Tuesday, February 11, 2014


David Brooks knows that something in America is wrong, and now he knows what it is: it's you, Mr. and Ms. Average American, because you won't hit the open road in pursuit of your economic dream, the reason being that you lack "self-confidence":
... In the past 60 years, for example, Americans have become steadily less mobile. In 1950, 20 percent of Americans moved in a given year. Now, it's around 12 percent. In the 1950s and 1960s, people lived in the same house for an average of five years; now people live in the same house for an average of 8.6 years. When it comes to geographic mobility, we are now at historic lows, no more mobile than people in Denmark or Finland.

... a big factor here is a loss in self-confidence. It takes faith to move. You are putting yourself through temporary expense and hardship because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward. Many highly educated people, who are still moving in high numbers, have that long-term faith. Less-educated people often do not.

One of the oddities of the mobility that does exist is that people are not moving to low-unemployment/high-income areas. Instead they are moving to lower-income areas with cheap housing. That is to say, they are less likely to endure temporary housing hardship for the sake of future opportunity. They are more likely to move to places that offer immediate comfort even if the long-term income prospects are lower.

This loss of faith is evident in other areas of life. Fertility rates, a good marker of confidence, are down. Even accounting for cyclical changes, people are less likely to voluntarily vacate a job in search of a better one. Only 46 percent of white Americans believe they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, the lowest levels in the history of the General Social Survey....
Gee, David, that couldn't possibly be because the system really is rigged and people recognize that they actually don't "have a good chance of improving their standard of living," could it?

Nahhh -- it's all a lack of animal spirits, according to Brooks. Americans just have "pessimistic views." They're "risk averse." They have a "fatalism" that's "historically uncharacteristic of America." Buck up, people!

Brooks read a couple of articles to buttress this argument -- or at least he cites a couple he claims to have read:
Peter Beinart wrote a fascinating piece for National Journal, arguing that Americans used to have much more faith in capitalism, a classless society, America's role in the world and organized religion than people from Europe. But now American attitudes resemble European attitudes, and when you just look at young people, American exceptionalism is basically gone.
So who gets the blame in Beinart's "fascinating piece"? Ordinary Americans? Nope:
Ironically, the people most responsible for eroding American exceptionalism are the very conservatives who most fear its demise.
As Beinart says, increased American skepticism about capitalism and a classless society derives from the fact that conservative policies have increased class stratification and decreased economic mobility. Conservatives also gave us politicized right-wing churches and the disastrous Bush-era wars, so religion and American exceptionalism don't look so good anymore. The reason isn't some failure of American intestinal fortitude -- the reason is that people don't like things that clearly suck.

Elsewhere, Brooks cites a Washington Monthly article by Timothy Noah on the question of why people don't move to places where jobs are plentiful. What Brooks describes as a lack of guts on Americans' part -- Americans "are less likely to endure temporary housing hardship for the sake of future opportunity" -- is described by Noah as an unwillingness to move to areas where housing is prohibitively expensive:
San Jose, the de facto capital of Silicon Valley, has a metropolitan-area population of 1.7 million inhabiting about 1,300 square miles. But in 2005 the metro area approved permits for only 5,700 new units....

Tight restrictions on housing construction don’t keep out the affluent (who continue to migrate to places like Boston and New York and San Francisco). But they do reduce available housing for working people....

The underlying problem ... isn't the price of housing per se so much as its relationship to income. Since 2009, when the recession ended, the median price of a new house in the United States has risen 13 percent, even as median household income has fallen by about 4 percent. That doesn't pose much of a problem for a migrating architect whose income is already well above the median, and who is likelier to have existing home equity that he can transfer to another state. But for construction workers, for example, it's likely to be a big problem, and a reason why they can't easily move to where the best-paying jobs are.
Even the people Brooks cites don't think the problem is a lack of gumption -- they think the costs of mobility outweigh the benefits for ordinary people. And for the general American malaise, Beinart blames the right.

Brooks blames you and me.


Victor said...

What Bobo actually understands about the real world, could fit neatly on the back of a postage stamp - with room for copying Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, below it.

That pig he keeps putting lipstick on, can't have any real lips anymore - they've been so worn down from him applying lipstick to them.

When will the NY Times finally tire of this ever-wrong douche-canoe?

aimai said...

This is so stunningly backwards. People don't move, even to places with supposedly low unemployment, unless they have employment. The job market is national, not local. Upper class people move between job nodes nationally and they move where the jobs are. Lower class people with working class skills can't afford to move without a job or family already in place, and those jobs are decreasing in availability. Mass migrations, such as that of AA people from south to north happened within the context of a flight from a dying, segregated, agricultural sector towards a battle for jobs in a segregated factory sector.

And of course non americans, like illegal hispanic immigrants, still dare all and come across the border and move through the country to areas of "high employment" regardless of housing. But I guess they don't count?

Maurits said...

People move too little? And how about conservatives getting warm about communities and all that. They require people to stay in teh same place for a while, not?

Unknown said...

I'd like to beat Mr. Brooks about the head and shoulders with my mortgage.

Jules said...

I have this image of Brooks, in bow tie and straw boater, singing "Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile, smile!"

And when he trips over his feet and breaks his collar bone during the tap dance routine, I do.

Really though, I have to wonder how much of this glorious motion was things like African-Americans getting out of the South post WWII. Not that this would stop Brooks from concluding pervasive and violent racism is a bad thing.