Paul Krugman debunks David Brooks: Why his latest column is an epic subtweet

The economist explains what’s really behind our “show-off society”

Published September 26, 2014 12:25PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                       (Reuters/Chip East)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Chip East)

New York Times columnists aren’t supposed to criticize each other by name, but there’s no doubt whom Paul Krugman is responding to in his new column this morning.

Krugman assails the idea that a decline in virtue explains the economic divide afflicting the country. “Liberals talk about circumstances,” Krugman observes, while “conservatives talk about character.”

The conservative fixation on character isn’t just evident in the right’s talk of personal responsibility and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, Krugman writes. It’s also on display when some conservatives commentators like Peggy Noonan and Charles Murray criticize the conspicuous consumption of America’s gilded elite, he says.

But there’s a certain pop sociologist who has made a very similar critique. Here’s Brooks, on Tuesday:

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion. (emphasis added)

And here’s Krugman today, arguing that our “show-off society” isn’t the result of a change in the character of our elite, but is instead the predictable result of policy choices that have made them ever wealthier:

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small — perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

As Krugman goes on to note, the nation’s 400 richest households, who paid more than 50 percent of their income in taxes at midcentury, now fork over less than one-fifth of their income. The result has been a remarkable redistribution of wealth upward, even as working Americans’ wages have remained stagnant. Social science research bears out, Krugman writes, that the more unequal a society is, the more the rich consume.

“So if you think our society needs more humility,” he concludes, “you should support policies that would reduce the elite’s privileges.”

By Luke Brinker

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