Saturday, September 17, 2011


Matt Yglesias takes issue with David Brooks (and those who nod in agreement with Brooks):

I was pretty surprised to see Ezra Klein recommend the conclusion of David Brooks' latest column:
Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can't.
...Here's a story about bus drivers in Clark County, Nevada getting laid off as a result of state/local budget woes. Are those soon-to-be-unemployed bus drivers really suffering for their sins? ... If you think about the people who are really suffering in the developed world today, none of them were executives at major banks, none of them were politicians involved in the construction of the euro, none of them were senior financial policymakers in any government, etc....

But to David Brooks -- and maybe to Ezra Klein? -- it's as if ordinary people, people with little or no control over the condition of their society, simply don't exist. Oh, sure, workers exist statistically, or as faces in the background; occasionally they're helpless victims (as when Brooks is rhapsodizing about America's lack of vocational education), often they're cartoon villains (especially the ones who hold union cards). But it's hard for Brooks in particular to imagine fully fleshed-out individuals who have no effective influence on America's financial health. Ask Brooks what an "ordinary American" is and, however he much he may rhapsodize about proles having a big night out at Applebee's, what he's really going to imagine is the resident of an upper-middle-class suburb, who is (or was) quite comfortable though not rich rich, someone who has (or had) a big mortgage (possibly on too much house) and an actual investment portfolio (probably partly invested in securities that were quite lucrative for a while, though they were ultimately too risky). Everyone below that stratum, to Brooks, is a blurry abstraction in the distant background. Apart from rich people and influential people (in media and government), these upmarket suburbanites are the people who, to Brooks, are real.

So of course he thinks a collective "we" deserved this economic crisis, and ought to be able to take care of ourselves better.


I saw Contagion last night, and while it's an entertaining time-passer, it's rather Brooksian. An extremely lethal superbug goes rogue worldwide, but the movie includes very few visceral scenes of societal breakdown. Matt Damon, playing an immune widowed dad, is the societal stand-in; apart from that, there are more shots of garbage-strewn streets than there are of actual people -- ordinary people -- coping with the chaos that clearly results from the pandemic. The movie is almost exclusively about people with agency -- scientists, public health officials, a gadfly blogger who recommends holistic treatments and has a readership of millions, and so on. Compare this to, say, the far superior Children of Men and you see that what's missing is the effect on people whose only choices are to submit or desperately lash out. In Contagion, you don't feel their despair, their fear.

That's the way an awful lot of people with clout see the world. And it's a distortion.