BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mickey Kaus, author of "The End of Equality," what's your book about?
MICKEY KAUS: My book's about how to recast the Democratic domestic agenda to both make it coherent, make it meet our nation's most pressing problems, and also, incidentally, to win elections.
LAMB: You can see there on the screen, and I'm going to turn it because I've got to read it, you've got one of the longest subtitles in history. "The Venerable Liberal Crusade For Income Equality Is Doomed. The Gap Between Rich And Poor Will Keep On Growing And No One Knows How To Stop It. It's Time For The Democrats To Try A Different Strategy." How come just the Democrats?
KAUS: Not just the Democrats. I pitched my message to the Democratic Party. I'm a Democrat. I'm a Democrat because I believe in affirmative government to pursue what I think are traditional liberal goals. But I find, when I go across the country talking about this book, it has maybe even more appeal on the right than on the left. And I'm happy to pitch my book to anybody in the right, left or center who would agree with that. Washington politics disguises the fact that there's really a lot of consensus around some bull centrist action.
Some people have called it radical centrism. The paradigmatic one would be welfare reform. I advocate an ambitious welfare reform proposal that would end welfare, replace it with WPA-style guaranteed jobs. It costs $50 billion. If you talk to liberals, they say, "Well, we're not sure about ending welfare, but we like the $50 billion." If you talk to conservatives, they say, "Well, we'd love to end welfare, but we're not sure about the $50 billion." But in private, most of them will agree, yes, they're for it. It's just in public they have to take these polar positions and say, "Oh, this is another liberal who wants to spend $50 billion," or "Oh, this is a mean guy who wants to end welfare." That's what they say in public, but they both know the problem is so severe that we need a big government effort to cure it. And they're willing, if they'd dropped their partisanship, to join together. The problem is our politics keeps us from doing what is the obvious bold thing.
LAMB: How equal should we be?
KAUS: There are two types of equality. One is money equality, which sometimes seems to be the traditional liberal concern. And my book is an argument that it shouldn't be. We can't have a lot of money equality in a capitalist society. That's what the Russians are discovering. They're used to everything being equal. They're bringing the market to agriculture and all of a sudden some peasants are getting rich and some are getting poor and people are saying, "Oh, my God, we don't have income equality anymore." Well, they don't. So traditionally liberals have been in a bind because they aren't socialists; they're for capitalism, yet they don't like income inequality, and capitalism is constantly generating income inequality.
I think, when you think about it, liberals aren't and Americans aren't about income equality at all. They're about equal dignity. We want every American to be able to look every other American in the eye and hold his head up and say, "I'm as good as you are," no matter how much income you make. And that's called social equality. And you don't need income equality to have social equality. In fact, the traditional American notion has been that we can have a society where everybody can get rich, but we still maintain our social equality, our equal dignity as Americans.
And that's, I think, the sort of equality we want and we can have. It's the sort of equality that's increasingly threatened, I think, by several developments. One, incomes are growing more unequal. They're inexorably growing more unequal. We're going to have to live with it. I don't think there's any way we can stop it. The rich are moving to the suburbs and walling themselves off, and in part they're moving to the suburbs to escape the ghetto-poor underclass in the central cities, which itself is resented by the rest of society and resents society back, and is sort of becoming a caste apart, a sort of lower caste, that itself violates social equality. So those are the threats to the traditional American idea of equal dignity. But that's the sort of equality the book talks about and it basically tries to lay out a strategy for how we can restore that type of equality, that sort of more ephemeral non-money equality in the face of the threats I talked about.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
KAUS: I grew up in Los Angeles, California, and, like many people, in second grade my parents moved to a rich suburb, Beverly Hills, for the schools. So I grew up in probably the most notoriously rich place in America.
LAMB: What was your father and -- are your father and mother alive?
LAMB: What do they do?
KAUS: My mother's a housewife. My father is, was a lawyer, became a judge very early in his career, went on -- sort of rose through the ranks, became a justice of the state Supreme Court, and then he retired a few years ago.
LAMB: How many other children in the family?
KAUS: Just one brother who's a lawyer in San Francisco.
LAMB: Why did you leave Los Angeles?
KAUS: I left Los Angeles to go back to school back East.
KAUS: At Harvard. Then I went to Harvard Law School, then I went and clerked for the state Supreme Court in California. And then I was pretty much of a standard left-liberal product of the '60s, and I wanted to go be a bureaucrat in Washington and get an office with a stapler and some cause. And so I came back and looked for jobs in the Carter administration, wound up at the Federal Trade Commission, working for a guy named Bob Reich, who is now a very prominent economic analyst and big adviser to Bill Clinton, a very smart man who -- I discuss his ideas extensively in the book. While I was at the FTC, I was rooming with Nick Lemann, who was editor of The Washington Monthly at the time, and I had really wanted to -- always wanted to be a journalist. And when he left and there was an opening at The Washington Monthly, I applied for it, got it and bailed out of the government and I've been a journalist ever since.
LAMB: Let me ask you a subject -- I mean, it's a question rather off the subject a little bit. You mentioned Nick Lemann. You can hardly pick up a book like yours today, whether it's written from the left or the right, where you don't see Nick Lemann's last book quoted. What is it about his last book that got everybody's attention? Because we did a Booknotes here on it.
KAUS: Right. Right. Nick's book was a very eloquent job of reporting about how -- and historical reporting, too, not just reporting about people who are alive today, but a vast sweep of history -- very compelling tale of how the underclass was formed, told through the eyes of African-Americans who migrated from the South to Chicago and who got trapped in the inner cities. And it's very clear about the role of welfare and it's very clear about the role of the loss of jobs in the big cities, and it's a compelling story. And, really, there are other good books about the underclass, but Nick's is the one with the broadest sweep that sort of brings the problem home to anybody who reads it.
