Best served cold

by Henry Farrell on February 25, 2008

“Dani Rodrik”: catches up with Bill Kristol a couple of decades later …

I have waited a really long time to do this, and I am happy that Bill Kristol finally gave me an opportunity with his column in today’s New York Times. … he was my dreaded instructor long ago in two of the classes that I took as a Harvard undergraduate … In each course, we had to write short papers once every couple of weeks. I can say that my performance on these papers, which Kristol graded, was fairly consistent. The essay on Machiavelli? Here is a C-. The essay on the Federalist Papers? Here is a C. John Stuart Mill? Well, how about, yes you guessed it, another C. You can say that Kristol did his best to discourage me from pursuing a career in political science.

… He walked into the classroom and his first words were: “Hello, my name is Mr. Kristol.” To underscore the point that he was that, and not Bill or any other friendly appellations by which we students may have chosen to address him, he went to the board and wrote “Mr. Kristol.” I may have been a poorly adjusted Turk in my first year in the U.S., but this still struck me as odd. … Well, Mr. Kristol’s column today takes aim at Barack (and Michelle) Obama, and does so quite unfairly in my view. … What caught my attention was this passage: [where Kristol says that in almost every empirical respect, American lives have in fact gotten better over the last quarter-century.] … Really? … for a high-school graduate, the odds that his compensation would have fallen by more than 10% is 50-50. Note that even college graduates have not seen any income gains since around 2000. … some groups have definitely been left worse off–not just in relative but also in absolute terms. So statistics aside, who do you think has a better sense of what has happened to “regular folk” since 1980? Michelle Obama or Mr. Kristol?



Kenny Easwaran 02.25.08 at 10:24 pm

He just has to mean “American lives” as a generic with force of an existential quantifier – certainly on every conceivable metric, some American lives have gotten better over the past 25 years. It’s only silly leftists that would read a phrase like “American lives” as meaning the same as “average American lives” or “most American lives”!


Witt 02.25.08 at 11:29 pm

The direct quote from Kristol is:

Now in almost every empirical respect, American lives have in fact gotten better over the last quarter-century.

My understanding of this argument is “Cars and TVs are lots cheaper, many more people have air conditioning, and we all have the Internet now.” The counter-argument seems to be, “People work a lot of hours but have much less confidence that they can afford housing in a safe neighborhood and won’t go bankrupt if they have a health problem.”

I don’t understand the appeal of argument #1. People make it all the time, so it must be compelling to somebody. Other than the self-interest of the small group of folks who don’t have to worry about housing or health insurance costs, who does this serve?


greensmile 02.26.08 at 2:11 am

Seeing Kristol in action at some recently televised [CSPAN] summit of progressives [to which he was brave enough to accept an invitation as a sort of “loyal opposition” figure] I am impressed that he is a deluded nitwit. What sorry accident of upbringing and suboptimal capacity to gather the ethical import of the history and facts one can prove to have absorbed could account for the strange creature? That he has much less ability to reason than he fancies is sad but not so rare…but to be so completely out of touch with the economic realities in which the majority of his countrymen exist is incredible. He must be smoking the same stuff as these insufferable “let them eat debt!” turds


Sortition 02.26.08 at 3:26 am


wyote 02.26.08 at 12:34 pm

Re #2 – I’m one of those guys.

The appeal to me is that I believe it is largely accurate. Statistics about income do not encompass all of life; and, anyway, falling prices are as good as rising incomes. I think you agree that most Americans’ material standard of living has improved over the past 20 years. So that’s the point.

The biggest problem is probably not so much stagnant income growth, but the thinning of the middle class, or the growing disparity between upper and middle. This really is a problem, and we can count on populist politics (or perhaps fundamentalism) becoming stronger, and eventually forcing change.


SamChevre 02.26.08 at 2:51 pm


Since I’m one of the people to whom your argument #1 appeals, I’ll restate it as I see it.

