When all you have is faux-pop sociology, everything starts to looks like a cheap cultural archetype

If you’ve discussed politics with me more than 10 times in person, you probably know how much I hate David Brooks. He’s an intellectual lightweight who has appropriated the trappings of intelligence just enough to fool the casual upper-middle-class liberal into pitying those poor misguided salt-of-the-earth white conservatives. His columns generally tolerate only one reading; after this, their threadbare contours reveal themselves.

Unfortunately, he got a job as a token conservative at the New York Times, where he has used every opportunity to promote himself as a rich guy who just loves poor guys (the white ones). He paints in broad, lazy strokes to paint liberals as out of touch, but more often reveals himself as having no clue what life is like outside New York (“Obama’s problem is he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could go into an Applebee’s salad bar, and people think he fits in naturally there.” No Applebee’s has ever had a salad bar.)

His latest column is no different. Brooks considers a new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (which title Brooks abbreviates simply Coming Apart). The book’s thesis seems to be that America (‘s white population) is dividing itself into two classes: one successful and one poor. The upper class lives in urban/suburban pockets around the country, and the social circles of its members don’t intersect the lower class. Upper class people tend not to have children out of wedlock, have jobs, and are generally successful due to their virtuous behavior. Therefore, the solution to the country’s (white people’s) problems is for the upper class to mingle with the lower and teach them the good habits of successful people.

(The books’ author, Charles Murray, also co-wrote a book called The Bell Curve, which examined data from IQ tests, noticed that (self-reported) racial categories corresponded to differences in test results and concluded that black people are dumber than white people, and furthermore this information has important implications for public policy. There are way too many problems with this to get into here, but here are a few of the questionable assumptions behind this line of argument: intelligence exists, it is reducible to a single number, this number can be found by a written test, intelligence is highly determinative of financial success, intelligence is highly heritable, there is a way to encourage high-intelligence women to have more babies and discourage low-intelligence women from having as many babies without infringing on a woman’s rights, &c. It probably goes without saying that the book has been heavily criticized as being both poorly reasoned and racist as hell. Keep this in mind as you think about his new book.)

Brooks begins by painting a picture of increasing inequality. Over the last 50 years, home and car prices have spread out greatly, and this is just one small facet of stratification.

The upper tribe is now segregated from the lower tribe. In 1963, rich people who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan lived close to members of the middle class. Most adult Manhattanites who lived south of 96th Street back then hadn’t even completed high school. Today, almost all of Manhattan south of 96th Street is an upper-tribe enclave.

He goes on to detail the disparity in employment, church-going, divorce rates and other supposed cultural signifiers the (white) upper class has used to make itself productive. Brooks recommends a “program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together” so that rich and poor alike “work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.”

Murray decries the left’s and right’s model of societal division (the left sees an economic divide between the top 1% and the bottom 99%, in today’s parlance, and the right sees the cultural/Hollywood elite versus the regular masses) and instead focuses on the top 20% who excel due to their traditional values and the bottom 80% who struggle due to their bad habits. The first thing to point out is that Murray focuses only on white people, supposedly to remove the effect of race. This is problematic, to say the least. A one-semester course in econometric analysis emphasizes the necessity of not discarding a huge chunk of your data (!), because the variation among groups is at least as important as the variation within those groups. An uncharitable reader might guess at the reason Murray restricts his concern to white people, but I’ll let you fill in that particular blank.

The first problem with this brand of analysis is that there’s no plausible mechanism by which marriage, for example, contributes to economic success. Fighting over money is a major source of stress to a relationship, and I’d think the relationship would be ambiguous, and just as likely to run the other way. His examination of the difference of employment rates between rich and poor people is an interesting shade of tautological.

I think, however, Brooks gives away the game here:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

This is the story successful people tend to tell themselves: the results prove the virtue of the person experiencing them. Poor people aren’t poor because of the recession of unions, or the growing control money exerts over our political system, or the internationalization of trade, or anything outside their control. Poor people are poor because of their own bad habits.

Of course, the converse is even more egregious: rich people are rich because they made themselves rich. Nobody is lucky, nobody came upon the right job at the right time, nobody got into a profession just before its industry blew up. They did the right things and got rich. (Never mind all the people who did the same things and languish in the bottom half of the income distribution.)

The big story (or the most plausible version of it, from my perspective) is that, especially in our political system, money leads to control. Successful industries have the ability to change the law in order to entrench their economic might, protect themselves from competition and stymie the emergence of alternatives. At the same time, they use their power to decrease labor’s leverage in the collective bargaining process. This has led to wage stagnation for the bottom 60% or so.

Meanwhile, wealthy people have used their ability to influence the political process to make the places where they live better by excluding poor people. Brooks points to Manhattan as an example of an elite playground, and he’s right, but it’s basically illegal to make Manhattan any more dense, thanks to land use restrictions created by residents. The benefit of living there (increased real estate values and higher levels of cultural amenities) accrues to current residents, but the cost of those restrictions is borne by everyone who would like to live there, but couldn’t afford it. Since the benefits are concentrated and the costs diffuse, there’s no will to make Manhattan more affordable.

The emergence of finance as an industry has distorted the economy to an extent that is difficult to get a handle on, and it’s the same story here. The benefits go to financial professionals, and the costs are borne by everybody else. Banks exist to store people’s money and loan it out to other people. By shifting capital from savers to those who can use it to grow a business, they enhance the efficiency of the economy as a whole. Markets for stocks and bonds do the same. Somewhere along the line, however, financial products got more complex. The only people who understand them either have enough free time to do deep research into those products, or get paid to create them.

At some point, the benefits of the financial system stopped going to those who borrow to build capital in a business and started being siphoned off by the financial system itself. This caused the explosion of income for the top 1% (or 0.1% or 0.01%). Because these are the people in positions of influence, and they have a lot of money, they get to make the rules.

This is a lot longer than I intended, so I’ll stop here. I’m sure I’ll come back to these topics in the future. I’ll leave you with Murray’s quiz, which tells you to what extent you are culturally elite. (Post it to your Facebook profile and compare to your friends!) This working-class hero scored a 48, despite going to private high school and college and growing up the son of a doctor in an upper-middle-class suburb. It’s full of questions about fishing, shitty TV shows and David Brooks’ favorite restaurants.