Tuesday, July 11, 2017

David Brooks Wigs Out over Inequality

David Brooks is so depressed these days that it has stopped being fun to pick on him. Today's column, titled "How We Are Ruining America," dwells on what some people say are our increasingly rigid class distinctions. He has three arguments. The first is about education:
It’s the pediacracy, stupid. Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.

Upper-middle-class moms have the means and the maternity leaves to breast-feed their babies at much higher rates than high school-educated moms, and for much longer periods.

Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents. Since 1996, education expenditures among the affluent have increased by almost 300 percent, while education spending among every other group is basically flat. . . . As life has gotten worse for the rest in the middle class, upper-middle-class parents have become fanatical about making sure their children never sink back to those levels.
To some extent this is true, but I am not sure how wide that extent is. Some of the educational stratification is just heredity, and there's not much we can do about that. As for the rest, what does Brooks propose? Closing down the elite schools? That seems absurd to me. As long as we have a meritocracy, only some people can make it to the top, and yes those are going to be the people with the most advantages of birth and circumstance. Solution?

The second argument is about real estate, specifically the zoning restrictions that prevent the construction of new housing in places like San Francisco and Brooklyn. Brooks seems to think that by keeping people from moving to these places we keep them from joining the upper middle class. Brooks cites an academic paper by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti that suggests these restrictions have reduced overall American economic growth by 50 percent over the past 45 years. I find this preposterous. It is based on the main fallacy that I want to attack here, the notion that the upper middle class could be infinitely expanded: that is, if we had let ten million more people move into those exclusive areas they would have ended up with the same incomes as the people living there now.

I think that is just wrong. This was the same idea that led us to massively expand our university system, and that didn't work very well, either. So far as I can tell there are just a limited number of slots in the elite, and nothing you can do in the way of expanded education or better housing policy is going to change that very much.

I can't think of any way out of this. We have a meritocratic society in which the best careers are open to anyone, which means that the good jobs go to the people with the most talent, the best preparation, and the most brutal work ethic. Would you prefer that places in medical school be assigned randomly?

I think we are stuck with the prestige pyramid we have. What we could do, if we wanted to, is to flatten the economic pyramid. By means of very high taxes on the rich (80%, say) and more spending on the poor and middle class (income subsidies, national health insurance, free community college) we could arrange things so that economically it would not make as much difference what class you end up in. This is the approach I prefer. Rather than try to restructure society, let's just make life better at the bottom and less awesome at the top.

You thought I forgot the third point, but no; it's just so strange to me that I had to set it aside.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.
First, there is nothing new about this; it is as old as civilization, and people who write about the 18th and 19th centuries think it was greatly expanded then as a way to distinguish the upper class in a world of rapid economic change. What did you think the six forks were for?

And second, I think the importance of this kind of crap is horribly exaggerated. I brazened my way through Yale with with very limited knowledge of things like how to eat artichokes, ignoring attempts to snob me off by quotations in Greek or yachting references. (What happened to that guy, the Andover poet? Watching the waves off Piraeus, we idly hoped that none of the Naiads was pregnant as the surf rolled over the Aegean strand. . . ? Did he end up on Wall Street?) Yes, I got left out of many conversations about things like skiing and trips to Europe, but who cares? None of that matters unless you let it. Sure, every group has its own code and shared body of knowledge; if you want to be, say,  a hip hop producer, you're going to have to learn a vocabulary and a lot of stuff about musicians and bands. So? If you need to learn it, learn it. When I worked summers on the maintenance crew I used to follow baseball so I would have something to talk to the other guys about. Nobody knows all of it; only a handful of the most arrogant are certain that they fit in anywhere. One good thing about the upper middle class is that it is a much bigger and more diverse group than the producers of hip hop, so there are lots of ways to fit in. If you think you are being kept out of the upper middle class by the names of sandwiches, learn the names of the sandwiches. I don't have any idea what Padrino and Pomodoro mean, and this bothers me not one slight tiny bit. If it ever matters, I will ask.

I simply do not believe that these cultural "barriers" to entering the upper middle class are creating our class distinctions. We have growing inequality because we let executives pay themselves a hundred times as much as they pay their workers. And no matter how we arrange things, we just can't all be executives. The only real answer is wealth redistribution.


Thomas said...

From the Brooks wayback machine, in 2008:

Obama‘s problem is he doesn‘t seem like a guy who can go into an Applebee‘s salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there. He has to change to be more like that Applebee‘s guy and as he‘s done that he‘s become much more transactional. Much more, I‘m going to deliver this and this and this to you on policy.

I remembered it because many liberals had fun with the fact that Applebee's restaurants don't have salad bars.

Thomas said...

Or, s one tweeter put it: "Brooks drew upon a terrible and bizarre example to make a broadly good point that he doesn't have the range to fully drive home."