Wednesday, March 11, 2015

David Brooks: Sort of Right But Doesn't Want to Fight

"My conservative friend"

David Brooks has recently written two consecutive columns that address the social, economic, and political problems of inequality and social dysfunction in contemporary America. As is often the case, I find a lot to agree with Brooks and some to disagree with, and these two columns placed side-by-side provide a perfect opportunity to get a sense of sources of agreement and disagreement.

In the first column, “The Temptation of Hillary”, Brooks decries what he believes is the possible shift in the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton from an emphasis on what he calls “human capital progressivism” to “redistributionist progressivism”. He argues that the problems identified with the decline of middle-class wages and earnings arise from differences in education and educational opportunities. Accordingly, he believes that a continued emphasis on education should continue, while he decries the possibility of shaping political remedies to our growing inequality.

Brooks ignores the secular stagnation hypothesis of Larry Summers and The Great Stagnation of Tyler Cowen, to name but a couple of those who have identified and considered long-term structural problems going back to the 1970s. Brooks wants to limit the focus to the Great Recession of 2008 or shortly before and claim that wage and earning inequality is not an endemic problem. Indeed, as we read in the next essay, Brooks prefers to consider the problem as one of norms and morals. While I don't disagree that norms and morals are fundamental component of the problem, Brooks wants to continue thinking about remedies that avoid issues of political economy.

The more I consider issues of macroeconomics, the more I believe that the late 19th century divorce between political economy and economics was a mistake. Policies of governments made through political institutions; i.e., through non-market decision-making processes such as elections, legislative bodies, and lobbying, are of paramount importance in determining market outcomes. Political decisions that shaped the American economy in the immediate post-World War II era of the 1950s and 1960s began changing in the 1970s for a variety of reasons. Since that time, a market ideology has been dominant in American politics. This ideology reduced the role of government in addressing the shortcomings of the market. (I believe that perfect markets work perfectly and that perfect markets are as common as a perfect democracy or a perfect circle in nature. Or, to paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy, a market economy is the worst type of economic system except when compared to all the others that have been tried from time to time.) I give credit for to Brooks for stating that the choice between what he terms “human capital progressivism” with its emphasis on education and “redistributionist progressivism” that he believes involves a redistribution of wealth, is not an absolute divide but one of measured differences. This is certainly true, and I don't support any type of full-scale redistributionist scheme. I’ve every sympathy for Brooks in what he seems to argue tacitly:  redistributionist politics are the toughest political fights and could harm the nation as a whole, especially in a time when we are already extremely divided. (Although I believe that much of the divides is already a surrogate redistributionist battle.) I also believe (along with Brooks?) that the politics of envy is the worst politics of all. (This is not something that I recall his having written or addressed directly, but I discern it is an undertone of much of his on-going commentary.)

The second essay, "The Costs of Relativism" is a review and commentary on Robert Putnam's recent work, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In that book, Putnam and his colleagues look at the differences between the children of educated Americans versus those of less educated Americans. The differential is staggering. However, what neither Putnam nor Brooks discuss sufficiently (per a review of Putnam here, as I haven’t read the book) is that education is a direct correlation not only of future earnings, but most likely of past (parental) earnings and wealth. Indeed, one critic of the book noted the irony that Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, fails to address the public policies and political decisions that have led to the increasingly gross distortions in the lives of children brought about by differences in wealth and education. Brooks also (largely) ignores the political and public policy aspects and ramifications of the problems and instead focuses on norms and morals.

I don't disagree with Brooks in that norms and morals play a huge role. Indeed, one useful dividing line between political outlooks can be drawn between those who focus on the individual and the individual’s personal attributes as defined by their morals, norms, and character, and those who focus on these society-wide political and economic systems that shape the environment in which individuals live. I accept both perspectives as different ways to look at the same problem. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but to believe that one need only be a Horatio Alger or positive thinker to get ahead and overcome a lack of education or opportunity is the grossest kind of deceit.

Brooks acknowledges that better policy and application of greater resources (money) have some role to play, but norms and morals are the most important aspect. He laments what he perceives as a lack of judgment by those who fail, and again I have some sympathy for this. A degree of tough love is appropriate when people are transgressing boundaries, but the widespread breakdown in marital and family standards are often exacerbated by the economic pressures that wage stagnation and a decline in public institutions (like public schools and colleges) are enforcing upon families. The simple matter is that marriages are more likely to be successful and happy if they're not under constant attack because of money problems. The degree that a lack of money and resources can be blamed on the bad choices that individuals and families make and the degree of blame that we can attribute to the economic and political system varies greatly. But when the pattern is as extensive and widespread as we find in America today, then we are justified in  giving greater weight to the economic and political forces shaping the our environment. In Iowa, since the 1970s, most Iowans know of the personal and family costs of economic decline and dislocation. I used to joke – although it's not really a laughing matter – that my my hometown declined (in population, economics, and social welfare) after I left for college in 1971. Of course, it had nothing to do with my leaving and everything to do with a wider pattern of economic decline and dislocation found among the mostly white middle-class in rural and small-town America. The vice-grip of economic dislocation is the source of the populist anger and Tea Party irrationality that erupted on the American scene and that now governs the Republican Party. It’s no coincidence that Iowa’s newest U.S. Senator is from Red Oak (very near my home town), located in rural, white middle America that’s experienced such a decline. It’s ironic (and sad) that her election was paid for in large measure by the Koch Brothers and their ilk with an agenda that will do no favors for the vast majority of her supporters. Elections like the last one are a lashing out. As David Frum his written, the divide of populism in America is not so much between wealth and poverty as it is between the educated and the (relatively) uneducated. ("American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy. So much so that you might describe contemporary American politics as a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education: Jon Stewart’s America versus Bill O’Reilly’s, Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin.")

If it was as easy as Brooks implies that by merely enunciating and enforcing renewed social norms and morals we would mend the current rents in the American social fabric, that would be great. But while I believe this effort worthwhile, it needs a complimentary boost from changes in our political economy. Capitalism as a social and economic system is one driven by incessant change and the clear logic of personal (or corporate) profit. The capitalist system is terribly new measured against the whole of human history and which has been amped-up by industrialization and improving technologies over the course of less than three centuries. It needs repair. 

We are mortal, incarnated humans whose rationality is limited. We humans are not homo economus. We need social norms, we need markets, we need political deliberation. We need strong families. We need love. There is no magic bullet, but neither is there any source of change that we should ignore. Brooks tries to ignore the political economic aspects of necessary changes because it gets messy, but we can't afford to avoid those tough decisions.

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