“Food and transportation have gotten a lot cheaper, housing quality and medical effectiveness have improved hugely, and computers and the internet are now available; on the flip side, government schools have stopped providing a good education, zoning and building codes have increased housing costs, and fear of crime has increased.”

I can drive down my road and see the difference is why this argument appeals to me. The houses from before the mid-70’s are really barely habitable–they include a converted quonset hut, something the I think started out as a travel trailer, and one that I’m pretty certain has board walls and no insulation. The newer houses are small, but even the trailers are far more liveable than those old shacks.

The difference that lower food prices make is also hard to estimate–but plenty of older people in my area can remember not having enough to eat as children; that just doesn’t happen much anymore. Similarly with lower transportation costs (cheaper and lower-maintenance cars and better roads); they make a BIG difference in quality of life.

And I’m not impressed with the “high-school grad wages” argument, because high-school grads used to be in the top half of the educational spectrum, and now they are in the lower half. I think the inflation of educational qualifications if a bad and stupid thing, but it has happened. Complaining that a high-school education doesn’t buy what it used to is like complaining that a dollar doesn’t buy what it used to.


Righteous Bubba 02.26.08 at 3:15 pm

government schools have stopped providing a good education, zoning and building codes have increased housing costs, and fear of crime has increased

What’s your support for those three items?


SamChevre 02.26.08 at 3:45 pm

Fear of crime has increased–anecdotal. Note that I did NOT say crime has increased.

Zoning and building codes have increased housing costs–obvious. You can’t build and live in an uninsulated shack with no running water, which would be cheaper than any code-compliant house. (And was not uncommon 40 years ago.)

Government schools have stopped providing a good education–should have added “in many areas.” As amaended, obvious again.


Crystal 02.26.08 at 7:55 pm

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi in “The Two Income Trap” have pointed out that the huge jump in costs since the 1970’s have been in housing, education, and child care. Salaries have not kept up with these costs. So the middle-class is feeling squeezed despite the fact we are driving better cars (my 1991 Nissan is still going strong!), living in better houses, and we have wide-screen TVs and Ipods.

Also as #5 points out the middle class is disappearing; it’s harder to find a good steady job that pays a decent wage and includes benefits.

And might I add that even if he’s a teensy bit right in some small way, Kristol still sounds like an utter jackhole.


mpowell 02.26.08 at 10:45 pm

If we can identify segments of society that have seen real wages per hour drop over the past 10 to 20 years, that is a huge problem. If inequality has increased substantially, that is also a huge problem, but not as bad.

But some of these, ‘x costs have increased’ arguments don’t make much sense to me. Let’s take childcare for example. Costs have gone up. Childcare is not a lucrative profession. If costs have gone up, poor people are making more money relative to the slightly wealthier people paying for childcare. How is this a bad thing? Housing costs have gone up. The cost of physically building a house has not gone up. It’s all about bidding against your peers for location. Perhaps as other costs become a smaller part of people’s budgets, they are competing more and more on housing to live with members of the same class. It’s hard to see this as an indictment of the economy, except so much as it’s encouraging people to expose more of their wealth to a volatile market. But that’s more of a regulatory problem than a general economic problem. Or the big one: health care costs have gone up. Sure they have, but health care has also gotten better. I’m not sure if anyone would be too enthusiastic if we offered middle-poor income people access to much cheaper, 1960s era style care. We need to find better solutions to health care in this country, but I think you confuse the issue by conflating overall economic well-being with some of these issues.


Witt 02.28.08 at 3:26 am

A belated thanks to wyote and sam for spelling out their thinking on this issue. I have a better understanding of where people might be coming from, even if I don’t always agree.

Childcare is not a lucrative profession. If costs have gone up, poor people are making more money relative to the slightly wealthier people paying for childcare.

I don’t think that necessarily follows. Childcare costs may have gone up because of increased compliance and regulatory costs (e.g. if state accreditation is now necessary), because of insurance and liability issues, because of the cost of drug screening, criminal background checks and child abuse clearances for potential employees, and a whole host of other reasons that have nothing to do with paying the childcare worker more money.

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