February 14, 2021
I just read Nicholas Kristof’s column about his childhood friend Mike Stepp. The piece is actually very moving.
Mr. Stepp grew up next door to Kristof. As he explains in the column, he grew up with an abusive father. Their family didn’t value education, so neither Mike or his brother ever finished high school. While previous generations of workers (white male workers) could work in a factory job without a high school degree and still enjoy a middle class standard of living, this was no longer a possibility for Mike. As a result, he struggled with periods of unemployment, low-paying jobs, drug addiction, mental health problems, and homelessness. He ended up dying last year at age 55.
Kristof tells us that Mike was a decent intelligent person who was let down by society. As he explains, we took away the opportunities that had existed for a large segment of the workforce, and did nothing to fill in the gaps:
“Witnessing the torment of people I grew up with, like Mike, has led me to conclude that I was wrong in many of my own views. Like many liberals with a university education and a reliable paycheck, I was too scornful of labor unions, too unreservedly enthusiastic about international trade, too glib about “creative destruction,” too heartless about its toll.”
I would strongly agree with the basic thrust of Kristof’s argument, but I want to ask about what happens to all the people like Kristof who now admits, “I was wrong in many of my own views.”
Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a jihad against Kristof who is both honest enough to admit his error and appears to have genuine compassion for the people who have been victimized by our policies of the last four decades. But Kristof is just one of a very long list of public intellectuals who made this same mistake. They openly, and often belligerently, pushed policies that had very serious negative effects for large segments of the population. While others have also come to recognize their mistake, many still don’t, and continue to blame the victims of their policies for the difficulties they face in life.
I am not going to rehash the arguments about the policies here (see my book Rigged [it’s free], if you want my account), rather I want to make a different point about accountability. Failing to recognize that the devastating impact of the economic policies promoted in the last four decades was a very serious mistake. But is anyone anywhere losing their job for it?
There is no shortage of economists, policy types, and columnists (e.g. Kristof’s colleague at the NYT, Thomas Friedman) who have made this mistake. However, the idea that any of them would face serious career consequences for this sort of massive failure is viewed as absurd. Even to suggest it is seen as mean-spirited vindictiveness.
So, we live in a society where the dishwasher can get fired in a minute for breaking the dishes. The same is the case for the custodian that doesn’t clean the toilet. But the highly paid workers at the top of their profession face no career risk from making huge mistakes with massive consequences for society.
Can I hear the story about meritocracy again?