Paul Krugman can generally be counted upon to tell it like it is, and yesterday’s column in the New York Times was no exception. In the first couple of paragraphs, he used the recent upheaval in Hong Kong as an example of the disdain with which affluent folks in developed countries regard the working poor, and quoted Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, who inadvertently blurted out the real reason the regime is resisting giving pro-democracy demonstrators a voice:
With open voting, “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies” — policies, presumably, that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.
So Mr. Leung is worried about the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population that, he believes, would vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money. This may sound like the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes and, therefore, don’t take responsibility for themselves, or the 60 percent that Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are “takers,” getting more from the government than they pay in. Indeed, these are all basically the same thing.
For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.
As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.
These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.
It’s bad enough that this moral opprobrium prevents us from implementing ameliorative economic policies, but it also retards our efforts to fix public education.
On Thursday, the Mind Trust and the United Negro College Fund hosted a lunch. The keynote speaker was one Roland Fryer. He was brilliant. Fryer–the youngest African-American ever tenured at Harvard–is an economist who studies education, and he reported the results of a large-scale experiment he and others recently conducted in Houston and Denver. (I’m told his entertaining and informative speech will be shown on Channel 16, and for those who missed it, it would be well worth watching.)
Fryer made a number of important points, but the basic message was simple and profound: poor children–including poor black children–are every bit as capable of learning as their more affluent peers. (Fryer himself grew up in a poor neighborhood in Houston; he never knew his mother and his father was imprisoned.) When poor kids are given good teachers, when their schools support those teachers appropriately, and when the teachers expect those children to learn and excel, performance improves dramatically.
If we want to live in a society where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is deep, where resentments fester and plutocrats retreat ever farther into their gated communities–if we want to inhabit a society focused upon what divides us rather than what we have in common–we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.