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Tough Luck : A Yuppie Manifesto : THE END OF EQUALITY, By Mickey Kaus (New Republic Books/Basic Books: $25; 293 pp.)

August 02, 1992|Robert Scheer | Scheer, a national correspondent, is preparing a series on welfare for The Times

Mickey Kaus' "The End of Equality" is a book of almost perfect self-in-dulgence, like an absurd cocktail-party rant--which would be fine were it a gourmand's guide or an erotic novel. Unfortunately, it passes for this season's hot political theory or, as the cover proclaims, a new agenda for the Democratic Party.

Forget the S&L and junk-bond scandals, ignore the flight of American manufacturing and breathe hardly a word about the national debt. And play down the corruption of the political process by the wealthy. Mickey Kaus may be the last person in America who believes the political/judicial system is not rigged: "The courts still treat a Michael Milken or Leona Helmsley with an inspiring lack of deference."

No, it is the black underclass that is the main source of our problems--"a class whose values are so inimical to America's potential universal culture that its negation, and transformation, will allow those universal values to flower."

What Kaus proposes as a new "Civic Liberalism" is a worst-case example of social engineering. And an expensive one at that. Kaus attacks what he derides as "Money Liberalism," but his plan to abolish welfare and replace it with a public-jobs program modeled on the WPA would, by his own calculation, cost three times as much as the existing program.

What legislature, state or federal, is going to go for that one? And if such money is available, why not spend it on job training for poor people--which has never been seriously funded--or Republican Jack Kemp's proposal for enterprise zones?

Kaus' answer: Such programs would tend to keep poor blacks in the cities, and he wants them dispersed. On this basis, he derides Kemp's call for "empowering" poor people through private home ownership and business investment in the ghetto because "it tempts the underclass to stay put." Instead, he suggests, "you have to somehow deny benefits to one-parent families, unplug the underclass culture's life support system."

Welfare, in this view, is a cause of rather than a response to poverty, and should be eliminated. Instead, the human "dregs of the labor market" would be put into a program that is "relatively authoritarian, even a bit militaristic": If they cannot find real jobs, they must perform below-minimum-wage public work. He doesn't spell it out, but by "militaristic" he must intend that these workers would not have the right to join unions or to strike. No matter, middle-class taxpayers would be in charge. Kaus writes that he can already hear the demand: "Why hasn't my subway stop been cleaned yet?"

Although he admits that black unemployment drops dramatically when decent jobs are available, he does not take seriously calls for a new industrial policy that strengthens the manufacturing sector. We can't tell multinational companies where or how to do business without endangering the entrepreneurial spirit Kaus adores; but it's a piece of cake to take a check away from a welfare mother.

Go after the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), Kaus urges--though it's an already cut-to-the-bone program that made up less than 1% of the federal budget in 1991. Make those black welfare mothers work for their bread and civic life will return to the halcyon days of the 1950s, when the Negroes knew their place.

Call it neo-liberalism or Kaus' preferred term, Civic Liberalism, but what we have here is another set of harebrained schemes concocted without serious consultation of the millions of people expected to conform to these bizarre prescriptions. He does occasionally consult his own experiences, beginning the book with his disillusionment after a brief stint as a "leftish lawyer" in the Carter government and ending with thanks to his wealthy parents for supporting him into middle age.

Kaus grew up in privilege, the son of a prominent California Supreme Court justice, but seeks to end all welfare assistance to poor women with children--"them." Welfare mothers need to learn the harsh truths of the marketplace, yet he concedes: "This book was made possible by a series of grants from Peggy and Otto Kaus," his parents. This from a guy who knocks Head Start programs.

Outside of Kaus and his offended sensibilities concerning the deterioration of urban life, there are no real people in what purports to be a book on public policy. There are only categories beginning with the scary black "underclass" whose members are "lurking" behind trees in our public parks and must be turned into a vast new WPA-type army of street sweepers and the like.

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