Tuesday, November 8, 2011

David Brooks and the "Right" Inequality

In his recent  op-ed about the Occupy Movement, New York Times columnist David Brooks draws on a tactic long favored by the 1% and their apologists - locate a potential conflict within the 99% and use it to sabotage the possibility for solidarity. Amusingly, he begins this exercise in "divide and conquer" with an irony-free grumble about our society being polarizing.  

The point of contention he identifies is between what he calls “Blue Inequality” and “Red Inequality,” He argues that the Occupy Movement is focusing on the wrong one. While Brooks concedes that in big coastal cities like New York, LA, and San Francisco, the excessive wealth and influence of the 1% is increasingly conspicuous, this Blue Inequality is getting too much attention from both occupiers and the media. Red Inequality, the inequality between those with and those without college degrees, is widespread in cities like Scranton, Des Moines, and Fresno (he might have just said the “real America”) and should really be getting the more attention.

Brooks explanation for the occupiers’ lack of attention to Red Inequality sounds familiar. To paraphrase, perhaps unfairly, the reasons include the narcissism of urban media, class resentment, and the antipathy of hippies for yuppies. That’s my interpretation. Here’s what he says:
That’s because the protesters and media people who cover them tend to live in or near the big cities, where the top 1 percent is so evident. That’s because the liberal arts majors like to express their disdain for the shallow business and finance majors who make all the money. That’s because it is easier to talk about the inequality of stock options than it is to talk about inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment. That’s because many people are wedded to the notion that our problems are caused by an oppressive privileged class that perpetually keeps its boot stomped on the neck of the common man.
Ah, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as turning your opponents into Straw Men by accusing them of exaggeration and oversimplification.

Red Inequality is more important than Blue Inequality, Brooks says, because it is decimating the social fabric of the bottom 50%. These people are not only making less money, they are also experiencing lower rates of marriage, higher rates of divorce, and greater numbers of children born outside of marriage. And these trends are perpetuating themselves intergenerationally, leading to legacies of social stagnation and a tragic squandering of human capital.

Well, he is exactly right about the plight of what he calls the bottom 50%, but his analysis of causality is hopelessly muddled by his conservative ideological commitments. And while his division of the world into Red and Blue is tried and true Republican political strategy, it has little to do with real world economics. I can’t say what Brooks sees when he looks at the world, but from here it looks distinctly like the fabric of U.S. society has been ravaged by precisely the policies advocated by Brooks’ ideological co-travelers (and implemented by both political parties, of course).

Is it possible that Brooks really can’t that both income inequality and the deteriorating social fabric are related to the radical restructuring of the U.S. economy since the 1970s? Could he be unaware that decades of cuts in state funding have caused the price of a college education to skyrocket? Or that weak labor-law enforcement along with the industry deregulation and trade liberalization has produced 30 years of wage stagnation? Or that fighting endless wars has put an enormous burden on military families (who almost always come from the 99%) Or that the war on drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of low-income men of color? Or that the unavailability of affordable healthcare puts millions of marginal workers one serious illness or injury away from homelessness. Or that lack of access to healthy food and disproportionate exposure to toxic air pollution means that chronic health problems are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods? Or that the foreclosure crisis and the economic collapse, created by the reckless speculation and predatory lending practices of the 1%, has disproportionately impacted precisely the folks Brooks says Occupy is ignoring?

Maybe Brooks’ center-right worldview renders him unable or unwilling to hear what the Occupy Movement is actually saying, which is that the issues are the same in San Francisco and Scranton. While incomes at the very top are exploding, many are lucky just to keep up. Health care and retirement benefits are being cut, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, home values have collapsed, and those fortunate enough to attend college are graduating with crippling debt and lousy job prospects. The 99% suffer, while the 1% who drove the economy off a cliff get bailed out and make a killing. These are foreseeable consequences of structural inequality run amok. Extreme inequality is not a fetish; it is the malignancy at the heart of our economic and political institutions.

Of course the rhetoric of the 1% and the 99% is simplistic. That's the nature of political speech. Regardless, in terms of how the system works, the 1% vs. 99% metaphor is at least more fitting than the old story of a “middle class” where each generation is able, with hard work, to move up the ladder. There was a time when that story approached reality (for white folks, at least) but no more. Contemporary American workers are embattled. Children have less and less reason to expect they will do better than their parents, and it is no longer just Brooks’ bottom 50% who are losing ground. Sure, it might be more accurate to talk about the .1% and the 80%, but not only would that be less compelling, it would miss the point. The 99% is not a scientific measure; it is a call for solidarity against the creeping feudalism of “too big to fail” Capitalism.


  1. Great post, Greg. Did you post this as a response to Brooks' article? I took a look, but there are over 500 comments on his NYT piece.

    Also, have you considered getting a Twitter account? I'm a huge fan of Twitter. It's a great way to disseminate information. You'd find plenty of like-minded people there who would be happy to read and comment on your blog posts.

    Just my 2 cents. I hope all is well...

  2. I am on twitter. Follow me @GregoryMengel. And thanks for the feedback.

  3. Great post and the comic up top is on point.