David Brooks' bias toward elite values

Too often, the New York Times columnist is unwilling to explore the very real implications of economic policy

Published February 18, 2011 3:01PM (EST)

David Brooks enjoys a rarefied spot in the political discourse -- a conservative with crossover appeal among liberals. But this is a function of style, not substance. Brooks deserves credit for not reflexively hewing to a Fox News-friendly interpretation of the news, but he also doesn't engage substantively with the political and economic issues he comments on.

His column earlier this week, on "The Experience Economy," demonstrates this vividly. It bears all the hallmarks of a Brooks classic. Reference to the hot policy book of the moment? Got it: Tyler Cowen's "The Great Stagnation" -- and in the first sentence, no less. Substitution of "values" explanations for political, economic and historical context? Check. A set of generically benign character traits anthropomorphized into an "average" (ostensibly white, middle class, male) American? Not just one, but two.

Brooks begins by discussing Cowen’s thesis -- that America has reached a technological plateau resulting in lower, slower growth -- but quickly shifts to making the same argument he makes in just about every other column: It's the values, stupid. Throughout the piece, Brooks extrapolates broad conclusions about shifts in American society based on observations of trends among the elite; for example, the idea that the average American organizes conferences for a living and goes on exotic vacations, when in fact most Americans don’t have a passport. And he portrays changes in the global economy as the result of American cultural shifts, rather than the result of policies or structural forces.

Consequently, Brooks worries that Americans aren’t producing enough real wealth or jobs in the experience/innovation/buzzword-of-the-moment economy and chalks it up to the "material drive" that Americans no longer have. But, in fact, jobless growth plagues emerging economies like India as well. That's because productivity and job growth by and large aren’t a function of how hard people work or what they "value," but of things like globalization, the cost of labor, supply and demand, the balance of industry in an economy, the nature of certain kinds of technology, and any number of other economic factors, which are themselves produced by policy decisions made by actual politicians.

Actually, Brooks has attributed everything from the post-recession decline in SUV purchases to the Tuscon shootings to shifts in "values." But the problem isn’t that Brooks talks about values, which are surely important in understanding political affairs; it’s that for someone who spends so much time thinking about them, he’s surprisingly uncritical and uncurious about how they come about or what kinds of changes they actually prompt. For Brooks, values affect politics and economics but are never affected by them; he has a decent sense for the prevailing national mood, but his failure to really address political and economic systems and policies is glaring. This is especially true when he writes about the global economy, where despite occasional allusions to "structural problems," Brooks' structural blind spot remains firmly in place.

Brooks is so enamored of his vision of a new economy, driven by American middle-class values and invariably described as "creative," "diverse" and "innovative" (because who can argue with those?) that he can’t see that this seemingly bright future is already leaving millions behind. Indeed, his vision of the future world is literally just a variation on Richard Florida’s "creative class" economy in which cities around the world compete for global elites. Brooks gets that certain people -- the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world -- are the "sorts of people who become stars in an information economy and a hypercompetitive, purified meritocracy." But although he acknowledges that it will be necessary to address "human capital inequalities" to give everyone a "chance to participate," he doesn't seem to understand that the meritocracy he champions is anything but purified. Instead, it’s the Organization Kids, with their elite educations and global connections, who have the advantage in a competition driven by "relationships" and "charisma," which begins to sound suspiciously like the old boys’ network of yore.

Even in a strictly meritocratic system, surely not everyone can be an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, a columnist for the New York Times, or some other successful creative in one of the world’s innovation hubs. What is Brooks’ vision for those who fail to succeed in this thrilling new world? He never says.

Ironically, while he welcomes the start of the "middle-class century" in which America can champion its middle-class values, America’s actual middle class continues to decline; already losing out to the ultra-wealthy at home, middle-class Americans are likely to be further squeezed by the rise of the global elite. That’s to say nothing of the burgeoning populations of poor in the developing world who are finding themselves relegated to surplus labor, who have been left behind by development and are unlikely to be consoled by Brooks' talk of dignity in the continuing absence of adequate livelihoods.

Furthermore, while Brooks' experience economy imagines a "postmaterial" America, the reality is that Americans continue to consume more resources than ever in a world with a finite amount of them.

The problem isn’t that Brooks' ideas sometimes run up against each other, or that he doesn’t have all the answers; it’s that he never explores the tensions between those contradictory ideas. So while he offers a glimpse of his ambivalence regarding the conflict between his championed "bourgeois values" of "prudence" and "moderation" on the one hand and an economic system in which jobs depend on "feverish materialism" in a country living "beyond its means" on the other, he doesn’t think seriously about how to reconcile them.

Brooks is essentially an idealist in the philosophical sense -- someone who believes that ideas form the basis of political action. He shows no real interest in the material world other than in cataloging the consumption habits of the elite, and even then he gets it wrong: When he describes the "experience economy" as "postmaterial," he is oblivious to the server farms that power seemingly ethereal things like iPhone apps and cloud computing, the increasing dependence of financial transactions on physical proximity to stock exchange servers, and the vast transportation infrastructure needed to make possible the "daring and exciting" vacation experiences enjoyed by the Jareds of the world.

According to the idealist view, the revolution in Egypt is simply about the human drive for "dignity," another one of Brooks' favorite themes, with no acknowledgment of pressures like food price spikes or the tensions of a youthful society frustrated with lack of economic opportunities. How will young, lower-class Egyptians fare in the experience economy? It’s not cynical to say that these things are literally the stuff of politics -- indeed, the material concern with taxation was just as much a part of our own revolution as the ideal desire for representation. Rather, it’s the privilege of those who are insulated from material shocks to pretend they don’t exist.

Occasionally, Brooks will be called out on his shallow cultural explanations and inattention to systemic forces. His column blaming Haiti’s poverty and the extent of post-earthquake devastation on "progress-resistant cultural influences" and "the influence of the voodoo religion," for example, was rightfully pilloried.

But more often than not, his columns shoot to the top of the most-e-mailed list, lauded by both Democrats and Republicans, presidents both past and present. Unlike plenty of talking heads, Brooks seems like a nice enough guy, and he can be an astute sociological observer. But his view of a future driven by elite competition and the relentless spread of American bourgeois values as defined by David Brooks is troubling nonetheless -- especially because he wraps his own ideology in the language of plain old common sense.

By Alyssa Battistoni

Alyssa Battistoni writes about the environment and politics from Seattle.

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