David Brooks: Red Herring in Sheep’s Clothing

David Brooks wrote a column this week in which he describes two kinds of inequality in America. He’s got your “blue inequality”– evident in big coastal cities, this is the difference between the top 1% and everybody else– and then he’s got your “red inequality”– to be found in the heartland, where people with college degrees do just fine, and people without college degrees get, basically, dick.  Then comes the argument:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

I’m not going to dwell on Brooks’ ridiculous geographic delineations– non-college graduates living in Manhattan aren’t living the high life compared to non-college graduates in Scranton.  Nor am I going to waste too many pixels on the sneering tone he adopts elsewhere in the article, implying that the wealth of the 99th percentile is getting publicity because the “liberal arts majors” in percentiles 93-98 are jealous. I’m just going to rewrite those two sentences another way:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to stop global warming, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

Indeed I would.  Because they’re two different problems. Two totally different solutions. And what Brooks has done, in classic Brooksian style, is throw a big fat liberal red herring: You’re a piddling bourgeois if you’re focused on income inequality when there are more important issues out there, he says. As a matter of fact, I will gladly acknowledge that there are bigger, deeper issues than the spiraling incomes of top 1%– indeed, the very issue that Brooks raises is one of them. But that doesn’t mean income disparity isn’t an issue:

What that chart (cribbed from MoJo) is saying is that in the past 30 years, the top 1% have tripled their income, while everyone else has made, at best, a modest gain. In the past decade, incomes for the bottom 90 (nine-zero) percent of workers have actually dropped, while the super-rich have prospered.  And many of those same super-rich– I’m thinking of those in the employ of certain  large financial institutions– actually contributed to the very real economic pain suffered by everyone else.

This is an issue, and being furious seems like a pretty rational response.  Of course, being furious isn’t the solution– the solution is more tax brackets and higher rates at the top– but being furious, and, yes, taking your fury to Zucotti Park where you can put it on public display has proven a reasonably productive step in putting this issue on the table.

And Brooks casually acknowledges that it is an issue, but uses his platform on the Times Op-Ed page to undermine and obfuscate it by pointing to another issue altogether, one liable to pluck at the consciences of his bourgeois liberal arts readers. In the words of HAL 9000: Don’t do that, Dave. It’s disingenuous.

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