Monday, February 22nd, 2010

David Brooks and the Myth of the New Fair Society

THE CLUB OF HARVARDRest easy, America! After our long march through the spiritless battle to prop up our inflammable paper economy, David Brooks has identified the true cause of our distemper: we have been lulled into a terminal state of civic distrust by an overly porous power elite.

Yes. The recruitment of our upper-class leaders has become more demographically open, Brooks notes, with the old WASP establishment giving way to a "meritocratic" scrum of other-than white male power brokers. And as a result, "we've changed the criteria for success. It is less important to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working." But there's a twist! "As we've made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We've increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower."

Brooks then dutifully ticks off what he regards as the evidence: the financial system was run more smoothly a half-century ago, when affable clubby "blue-bloods" manned-and we do mean manned-the controls. (One can't help suspecting that Brooks' choice of 1960 and not, say, 1930 as the pertinent point of generational comparison here, is a way of letting the grand old WASP Wall Street era off with a Gentleman's C.)

The last several decades have also seen the arts of government and journalism launched into Bobo social distinction, with reporters and government officials matriculating from elite professional schools, and forfeiting the jolly solidarity-in the case of the reporting caste-of a talent pool make up of "working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars." As a result of the promiscuous and confusing demotic rejiggering of upward-tending achievement, the sober, Burkean gradualist outlook of the old WASP leadership class has succumbed to the giddy virtues of an ADD-afflicted credentialist elite, prizing "big swing" policy goals like the health care overhaul, fetishizing "transparency" and adopting rootless cosmopolitan "lifestyle habits" and "social attitudes."

While of course abjuring any suggestion of a return to the old WASP order, Brooks can't help but moan that the elite-trust crisis bespeaks "some serious problems" with the new talent-based social hierarchy.

This whole line of argument has, of course, been Brooks' sturdy stock-in-pundit trade ever since his stupendously overrated book Bobos in Paradise catapulted him to his own elite renown in 2000. And the catalog of error in Brooks' impressionistic "comic sociology" has only grown longer with the crashing failure of the paper economy that Bobos unwittingly celebrated.

One can only gesture broadly at the cavernous dioramas of fallacy and illogic on display here, but a good place to begin is with this column's woeful opening assertion that the C. Wright Mills classic The Power Elite-published in 1956, the putative heyday of balmy aristocratic management of the investment economy-somehow chronicled the ongoing social dominance of WASP primogeniture. Mills did argue that old family fortunes continued to loom disproportionately over the country's long-term wealth profile-but more important, he maintained that the defining structural features of the power elite arose from its mastery of the technocratic military state created in the first flush of the Cold War.

After all, he noted, the uniformity of social background in members of the new power elite didn't translate into a straightforward defense of high-WASP tradition; nor was it the case, Mills noted, that "if they were, as social-types, representative of a cross-section of the population, that does not mean that a balanced democracy of interest and power would automatically be the going political fact…. Even if their recruitment and formal training were more heterogeneous than they are, these men would still be of a quite homogenous social type." In other words? Elite occupations now created their own dominant social types, rather than flowing outward from old-boy networks of social prestige.

Indeed, Mills' adoption of the term "power elite"-which also furnishes the title for Brooks' column-was a conscious rejection of old Marxist notions of classbound transmission of wealth and interests across the generations, and an acknowledgement that "power" was indeed the telling social distinction of the Cold War era.

Hence the overlapping directorates of the military, the corporations, and the government served, in Mills' view, as the most critical forcing beds of plutocratic interest. Mills' power elite got its marching orders from the impersonal mandates of the government contract or corporate board-not via the exchange of sly winks and elbow nudges at the Harvard Club.

It's no accident that Brooks so fundamentally misconstrues the point of the sociological treatise that lends his glib ruminations the aura of elite introspection. The alleged midcentury fire sale in WASP prestige is the great enabling myth of right-wing social analysis, since it allows its chroniclers to pose as tolerant meritocrats while continuing to engage the irresistibly lazy ruling-class sport of bemoaning rampant cultural decline. Joseph Epstein, Brooks' forerunner in the counter-empirical conservative sideline in "comic sociology," has gone so far, in his 2002 book Snobbery-a truly bracing study in casual conservative misogyny and homophobia-as to liken the peaceful surrender of WASP social power to the unilateral repeal of the British empire. This strongly suggests that he understands neither sociology nor imperial history.

And if one sets aside the allegedly earth-shaking erosion of institutional WASPdom, what Brooks takes to be the all-too-dynamic and Tocquevillian mass clamor for wealth and prestige in our age swiftly recedes from the American scene like a poorly choreographed flash mob. For while there may be more demographically diverse hands at the machinery of wealth and power today, the contemporary power elite is proportionally far smaller, and materially far better endowed, than it was in Mills' day.

Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found that from 2002 to 2006-basically, the last period of major expansion in the U.S. economy-fully three-quarters of all income gains in these United States went to the top 1% of earners; people making more than $382,600.

What's more, Piketty and Saez found that there's a power elite within that elite, with the narrowest .01% of earners commanding 5.46% of the country's income. As for wealth inequality-the storehouse of stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets that furnish the permanent advantage of the upper classes in a way that a government affairs diploma never can-the picture is even more grotesquely top heavy, with the top 1% of our population possessing 34.6% of all privately held wealth in 2007, according to the research of New York University economist Edward Wolff.

Subtract home values from that reckoning to measure financial wealth, and things look worse still, with the 1% holding a full 42.7%. Meanwhile, the bottom 80% of Americans-basically wage and salaried workers with minimal dividend wealth, usually marshaled into volatile and insecure 401(k) plans-make do with 15% of the nation's wealth.

The five-year period of economic expansion that ended in 2007 marked the first such interval since World War II in which the majority of Americans lost economic ground.

All sorts of compelling long-term implications for our social order proceed from this eye-popping data-from narrowing educational opportunities to spikes in infant mortality and long-term poverty. The David Brookses of the world, however, would have us believe that any effort-however anemic and cloture-strangled-to reform the ghastly inequalities of our health care system alone is somehow the "reckless behavior" of a jumpy and suggestible knowledge elite.

Or why not fret instead that since bank presidents may not live in the same towns where their branches set up shop, and are more likely to marry other bank presidents than their secretaries, like they did back in the gradualist, conformist fifties, we are facing a worrisome gap in "lifestyle patterns"? All of which makes the wheezing, wearisome tap-dancing act of Brooks' post-boom "comic sociology" seem exponentially less amusing-if also a rather enormous fucking joke.

Chris Lehmann is definitely among the top 75% of income-earners in the whole United States!

33 Comments / Post A Comment

El Matardillo (#586)

It all started when women began wearing pantyhose instead of garters and stockings, and now they mostly wear no hose at all.

I think this is the issue that can bring both Left and Right together, as we urge women everywhere to go back to the values that made our country great.

katiebakes (#32)

I wear tights, but only so I don't have to shave my legs.

rula (#3,558)

There is something wrong with David Brooks' teeth. Why doesn't he get them fixed, he can afford it.

In lieu of an exhaustively scathing post detailing: 1. Brooks's blatant cherrypicking re. American political history, 2. his assumption that his readers are also near-totally ignorant of the same, 3. his unearned reputation as a "thinker" on the basis of a single book of sub-Malcolm-Gladwell pop-culture anthropology, and 4. his creepy fetishizing of WASP culture, I'm going to go with:

What's with the weird coral-colored lipstick he always seems to be wearing on TV? Was he born without lips? Did he somehow, like certain women with their eyebrows, destroy them through over-maintenance and is now forced to draw them on? I MUST KNOW, BECAUSE IT DRIVES ME INSANE.

merp (#3,001)

I always think it reminds me of the hotel emcee character in So I Married an Axe Murderer: a troubling marriage of 5 o'clock shadow, thin lips, and inexplicably matte lip color.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I'll bet anything he uses the wrong fork.

sixlocal (#296)

Pssh. He probably uses the wrong spoon.

Fork, spoon — we're in the heady stratosphere of the "power elites" here. He probably uses the wrong servant.

flossy (#1,402)

Will you all please just get your "merit" and "credentials" off of Mr. Brooks' lawn this instant!

crookedE (#1,817)

I don't know what he is talking about; I continue to find the power establishment to be extremely clubbable. Preferably with some sort of hardwood.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I'm confident Obama's judicial appointments will reverse all of this.

HiredGoons (#603)

I just find it adorable that he still believes in upward mobility.

Howja get this Chris Lehmann fellow to write for The Awl? He's pretty snazzy!

sigerson (#179)

This is a breathtaking takedown of Brooks. Truly remarkable. A++

Max Clarke (#3,635)

"Hence the overlapping directorates of the military, the corporations, and the government served, in Mills' view, as the most critical forcing beds of plutocratic interest."

Thanks, Chris, for making me look up the definition of "forcing bed": "a plant bed having an under layer of fermenting manure."

Well put.

Taking down Brooks is great sport and must never be ceased.

gregorg (#30)

I heartily concur, please ne'er abjure

doubled277 (#2,783)

I like how the ad on this page is for "" and says "Marry A Millionaire"

Ribs (#2,690)

"…succumbed to the giddy virtues of an ADD-afflicted credentialist elite, prizing "big swing" policy goals like the health care overhaul, fetishizing "transparency" and adopting rootless cosmopolitan "lifestyle habits" and "social attitudes.""
You don't seem to knock him for this framing of his in his Overall Arguement,

Ribs (#2,690)

(^awkwardly posted before done)
-the 'credentialist elite' point may be a legitimate one, however sloppily landed and shittily argued?

eric.lassard (#3,646)

This strikes me as an unnecessarily mean-spirited response to Brooks' article, which raises some important questions. Why shouldn't we discuss some concerns, or "serious problems" as Brooks puts it, with the current meritocratic or technocratic elite? This elite, after all, is presiding over the glaring economic inequality of our times that Lehmann rightly deplores.

