In the course of a column blasting media entrepreneur Steven Brill’s new book on the school reform movement, New York Times reporter Michael Winerip inadvertently sets out his economic assumptions. A revelation of an entire world view does not get any more crystalline than this. (Regarding education, Winerip almost equally tellingly criticises Brill for not showing enough respect to teachers and teachers unions.)
Winerip lists several of Brill’s sources—the “millionaires and billionaires who attack the unions and steered the Democratic Party to their cause”—then adds:
I expected Mr. Brill to explore why these men single out the union for blame when children fail. If a substantial part of the problem was poverty and not bad teachers, the question would be why people like them are allowed to make so much when others have so little.
Who exactly is doing the “allowing” here? In Winerip’s world, people earn, keep, and invest money only by the sufferance of some greater authority—presumably the government, which implicitly decides how much they should be “allowed” to make. What if I decide that Michael Winerip is making too “much when others have so little”? Winerip’s income undoubtedly dwarfs that of a teen mother on welfare in Harlem. Why should he be “allowed” to make so much? My guess is that Winerip feels that his income is at best commensurate with his labors, if not inadequate to those labors. Yet there have been plenty of governments in recent human history—the Cultural Revolution comes immediately to mind–for whom Winerip’s income and class status would be a clear sign of bourgeois decadence and injustice, requiring radical redistribution or even the destruction of all such cushy Times positions.
There are other notable assumptions behind Winerip’s passing remark. Winerip implies that “not allowing” businessmen and investors to “make so much” would actually solve the multi-generational poverty problem of the inner city or lead children there to show a greater zeal for schooling. Inner-city poverty, however, is rooted in behavior, not in the absence of sufficiently redistributionist tax and regulatory policies. You could pump up the welfare payments by magnitudes, and the self-defeating behaviors of bearing children out of wedlock, not studying in school or attending class, and getting involved in gang life would change very little.
This assumption that inner-city poverty is a mere question of household income rather than behavior and values is a more common and explicit feature of standard liberal rhetoric, however. Winerip’s revelation regarding the merely “on loan” aspect of wealth generation is the real gem of his column and worth remembering the next time the mainstream media claims that it is bias-free.