Sunday, August 08, 2004

Richard Bernstein, jackass

There's much to complain about in today's Times, but right now I only have time to complain about Richard Bernstein's article on the back page of the Week in Review. The basic thesis:

Europe, the kinder gentler continent, where the death penalty has been abolished and arrogant unilateralism, assembly-line hamburgers, Bible thumping and crass patriotism are repudiated.

These days there is a powerful trend in Europe, with plenty of support in the United States, to believe in the advantages of the European model over the American one.


But is Europe really better, as many Americans and Europeans feel?

Bernstein goes on to discuss a couple of writers who are bringing out books suggesting that, yes, Europe is better, or no, Europe is not better. Such a subject is more or less guaranteed to bring out the jingoistic handwaving, so who knows why the Week in Review editor thought it was a good idea to run an article on it. However, that aside, Bernstein spends most of the article parrying claims of Euro-superiority by saying, roughly, "I know you are, but what am I?" And our illustrious Week in Review editor decided to run the article.

Now, I can think of all kinds of reasons why I prefer to live in America instead of Europe, but Bernstein's evidence is---well, let's examine his reasoning.

Yet [(author of "The American Dream") Jeremy Rifkin's] proclamations are at best arguable. Mr. Rifkin writes that he finds more cultural diversity in Europe than in the United States. But it is in Europe, not America, that anti-immigrant sentiment has fed the rise of far-right parties; and, recently, the French government banned girls from wearing Muslim head scarves in school.

Erm, how are these two factoids evidence that Europe does not have more cultural diversity than America? Being a loose federation of separate nations, each with distinct languages and centuries of history, and many of whom have been at war with each other, Europe must almost by definition have more cultural diversity than the United States. If you want to argue the contrary, you've got a long row to hoe, and you'll need a lot more than these two unconvincing data points to do it. Particularly given that anti-immigrant sentiment is evidence for the existence of cultural diversity --- anti-immigrant sentiment is aroused by the presence of immigrants, not their absence.

Besides which, America's hardly free from anti-immigrant extremism. Perhaps Bernstein lives in a universe where the Reform Parties don't exist, where the Philadelphia Nativist Riots never happened, and where the Know-Nothings never existed. Also, America doesn't need far-right parties; elements of its center-right party have cheerfully allied themselves with far-right immigrant groups. America's winner-take-all political system encourages the emergence of two "big-tent" political parties that, in European parliamentary systems, would splinter into fractious coalitions of separate parties. This may be a good thing or a bad thing --- on the one hand, it works against the emergence of extremist parties, but on the other hand it encourages the two major parties to bring extremist groups under the "big tent", thereby granting extremists greater legitimacy -- but either way, it's a statement about America's electoral system, not about America's greater cultural diversity.

In "Free World," a new book soon to be published in the United States that offers a more balanced view of the debate, the British writer Timothy Garton Ash reports that the United States today spends more on Medicaid programs caring for 40 million poor people than Britain's national health service spends on its entire population of 60 million. Yet Mr. Bahr can proclaim that the United States has no welfare at all.

It is certainly untrue that America has no welfare system, but what's Bernstein's point? Should poor Americans be thanking their lucky stars that they America spends more money on them than Britain does on its national health service? It seems to me that poor Americans would much prefer to get reliable, affordable health care, regardless of how much money is spent. Britain's health service, for all its flaws, provides comprehensive health care for all Britain's citizens. Medicaid covers 40 million Americans, but does nearly nothing for the childless non-disabled poor, and is basically a Band-Aid on a hugely dysfunctional system that the New England Journal of Medicine calls "the most expensive and the most inadequate system in the developed world". Bernstein seems to confuse greater spending with actual results.

Or, here's a claim from a prominent British journalist, Will Hutton, made in a column in The Observer some months ago: "The capture of universities by the rich and the lack of education for the poor have meant that social mobility in the United States has collapsed." Yet 60 percent of students at America's elite institutions of higher learning (many of which practice need-blind admissions) receive some financial aid.

Ha! Ha! Can Bernstein seriously be suggesting that the fact that so many students receive some financial aid is an indicator of greater social mobility in America? There are at least three ways that this statement is ridiculous.

First, let us suppose you wanted to know about social mobility in America. What would a layperson reasonably familiar with economics look for, just off the top of your head? I'd suggest comparing inflation-adjusted lifetime earning power across generations, or perhaps comparing lifetime wealth acquisition across generations. The percentage of students at elite universities who receive "some" financial aid is not anywhere near the top of my list. (Paul Krugman, being an actual economist, has even better suggestions) The only reason Bernstein could have for choosing such a silly statistic is that he is either stupid, or lazy, or aware that he's deceiving his reader.

Deceiving his reader? Damn straight; because here's the second reason that Bernstein's statement is ridiculous. If he's even passing familiar with American universities, Bernstein must be aware that receiving "some" financial aid at an elite university is no indicator that the student's parents come from modest means. If a family sends two children to an elite university, raw tuition can easily top $200,000, and that figure is rising rapidly. And that's just for undergraduate education, which is no longer the passport to automatic prosperity that it once was. Entering the higher tiers of the professional class typically requires some form of postgraduate education; a friend of mine who's going to law school took out $150,000 of loans to finance the enterprise. In the face of numbers like these, even comfortably upper-middle class families are likely to apply for some financial aid, even if it's a relative pittance of a few thousand dollars.

Given these facts, what should really astound us about Bernstein's statistic is that 40% of the students at elite universities do not get financial aid.

But forget all this. Let's get to the most outrageous thing about Bernstein's statement. American families need so much financial aid for America's elite universities because America's higher education system is so goddamn expensive in the first place. This expense is, needless to say, a major barrier to social mobility.

My fellow Americans, please guess how much it costs to attend the University of Oxford, UK? Close your eyes and take a wild guess, then read the next paragraph, from the Oxford financial information page:

Undergraduates beginning a course in 2005 may have to contribute towards their tuition fees. You will pay no more in tuition fee contribution at Oxford than at any other university, which is an amount set by the government: currently a maximum of £1,125 per year. How much you pay of that maximum is means-tested and depends on your family's or your own income (depending on whom you rely on for your living). Currently, if that income is under about £20,000 a year, you pay no tuition fees.

Try not to weep. Now go back, reread Bernstein's statement about social mobility in America, and see if it doesn't strike you as simply monstrous.

But perhaps Bernstein thinks American peons should just be glad that "many" (not all) of America's elite universities practice need-blind admissions, as we kick back and enjoy our handomely paid-for Medicaid, and delight in the multicultural superiority of a nation where Pat Buchanan hasn't been invited to a Republican national convention in, like, eight whole years.

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