LAMB: What's his politics?
KAUS: His politics and mine are very similar. I see my book sort of like as a complement to his, in fact. My book doesn't have a lot of reporting. It's not rich in human anecdote. It's a policy book. And if you read my book and Nick's book side by side, sort of -- my book is the book you're supposed to read after Nick's book that sort of will tell you what I think the answers are. I think Nick wants to replace welfare with work. He doesn't want as severe a program as I do. He's all for Head Start programs -- what I call our culturation programs to try to bring the ghetto poor back into the mainstream. I'm for them. I just don't think they're enough. But I think he would approve 90 percent, 95 percent of what's in the book.
LAMB: In that book -- it's roughly 300 pages -- about 100 pages are notes.
KAUS: I like notes. I think it's a useful format to write a book that's -- it's only 180 pages long, so people can read it pretty easily, but if they want more, they can dip into these extensive notes. It's sort of a law -- I went to law school, and it's sort of a law review tradition, is to have a lot of notes, which I like. If somebody just wants to read the first 100 pages, they'll breathe a sigh of relief when they're halfway through the book and they realize they're done with it. They don't have to read any more, but if they're more interested in welfare, there are long notes on welfare reform; long notes on Social Security; long notes on industrial revival. If they're interested in more detail, the notes are there. And, you know, I actually find the notes the better part of the book, because there's a lot of useful information there.
LAMB: You've been around a lot of liberals in your life...
LAMB: ...I assume. What comes first, the strong belief in equality or an interest in politics and that's a part of the segment of the society you have to go after for the votes? You know what I'm getting at?
LAMB: In other words, a lot of people are criticized on both sides of the political fence for just going after votes. What have you sensed in the liberals you've known in your life? Are most of them deeply caring, about people?
KAUS: Yes. I mean, my book is ...
LAMB: And why?
KAUS: ... supposed to appeal to those people. Because, I think, people are offended by affronts to equal dignity. I mean, I really think that social equality is, you know, deep within the layers of the liberal brain, at bottom, what people care about. And when I think of liberal politicians, and apparatchiks and bureaucrats in Washington, and journalists that I've known, they're all pretty sincere. There are only a few that are cynical. And they all think they're doing the right thing, and there's is a sort of conspiracy of liberal journalists, but it's not a cynical conspiracy to get themselves into power. It's a sincere conspiracy to accomplish what they think are noble goals.
Now I think the problem is that too many of them have seen that their goal is gee, we want to make incomes more equal.We want to get more money to the poor is the way it's usually described. And I think that's a false goal, and I think if these people thought more about it, they would realize that that's not their real goal. Yes, in my plan, there is some income redistribution, the earned income tax credit being the biggest one, but the real goal isn't to decrease the gap between rich and poor. And I have some confidence that at least some of my liberal friends will, you know, examine their own beliefs and come to that same conclusion. The other problem is that people have reflexive affiliations, the classic one being unionism. Most of my liberal friends are reflexively pro-union. I think that's what's sometimes called a reification. It's an automatic instinct that, you know, God, we've got to be for unions, but you forgot why you're for unions. Well, we're for unions because we're for, you know, a fair society.
Well, but what if unions are blocking education reform? What if unions are making the government less efficient? Shouldn't you maybe rethink your attitude toward unions? People are very reluctant to do that. I would urge them to. I find the biggest hangup dealing with my liberal friends are these sort of reflexive, I would say romantic, loyalties, especially about unions, even though unions increasingly represent a labor elite, that they are sort of gumming up the works of American productivity. They're certainly gumming up the works of the government. These liberals sort of cling to this emotional attachment, God, we can't do anything that's anti-labor; labor's our big onstituency. It's not just cynical. It's not just that they think labor unions control a lot of votes, although that's true; it's that they remember the glory days of the labor movement and when unions really did serve liberal goals.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite conservative thinker?
KAUS: Good question. I quote Charles Murray a lot in the book, basically favorably. I adopt a lot of his analysis. I don't adopt his solution.
LAMB: Who is he?
KAUS: Charles Murray is a conservative social policy writer who wrote a book called "Losing Ground," which was all the rage in Washington in around 1983. He argued that welfare had created poverty, which I don't quite buy, but he argued that we have to get rid of welfare entirely, and then the culture of the ghetto underclass would change. I agree with that, but I'm not willing to get rid of welfare entirely unless you offer a better alternative. The better alternative is a guaranteed job paying at above poverty wage with day care and health care. If you do that, then I'm willing to adopt Murray's solution. But Murray's analysis is pretty solid and pretty irrefutable. I mean, his basic argument is what he calls his thought experiment, which is, What happened if we got rid of welfare entirely? Wouldn't young girls growing up in the ghetto realize that, God, if they have a baby out of wedlock, welfare isn't going to be there to support them?
So maybe they'd better not have that baby. Maybe they'd better talk to their boyfriends differently. Maybe they'd better choose a different boyfriend, choose somebody who can form a two-parent working household. Maybe their mothers will talk to them differently. And maybe -- you know, Murray's prescription is very harsh -- Maybe if a few of them make that bad decision and wind up in dire straits because welfare isn't there, others will see them and say, "God, I better not do that, too."' Now that's Murray's thought experiment. I think you can't deny that that's what would happen. It's a very harsh prescription -- too harsh for me. But intellectually I don't think liberals can deny that it's true, that if you did get rid of welfare, everything about the ghetto would change.
