Friday, April 25, 2014


If you doubt that modern right-wing propagandists are evil geniuses, just look at the effectiveness with which they've contained class anger in the heartland. They've done this by rechanneling it: out in the heartland, people have bad feelings about the upper crust, but they're conditioned to believe that the upper crust consists of cultural elites -- college professors, unionized teachers, Prius drivers (formerly known as quiche eaters), rappers and Hollywood stars (and, of course, Democratic politicians). The actual upper crust -- the richest and most powerful people in America -- are deemed "job creators"; heartlanders are told that they don't do anything that harms the folks in the middle.

The heartland actually believes this, and votes accordingly, at least in non-presidential elections.

Today's David Brooks column repurposes this line of propaganda for Brooks's own upscale audience. The column seems like an updating of what Brooks wrote a decade ago in Bobos in Paradise, but now the Bobos are angry revolutionaries who, in effect, want to march on the mansions of the rich and burn them down -- no, really.

Brooks begins this way:
Many people join the political left driven by a concern for the poor. But, over the past several years, the Democratic Party has talked much more about the middle class than the poor. Meanwhile, progressive political movements like Occupy Wall Street directed their fervor at the top 1 percent. Progressive movies and books have focused their attention on conspiracy and oligarchy at the top, not "Grapes of Wrath" or "How the Other Half Lives" stories at the bottom.
Really? Progressive movies and books don't focus on the real have-nots? Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed? Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow? The films of Michael Moore, starting with Roger & Me? (Even Fahrenheit 9/11 focused on the class divide in military recruitment.) Matt Taibbi's new book, The Divide, which is about the two-tiered system of justice for the extremely rich and the very poor? Is the campaign to raise the minimum wage not on Brooks's radar? Or the liberal outrage at states' rejection of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion?

And so we come to Brooks's thesis, which is straight out of the right-wing propaganda handbook:
... The modern left is led by smart professionals -- academics, activists, people in the news media, the arts and so on -- who tend to live in and around coastal cities.

If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it's inequality up, toward the rich.

You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them....

The situation is ripe for the sort of class conflict the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used to describe: pitting those who are rich in cultural capital against those who are rich in financial capital.
"Those who are rich in cultural capital": that's precisely the group Fox News and other right-wing propagandists have turned into the evil elite, in the eyes of the heartland. Brooks echoes this worldview. And in doing so, he denies the existence of every liberal west of the Acela Corridor and east of Marin County (apart from, I guess, a few in Chicago).

According to Brooks, liberals are embracing Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, not because they want economic fairness, but because they want what the superrich have:
... up until now they have described a big problem but they have no big proposal to address it. Now they do: a global wealth tax. Piketty proposes that all the governments in the world, or at least the big ones, get together, find all the major wealth in the world and then tax capital progressively.

Piketty wouldn't raise taxes on income, which thriving professionals have a lot of; he would tax investment capital, which they don't have enough of. Think of what would happen to the Manhattan or Bay Area real estate markets if the financiers had to sell their stray apartments in order to get liquid assets to pay the tax bill. Think of how much more affordable fine art would be. Think of how much more equal the upper class would be.
There you have it. The superrich, who maintain armies of lobbyists to ensure that they and their heirs will keep all of their money forever and pay as little tax as possible, aren't the people seeking to rig the system -- it's upper-middle-class liberals who are the real system-riggers! Or at least they will be if given half the chance!

And there's something repugnant about the image of the envious members of the upper middle class making off with superrich people's apartments and paintings. Is it an accident that this brings to mind the taking of property and art in the Nazi era? Did Brooks intend for us to make that association? Would Tom Perkins regard the popularity of the Piketty book as a cultural Kristallnacht?


Brooks thinks his fellow conservatives could provide a better alternative:
This is a moment when progressives have found their worldview and their agenda. This move opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of us in the center and on the right. First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax.
A beffed-up inheritance tax? Championed by conservatives? Stop, David, you're killing me.

... emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top.
He's joking again, right? I assume "human capital reform" is investment in the education of less-well-off young people. That's going to come from the right?Seriously? Yes, yes, I know: Paul Ryan and Rand Paul are looking toward the 2016 presidential election, which they can't win unless they get the votes of people who don't watch Fox News, so they're making noises about this sort of thing. But any idiot knows that right-wingers care about education only until the teachers' unions are broken. Then they lose interest.

Brooks, of course, would never look for a sinister ulterior motive in conservatives' professions of economic populism. Suspicion is reserved for liberals. Conservatives are always just on the brink of moving America forward with a compassionate program of healing, even though that moment, somehow, never arrives.


Victor said...

"'s upper-middle-class liberals who are the real system-riggers! Or at least they will be if given half the chance!"

Well, at least this proves that Bobo reads his own paper's "Style" section - where almost every day, they have a "Poor woe is us!" article about some couple with kids in either Manhattan or Park Slope, who earn in the mid-6-figures, but aren't wealthy enough for their city condo, two vacation homes, sending both Buffy and Jody to private school, still be able to buy a new luxury car every year or two, and the poor, poor dears can't afford to go out to Michelin-rated restaurants more than a couple of times a week.

Well, I can see why they do that in the "Style" section.

What kind of "style" do couples with kids making in the low or mid-5-digits have?

Btw - Thanks as always, Steve, for reading the odious and insipid Bobo, so that the rest of us don't have to.

Pete said...

People keep saying that there is some kind of "gentleman's agreement" that NYT columnists do not directly criticize each other. Krugman has tiptoed up to that line several times, but on his blog this morning be crashes right through and past it, mentioning Brooks by name and pointing out that, um, he got Piketty's thesis wrong. One wonders how Moral Hazard will react touch incivility.

Pete said...

[Auto-correct is not my friend]

aimai said...

Jeezus christ, I've actually read Bourdieu--which I'd bet Brooks hasn't. You can't talk about people with "social capital" in this society without also talking about people with financial capital--that's the whole point of the increasing inequality. Its not composed of noveau riche vs. old money/culture. Its old money vs everyone else. Cultural capital, if by that he means the ability to tell who wrote what symphony or who has a ph.d. is simply irrelevant. Not part of the power equation.

The New York Crank said...

"The actual upper crust -- the richest and most powerful people in America -- are deemed 'job creators'"

And so they are. Why even on her last day on earth, a member of the One Percent who went by the name of Marie Antoinette created two different jobs: Tumbril Steerer and Guillotine Operator.

Yours very crankily,
The New York Crank

Ken_L said...

David Brooks has done a wonderful thing over the years. He has created a richly detailed alternative America, where people live and work and play in totally plausible ways that bear little resemblance to the original America. It's sad he's become so immersed in his creation that he can no longer tell the difference between it and what other people quaintly call "reality", but that does not detract from the magnitude of his achievement.