Rather than nitpicking about Brooks' (admittedly dubious) sociological credentials, why not talk about the main question of his piece: are institutions actually better led than was the case 50 years ago? If the answer is no, the explanation is not that the elite is "overly porous," in Lehmann's words, or too diverse, but, perhaps, rather that the criteria being used to form elites (SAT scores for instance) is proving inadequate. Moreover, if we find fault with the current elite, the next question would be, what can be done to improve it?

(Other books that discuss this issue in interesting ways are: Nicholas Lemann's "The Big Test," Michael Young's "The Rise of the Meritocracy," and Mickey Kaus' "The End of Equality.")

Yes, in the past 50 years, greater diversity among elites has been accompanied by a dramatic centralization of economic power, both at the corporate and individual level. This centralization may be the more relevant point here.

With that in mind let's look at one of Brooks' points, that 50 years ago the head of Murfreesboro's largest bank would live in Murfreesboro, whereas today he or she would live in New York or Charlotte. Take Murfreesboro to be any small city X. Obviously, the bank president living in X is more likely to be attuned to the social and economic conditions of X, to care about the well-being and prosperity of residents of X, to take a part in the civic life of X, etc. Multiply this by hundreds of small town X's and the scope of the issue becomes clear, the deracination of corporate elites from the rest of the nation, and the detachment of corporations from their hometowns, leaving both free to engage in the kind of disruptive high-flying machinations we saw on Wall Street in recent years.

How does a society forge a more responsible and equitable socio-economic elite? This seems like a question well worth trying to answer. (rather than discussing pantyhose or David Brooks' lipstick.)

With a wink and a hardy slap on the back, Mr. Potter invites you to local cigars and brandy.

Chris Lehmann (#222)

What I object to in the Brooks view of things isn't the notion that our elites need to be subjectively more responsible and civic spirited, but the idea, which you see throughout his work, that lifestyles and attitudes of such folk are key to shaping the course of our common life. To take the bank president example you cite, there were many many more bank presidents grounded in local communities during the Depression wave of bank failures–and the solution wasn't to multiply their ranks but rather to draft a federal policy to shore up the thrift system's capital requirements, and increase insurance protections for depositors. In other words, the character traits of individual bank presidents was far less pressing an issue than figuring out how to frame a more stable and equitable banking system–indeed the aim of such thinking is to have a system where the individual virtues of individual bank presidents wouldn't have the ability to topple the entire system. I trust I don't have to belabor the difference between that approach and what we've seen both in advance and in the aftermath of the Great Recession of '08.

Very much by contrast here, Brooks laments the rootless cosmopolitan makeup of our elite leadership class, and treats the making of similar policy w/r/t health care reform as a symptom of their personal civic malaise. (I will also refrain from noting in full the many many columns Brooks spent cheerleading the Iraq invasion without once pausing to reflect that this might be a prime example of an elite leadership caste's "reckless behavior.") The point here, as I see it, anyway, is not to casually write off universal efforts to remedy market excesses to some quirk of elite behavior, but to use the privileges attached to elite leadership to draw attention to our shared struggles in both the economic and political spheres. That's more than just the province of a Great Leader type like TR and FDR–American universities formerly stressed the value of both social criticism and effective governance, and shaped the sensibilities of thirties brain trusters and fifties Cold Warriors alike. Now, of course, most of our universities are pre-professional gymnasia, starved of public funding and overrun with corporate sponsored scholarship, rational choice dogma and the like. If you want to look at a way to create a better leadership class, that seems like a far more frutiful place to begin than the subjective lifestyle choices of the post-WASP elite.

One final note re. the high-flying Wall Street machinations you rightly deplore: they, too, were the outcome of deliberate policy choices, from the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall Act to the shitcanning of Bill Donaldson from the SEC in 2005 because he threatened to take his job more seriously, and actually regulate the derivatives bubble a bit. Those choices, I'd argue, stemmed not from informal lifestyle patterns, but an ideology holding that government regulation must bend ever further to the dictates of the market. In his bailout-era punditry, Brooks has never sought to question that central plank of modern conservative doctrine–and I think there's an abundance of evidence by now that it's been far more consequential than any other factor in our present state of ruination. So the question I'd ask is why are the valuable column inches of the New York Times so routinely devoted to uncritical market cheerleading–at the hands not just of Brooks but Messrs. Douthait and Friedman as well? And what might _that_ say about the folkways of our leadership class?

barnhouse (#1,326)

You know, I think it would serve us all better if we reminded everyone ceaselessly of the total stupidity of these clowns in the run-up to the war. Why are they not pushing a broom somewhere?

rickumbaugh (#3,637)

It is interesting to me how certain paradigms tend to hang around for ages. I thought that the American Revolution got rid of the idea of aristocracies in favor of meritocracies. Now, because meritocracies are so changable people are griping that there is no aristocracy to make things less changeable.