LAMB: Is Charles Murray a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, like I assume you're a dyed-in-the-wool liberal?
KAUS: He is pretty conservative. He is writing a book, which is surely to be very controversial, that deals with genetics and may even deal with race and genetics. I know nothing about it, and I don't associate with it in any way. But I think he's quite a conservative sort of who believes in small-scale community action, doesn't like big government, thinks anything the government does, they're going to blow it. So he doesn't like my -- he admits that, he agrees that my WPA alternative, guaranteed jobs, would have the same effect as his plan, if the government could make it work. He just denies that the government can make it work.
LAMB: WPA stands for what?
KAUS: The WPA is the Works Progress Administration. They actually changed the name. It became the Work Projects Administration at some point. It was started by Roosevelt in 1935, when he gave his State of the Union speech, where he said, "The dole is a narcotic. It's sapping the human spirit." You know, this was in the middle of the Depression. Millions were out of work and there were these general relief programs that just sort of doled out market baskets of goods or cash for ordinary workers who had been veteran workers, who were thrown out of work in the Depression. Roosevelt realized this was a bad thing and he ended it, and he gave this speech saying, "The dole is a narcotic. I'm going to end it. But I'm going to replace it with this Works Progress Administration." And it created over three million minimal-paying jobs nationwide. It built all sorts of valuable public works, built FDR Drive in New York; built La Guardia Airport; I think it built National Airport over here in Washington; it built the gym that I grew up playing basketball in -- just a whole legacy of public works all across the country.
And then it was ended when World War II started and they needed all the labor that they had to -- you know, to devote to the war effort. And it's never been restarted. I say, let's go back to 1935. Let's make FDR's decision again and let's eliminate the one loophole he left. He eliminated welfare for single men, for single women, for childless couples. The one exception he left was for single mothers. Mothers -- single mothers with young children could keep getting a cash dole, and that's the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. There was a tiny program in 1935. Nobody even noticed that Roosevelt had left this thing in the New Deal. I'm sure Roosevelt didn't notice it, either. But it gradually expanded over the years, from around 300,000 people, when it was started, to over 13 million people today. And that's our main welfare program, and it's only available, basically, to single mothers, and it's been a disaster. And I say let's make Roosevelt's decision and apply it to single mothers, too. Let's say if you give a mother day care, we can end welfare and require her, basically, to take one of these WPA jobs.
LAMB: Go back to Charles Murray for a moment. You got a conservative and you sitting here together.
LAMB: Is it possible for both of you to want equality and to think dramatically different?
KAUS: We don't think dramatically different. I think it is. There are disputes between liberals and conservatives. The primary one between Murray and myself would be a belief in the efficacy of government. I would argue government worked during the New Deal. The WPA worked; didn't work perfectly, but it worked well enough. Desert Storm shows the government can work again, and that was a big bureaucratic government operation. It didn't work perfectly, but it worked well enough. It did the job. And I think Murray would say, "Oh, any government effort is going to be crippled by bureaucracy and liberal interest groups, and the unions are going to sue and the legal aid groups are going to sue, and you're never going to be able to fire anybody from these WPA jobs. It's just going to degenerate into a sort of shadow dole, where people are doing make work and raking leaves and doing useless tasks." And that's a legitimate argument. I mean, I certainly can't win that argument hands down. I can argue that let's give it a try, that I think government can work, but it's a legitimate conservative position to say the government can't work. I'm also not sure that all conservatives buy the goal of social equality, so that's ...
LAMB: That's what I ...
KAUS: ... but that goes outside your question.
LAMB: Well, not really. That's what I was truly trying to get at. Go back to your own upbringing. When in your life did you say -- a light bulb go off and say, "People should be equal"?
KAUS:I think I've always felt that people should be equal, but I used to be a left-winger, and I used to think they should be equal in not only the social sense, but in the money sense.
LAMB: But did somebody teach you that?
KAUS: I guess my parents taught me that.
LAMB: Why did they feel that way?
KAUS: Well, I tend to think it's because of their experience. They were refugees from Hitler, so especially my mother's family had the experience of being a very wealthy family, losing everything they had. They had a thriving textile business. Hitler took everything away, and my grandfather had to come to Los Angeles and be a gardener. That's how he earned his -- you know, he loved gardening. He was awful at it, but he loved gardening. He earned his money doing that, and my mother always said, you know, "Your grandfather didn't get on his high horse when he lost everything. He didn't think he was better than anybody else. He just went out and earned a living as a gardener."
So I think their experience helped -- as I learned it -- helped reinforce that lesson. Plus, my father had the experience of serving in World War II, which virtually every veteran I've talked to says was a profoundly democratic experience. In the book I talk about the people who served in the PT boat with John Kennedy. You know, Kennedy was one of the richest men in America. He was already famous. He was already a famous author. And he served in, literally, he was in the same boat with guys who were auto mechanics, guys who were, you know, migrant farm workers, migrant oil rig workers, a couple other Ivy Leaguers. There was sort of this huge mishmash of classes that provided a democratic experience that people of my generation didn't really have.
You know, we grew up with the Vietnam draft, which was very class-biased, where, basically, people from Beverly Hills didn't end up serving. In World War II they would have ended up serving. So I think my parents are instinctive social egalitarians in a way that I'm afraid people of my generation might not be instinctive social egalitarians. In fact, you know, yuppies off in the suburbs -- you already see sort of hints that things are different, that they really think they're superior to poor people in IQ; in education -- they're smarter; they're prettier; their kids are going to go to private schools. They're not going to mix with those other kids who will drag them down. And that's poisonous, and that's what the book is trying to counteract.
