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The Left Wing Needs an Update

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Though I deem myself a sort-of liberal, I don't closely read the left-wing magazine The Nation. Its views don't budge for decades at a time, so one can get by just checking in now and then.

Case in point is a recent analysis of the gap between rich and poor in that glittering souk of luxury, New York City. The unsurprising title: "A Tale of Two New Yorks."

Why should this bother me, since some of the things said are true, and I would agree with many of the remedies? It bothers me because cartoon portrayals of the poor hurt efforts to help them in constructive ways, such as ensuring universal health coverage.

Sympathetic Middle Americans may turn away when the advocates skate by matters of self-defeating behavior and open borders in worsening the poor's plight. And unless carefully nuanced, the race argument comes off as phony.

Anyhow, Nation writer Lizzy Ratner lifts the curtain with a predictable set piece. Sotheby's auctions a Tiffany diamond necklace for $3.6 million. Meanwhile, up in Harlem, an unemployed 51-year-old mother lives on food stamps and sweeps streets in return for her welfare check.

Who bought the diamonds? The buyer could have been an heiress in Cleveland. But even if it was a bailed-out Citicorp baron -- whose reckless behavior added to the mother's woes -- the fault ultimately lies in a political culture that let him do what he did.

The unemployed mother, we are told, is well put together and lost a good bank job in 2008. Then the author lets slip that the woman's "youngest son has left his private school." Wha????

OK, what's the story? And is it unreasonable to ask her whether the father or fathers of her three children are helping out -- and if not, why not? Alas, such questions offend Nation sensitivities.

Between 2009 and 2010, "while the number of New Yorkers visiting food pantries ballooned by 200,000," we read, the city's 57 billionaires upped their collective net worth by $19 billion. No one's passing the hat for billionaires, but honesty demands including the end of 2008, when the economic meltdown shaved hundreds of millions off their fortunes. Ratner starts counting at the dawn of a bull market.

Back among the poor, we hear about "Nancy, a 56-year-old domestic worker from Colombia whose age, lack of English and limited education have conspired to keep her jobless for more than two years." These burdens have nothing to do with diamond buyers.

Nancy is the only interviewee not identified with a last name. Could she possibly be in the country illegally? That would be an important piece of information. And what about the reality that a huge illegal workforce has helped pauperized unskilled Americans?

If Ratner doesn't believe it, she should delve into the work of the two economists she cites in drawing her contrasts. Andrew Sum and Ishwar Khatiwada have long studied how mass immigration, particularly the illegal kind, has hurt low-skilled Americans.

The evidence mounts, they've written, that "some employers have begun to reorganize work in ways that systematically exclude certain native-born workers, especially those under the age of 35, from employment and that create work that does not meet the basic labor standards that have been developed over the years ..."

Yes, the unemployment rate in west Brooklyn is very high for blacks relative to whites (though Ratner oddly leaves out Hispanics and Asians). But this simplistic case for racism would further falter if she included this disparity: The median income for black households in the borough of Queens now exceeds that of white households.

Or hasn't The Nation heard? It has so much catching up to do.

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