Nicholas Kristof Peddles Neo-Liberal Snake Oil as Remedy for Poverty

February 26, 2014   ·   1 Comments


By John Halle:

Even if common sense didn't tell us that stopped clocks sometimes display useful information, we could infer it from reading Nicholas Kristof’s Times op-eds.

A case in point was last week's “Professors, We Need You!,” (NYT, February 15, 2014), which found Kristof hitting an easy target, academics, and scoring a few lazy, dog-bites-man points by noting that only some are blessed with much literary skill and a few are deliberately obscure.

These bland truisms elicited a few nods of approval from those who might otherwise know better.  Fortunately, it wasn't necessary to wait long for a reminder that the other 1,438 minutes of the Kristof day have little to do with reality.

That occurred with this Sunday's effort—“When Even the Starting Line Is Out of Reach,” (NYT, February 22, 2014)—which contained the following declaration:

One reason American antipoverty efforts over the last half-century haven’t been more effective is that they mostly treat symptoms, not causes. To put it another way, we don’t invest nearly enough in helping children in the first few years of life as their brains are developing. If we miss that window, then adult interventions like higher minimum wages can never be fully effective.

It doesn't take much awareness to recognize that the last sentence is pure speculation on Kristof's part: to prove that "higher minimum wages" are less "effective" when they are applied to those having mild cognitive disabilities Kristof would have to be able to cite some study documenting a) that this policy has been attempted and b) that it has failed in this particular instance. But we all know that there is no evidence indicating anything of the kind; he simply manufactured this supposed "fact".

While academics might not be capable of the mellifluous turns of phrase and graceful sentences expected of a Times columnist, in general, there's one thing we don't do: we don't make shit up.  That’s at least partly because we are used to getting challenged by our colleagues (in and outside our fields) and our students, whom we teach to fact check pronouncements deriving from all sources, including ourselves, no matter how authoritative.

In the clubby world of media talking heads and Hollywood celebrities inhabited by Kristof a different reality obtains: here group think rules, the circulation of flat earth delusions is eminently acceptable, provided, of course, that they do not seriously challenge conventional wisdom. If a myth flatters the self-image of the bien pensant or protects them from criticism, it can be certain to find wide acceptance.

The above paragraph is typical of the latter in advancing one of the most odious and cynical of comforting falsehoods: the attribution of "poverty" to the supposed cognitive deficits of those who fail to compete. This takes the political elites who have set up the competition to benefit themselves and the corporations who fund them off the hook. Nothing about bashing unions, nothing about free trade pacts having devastated the communities in question, nothing about welfare "reform" which Kristof and his neo-liberal cohort were long-time cheerleaders for.

As usual, Kirstof tries to disguise what he is selling with well wrought bon mots.  That’s what Times columnists do with consummate skill, the skill which he disparages us academics for lacking.  But we shouldn't be deceived.  It is neo-liberal snake oil at its most toxic. While academics are by no means blameless, it is the agenda setting media including the Times and Kristof who have been at neoliberalism’s core. No amount of pretty words will succeed in erasing that reality.

John Halle is the Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College


Readers Comments (1)

  1. Thom McCann says:

    Nicholas D. Kristoff NY Times columnist (Sep 23, 2012) wrote,

    “The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.”

    I guess he includes himself !


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