LAMB: Do they teach equality at Harvard?
KAUS: Good question. See, when I went to Harvard, we were so far left that it sort of went without question that equality was the good thing. And the ...
LAMB: What year was it?
KAUS: This was -- I entered in '69 and left in '73, and then I went to law school for three more years, so I really left in '76. But, I mean, George McGovern was the far-right wing of the political spectrum,and the interesting thing is a lot of the critiques of liberals -- you know, liberals were the enemy. We were to the left of liberals. A lot of the left-wing critiques of liberalism are the same as the later right-wing critiques of liberals, in that it believes in a big bureaucratic welfare state that didn't accomplish anything.
LAMB: What did you want?
KAUS: Well, we wanted some sort of ...
LAMB: You wanted absolute equality?
KAUS: We wanted some sort of participatory democracy where every decision, including decisions in the economy, would be made democratically, where you'd have worker control of factories. We didn't think that that would produce absolute economic equality, but there was various harebrained schemesabout, "Well, we could limit incomes 3:1 ratios or 10:1 ratios." People hadn't thought it through.
LAMB: Did you go so far as to say that everybody ought to have the equal opportunity of going to Harvard?
KAUS: There's a book by Robert Paul Wolff that says everybody above a certain cutoff should be chosen by lot for Ivy League schools and, you know, take the top 20 percent so there's not that final competition to get into Harvard. But it was a contradiction that, I would say, was not fully addressed. Here we were at this elite school and there was the usual amount of angst and guilt about having all this privilege and, in theory, being for the abolition of privilege.
LAMB: In the back, in your acknowledgments, you say Marty Peretz of The New Republic, your current ...
LAMB: ... employer, "subsequently gave me continuing support, encouragement and editorial advice. In early 1986, when we were driving on Sunset Boulevard, Marty suggested that I come to Washington to make a long article out of the chapters on replacing welfare with work. Marty also wrote the only funny line in that extremely sober piece." I want to know what that funny line was.
KAUS: Well, the funny line was -- I wrote an article that analyzed current welfare-reform efforts and all the loopholes that are in some of them. And in California, they have this program called GAIN, which is a welfare-reform effort that has a lot of loopholes. And one of the loopholes is you don't have to take a job -- in theory it makes welfare mothers go take a job or training on pain of losing their benefits. That's the structure of this welfare form. But there are all sorts of loopholes that sort of -- legal aid lawyers and, I guess, liberals in the state legislature wrote in, and one of them is that you don't have to take a job if it's more than a mile's walk from your house. And Marty said, "Oh, those cold California winters." And so I just -- the light went off in my head and I wrote that line into the piece. And it's the only line people quote back to me, much to my annoyance, since I didn't write it, since Marty wrote it. Otherwise it was one of the few flashes of humor in that piece.
LAMB: Anybody mad at you for writing this book?
KAUS: It's interesting. The book is pitched to liberals, pitched to Democrats. I find that I am love-bombed from the right and I am attacked from the left. Generally, that's the general reaction. In part it's the phenomena that Mike Kinsley, my colleague at The New Republic, talks about, which is the right wing looks for converts and the left wing looks for heretics. And that may explain why the right wing has been so successful recently. It's because they're always waiting there with welcome arms. If you take two steps in the direction of conservatism, they say, "That's great, Mickey. You know, come on all the way. Come and be a Republican conservative." Whereas the left, if you take two steps in the direction of conservatism, say, "You've defied the true faith. You're attacking unions in this book. You know, forget you. You're hopeless."
LAMB: Is that the similar experience that Kevin Phillips had, where he was loved by the liberals and attacked by the conservatives?
KAUS: It's interesting, I don't think Kevin Phillips has been attacked that viciously by the conservatives. It's true that he has the ...
LAMB: Or by the Bush Republicans?
KAUS: Well, Bush Republicans -- that's different.
LAMB: Attacking -- yes.
LAMB: That's different. Why is that different?
KAUS: Well, because Bush Republicans aren't as conservative as the right wing of the Republican Party, and the right wing of the Republican Party fancies themselves social populists and even economic populists -- the Kemp wing -- and that jibes with what Kevin Phillips says -- Kevin Phillips also talks about economic populism. So it's true that the way to get publicity is to go counter to type, so that for years my magazine, the liberal The New Republic, lived off its liberal reputation, in that people would say, "Well, even the liberal New Republic calls for this conservative solution." And now people have woken up to the fact that The New Republic is more of a centrist publication -- isn't really a liberal publication. But when you say something that seems to contradict, you know, what your label is, it gets much more attention.
LAMB: Page 27: You say, "Donald Trump, to pick an obvious example, was such a crude, arrogant money snob he became a national joke."
KAUS: I'm trying to figure out, in that section, why the '80s were such a snob decade. You know, we've always had income inequality. The income inequality in the '80s wasn't in any way worse than the income inequality in the '40s. It was about -- if you look at the statistics, it was about at the same level. Yet people remember the '40s as a democratic decade; people remember the '80s as an inegalitarian, snobbish decade. And the trick to figure out -- why did that happen? It wasn't just because the rich put on airs. The rich will always try to put on airs. People who have money will always try to assert their superiority. And if there are a few megarich people like Donald Trump -- won't do it, either, because, you know, Trump, he's sort of a comic-book figure.
I mean, nobody seriously thinks they're inferior to Donald Trump or looks up to Donald Trump as, you know, the way you would look up to an aristocrat. I mean, he's relatively harmless because he's such a joke. The really poisonous thing, somehow in the '80s, the middle-middle class started, instead of identifying with people on the bottom, started identifying with people on the top -- not just Trump, but, you know, ordinary millionaires, people in the top 10 percent, people with fancy country houses.
