David Brooks On Income Inequality: There’s A Special Kind Of Guilt Reserved For The Poor

The latest piece by David Brooks in The New York Times is typical of conservative-think on issues of economic inequality. Because the free market is the most perfect system ever devised by man (yes, I’m laying the sarcasm on pretty thick), that means when we have an apparent failure of our revered capitalist system, that system is not to blame. Instead we should blame social issues. Oh, but only the social issues of the poor. Because the wealthy have reserved a special kind of guilt just for the poor.

The Inequality Problem – NYTimes.com — [T]o frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

Fair enough, although I would also add: power begets power. Those with massive wealth at the top wield a disproportion influence on our political system, and therefore the policies that are designed to address income inequality.

At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.

The first part of what he said is true. If power breeds power, poverty breeds poverty. But then he gets into social issues, and while I don’t entirely dismiss that actions in the social realm can impact the economic realm (how could they not?), I do find it suspicious that Brooks ignores social issues when it comes to those at the top. The wealthy are immune to social issues? There’s no divorce? No spousal abuse? No deadbeat dads? Really?

[T]he income inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems.

On one level I agree, but isn’t it also true that complex cultural issues are not limited to the poor? Our collective mindset all too easily dismisses transgressions of the wealthy, in favor of heavy punitive measures against the poor. Our society rewards wealth with more wealth, even in the presence of corruption, and at the same time “rewards” poverty with more poverty, even when people are honest and working hard. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. There are dishonest people both rich and poor, but I don’t have to tell you which group is more likely to get away with a misdeed.

There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility. There is a strong correlation between de-industrialization and low social mobility. It is also true that many men, especially young men, are engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects; much more than comparable women.

Some of these are obviously true, like high school dropout rate and low mobility, but what does Brooks mean by “the fraying of social fabric”? That to me sounds suspiciously like conservative moral judgement. And whatever Brooks means, of course it must only apply to the poor, right?

And I’ve also had just about enough of the demonizing of single motherhood. There are many mothers who are single for a very good reason, the father is not up to the job. Now Brooks could list that as one of the social issues causing income inequality, but let’s not assume every mother should get married just for the sake of marriage, as not all marriages are created equal, and certainly not all men are.

But the biggest problem with Brooks’s article is that he forgets about the middle class. He talks about the “top end” and the “bottom end” but where’s the “middle”? Certainly any discussion of what is causing economic inequality should include at least a mention of the shrinking middle class. And why today are people at greater risk of falling out of the middle class? One reason is because an increasing percentage of the productivity gains over the past few decades go to a select few at the top. The middle class is losing it’s purchasing power, and until that stops, we will not fix the problem of income inequality.

Now obviously any talk of income inequality leads us to think not of the middle class but of the poor, because they are in most desperate need, but we can also walk and chew at the same time. So it would be nice if legislative policies, and our beloved free market, stopped creating so many poor in the first place. It would also be nice if just for once conservatives could focus their attention on the target, and not what surrounds it. Focus on the ball, the bat will do the rest.

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