From Marxist to Welfare Reformer

Mickey Kaus 1973

Mickey Kaus '73 began his journalism career reporting on Vietnam War demonstrations for The Crimson. His editors knew they could count on Kaus for coverage when no other reporter had attended a protest because he organized most of them.

"I would write these incredibly slanted stories...about angry feet filling Post Office Square," says Kaus, now a columnist for the on-line magazine Slate.

Though he lacked journalism experience, Kaus, who grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., and attended Beverly Hills High School, arrived in Cambridge with strong academic credentials.

During his first year at Harvard, Kaus used his advanced placement credits to enroll in Social Studies but neglected course work in favor of mobilizing student opposition to the war.

"I spent much of my time planning anti-war demonstrations," Kaus says.

Fervently liberal, Kaus gravitated toward Harvard faculty members with Marxist leanings. He says his favorite professor was Steve Marglin of the economics department. Kaus remembers thinking of Marglin as "a sensible Marxist."

Kaus wrote his senior thesis on the inevitable failure of capitalism--an argument he admits has been "disproved by the last 30 years."

After commencement Kaus quickly outgrew his reverence for Marxism, but he continued to ponder the system of welfare in the United States, a subject he found intriguing in his Social Studies courses.

Kaus did not fully develop his ideas about replacing the cash dole with jobs for the unemployed until the mid-1980s, when he wrote a series of articles on welfare policy for the New Republic magazine and began work on his book, The End of Equality, published in 1992.

Kaus was first exposed to government-sponsored employment when a team of laborers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA)--the federal commission created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, a former Crimson president, to combat Depression-era unemployment--built a gymnasium at Beverly Hills High. After college, Kaus remembers reading articles endorsing a revival of the WPA during the economic slump in the early 1980s.

By this time, Kaus had earned a law degree from Harvard Law School and decided he had "no aptitude" for legal work.

With characteristic humorous self-deprecation, Kaus remembers the high-light of his law career.

"I had one uncontested divorce that I almost won," he says.

After clerking for a judge in San Francisco, Kaus returned to the East, living with Harvard friend and fellow journalist Nicholas B. Lemann '76, also a Crimson editor, in Washington, D.C. When Lemon left his post at the Washington Monthly magazine, Kaus applied for the job.

Kaus remembers that his editor Charles Peters took a big risk in hiring him, given his dearth of journalistic training.