And somehow a whole chunk of what used to be the mass middle class that, you know, read Life magazine and did all the common things that all Americans do -- went to baseball games, watched football games. Somehow, they started seeking these sort of elite tastes and reading magazines like Vanity Fair -- what Tom Wolfe called the plutocraphy, that sort of glorified and this obscene glorification of wealth and what it could buy. And what you have to figure out isn't why Donald Trump did what he did, but why the upper-middle class did what they did, because the middle class basically controls American culture. If the middle class says "To heck with the rich. We're happy to be middle class," that's what American culture will be. But that's not what they said in the '80s. They sort of split up and began to look up the income ladder with envy and admiration, which they hadn't done in the '40s and '50s.
LAMB: Is this -- I mean, we're not going to have enough time to do this, but there are all kinds of ideas and solutions to how you get this -- an egalitarian world in this book. Is there a hope that a new Bill Clinton administration will pick this up and use it as a blueprint?
KAUS: I don't think Clinton will use it as a blueprint, but he's talking about a lot of the same things. I've ...
LAMB: Has he mentioned your book?
KAUS: He has not mentioned my book. I've shown it to his aides. Thev've read it; they've discussed it. I've talked about welfare reform with them. But Clinton, to my knowledge, hasn't mentioned it, no.
LAMB: Do you get any sense of whether he's a monied liberal or money liberalism or civic liberalism?
KAUS: It's interesting. I talk about these two types of liberalism, one that wants to get social equality by equalizing incomes -- that's money liberalism; the other -- my kind of liberalism -- is civic liberalism, that wants to rebuild the public sphere, in which no matter how unequal incomes are, we're all treated and interact as equals. Clinton has some of that. I mean, I'm for the two big public-sphere institutions that I want to rebuild are national service and a national health-care system. Clinton's for both of them. He's for watered-down versions of both of them. He's for only national service -- only if you want to get a college loan, and he's for a national health-care system called pay-or-play that I don't like because it would be class-stratified. But he's taken steps in that direction.
The second stage of my plan is welfare reform somehow ending this -- assimilating the underclass into the mainstream society so we don't have this part of our population that's cut off. I call for ending welfare, replacing it with a guaranteed job. Clinton calls for -- you get two years of welfare and then you have to take a government job. So he's not -- he's going in that direction, and he'll probably even water that down when he gets into office. But he's going in that direction, and he's dropped the money-liberal part. I mean, he used to be talking about tax cuts for the middle class and he used to have all this Kevin Phillips, you know, money-equalizing rhetoric, and that's all dropped away and he's really talking about "We're divided as a society; we need to come together again." And that's sort of a pitch that's very compatible with the book.
LAMB: If he were elected today and tomorrow he had to get around him the four or five people that would deal with this area, who would those four or five people be?
KAUS: The four or five people that would deal with the welfare, or...
LAMB: All the things you talk about. In other words...
KAUS: Welfare -- the key guy is David Ellwood at Harvard. He proposes a time limit on welfare and it's stronger than Clinton's time limit, because ...
LAMB: Key guy to him, to Bill Clinton -- David Ellwood ...
KAUS: I'm sorry -- David Ellwood ...
LAMB: ... is a key guy to Bill Clinton?
KAUS: Yes. Yes. And Clinton talks...
LAMB: And you talk a lot about him, right?
KAUS: I talk a lot about Ellwood's plan. My plan is more radical than Ellwood's plan. I'd gladly settle for Ellwood's plan. Ellwood's plan is time limits -- two years and then the checks stop, and then there's a job. Clinton's plan -- you keep sending the checks, but you try to talk the people into taking the jobs.
LAMB: Who else?
KAUS: Ellwood -- good question. I would always have -- if I were president -- have Charlie Peters of The Washington Monthly around because he is such a source of sage advice and he is sort of the founder of neo-liberalism. I would certainly have, you know, people at the Brookings Institution, who I respect -- Gary Burtless, Barry Bosworth, Henry Aaron, all...
LAMB: Barry Bosworth was in the Carter administration.
KAUS: Barry Bosworth was in the Carter administration -- has a whole bunch of no-nonsense ideas about how to end the deficit.
LAMB:I mean, I wrote down as I was reading your book, so many names of people that had been right here to do Booknotes, and I just bring it up because it might complete the loop for some people that have been watching. Robert Reich, where did he fit? I mean ...
KAUS:Well, Reich is going to be a key adviser in the Clinton administration. He's s a brilliant guy and he throws off -- you know, a constant stream of ideas, a lot of which I rely on in this book. And he is going to be one of Clinton's key economic advisers and probably will lead us down the road towards a more interventionist type of industrial policy, but mainly with emphasis on education and training and building up the skills we need in a global economy. And...
LAMB: Is he for money liberalism or civic liberalism?
KAUS: Good question. He's for both. The one criticism I have of him is he tends to tailor his message to his audience, so when he's talking to the left, he talks about, God, how progressive he is and how we have to tax the rich and soak the rich. But, really, at heart, he basically just wants to educate people so everybody will make more money. And what I talk about in the book is that has unintended consequences that he doesn't realize. First, there's something called the Hollywood effect, which is -- among the skilled professions, even within the professions incoming quality is rising dramatically because the most skilled lawyers and accountants and doctors and movie stars are making superstar salaries, so it's not clear that if we train everybody it will produce all the income equality that people on Reich's left might want.
