Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David Brooks and the Class Divide

David Brooks has been reading Charles Murray, so it's time for another of his another "tenth grade quality book book reports".... Call it an oversimplification if you will, but having built his reputation (so to speak) on a sloppily reasoned book suggesting that African Americans struggle because they have low IQ's, Murray has a new book contending that poor white people struggle for sociological reasons. Brooks, of course, makes no mention of Murray's history, instead lavishing his new book with praise.
His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today....

Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.
Get that? Murray's limiting his data to white people allows him to be "at his best", lest "complicating factors" such as race and, um, "other" confuse his thesis. Perhaps by showing, for example, that The Bell Curve is every bit as bad as its critics contend.

Two things to note at this point: First, Murray's story is that of "white people", and second... why 1963? Did the world begin in 1963? Weren't there white people in American prior to 1963? Or did what Brooks describes as Murray's "incredible data" reveal to him that if he started his story in any other year it would be weaker or completely undermined. We could, for example, compare unemployment rates during the Great Depression to those of today, but that wouldn't work so well for Murray's thesis that white society has somehow grown apart. So, why not pick the peak year for the argument that America used to look somewhat like Ozzie and Harriet, and go from there.

Brooks, predictably, accepts Murray's arguments as proof of his own theories about the nation, and that social norms that emerge from a snapshot reflect the norm of human history up through the present era. Now... something is causing the country to "bifurcate[] into different social tribes" and the rich don't spend enough time associating with the poor. What's more, people tend to marry within their social and economic class. Shocking, really. Except that's the story of human history. To the extent that a couple of world wars flattened things out for a while, we've never lived in a country or world in which class and money didn't matter and didn't affect social relationships and behaviors.
Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.
With the difference between now and the rest of history being the location of the enclaves? Does Brooks believe that "in the good old days" an Eton boy would go to Oxford, graduate, then marry a scullery maid and settle in Yorkshire? Does he believe that families with surnames like Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Delano, Carnegie and Astor are known for their humble abodes, modest lifestyles, and marriages with members of the working class?

Brooks overtly breaks from the right-wing dogma that "liberal elites" are ruining the country's morals.
Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
That assertion is consistent with my position that, on the whole, people who disfavor legislation of morality are better at moderating their own behaviors and impulses as compared to those who view it as a necessity, and don't want others peering into their bedrooms. The Republicans who want to legislate morality are speaking to a population that is more than happy to pretend that "liberals" are condescending to them, even when the opposite is at least as often the case, and feels, for whatever reason, that people cannot be trusted to behave in a socially acceptable manner unless they are placed at risk of serious consequence, most notably pregnancy or jail.

Brooks, as you might expect, overstates his case for the moral righteousness of the "cultural elite", as it's easier to get married, stay married, remarry after divorce, and remain within the confines of what Brooks would deem a "conservative, traditionalist" life if you are wealthy, or at least financially stable. Nonetheless, this is probably the most honest criticism I've seen Brooks offer of his party - that it's rhetoric about liberal elites is pure demagoguery.

In the name of false equivalence, what the left hand giveth the right hand must take away:
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent.
Funny, although you certainly do hear about the uppermost echelons of wealth these days, most economic analysis I see still looks at wealth quintiles. The "Occupy" movement gave additional attention to the top 1%, with the real story of being the 0.1%, but that's a different story than the one being spun by Brooks.

If Brooks wants to make the claim that "Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite", perhaps he could do us the favor of identifying the Democrats of whom he speaks. While there's definitely concern on the political left that tax policy favors the wealthiest Americans, that concern has the virtue of being true. While there's concern on the left that the last three decades have seen the wealthiest Americans siphon corporate profits for their own benefit while workers' wages have stagnated or declined, that also has the virtue of being true.

Perhaps Brooks believes what he is implying, that human nature has somehow changed such that economics are irrelevant, but it seems to me that he's offering a red herring. For most of human history there has been great disparity between the wealth of the rich and poor, and throughout that time there has been suggestion that many or most of the poor are undeserving, victims not of society but of their poor values. I suspect Brooks knows he's offering a canard, because he proceeds to acknowledge the role of economics in the present state of society:
The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
The central role being what? Brooks has already told us that the "cultural elites" stand as good role models for hard work and moral behavior. What's left but economics? The top 20% are faring quite well, thank you very much, even as other quintiles have struggled.

From this point, Brooks devolves into what might be called "claptrap":
Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.
But Brooks told us earlier,
In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
How can Brooks argue both that "members of the lower tribe" as a class are simultaneously dropping out of the workforce and working hard? Surely it's one or the other.

Really, it seems fair to say that most people work hard, particularly those in menial jobs in which their bosses view them as expendable and easily replaced, but that the fundamental problem is a lack of jobs, and more notably a lack of jobs that people with less education and academic inclination can use as a stepping stone to the middle class. Brooks may want to pretend that this is a matter of sociology - that all we need to do is imbue the poor with the proper values and they'll be working hard and forming stable families - but you cannot honestly compare 1963 to the present without admitting that you're comparing a period of boom times for blue collar workers with a modern era in which anti-union measures, automation and outsourcing have decimated the blue collar middle class.
I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.
Yet another version of, “Even though I didn’t want to, didn’t have to, and personally did not do what I’m suggesting, in order for more people to grow up with my values I think all young people should have to spend years of their lives jumping through hoops I will now arbitrarily define.” Public service, national service, military service, menial jobs.

In other words, even though Brooks tells us that the problem is not an "underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites", the way to fix the problem is to force young people, rich and poor, to spend years of their lives performing some form of community service while living in some form of MTV-style "Real World" communal housing. That will surely fix everything.

1 comment:

  1. If there is magic in the top 20% that explains its success relative to the bottom 30%, why isn't the success story uniform? The second highest decile is stagnating along with the rest of the middle class, the top 10% is doing very well, and the top .1% is through the roof.

    The story here is much more about the rich being able to buy a favorable tax and business climate at he expense of everybody else. Case in point, Mitt Romney.