Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Through the Brooks'ing Glass

I remember as an Austin High sophomore at the end of gym one day, after showers, several of my buddies mocking the awesome and bullet proof Oxfords our new classmates was lacing up as we tied our Adidas or pulled on our Tony Lamas. It was his first semester in what I would come to realize was a very very good public school system, one where Ivy League placements were common, information I was not yet interested in at the time. His parents though, were. Flustered and red faced, heckled by the rich kids, his then baffling response was "I can't afford cheap shoes". He was about 6'4", though he couldn't have weighed more than 140 pounds,  he was done growing and those shoes would see him through a dozen soles and the next decade of his life unless some misfortune befell them.

That was around 1978 and his folks were among the last non-college educated Americans who saw any real benefit from working hard and learning on the job. Reread that. For just another few years their wages would continue to grow at the same rate as their productivity, but then they stopped. Permanently. The opportunity gap cracked open and with each conservative "reform" it has gaped wider. They made the effort for their son and I hope he has achieved dreams beyond all of theirs for him. But that path, the rout where caring parents working hard could struggle to get their kid in the best classes (that happen to be in public schools) which would offer him a vastly different future has been under sustained pressure ever since.

In a few years, not only would such parents no longer be able to afford those shoes, drawing them into the endless and needless expensiveness of disposable consumer culture, but the time pressure on their working lives to sustain just what living standard they had would grow ever stronger. Longer hours, less family time, less home cooked meals and more McFood substitute: the industrialization of the fast food industry dropped the cost of manufactured calories to a point home cooking could not beat on price. So now these families were under time, cost and resource stress: McFood substitute is a pale comparison to the real thing and we're living with the medical results today.

Then, because public education was seen as a tax burden by conservatives who availed themselves to private education for their children, cost pressure was placed first on extracurricular activities when schools quit providing all the facilities and equipment for such, then on teaching itself. And behold, "poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached". And here David really takes us through the looking glass: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” "As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited."

Voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility? You must be kidding! As a relatively privileged kid I started throwing an afternoon paper route when I was in Junior High. After that I rode my bike to Burger King and worked three evenings a week. Not only did I get some self esteem, I got some money, some autonomy and some work ethic. Now their parents struggle to to compete for these jobs. We have totally robbed the kids of today of any meaningful openings whatsoever in the real economy, and of all those things that come with experience of it. It began in the early 80s and has gotten worse by the year with the possible exception of the last three years of the Clinton Administration where we approached full employment for the only time in my working life.

Our civilization has abandoned at least a third of its population to black market economies beautifully described by Sudhir Venkatesh, which Mr. Brooks should really read and try to imagine implications of before going all eugenic on us with "intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettos where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings." And this just after "A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children." And Mr. Brooks, who's policies caused this? Liberal policies? And is it liberals who abandoned these traditional norms? Get your demographics straight, liberals sole direct contribution to this catastrophe was to try to eliminate the stigma on the child! Liberals indirect contribution was to abandon labor solidarity and buy the NAIUR subterfuge that permanently ended American wage growth by normalizing unemployment politically. 

I received a wonderful liberal and mostly public education ending with a Bachelors Degree in 1986 and even then the force of "conservative reform" was everywhere devastating the public infrastructures that had served me so well, hammering wide the opportunity gap. But where Brooks descends into absolute asshattery is with his proposed solutions: "Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before child rearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class." This has to stand as one of the most ridiculous paragraphs he's ever written.

Liberals live the life he wants them to grow comfortable having the state, dirigiste, impose on the poor who, incidentally are mostly conservative and support exactly this kind of social coercion applied to anyone but themselves and are well armed to prevent it, thus at the same time standing as a living proof of the pointless stupidity of dirigiste social policy. Really David, you think you have the French Central Authority chops to get poor kids to quit screwing while their parents are at work? Really? It hasn't even worked for the French! And if we need to tax, we need to tax liberals no doubt, while cutting aid to the elderly to spend on the earned income tax credit? How about if we just provide single payer medical like every other advanced economy and fund education at levels that demonstrably work wherever tried (the rest of the developed world) while pulling all the dirigeste social engineering crap conservatives and liberals alike have spent the last forty years stuffing our erstwhile educational system with? 

Then how about we make a serious effort at full employment? Not every job has to maximize unit output, there is more to life than GDP and a great deal of it comes from people having jobs with incomes that give them the liberty to participate in a life they choose and who knows, maybe develop self esteem, ambition, or even fabulous new inventions our monopolized corporate incumbents can't extract all the value from.  Jobs with enough pay that a sustained and mild inflation over the next decade realigns average incomes with our still ridiculously inflated asset prices, rebalancing the macro economy without collapse into poverty for the poor and bailouts for the rich. Jobs with enough income that folks can afford to invest in shoes that can be re-soled twelve times and take the time to cook and eat meals as a family, together. 

Addendum: The NYT wits have blessed us today with an eloquent essay by Milos Forman describing the soul sucking coercion of real authoritarianism as existed behind the Iron Curtain. The coordinated attack on identity and movement, where one had to ask formal permission for each and accept what was given, is what most resonates with Brooks proposal for what liberals need to come to terms with. We haven't and won't. He seems to think North Korean levels of regimentation will be required to salvage the state of Americas disadvantaged ignoring the fact they take care of themselves just fine given the opportunity. It is the crushing poverty to which our acceptance of involuntary unemployment has consigned them that leaves our poor subject to "stop and frisk" when they try to use the subway: black markets are are all that is available in the ghetto, making their movement and identity suspect through "market forces" rather than "The Party". 

On the other hand the two existing institutions in our actual operational system most resembling the totalitarinism Milos describes are Obama's Kill List, utter authoritarian lawlessness wherein The United States of America is left to trust to the supreme leaders "character" in ordering executions, and our welfare policies that rather than providing people with jobs and income require them to alter their identity through "job training" for jobs that do not exist and their behavior to qualify for food and shelter assistance. We insist they yield all autonomy and forgo any dignity in becoming wards of the state rather than autonomous citizens: don't let them earn the means to choose their own lives, make them beg for every crumb, shower and bed the state may or may not afford them.

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