The second problem is the more we have a meritocracy based on education, which is what training everybody would do, that could be sort of a more vicious hierarchy because the people at the top will be able to say -- not only -- not just that, "I have more money than the guys at the bottom; I lucked out and my Dairy Queen franchise," you know, "was successful." They're going to be able to say, "I have more skills; I have more college degrees; and even I'm smarter than those at the bottom." So it's a more vicious hierarchy if it's based on education and smarts, and that's where the Reich solution of training and skills is leading us. And they haven't quite faced up to that. I think they're going to have to, not before the election, but after the election, in part -- it may be one reason why their appeal isn't all that populist, is because they're really talking -- you know, populists usually get votes by attacking educated elites. They're proposing to sort of create more educated elites and then they're wondering why, you know, people don't respond to this message of, "God, we need to send everybody back to school."
LAMB: You quote E.J. Dionne, Washington Post?
KAUS: Right. Right. E.J.'s wrote a book -- a very good book explaining what I was talking about earlier, how our politics conspire to prevent us from adopting obvious solutions, like replacing welfare with work, because, you know, the left and the right both stake out these extreme positions that they have to stick to just for political reasons when, really, if you got them in a room, they'd agree.
LAMB: Robert Kuttner.
KAUS: My book is a reaction against a book Kuttner wrote in the early '80s called the "Economic Illusion," which I would say is one of the key works of money liberalism which I'm attacking.
LAMB: Who is Robert ...
KAUS: Robert Kuttner is the former economics editor -- now contributing editor of The New Republic. He edits a liberal journal called The American Prospect, a very good magazine. He basically argues we should emulate European welfare states, which basically distribute cash to rich and poor alike, don't worry about requiring work, and somehow this all works out. I say it all works out because they don't have our underclass problem yet, although they're developing one. And we just can't afford to send checks to rich and poor alike, Social Security being the obvious example, and we don't have to. So my book is sort of a reaction against Kuttner's book, which basically calls for -- to crudely characterize it -- sending checks to as many people as possible.
LAMB: Barbara Ehrenreich.
KAUS: Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a very good book called, "Fear of Falling." I'm trying to figure out -- what I was talking about earlier -- why the middle class suddenly reacted the way it did in the '80s. And her argument is -- which I criticize, but at least she asked this question -- her argument is the middle class, as the poles of the income distribution grew wider, the people in the middle grew more anxious; they were wondering which way they were going to tip. And when they were more anxious, they become more snobby. I don't quite buy that, but it's one argument as to why income equality might produce social inequality -- income inequality might produce social inequality.
LAMB: James Fallows.
KAUS: James Fallows is a former colleague of mine from The Washington Monthly, written several very good books. The one -- I rely heavily on his analysis of of American meritocracy and why it's toxic. He has a very well-developed critique of how our educational hierarchy is phony, in that it's based on phony and unnecessary credentials. My argument is that, "Yes, that's true, but even if you got rid of the phony credentials and relied on real performance tests"-- which is what Fallows argues, you know, not, "Did you go to Harvard?" but, "Can you do the job?" -- you'd still end up with toxic effects because the people at the top could say, "Well, I can do the job and those guys at the bottom can't do the job.'
LAMB: We always enjoy having you all here to talk about this stuff. Who buys all these kind of books and who reads them? I mean, how do you know that this is working for you?
KAUS: Good question, and I don't know that it's working for me. It's certainly selling well in Washington among policy people -- you know, Capitol Hill staffers, Democrats. There aren't many of these books that come out. You know, E.J.'s was one of them -- was a huge success. That doesn't mean you sell a lot of books. It means you have a lot of impact.
LAMB: What's the difference in the impact? I know the front cover of The New Republic one day looked just like the front cover of this book.
KAUS: Right. Well, this book is a duplicate of a front cover of The New Republic when -- I wrote an article that was the basis for this book about two years ago. And we couldn't think of anything better to do for the cover of the book, so they said, "Well, why not just do that again?"
LAMB: Did people react differently, though, to an article than they do to a book. And what's the advantage of going through all the hard work of...
KAUS: Books -- it's very interesting. Mike Kinsley, my colleague, says there's no point in writing books, you can make all the points in a magazine article quicker and more people will read it. I mean, the average circulation of The New Republic is 100,000. You know, I'll be very happy if I sell 20,000, 30,000 of these books. So more people read The New Republic than maybe will read this book. But the impact of a book is so much greater. It hangs around.
You write a book, and you go from, hopefully, being Mickey Kaus, hack magazine writer, to Mickey Kaus who wrote a book on this subject. You sort of become more of an instant authority. And there's a reason for it, which is that books are -- this is the hardest thing I've ever done. The reason it's hard is because in a magazine article you can glide around holes in your argument. There are various -- you know, you can just cut parts where there might be an objection to your argument and you don't want to deal with it, so you just duck it. In a book you can't duck it. You sort of have to fill all the holes or else the whole thing falls apart. So, for example, educational choice. I didn't know anything about educational choice.
In a magazine article, school choice -- the idea that parents should be able to choose which schools to go to -- in a magazine article, I could just duck it or write one sentence. For this book I had to learn about school choice and I had to deal with it, because, you know, the whole thing wouldn't have made sense. So I think books deserve some of the added heft and impact they get because you really have to -- instead of, you know, deal with -- you have to cover the waterfront. You have to deal with all the arguments against you.
LAMB: Have you been on the tour?
KAUS: I've been on a short tour. I went to the West Coast.
LAMB: Reaction -- shows you've done?
