I fully intended to start writing on national security here by now, but it’s time again to break that rule. Perhaps it’s a quibble, but when respected American liberal pundit Matt Yglesias (whom I admire) blogged Wednesday morning on the state of the US economy, he let his elitism show. It’s been bugging me ever since, because it highlights the death of a Clinton-era, measured liberalism and its replacement with an aloof, divisive Ivory Tower stridency that succeeds only in distancing itself from mainstream political discourse.
Yglesias’ brief post was un-ironically titled “Elite Isolation.” He cited a government study showing the unemployment rate among college-degreed Americans to be about 5 percent, while unemployment for non-college workers hovered around 13 percent. And here was his analysis (my emphasis added):
Virtually every single member of congress, every senator, every Capitol Hill staffer, every White House advisor, every Fed governor, and every major political reporter is a college graduate. What’s more, we have a large amount of social segregation in the United States—college graduates tend to socialize with each other. And among college graduates, there simply isn’t an economic crisis in the United States.
His point, apparently, was to argue that since the college grads in power don’t face an economic crisis, they fail to address the needs of those myriad unwashed noble savages who lack degrees and financial means. He's clearly never read any of the dozens of trend stories like this one or this one, churned out weekly during the Great Recession.
Where to begin with the inanity – and soft bigotry – of this analysis, I don’t know. But it’s more than a quibble. His analysis was picked up by at least two other prominent bloggers: Washington Post’s Ezra Klein (the founder of Journolist, of which Yglesias was a member – an isolated elite echo chamber if there ever was one) and my own colleague at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum (who, to his credit, mitigated Yglesias’ “let them eat cake”-ness with his usual dose of self-doubt and inquiry). A half-truth is introduced by a media elite, and within minutes, it becomes the new conventional wisdom of the left, propagating across social media.
I feel compelled to flout that “wisdom.” Only a happily employed, non-creative-class, Beltway-ensconced, elite scion of a comfortable family would assert that college grads aren’t facing an economic crisis. It’s not just a claim with no warrant; it’s insulting to a large swath of the American electorate, and it’s precisely the sort of myopia that gets American liberals, and journalists, painted as out of touch, wine-sipping, privileged naifs.
Beyond the prima facie wrongness and insensitivity of Yglesias’ claim, his argument’s fallacies stand as a cautionary tale to any analyst in any field:
1) Missing the forest for the trees. A single unemployment figure doth not a picture of an economic crisis make. Yglesias doesn’t look at other factors, such as indebtedness – college grads have more of it, in student loans, credit cards, mortgages, and the like – and underemployment: Americans ages 18-29 are 50 percent likelier to be employed part-time, or for low pay, than their elders. Half of those young people are college graduates. And when an early-career professional ends up underemployed, it can stunt her career growth and earnings for life.
2) Building on a sand foundation. Even if unemployment figures told the whole story of an economy, these unemployment figures wouldn’t, because they’re underreported. After a layoff in 2008, and another in 2009, I spent a total of seven months unemployed. Yet because I was so junior, I couldn’t apply for unemployment compensation, and so I wasn’t counted. Neither was my wife, a doctoral student who’s been unable to find work for two years. Lots of people in lots of situations aren’t counted in the unemployment totals.
3) Poor definition of terms. College graduates include 22-year-olds fighting for jobs, and people in their 60s with tenure and a retirement pension. They include people with only a bachelor’s, people with MBAs, and holders of Ph.D.’s, whose job fields are overcrowded and underfunded. They also include white and minority workers: Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect points out contra Yglesias that “for most of the recession, the unemployment rate among black college graduates has greatly surpassed the rate for whites.” To make a monolith of “college graduates” is to show no sensitivity to the hardships individual college grads face.
4) A straw man – possibly a racist straw man. Yes, the poor don’t have the benefit of education. And their plight is pathetic. And they need us college grads to tighten our belts and take up their burden. As a progressive, I don’t find any issue with the substance of this, but the style - Yglesias’ explicit description of “college grads” as a powerful elite bloc, and his implicit depiction of the “real” unemployed as the exploited proletariat - represents the pinnacle of privileged guilt and the soft bigotry of low expectations.
5) Either-or. Social benefit is not a zero-sum game between “we” the college graduates and “they” the poor, downtrodden service workers. You can reform the student loan system, extend unemployment insurance and food stamps, and increase job opportunities for all at the same time.
6) Red herring. A college degree isn’t what renders the Beltway crowd elitist and out of touch: the Beltway’s status obsession is. But thanks, Matt, for lumping all of us Florida State, Navy, and Iona College grads in with yourself, John Boehner, and Ben Bernanke.
I think we could fall into an infinite regress here, so let me wind up with a personal note. My wife and I have seven degrees and one nonprofit job between us. Since October 2008, I was unemployed for a one-month stretch and a six-month stretch. She’s been unable to find gainful employment the entire time. Our debt burden is heavier than the non-college-educated – we owe student loan originators the equivalent of a home mortgage, but we don’t own a house. We’ve moved five times in the past two years for four jobs and two unpaid internships; only one move was comped by an employer. Both of our working-class parental households lack the ability to support us. (In lumping college grads, Yglesias, Klein, and Drum also made no attempt to distinguish between educated offspring of the educated, on one hand, and educated offspring of the working class, on the other. For his part, Yglesias is a graduate of Harvard and the elite Dalton prep school. I sense his safety net is stronger than ours.)
Obviously, one’s personal experience isn’t scientific or objective, but this is also the situation of the vast majority of 22- to 32-year-olds I know in the American South and Northeast. Not that we suffer any more or less than the “uneducated” poor. It’s not a competition to see who suffers more, and by effectively treating it as such, people like Yglesias not only miss the forest for a single statistical tree, they alienate the same skeptical electorate that they need to sell on a wider safety net for all.
Sorry, but it’s the sort of empathy for the worst-off that can only be delivered by the Beltway-embedded jet set. Yglesias is a smart, talented partisan for the progressive cause. But if he wants to be even smarter, he should ditch the Department of Labor studies, leave the macroeconomics to Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, and go actually talk to some college graduates in the workforce – outside the Beltway.