Tag Archives: David Brooks

From Your Mouth…

My grandmother used to have a favorite response to rosy predictions: “From your mouth to God’s ears.” In other words, “I sure hope so, but whether God is listening remains to be seen.”

That was my reaction to a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times.In a very real way, Brooks column–titled “The American Renaissance Has Begun “–  put flesh on President Biden’s frequent assertion that “America is back.”

He began the analysis by harkening back to the post-World War Two period, when West Germany and Japan emerged from widespread devastation to experience “miraculous” economic growth, while Britain, with its institutions more intact, entered a period of slow economic growth.

Brooks cited a 1982 book by Mancur Olson, which offered an explanation:

“The Rise and Decline of Nations,” Olson concluded that Germany and Japan enjoyed explosive growth precisely because their old arrangements had been disrupted. The devastation itself, and the forces of American occupation and reconstruction, dislodged the interest groups that had held back innovation. The old patterns that stifled experimentation were swept away. The disruption opened space for something new.

Brooks hypothesizes that the pandemic may have ushered in similar disruption, and he bolsters that argument with a number of data points: the 4.4 million new businesses that were started in 2020 represent a modern record.  The 38 percent of workers who took some additional training during 2020 was a substantial increase from the 14 percent who did so in 2019. U.S. start-ups raised $69 billion dollars, which was a 41 percent increase over the previous record, set in 2018. Productivity is up. Perennially low savings rates increased.

After decades in which consumption took preference over savings, Americans socked away trillions of dollars in 2020, reducing their debt burdens to lows not seen since 1980 and putting themselves in a position to spend lavishly as things open up.

Brooks says these and other data points are signs of three major shifts–growing worker power, a “rebalancing” of population between urban and suburban America, and a similar rebalancing of work and domestic life. I think the latter two predictions are “iffy”–it remains to be seen how many businesses will institutionalize remote work and how, and those decisions will affect workers’ need–and willingness–to relocate and commute.

If population dispersal does occur, our political polarization might ease; Brooks quotes a professor of urban studies who predicts such movement and as a result, forecasts a decline in the economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities.

It remains to be seen whether these predicted population movements and changes in the culture of work will materialize, but the shift of power from employers to workers is clearly underway, and just as clearly overdue.

Power has begun shifting from employers to workers. In March, U.S. manufacturing, for example, expanded at the fastest pace in nearly four decades. Companies are desperate for new workers. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the number of unemployed people per opening plummeted to 1.2 from 5.

Workers are in the driver’s seat, for now, and they know it. The “quit rate” — the number of workers who quit their jobs because they are confident they can get a better one — is at the highest in two decades. Employers are raising wages and benefits to try to lure workers back.

This is a “rebalancing” that matters. Unions were formed originally to counter the disproportionate power of employers. Over time, in some industries, unions then became dominant–more powerful than employers. Over the past decades, however, as technology and gig work and successful corporate lobbying eviscerated union power, employers once again gained the upper hand–and a number happily exploited both their regained advantage and their workforces.

The operation of supply and demand, referenced by Brooks, is returning a measure of power to workers. (The recent Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare will also help with that “rebalancing.” Employers’ positions were substantially strengthened by America’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment –workers with pre-existing conditions were effectively precluded from quitting and losing their coverage.)

The next few years will tell the economic story. But we also need to recognize that America  won’t truly be “back,” let alone “better,” unless we repair our infrastructure–physical and social–and protect our democracy.

If there’s a God, I hope she’s listening…..

 

 

Today’s GOP Even Frightens David Brooks

David Brooks frustrates me. Sometimes, I disagree strongly with his “take” on the American condition (usually offered from what seems a self-consciously “elevated” vantage point), but sometimes, he hits the nail squarely on the head. I continue to read his columns in the New York Times for those latter instances, of which last Friday’s was one.

Titled “The GOP is Getting Even Worse,” Brooks commented on the cultural hysteria that has clearly gripped the Republicans’ (declining) base.

There are increasing signs that the Trumpian base is radicalizing. My Republican friends report vicious divisions in their churches and families. Republican politicians who don’t toe the Trump line are speaking of death threats and menacing verbal attacks.

It’s as if the Trump base felt some security when their man was at the top, and that’s now gone. Maybe Trump was the restraining force.

What’s happening can only be called a venomous panic attack. Since the election, large swathes of the Trumpian right have decided America is facing a crisis like never before and they are the small army of warriors fighting with Alamo-level desperation to ensure the survival of the country as they conceive it.

Survey research provides support for that observation. Brooks points to a poll taken in late January, in which respondents were asked whether politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or more about “ensuring the survival of the country as we know it. ” Fifty-one percent of Trump Republicans said survival; a mere 19 percent chose policy.

Another poll asked Americans which of two statements came closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”

Those who read this blog can guess what’s coming: More than 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”

Brooks is absolutely right when he writes that

Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war, but a conversation and a negotiation.

He is also right when he observes that the Republican response to Biden and his agenda has largely been anemic “because the base doesn’t care about mere legislation, just their own cultural standing.”

For years, the refrain from what Americans call “the Left” (and what is globally considered pretty middle-of-the-road) has been “why do so many people vote against their own best interests?” That question, however, rests on a faulty premise. Moderate and leftwing folks define “best interests” in largely economic terms. Voters would be “better off” financially or more likely to find employment if they voted differently. But today’s Republicans see their “best interests” in cultural and racial terms, not economic promises.