KAUS: Talk about welfare really gets people excited on both sides. It's a hot-button issue. So you go on a radio talk show, you talk about welfare reform, the lines immediately light up, not with people who say, "Yeah, let's put those welfare mothers to work," but with people who have very thoughtful objections. But it's -- people realize that there's an underclass, that it's one of our nation's most serious problems, and we just can't go on having generation after generation of people grow up in utter poverty without any connection with the world of work. And they're scared of the underclass, so that gets a big response. I find that people on the left -- I mean, part of the book is -- part of this is my fault, in a sense. I'm very confrontational with the left. I like to be very clear and pick fights with the left. The book is antagonistic to people on the left, and they naturally react back antagonistically.
When you get in a dialogue, you find that there really isn't all that much antagonism. For, you know, people say, "Well, it's unfair to ask welfare mothers to work," you know. And then you say, "Well, but I'm offering them a job. I'm supplementing it so it's an above-poverty job. I'm offering day care. And I'm offering national health insurance." And are you telling me that it's -- you offer all that to somebody and she says, "To heck with you, I want a check," do you think she has a right to a check? And half of them will then agree with you. The other half won't, but at least you've sort of narrowed the difference so you show that you're not that far apart.
LAMB: Is a line like this on the front page of Chapter 1 that gets their hackles up? "I had watched as the best minds of the Democratic Party ran the liberal enterprise into the ground."
KAUS: That's one of the lines. That's the one line that conservatives love. They reprinted that section in The Wall Street Journal. I don't regret it. The Carter administration was a disaster for liberals. If the Clinton administration is that bad, liberals can forget about being in power for a long time.
LAMB: Would you go back into government if Bill Clinton said, "Mickey Kaus, I love your book. Come in and make this work"?
KAUS: Oh, I'd love to. I mean, I'm a political guy. I really want to see these ideas implemented. I really think -- I mean, the key idea would be somehow dealing with the problem of ghetto poverty through welfare reform. I really think the ideas in this book are right, need to be implemented. We need to go in that direction and, you know, I'm one of these people you talked about earlier. I'm a liberal activist. I'm not a journalist because I see journalism as a profession. I'm a journalist because I think America has problems and I want to help solve them.
LAMB: What's the best job in government to get this kind of thing done?
KAUS: Good question. To get the welfare reform done, the best job is to be secretary of HHS or the undersecretary for welfare. I'm not -- I would never get either of those jobs, but I hope that whoever Clinton appoints is fairly tough. And I think Clinton will be good on this sort of thing because so much of his political appeal is tied to the fact that he's tough on welfare. He goes out and gives that speech about how two years and then you have to work. That tells middle Americans and middle-of-the-road people that this guy's different from other liberals. So when he's elected, he's going to have to deliver on that welfare promise. He can't wimp out on welfare; he can't go soft because then he's not going to get re-elected and the Republicans will beat him up. Whereas Bush, whose welfare position is very similar to Clinton's, I think he'll just drop it after the election. I don't think -- he doesn't care about it and he has no other political reason to pursue it because he will have been re-elected; he can't -- you know he's a lame duck, anyway.
LAMB: You wrote, "You cannot have capitalism without selfishness or even greed, because they are what make the system work."
KAUS: That's right. I mean, that's what the Russians are discovering. They're learning...
LAMB: "You can't" -- let me just read on.
LAMB: "You can't have capitalism and material equality because capitalism is constantly generating extremes of inequality as some individuals strike it rich."
KAUS: Well, that's true. There ...
LAMB: So we're going to have greed and selfishness forever.
KAUS: Well, why do people go out and start Dairy King franchises? Is it because...
LAMB: Dairy King or Dairy Queen?
KAUS: Dairy Queen. Dairy -- I think there was a Dairy King for a while, too.
LAMB: If there isn't, there probably will be.
KAUS: Right. Right. Is it because -- why do people learn how to make paper clips better than the next guy? Is it because they have an inherent love of paper clips? No. It's because if you make paper clips better, you can get a lot of money. And some people want a lot of money. And that's what make capitalism -- that's what makes capitalism work. And I borrowed heavily from the socialist philosopher, Michael Walzer, who wrote a book called "Spheres of Justice," who says, "Look, different rewards are appropriate for different activities." The appropriate reward for making America more productive is riches. It shouldn't be added respect. You shouldn't be able to lord it over other people. But it's relatively benign if people want to do productive things and make things that people want and go through that tedious, arduous and arbitrary process -- it's fair to reward them with more goods and money. And I believe that.
LAMB: Who in history is your favorite politician to have the sensitivities of being a civic liberal?
KAUS: Harry Hopkins. He wasn't a politician, but he was Roosevelt's key aide. He pioneered the WPA in New York, and then he applied it when Roosevelt came to power. He's the man who convinced Roosevelt to end the dole. And he said we should never go back to a dole in this country. He gave testimony to Congress that liberals have defied his wisdom. His feat in setting up the WPA -- you know, he set up the WPA and in a matter of months he had millions of people at work. It's one of the great feats of public administration of our time, was that from nothing, this guy built up this huge core of government public service workers . There were inefficiencies and boondoggles, but basically, it got a lot of stuff done and saved the country from the Depression.
LAMB: You write that a family of -- I think it is three -- the poverty line is $10,000?
KAUS: Eleven thousand now.
LAMB: Eleven thousand.
LAMB: And that minimum wage would be something like $8,000 for an individual.
LAMB: But the WPA-type projects you're talking about would even be below that.
KAUS: Right. The WPA projects are, let's say, $4 an hour jobs. that's about $8 -- $8,000. Minimum wage is now about $8,800.
LAMB: How would that ever pass, though?
