Friday, September 10, 2010


The sociocultural analytic stylings of David Brooks are occasionally not completely crazy. But today, in a column called "The Genteel Nation," he pursues an idea that's just embarrassingly at odds with any actual human being's real-world experience.

Brooks starts reasonably enough -- America was once a poor agrarian country, then, around 1800, some Americans started applying technology in ways that made the country much more industrial and much wealthier. Fine so far. But eventually we got soft. And how did that manifest itself? What did we do that was so "genteel"?

If you look at America from this perspective, you do see something akin to the "British disease." After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation's wealth in the first place.

The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America's brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.

Right -- it's all the fault of those softies, those Bertie Woosters, those head-in-the-clouds doily-sniffers at ... Goldman Sachs and Skadden Arps. They're just so genteel.

Brooks continues:

...The shift away from commercial values has been expressed well by Michelle Obama in a series of speeches. "Don't go into corporate America," she told a group of women in Ohio. "You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. ... Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry." As talented people adopt those priorities, America may become more humane, but it will be less prosperous.

But Michelle Obama wouldn't feel compelled to say this if it already represented the society's values, would she? She's saying it because what she's recommending is not what most elite college graduates are inclined to do.

Besides, the whole thing is nuts. Michelle isn't talking about going into heavy industry because she knows perfectly well that we don't really do heavy industry in America anymore. You want to make a fortune? You don't hire a brainiac from MIT to plan out a railroad or some oil wells, you hire brainiacs from MIT to devise exotic financial instruments. To modern young elitists, that's not a shift in values -- they think it's the same thing. And they're right -- squeezing gazillions of dollars out of the economy with collateralized debt obligations actually is our equivalent to Daniel Day Lewis drilling those wells.

Brooks goes on to blame the middle class for having equally lousy values:

Then there's the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of "The Cosby Show," not the Kramden family of "The Honeymooners." As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared....

These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can't find skilled machinists...

Yes, I've read that the few remaining manufacturing firms in America can't find skilled workers. I guess we lazy, genteel, leisure-craving, product-lusting white-collar middle-class types should just go into time machines and remake the last few decades of our lives to retrain for these positions. Any other course of action means we're soft and weak.

Look -- we went where the jobs were. American industry started shipping manufacturing jobs overseas decades ago, so we got college degrees and bought suits and ties. So sue us.

And if you manufacturers can't find high-skilled workers, why not, y'know, follow the laws of economics and offer more money? Or pay for more job training? How about doing that instead of whining?

Brooks thinks leisure thinking drove manufacturing out of America. I think what drove manufacturing out was the fact that workers in heavy industry unionized, so the bean counters shipped their jobs to the Third World. They couldn't do that as easily to paper- and pixel-pushers. So we did pursued the jobs that were at hand. Why is that dishonorable? Why is that blameworthy?

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