Saturday, May 19, 2007

Human Capital


A recent column by David Brooks, A Human Capital Agenda, left me a bit perplexed. He endorses as "conservative" a slate of ideas not traditionally associated with conservativism, tosses in a platitude or two to appease the "family values" crowd, and embraces the Horatio Alger myth in defense of inequality. I know he calls himself a conservative, but what does he believe that means?

He embraces Bush's early endorsement of "compassionate conservativism", an idea that never got off the ground, as a "masterstroke [that] should be instructive to anybody running for president today." I could sarcastically ask, "Who says they haven't noticed? Find me a candidate who isn't spouting a load of nonsense that he or she doesn't actually believe." But Brooks seems sincere in this call for conservative populism. He continues in his column with a call for better investment in public education, including the provision of quality daycare for the children of "disorganized single-parent homes". (I guess organized single parents and disorganized "intact" families will have to continue to pay their own way.) To make this call "conservative", he endorses school vouchers - who cares that there is no evidence that, on the whole, they provide any meaningful benefit to their recipients.

He also endorses an expanded wealth transfer from the rich and middle class to the poor in the form of "increasing child tax credits to reduce economic stress on young families". And in almost ths same breath he deplores "liberal populists" who believe in "redistribution policies".) He obviously doesn't consider himself to be a liberal populist, but he tells us, "Conservatives and independents do not" believe in redistribution policies. So again, what does that make Brooks?

Brooks presents the platitude, that his human capital agenda "means encouraging marriage, the best educational institution we have". Sure. Let's shutter the schools, marry preschoolers to each other, and we'll have the best educated society in world history. I would ask what Brooks is thinking, but with the possible exception of "this prattle will make some of my less thoughtful, 'family values' readers happy," he obviously isn't.

Brooks also advances this idiotic caricature:
Liberal populists believe the global economy is so broken all the benefits of it go to the top 0.01 percent. Independents and conservatives observe that hard work still leads to success. Liberals emphasize inequality. Moderates and conservatives believe inequality is acceptable so long as there is opportunity.

In the 1980s, Republican supply-side policies helped spur investment. Today, the world is awash in money. That’s not the problem. Instead the shortage is in people to invest in.
Gee... So the reason that wages aren't rising for the poor and middle classes has nothing to do with the nature of our system. It's that they don't work hard enough, and aren't a worthy "investment." Brooks ovestates his case - not every independent or conservative is as quick to lock Horatio Alger into that type of bear hug.

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