KAUS: Well, the answer is you have to supplement both jobs and all low-wage jobs with an earned income tax credit to bring all those wages up to poverty. Now we've gone about halfway there already. We have a pretty big earned income tax credit. It's about $1,300 now. So that covers a lot of the gap. We're still about $1,000 short for a three-person family and $4,000 short for a four-person family. But it's just a matter of spending the money to bring the wages -- to supplement the wages of all low-wage workers in my WPA, but also people working in McDonald's, people working in $5, $6 an hour jobs, up to the poverty line. That doesn't create an underclass because you're only giving money to workers. And I think the slogan of the Democrats should be "Billions for workers and not a penny for welfare." And I think that's a popular slogan, and people -- the earned income tax credit is incredibly popular. You know, Congress falls all over itself every year to try to increase it, and they've tacked on all sorts of little bells and whistles, little programs to add to their earned income tax credit.
LAMB: Who was your favorite candidate this political season?
KAUS: I was for Clinton.
LAMB: From the beginning.
KAUS: I was for Clinton from the beginning. I have doubts about him, like everybody else. I've been for other candidates in the past. I was for Hollings in '84. I worked for him. I was for Babbit in '88, because I thought Babbit had the courage and was a very smart guy -- had the courage to tell the truth about things like cutting Social Security benefits for the rich. Clinton has enough good things about him, and he's a very skilled enough politician and has these inherent political reasons to do the right thing, that I am -- and four years of Bush would be such a disaster that I am pretty solidly in his camp.
LAMB: It's November the 4th -- for talking purposes here -- he wins. Then the next couple of days, who are we going to hear? Are we going to hear the same names you've been talking about here that are going to be drawn to him to set up his government?
KAUS: We're going to hear so many names, it's going to be unbelievable, the crush of out-of-work Democrats who are going to be applying for jobs in the Clinton administration. It's going to be a huge spectacle. I think we are going to -- at the top we're going to see the same names. We're going to see Bob Reich. We're going to see Derek Scherer. We're going to...
LAMB: Who is he?
KAUS: Derek Scherer is a professor in Los Angeles who is an old friend of Clinton's and is probably more to the left than Reich. And we're going to hear Ira Magaziner, who is an old co-author with Reich about books about industrial policy -- of books about industrial ...
LAMB: Where is he?
KAUS: I don't know where he is now. I think he's a business consultant, probably mostly writing policy papers for Clinton at the moment. We're going to hear about Robert Shapiro and Bruce Reed of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is the Democratic Leadership Council's centrist "Let's move the Democrats to the right" group. And we're going to have all of Hillary's friends, who will probably be on the left, and all these people are going to be fighting for Clinton's loyalties and Clinton's ear. The interesting thing is people from Arkansas say the way to get ahead with Clinton is to be his enemy, not his friend. He has the natural politician's instincts. If you seem not to like him, he wants to make you like him. He'll reach out to people who are his enemies and reward them with jobs and maybe sometimes not reward his friends.
LAMB: How much of what you've written about in this book do you think will be his priorities?
KAUS: Welfare reform has to be a priority. So he takes a few steps in my direction and I think that'll get watered down, so he'll, I would say, move about 20 percent in my direction, probably. National service, probably a lower priority because it runs at a powerful vested interest, especially the idea of conditioning student loans on national service drives the education bureaucracy crazy because they prefer their loans no strings attached. National health care, we're going to clearly is going to be a very high priority in the Clinton administration. His plan is different than the plan I tend to favor. I'm only looking for institutions that will mix the classes.
I don't talk about what will be the most efficient health-care system. My instinct is that a Canada-style health-care system, where everybody is in one system, would be more efficient. Clinton does not endorse the Canada-style health-care system. He endorses the system that would require employers to provide health insurance and then have some residual government program for those who are unemployed and who -- or whose employers don't provide the insurance, but choose to pay a fee to the government. I don't like that system because it doesn't mix the classes. We'll have rich people who have lavish perks from their employers who would be in one system and the people who get left out will be in some sort of Medicaid-like system at the bottom. So I don't think Clinton is going to adopt my ideas there, but he will definitely do something about national health care. And I don't think we're going to see a whole lot of income redistribution in the Clinton administration. We may see some taxes on the rich, which I'm not against, certainly, but we'll see them as a way to raise money. We're not going to see them as a way to somehow equalize incomes.
LAMB: What is your sense that the media will do once -- if he were elected, would they be excited?
KAUS: Oh, they'll be incredibly excited. They're already -- the media is already incredibly pro-Clinton. I mean, I get embarrassed watching the news these days -- every story is twisted against Bush; Bush went to LA and made some very substantive welfare reform proposals, and it was played almost unanimously as Bush desperately looking for an issue with which to create a wedge between himself and Clinton; and he was. But his proposals were good -- were pretty interesting. Why didn't they talk about the proposals? Because they were in this anti-Bush mode. So the press is Clinton's friend and the press will -- I think will still be Clinton's friend, by and large, during at least the first, you know, six months of his administration. He's going to have a major honeymoon, I think.
LAMB: What's the main reason that the media is so pro-Clinton?
KAUS: They want a change. They like excitement. They want a new story and they are more liberal than conservative. I mean, I'm in the media, I know these people. The conservatives charge that most reporters tend to be liberal; people who go into journalism tend to be more liberal is true. I don't deny it. I don't think it's so horrible. But people should just know where people are coming from.
LAMB: Are you ever going to use your law degree?
KAUS: God, I hope not. I was an awful lawyer. I had an uncontested divorce that I almost won, and that was my last case, so don't hire me as a lawyer.
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