their economic stake and control of their lives in society increase, rather they will only be manipulated into participating in a scarce status that they will pursue (as Vance Packard described 50 years ago in his The Hidden Persuaders) with little chance of achieving. They will invest in stocks (or private Social Security Accounts) that pay no dividends (remember when they did and that was one essential reason people invested in them), but will have the cachet or aroma of ownership until the market collapses. It sounds like more of George Orwell's ' Double Speak,' and like the eternal war he described and we are now living in.

Niccolo Caldararo, Ph.D.
Dept. of Anthropology
San Francisco State University

Fritz writes:

Niccolo,
Why do have to cite Machiavellian (quite appropriate coming from a Niccolo) motivations when the most important factor necessary for an open and prosperous society is an excellent liberal education for all, is the missing component in the US? The economy and democracy are the true consumers of k-12 education. The public delivery system of k-12 education is a failure because it follows the concentration of power model you criticize and contend exists in the US private sector today. Since you are an anthropologist, perhaps you might appreciate Seabright's explanation of this in his book, "Among Strangers." While visiting with a Russian economic minister, Seabright was asked, "We understand that market economies work and are trying to adopt such a system, but could you tell me who runs the bread production for London?" Simple innocent question, but the answer, no-one, is incomprehensible. You sir, have the same understanding of economics as that Russian minister.

Kevin Nowell writes:

Arnold Kling's female student at George Mason, consider yourself pwned.

ericf writes:

You want specifics, ok, I'll give specifics, and make it pay-go too:

I say we double spending on education. That will surely get the USA back on top. After all, if we can send a man to the moon, we owe it to our future, The Children. Pay for that via a millionaire surtax. And we should make sure a Katrina-type disaster never shames this country again. Just means-test social security. Then there's health care, a basic right, especially in the World's Most Powerful nation. Raise property taxes, which Henry George proved only goes to money-grubbing landlords who don't make anything anyway. A decent job for anyone who works--and I mean more than mere subsistence, I mean true middle class wages--is only just in the World's Wealthiest nation. Pay by removing the cap on on FICA taxes. And what about Africa? Most people there earn less than $2 a day, and that's not right (probably our fault, too). A harmless tax on 'paper profits', would work (again, nothing produced, so no harm). And reparations for African-Americans, and perhaps Native Americans, maybe interred Japanese. This could be funded by a tax on oil and tobacco companies (and Fox News just for good measure).

J Webb

Nacim writes:

Wow, do you have some sort of grudge against that particular student that you would go as far as publicly humiliating her over one stupid sentence? Can't you use a more benign example of how human capital affects income without being so cruel?

Mike writes:

Our wonderful education system from today's NY Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/16/education/16reportcard.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

Kent Gatewood writes:

Who owns the copyright on the student's text? If the student, can she collect royalties and damages? Or is this a true libertarian world with no IP rights?

Here's a picture that ought to be worth at least a thousand of Jim Webb's words.

If you are a low income person, would you prefer the most recent quarter century (1982-2006) to be working and earning a living with its two short mild recessions, or the preceding 25 years (1956-1981) with its SIX recessions.

Matt writes:

What can I say?

The rich flattened taxes, then used government to find and conquer more oil fields from Iraq.

The rich flattened taxes then had the federal government handle the educational needs of their companies.

The rich flattened taxes, then the auto makers go to government and ask govenrment to absorb more fo their expenses.

Back to the same problem, the wealthy grow government in a flat taxed environment. We know why, it is the royalist perspective, the rich are special leaders and government should work to make the rich richer. Cheney all but said this in action and deed, and of course, government grows in unlimited fashion on behalf of the rich.

Monte writes:

I find Senator Webb’s phraseology curious. He opines that “the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system…”

Couldn’t he have saved considerable time and space by substituting bourgeoisie for America’s top tier, corporate leaders, and the nation’s most fortunate? And wouldn’t proletariat work in place of those who are falling behind, the worker, and the average American?

jhr writes:

There is something particularly amusing about this considering that the person Allen called a "macaca" graduated from a high school that in addition to being one of the best in the country is also a public (magnet) school.

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