This fallacy crops up all the time and is a result of conservative fear of change. It showed up all the time at the beginning of our republic. It was part of the reason of the demise of the Federalists and it was one of the motivations for the South seceding (check out the books Empire of Liberty, What Hath God Wrought and The Battle Cry of Freedom). It is the impluse to revive feudalism that is the motivation for Fascism (see the writings of Mussolini). Now it is back here in the US, where the conservative cause is creating a divide between the Upper Class and the Working Classs and David Brooks supporting antique elites. I think if people think about this they will reject the whole idea.

Genghis Noid (#2,345)

I totally, totally agree. Especially with that part that explains how David Brooks isn't really a WASP, but a Canadian Jew who endorsed Obama and reads Neibuhr. Oh wait, that's not in here? Uh, oh, someone was naugh-ty. That's okay, though, because it was so high-road to acknowledge that Brooks didn't really lament the mid-century WASP fire sale, but asked whether, despite all our efforts in the last 50 years, there has been any real progress in government and finance. Oh, you left that part out too? Well, I'm suuuure we can overlook that because it was so, SOOO insightful to tie Brooks' thesis to Neibuhr's skepticism. You know, like where Neibuhr claims it is naive to believe that progress is inevitable? No? Shame, shame, Mister. Oh well, I guess anyone can mistake skepticism for a plutocracy fetish.

Chris Lehmann (#222)

Huh? To the extent I follow, I'd reply that the reason that there's been little progress in government and finance over the past 50 years is that for the last 30 or so of those years, both realms have been run under the Reaganite playbook, reflexively deriding all regulation and government activity as pernicious and/or futile, while giving free-market dogma the widest possible berth. But for all the Brooksian fretting one sees about the importance of elite attitudes and lifestyle choices, somehow that enormous honking elite belief system never comes in for skepticism. Reinhold Niebuhr had plenty to say about such ruling-class blindspots, especially in Moral Man and Immoral Society and Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

Scum (#1,847)

Can someone tell me what all the rabbiting on about wealth and income inequality had to do with Brooks column?

Even assuming that the top income and wealth percentiles are a good proxy for the kind of people Brooks is talking about* the size of that group tells you very little about how it was formed or which of its aspects might cause the public at large to evince less faith in it than in previous years.

*They aren't. Brooks is talking about important social institutions and explicitly mentions journalists and government employees, neither professions generating many members would trouble the top 1% income percentile. On the other hand many people who would find themselves in that percentile- Lindsay Lohan, Brett Favre ect. – are obviously not are who are under discussion in Brooks column.

Chris Lehmann (#222)

Well, I am someone, and I can say the reason I included the wealth inequality figures was to highlight the economic trends that Brooks leaves out of such analysis pieces, again and again, That is to say, while we're using up prestigious column space fretting about the paucity of executive-secretary marriages (whose benefit to a more more democratic civic life rather completely escapes me), we have seen an ever tighter concentration of wealth at the top of our social order–and a steady erosion of standing among the bottom 80 percent. That, to my mind, explains a great deal of disenchantment with the way our elites run things–i.e., in their own interests without any concern for the wider social consequences of their actions. And that's why it strikes me as reform odd that Brooks singles out something like health care reform as an example of "reckless behavior" among our elites than, I dunno, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act or even the TARP bailouts. Not long after TARP was ratified, in fact, he defended them as a way of protecting "a public utility." To my mind, that speaks volumes more about elite detachment than the residential segmentation or mating habits of local business executives.

Chris Lehmann (#222)

Oh, and duh–the main point I meant to raise above is that we should be paying less fulsome attention to the ways our elites are more demographically diverse and diffuse in their folkways than the fact that they have _gotten much richer_ as the rest of us have floundered. And maybe the way to redress that problem would be to entertain heretical ideas like raising marginal tax rates. You do that, and honestly I'll care even less about what civic clubs they belong to, or their favorite modes of assortative mating. (I'll still make fun of them though, because that's my job)

barnhouse (#1,326)

In case you haven't seen it, here is a really spectacular article, "Boo-Boos in Paradise", with a point-by-point takedown of Brooks's investigative methods.

I enjoyed your post!

barnhouse (#1,326)

p.s. found this by total accident; the article you discuss is a total retread from 2003!!

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