The Spectacle Blog

Krugman Wrong About Inequality, Harvard

By on 10.10.13 | 12:41PM

Paul Krugman, in his continuing obsession with socio-economic inequality, penned a column last month in which he criticized class stratification at Harvard, citing it as evidence that the U.S. is turning into a Dickensian incarnation of A Tale of Two Cities. “The point, of course, is that as the business school goes, so goes America, only even more so,” he writes. But Krugman’s concerns are misguided—he should he direct his attention not at the plights of the rich and the poor, but rather at the frathouse.

Krugman’s concerns were aroused by an article published in the New York Times, which highlighted the complaints of certain students who were frustrated by the habits and activities of their wealthier colleagues. The article describes “a secret society of ultrawealthy students” called “Section X” who enjoy luxuries like penthouse apartments in Boston hotels and front-row seats at Mick Jagger concerts.

The article quotes numerous students, some named, some anonymous. The general trend of the quotes is a feeling of inadequacy and disgust at how much fun their rich peers are having. One student allegedly “borrowed tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep up socially...never invited classmates to her parents’ home nearby because she did not feel it was lavish enough.” :’-( One author, Thomas J. Peters, has “suggested that the school apply a simple admissions rule: anyone from an ultraprivileged background needs to have done something of significant social value to be admitted.”

Many students are cited as having strong opinions against the lifestyles of the rich and famous on campus, but “they tend to fear offending anyone, especially wealthy classmates who might one day provide connections and financing.” In other words, how dare the rich let us see them having fun and using their money as they please! How dare they openly have those money and connections that we intend to tap them for! Why can’t they just like, be rich but not really, ya know?

In his article, Krugman let loose the faucet of his righteous disappointment. Harvard, he says, is place where “children of the wealthy benefit from opportunities and connections unavailable to children of the middle and working classes,” though he forgets that Harvard is in the business of offering free rides and tuition-free education for students who come from comparatively low-income families, so perhaps he should reverse the order of subjects in his sentence.

Harvard, in his opinion, shows “why claims ring hollow that inequality of outcomes doesn’t matter as long as there is equality of opportunity. If the rich are so much richer than the rest that they live in a different social and material universe, that fact in itself makes nonsense of any notion of equal opportunity.” Krugman believes that it’s not enough that poor students are given the opportunity to go to Harvard for free; they also have to be free of the debilitating curse of being around people with money. Is it fair to assume that Krugman would advocate that the people of New York, where he spends some of his time enjoying the scenic highline, be made to wear burqas and drive in horse-drawn buggies, for fear of offending their less wealthy neighbors with displays of their wealth?

Krugman spends the rest of his article discussing how he observes increasing inequality in America, and how the New Deal sort of combatted it but not really and now it’s worse than ever, so we should tax the rich “a bit more” and elect Bill de Blasio because he’ll do that to pay for universal pre-K. But here’s a history lesson for Krugman: It’s not that universities are rampant inequality zones, but rather that college kids like to form frats, which are by their nature exclusionary. And they’ve always been this way. Consider this passage from David Nasaw’s The Patriarch, in which he writes about Joseph P. Kennedy’s school days:

In the fall of his sophomore year, he was selected with 128 other members of his class of 500 for the Institute of 1770, and honorary association that existed solely to differentiate the members of the class from one another. Harvard social hierarchy was so carefully calibrated that it mattered not just if one was selected for the institute, but in what rank order one was selected. Institute members were chosen in groups of ten; the first seven or eight tens were initiated into yet another secret society, DKE, also known as “Dickee” or “Deke” or “Deeks.” DKE had no club rooms and no eating facilities. All it bestowed was honor—and a week of cruel hazing. Arthur Kelly, who lived in the Holyoke dorms, was in the room when “Joe returned from his initiation into the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. After observing his back I was not impressed with fraternities.

In the winter of his sophomore year, the next act in the drama of Harvard social life was played out when the “final clubs” (so called because students, once initiated, would remain with these clubs until they graduated) chose their members. His friends Bob Fisher, the football star who had spent a year at Andover, and Bob Potter, another athlete who had come to Harvard from a private school, were swept into the top clubs. Joe, with his classmates from Boston Latin, and Irish Catholic Tom Campbell, from Worcester, were not. He had to have been disappointed not to get into Fly or Porcellian or A.D., though not as much as when he failed to make the starting baseball team. Joe Kennedy was, even at age twenty-one, too sure of himself to suffer for long because a group of Republican Episcopalians preferred not to live and dine with him.

Kennedy should be an example for the modern-day class strugglers at Harvard. But it’s not just Harvard that has a sordid past of fraternal segregation; Krugman’s workplace, Princeton, has a history of exclusive clubs:

Wary of their small size, cliquishness and (especially in this pre-Civil War era) their division of the student body along sectional lines, the trustees and faculty voted in 1853 to ban fraternities. Beginning in 1855, all undergraduates were required to pledge that they would not join one while at the college. Despite the ban, a few fraternities operated in secret until 1875, when the identification and suspension of 50 fraternity members effectively eliminated all remnants of the system. The required pledge remained in place until the late 1930s when the writers of Princeton's rule book decided that it had become moot and no longer needed to be stated.

President Woodrow Wilson, who participated in fraternities as a student at Princeton, was, during his term as president of Princeton, a precursor to Krugman, waging a campaign to end the abominable practice of free association amongst his student body:

The upper class clubs, at Princeton, of which there are over a dozen, have handsome properties and are essentially the counterparts of the social clubs in any great city. Naturally, as their membership includes only about one half of the two upper classes, and as their standards of maintenance put them beyond the reach of students of limited means, a line of cleavage is sharply drawn between the club members and the non members. Before a student is admitted to membership, it must be assured beyond a doubt that he conforms to a very exacting social standard, even in one or two instances partaking of hereditary qualifications. Many who fail of an election to a club, or to what they regard as an eligible club, feel their college career is blighted in that they are in some large measure debarred from the fellowship of their more fortunate classmates. Some have even felt that they must leave college in acute disappointment over their ill success in this respect… The whole system is divisive in its effects. ...Dr Wilson had hoped to institute a process which would not annihilate the clubs but which would reorganize them on a basis of democracy, where all students might enjoy their advantages. This he proposed to do by annexing the clubs to the University which was to control them and make their usefulness universal...Doctor Wilson withdrew it, but with keen reluctance, for he knew it meant the defeat of academic democracy and the triumph of class privilege. No longer could he entertain the hope that every student might breathe the air of democratic freedom within the Princeton domains.                       

(Woodrow Wilson and New Jersey Made Over, Hester Eloise Hosford)

College students love to form clubs and cliques—it’s a simple impulse. If Krugman is determined to see the end of class struggle and social ostracization, then instead of taking down financiers—who he blames for the concentration of wealth at the top—he should direct his animus at frats. Do not be surprised if Krugman heeds this advice and tries to worm his way into a sorority mixer, drunkenly lecturing the girls on how all history is class struggle.

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