My Take on the Recent Brooks-Taibbi Flap

After reading Matt Taibbi's response to David Brooks followed by the original David Brooks blog on why the rich work harder than everyone else, I realized it dovetails nicely with an inane rambling I scribbled on my BlackBerry's note-taking app when I was on the train Sunday night. Honestly, typing it verbatim would be kind of embarrasing, even for a blog like this. So here is a reasonably edited and formalized version of what I wrote.

Brooks writes that the rich work harder than everyone else and therefore deserve every cent of their great wealth. I think that people of all economic classes think they work harder than everyone else - some are justified in thinking this, other less so. Here is where I think the rich and the poor (both broadly-defined) differ: the rich are paranoid and possesive wherease the poor are dispirited and disaffected. The root cause of all of this is economic risk. Even though Americans like to think of themselves as risk-takers; Americans, like almost all human beings, are risk averse. We want something to depend on. We want to know that if we put a certain amount of work in, we will get a certain amount of reward out. Unlike the popular conservative myth that the poor are just undisciplined and lazy, I think most of the chronically-unemployed or underemployed poor just don't see the purpose of work in an economy where the rewards are uncertain and even nonexistent. The rich also recognize that rewards are uncertain, but instead of becoming dispirited like the poor, they become possesive, paranoid, and obsessive workaholics so that they can permanently secure whatever scrap of reward they can get their hands on (of course, it usually ends up being more than just scraps, but they perceive it as such). The middle-class and working poor end up somewhere in between, feeling dispirited about their economic prospects but running on fumes of paranoia to keep their heads above water. I think this is the core division of our society. Sometimes it looks like the division is between the responsible and irresponsible, or the productive and the dependent, or between the robber barrons and the oppressed masses, but these are just the consequent perceived divisions that result from that core of risk and uncertainty. I think that this reality demonstrates why we need a more robust public sector in America.

Philosopher Michael Sandel, in his 2009 Reith Lecture for the BBC, spoke about how we need more and better public institutions in America - parks, schools, public health clinics, libraries, recreation centers, museums, public transportation - where diverse groups of people can come togehter as Americans, as opposed to private self-segregating places where Americans can ensconce themselves in their own little socioeconomic bubbles. Sandel argues that ideally, these spaces would "draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship."

The presence of public institutions along with a social safety net can also reinfiorce the legitimacy of our economy by demonstrating that if you play by the rules, there is enough of the American Dream to go around for everybody. This progressive vision can encourage all of us to make contributions to our society and our economy by showing us that if we work hard, act responsibly, take care of our families, and pay our taxes, we can expect to have good neighborhoods with good schools, efficient services, and retire comfortably no matter where we live. The radical free-market ideology coupled with the consequent economic inequality that has plagued our nation for the past 30 years has created an ethos that says there is only so much American Dream to go around and that you must scrounge up as much as you can by yourself and by whatever means necessary and hoard it in a place where no one else can get to it because nothing is guaranteed. Thus, economic inequality leads to social division, which leads to more economic inequality. The social divisions lead to greater economic inequality through (a) public policies that are tied to geography and the flow of tax dollars, and through (b) a sharpening of the universal human tendency to associate only with those who are ostensibly like oneslf. To further elaborate the effects of inequality on democracy, I quote Sandel at length:

"Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires. As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives. The affluent send their children to private schools (or to public schools, as we call them in the United States) in wealthy suburbs, leaving urban public schools to the children of families who have no alternative. A similar trend leads to the withdrawal by the privileged from other public institutions and facilities. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centres and swimming pools. Affluent residential communities hire private security guards and rely less on public police protection. A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transportation. And so on.

This trend has two bad effects: one fiscal, the other civic. First, public services deteriorate as those who no longer use them become less willing to support them with their taxes. Second, public institutions such as schools, parks, playgrounds and community centres cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another. Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue have become few and far between. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the sense of community that democratic citizenship requires."

For another example of the ravages of social division, just look at our society's response to crime over the past 30 years. Political scientist John DiIulio (full disclosure: he was a professor of mine in college) writes in the journal Democracy:

"Today 2.5 million Americans live behind prison gates wile tens of millions more live in gated communities. We reflexively practice crime-avoidance behaviors that forsake personal freedom to live as and where we would truly like. We spend billions a year on a private-security industry that profits from our crime fears, and we spend billions more on a recession proof prison-industrial complex."

Indeed, instead of spending money on a public safety net we have been our money on private safety walls.

This paranoid protectionism and isolated individualism is what results from living in a society where the only public philosophy is one of "every man for himself" and "no guarantees." Conservative free-market blowhards would argue that their "no guarantee" ethos creates discipline, competititveness, and self-reliance. Ideally, it would, but since man is a risk-averse social creature who wants to protect himself from perceived foes by colluding with perceived friends, it does not. (In fact, I would argue that this is what James Madison was getting at in Federalist 10 when he wrote about "the mischeifs of faction.") Instead, our "no guarantees" ethos creates paranoia among the economy's winners and helplessnes among its losers. When this is coupled with empty consumerism, it engenders an amoral and narcissistic drive for hedonistic excess on all levels of society - hence you get people buying homes they cannot afford and lenders who have no qualms about selling it to them. Go for the big score now while you can and you'll be insulated from risk into the forseeable future. After all it's a rough world out there, I gotta look out for myself.

Hence, you end up with folks like David Brooks falling into the trap of the "upper-class workaholic martyrdom complex" in order to justify their winning of the socioeconomic lottery and their paranoid obsession with protecting their prize.

I hope that was not too inane a rambling for you.