There! I said it, and I feel better already. 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. More on what he wrote below, but first let me explain why I take great pleasure in pointing out his boo-boo. No, it's not because we probably disagree on everything nowadays.
It's that he was my dreaded instructor long ago in two of the classes that I took as a Harvard undergraduate. He was a doctoral student at the time in the Government Department (no relation to the HKS), and I was a freshman and sophomore in the college. The first course was Harvey Mansfield's political theory course (for which Kristol served as teaching fellow), and the second was a sophomore tutorial (a required course for government concentrators).
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...
I remember well the very first time I saw him. It was the first meeting of the discussion session in Mansfield's course, and I had been assigned to Kristol's section. 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. He was certainly the only graduate student I met in my four years as an undergraduate who insisted on being called by his last name.
Well, Mr. Kristol's column today takes aim at Barack (and Michelle) Obama, and does so quite unfairly in my view. But I will leave a detailed exegesis of his argument to others. What caught my attention was this passage:
Michelle Obama, in the course of a stump speech, remarked, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”
Michelle Obama’s adult life goes back to the mid-1980s. Can it really be the case that nothing the U.S. achieved since then has made her proud? Apparently. For, as she said later in the same appearance: “Life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime, through Republican and Democratic administrations. It hasn’t gotten much better.”
Now in almost every empirical respect, American lives have in fact gotten better over the last quarter-century.
Really? Look at the chart below, which comes from Frank Levy, my authority on such matters. It shows the median compensation since 1980 of different groups of prime-aged men, alongside productivity.
People like me with graduate degrees have done great. But the median compensation (that includes fringe benefits, by the way) of high school graduate men has declined by about 10 percent since 1980! Mr. Kristol: that means that 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. The increase in labor productivity has outpaced the earnings of all these groups, including that of workers with graduate degrees. (The outcomes for women have been much better.)
What is special about the last quarter century, as Frank Levy makes clear, is that it followed a period when productivity increases were broadly shared by different groups in society. That is no longer the case, and 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?