Sunday, January 14, 2007

David Brooks's War on the Middle Class

New York Times columnist David Brooks presents himself as the middle-class's great advocate and friend, which makes his presence in this leading newspaper and on public television all the more insidious. His column today is a good example.

Called "The American Way of Equality," it showcases the Brooks Formula for keeping the middle-class in its mental diapers.
  1. admit income inequality is on the rise. (Brooks resisted this simple fact for years, but better late than never.)
  2. say Americans have always been opposed to inequality.
  3. assert Americans have always been opposed to government remedies to inequality (read "redistribution").
  4. resolve the contradiction between (2) our American opposition to inequality and (3) our opposition to fixing it by defining (2) out of existence. Today's version is this: "When Americans use the word 'equality,' they really mean 'fair opportunity.'"
  5. say America does have fair opportunity.
  6. Conclude that therefore we have no problem of inequality.
Some dismiss Brooks as that perennial seminar student - the eager junior among seniors - who likes the big ideas but never quite gets them right. I don't dismiss him. Brooks is a soft Darwinist and hard antiegalitarian who sees our inequality boom as the natural order, but wants us to feel happy about it.

Brooks gains influence because of his sincere and continuous efforts at consolation. He is the domestic counterpart of Thomas Friedman on the globalization front. The success of both men suggest that their middle- to upper-class readerships do prefer concentrated wealth to social justice, but don't want injustice to be too grim. This mentality has been in unilateral control of U.S. economic policy for three decades.

So it's worth saying what's wrong with Brooks' argument. The single biggest error is the idea that the "activist state" exists only to redistribute income out and down - from the upper to the middle and working classes. In fact, business and political leaders have long used the state to redistribute income upward. This takes the form of massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, steady or increasing tax burdens for the middle, subsidies and other public grants to persuade companies to stay in business, cuts in services on which the middle class depends - health and higher education heading a long list - among many other policies.

The Right's activist state has also created a shift in Brooks' beloved "values," so that layoffs, both blue- and white-collar, are seen as an organic feature of nature's economy, while union organizing is a parasitic blight. (Remember "community -employee ownership" campaigns to buy steel companies that wanted to shut down? You don't, because they quickly disappeared. Organizing to save jobs was too "activist.") For Brooks, only liberals are activist when they write contracts or tax code or legislation. When conservatives do it, to systematically favor the rich, they are merely unshackling the Great Producers to whom we owe all wealth our society has.

Brooks' embrace of inequality rests on the idea that inequality expresses natural differences. This idea is sheer prejudice. It is prejudice in favor of the wealthy and against the middle and bottom. It is prejudice against the value created by labor - white collar as well as blue collar - that never rises to the pay grades that in our warped economic culture signal creative greatness.

Brooks lives in a twilight zone in American economic debates, in which figures from the 1700s like Adam Smith - in simplified, college-textbook form - are treated as scriptural oracles. In this case, Brooks replicates the ideology of some manufacturers of Smith's time - opposed by Smith himself - who saw all value coming from them and their new technology, and none at all from the people that did the work.

Intellectually we seem to be locked into a pyramid with mummified figures from distant eras. Pundits like Brooks constantly channel some mummy's thoughts from beyond the grave. The seance is apparently all too convincing. Brooks has become a pillar of the Great Dumbness that has swept the country and that I chronicle in my invisible blog. He should be sent back to school until he can do something besides blind us to the fact that we the large majority created the most of the value in the fortunes that Brooks doesn't want us to touch.

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