The overwhelmingly White Christian supporters of today’s GOP see a demographic shift that will eventually rob them of what is clearly most important to them–far more important than a good job or a fairer tax system or the rate of inflation. Their “interest” is in continued cultural and racial dominance–and as the research shows, many of them are willing to engage in violence, a la January 6th, to protect that dominance.

It’s scary.

Circles Of Belonging

David Brooks is one of those columnists who vacillates between truly thoughtful essays and self-referential, self-important cant. Just when I want to tell him to get over himself, he comes up with a thought-provoking and undeniably accurate assessment.

One of those was a column, some months back, about Scandanavian education. Here’s his lede:

Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.

Brooks attributes the social and economic success of Scandinavian countries to their  successful “folk schools”–deliberately fashioned for the least educated among them, and focused upon making lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

The core difference between the American concept of education, according to Brooks, and “Bildung”–the approach in Scandinavia–is the very definition of “education.”

Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

In other words, the idea of Bildung was to introduce students to connection; to a sense of their place in ever wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and to emphasize the students shared responsibility for each “circle of belonging.” According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.

That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.

In the U.S., at least before Betsy DeVos and her assault on the very idea of public eduction, fights over education policy have been between those who see schools essentially as providers of consumer goods– skills their children can use in the marketplace–and those who see them as guarantors of democracy, as places where, in addition to those skills, children learn how to learn, how to understand their government, and how to relate to other Americans who may not look or worship as they do.

The public schools are the single most important integrative institution in most countries. Scandinavian countries understand that, and have developed a “whole person” approach to education that has strengthened their societies.

In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.

 

Moderation Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

I really loved the introduction to Eugene Robinson’s July 2d column.

Never-Trump Republicans and independents may be shocked to hear this, but the Democratic Party is likely to nominate a Democrat for president. That means they’re not going to nominate someone who thinks exactly like a Never-Trump Republican….

I, for one, have pretty much had it with the chorus of center-right voices braying that the Democrats are heading for certain doom — and the nation for four more years of President Donald Trump — if the party picks a nominee who actually embraces the party’s ideals. Elections are choices.

As Robinson notes, these Never Trumpers will have to decide whether to vote for the eventual nominee, “in the interest of ending our long national nightmare,” or “stick with a president who kowtows to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.” (To which I would add: And is manifestly unfit for any public office.)

A recent, more academic version of Robinson’s argument was made by Jeffrey Isaacs in Public Seminar. Isaacs notes that a number of conservatives have strongly opposed Trump, “distancing or even divorcing themselves from the Trumpist Republican Party” and promoting a centrist politics of “moderation.”

He then goes on to make a very important point:

While they are “against Trump,” and indeed sincere in their basic commitment to constitutional democracy, they do not go very far in their critique of Trumpism, laying too much responsibility at the feet of Trump himself, and not enough at the feet of a political-economic system in need of substantial reform, and even less at the feet of the Republican Party, and its long-term rightward shift, which has brought us to our current crisis.

Isaacs points to the punditry decrying Democrats’ supposed lurch to the left, and its insistence that only “moderation” will defeat Trump.

progressives do not need to be “schooled” about this by conservatives who have been cast adrift by Trumpist barbarism and are now seeking a politically safe harbor….

There is something very self-righteous, and indeed immoderate, about the way that some “Never Trump” conservatives have been writing about these challenges.

Isaacs particularly takes David Brooks to task for one of his recent, self-important columns.

What Brooks fails to note is that this polarization has a very long history and that, as most serious political analysts have long observed, it is a history of asymmetrical polarization. The Republican Party, in short, has moved much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has moved to the left… Trump is an exceptional and exceptionally terrible and dangerous President. But Trump became President by bending the Republican Party to his will, rather easily bringing its own deeply racist, sexist, and inegalitarian tendencies out into the open, and then exulting in and intensifying them. There is a clear line linking Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Palin, eight years of rather vicious anti-Obama obstructionism, and Trumpism. And conservative and neoconservative writers who often offered aid and comfort to these forces, working for Republican leaders and editing pro-Republican journals, thus played an important role in the rise of Trump, even as they quickly became horrified by the monster they had helped to create.

Isaacs emphasizes the reality that Republicans have moved much farther to the right than Democrats have moved left. (The reality is that–despite hysterical accusations from the GOP and Fox News– America doesn’t have an actual Left, at least not as Europeans define that term. We have at most a center-Left.)

Because the partisan polarization has been so markedly asymmetrical, and because the Republican move to the right has involved so many especially egregious assaults on democracy— from a deliberate political strategy of voting rights abridgment to immigration restriction to assaults on reproductive freedom to support for the militarization of policing to the gutting of environmental regulation and social citizenship — and because all of these things came together in a perfect storm to bring us Trumpism, a strong and passionate resistance has emerged on the left.

This resistance is an explicable reaction to the manifestly reactionary nature of Trumpism. It is a political mobilization that is necessary in order to defeat Trumpism, which will require not median-voter centrism but the energizing of activist campaigns across the country capable of contesting abridgements of voting rights and mobilizing millions of new voters. And it is an ethically exemplary form of democratic civic activism and political empowerment. This does not make it perfect or above criticism. Indeed, this resistance contains a multiplicity of tendencies and is characterized by sometimes serious divisions and debates. But it is a resistance nonetheless, and one fueled by broadly progressive impulses and commitments to greater political, social, and economic democracy.

You really need to read the whole thing.

Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.