TIME’s Klein makes some sense in downplaying populist arguments

Joe Klein‘s latest TIME column offers some useful observations about misguided populist political arguments.

“We will ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day, universal pre-K and after-school programs,” said [new New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio, announcing his signature proposal. “Those earning between $500,000 and $1 million … would see their taxes increase by an average of $973 a year. That’s less than three bucks a day–about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.”

Sounds reasonable enough, despite the Starbucks dig. I would imagine most New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 would gleefully toss $973 into the pot if they thought that universal pre-K would actually help the poor. The greater likelihood, though, is that the money will fall down a very dark hole into the city’s sclerotic, union-paralyzed bureaucracy. If Democrats want to make government the agency of opportunity for the poor, they’re going to have to run it better.

But de Blasio was also being a bit disingenuous. Even if government ran as smoothly as FedEx and money could be successfully pumped into reformed social programs, the sources of income disparity (the Democratic formulation) and middle-class stagnation (the Republican version) would still be with us.

If the Democrats want to be serious about income disparity, they’re going to have to address the problems not just at the top of the social spectrum but also at the bottom–the explosion of single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births that have caused the bottom to drop out of working-class-family incomes. …

… Populism, left or right, has always been a rough-edged and graceless American political tendency. It is inevitably accompanied by some form of intolerance–racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism–and de Blasio’s installation was no exception. There was a black minister who called the city a “plantation” in the invocation. And Harry Belafonte had some wildly intemperate stuff to say about the criminal-justice system, which has suffered police excesses but also has had an unimaginable success in limiting crime and making life more tolerable in poor neighborhoods. De Blasio’s notion that New York is “two cities” is a myopic inaccuracy. New York contains multitudes. It is the very opposite of a plantation.

For the past 25 years especially, it has been a fierce incubator of opportunity for a kaleidoscope of new immigrant groups who have come and worked hard and succeeded. Studies show that the American Dream of upward mobility is more alive in New York than in much of the rest of the country–a fact that its new mayor should not only acknowledge but also crow about.

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