Politics & Policy

Snap Out of It Yourself!

Room with a view: David Brooks (Getty Images)
Trying to diagnose disconnected elites, David Brooks accidentally exemplifies them.

On Tuesday David Brooks, the lonely right-of-center columnist on the New York Times editorial page, offered us a fascinating portrait of how the world looks from 620 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan — or at least how the circles inhabited by a right-of-center columnist for the New York Times look.

[New York City] has never been better. . . . When I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places.

Begin with the fact that Brooks bases his assessment of the state of the country on the condition of “15 or 20 largest American cities” (and perhaps suburbs). That leaves a lot of Americans not enjoying “sweeter and more interesting” places.

Using one measuring stick, the Census Bureau’s most recent estimates for the 20 biggest cities in the United States, we get about 32.5 million Americans living in those cities (which doesn’t count the suburbs). That’s about one in ten Americans living within the city limits of Brooks’s list.

The numbers shift when you throw in the suburbs. The Census Bureau overall calculates that about 81 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Of course, they have a strikingly broad definition: “To qualify as an urban area, the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people.” Perhaps what the Census Bureau calls “urban” is better thought of as “not rural.”

“Urban.”

Any way you slice it, Brooks bases his assessment of the condition of the United States on places where only a fraction of Americans live.

Brooks continues:

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa.

This is a heck of a way to gloss over the Great Recession, which denied millions and millions of Americans “sweeter and more interesting” lives. The cost of the recession, on a per-household basis, is simply breathtaking:

Oof: the Great Recession cost each household between $50,000 and $120,000, or the equivalent of 40 percent to 90 percent of one year’s economic output, according to a study released by the Dallas Fed. In total, that represents an output loss of $6 trillion to $14 trillion. That’s a combination of lost wealth (like the lost value of a house) and a drop in both current wage income and discounted future wage income from unemployment.

While the president deploys poll-tested, focus-grouped cries for an increase in the minimum wage, he glosses over the fact that most American workers with much higher salaries are still waiting for a raise:

Between 2009 when Obama took office and 2013, the latest for which numbers are available, median annual household incomes fell by more than $2,100 in inflation-adjusted terms, Census Bureau data showed last week.

It’s great that “we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa.” Undoubtedly that stems in large part from the shift in manufacturing jobs to countries in Asia and Africa through globalization and free trade. Of course, that’s bad news for Americans who, a generation or two ago, could graduate from high school and head into an assembly-line manufacturing job.

Most people’s definition of “the American dream” includes some amount of prosperity, or at least economic security, and the path to that prosperity has rarely seemed foggier. We used to be able to tell our kids, Study hard, work hard, and you can live your dreams. Now those exhortations have to be cushioned with . . . well, probably. Maybe your local public school can provide your child with a good education . . . maybe not. You probably can’t afford four years at a private university. Your child can take out loans, but he’ll be paying them back for years. A degree used to more or less guarantee a decent job after college, but those days are gone.

Of course, once a young American finds a job, there are still no guarantees. You can be good at your job and still get laid off. A lot of households have way too much credit-card debt. Then there’s this ominous indicator:

One in 10 working Americans between the ages of 35 and 44 are getting their wages garnished. That means their pay is being docked — often over an old credit card debt, medical bill or student loan.

Elsewhere on the global scene, Brooks asserts, “We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.”

#page#

The “we’re in an era of fewer wars” argument relies heavily on a report that is only updated through 2012:

Digging deeper into the numbers of this year’s HSR, there are also some data points that should give “decline of war” optimists pause. (For one thing, 2013, which the report doesn’t cover, was a pretty rough year in Syria, Sudan, CAR, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan . . . )

It’s also worth keeping in mind that while the total number of conflicts may have declined in 2012, one — the civil war in Syria — was almost enough to make up for it.

“The bad news is that the escalating carnage in Syria meant a dramatic increase in the number of worldwide battle deaths in 2012,” the authors write. “Indeed, the Syrian battle-death toll last year was the world’s highest since the World War I–style interstate war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1999.”

This assessment doesn’t include Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and of course, our current year brought the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the Ukraine-Russia fighting, and tens of thousands added to the death toll in Syria.

Brooks shifts to an assessment of our leaders, and begins by pointing a finger at those who seem to think America doesn’t need any leaders at all:

First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

What exactly is Brooks referring to when he writes “the childish notion that power can be wielded directly by the people”? Shifting funds, powers, and responsibilities to states? Local control? The government shutdown? He makes it sound like anarchy. And whatever his flaws, Ted Cruz is not an anarchist.

Maybe the poster threw Brooks off.

Brooks gets closer in his diagnosis of the absence of a “responsible leadership class,” but he never quite connects that to his previous gripe about Americans’ distrusting, protesting, ignoring, and working around the existing leadership class. Nor does Brooks indicate that he has any awareness of his own role as a cheerleader for many individuals within that leadership class, such as President Obama:

“I remember distinctly an image of — we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks says, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.”

A New York Times columnist evaluating an aspiring president based upon a perfectly creased pant leg is the ideal symbol of a “leadership class” evaluating each other based on irresponsibly shallow criteria.

Brooks continues:

Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

True enough, but the problems of seemliness, propriety, and responsibility go well beyond wealth. One aspect of modern American life that conservatives don’t always articulate well enough is the sense that our national leaders are failing us in realms outside the political. The Catholic Church and the pedophilia scandals, the increasing number of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military, a corporate America that includes Enron, Lehman Brothers, the defective cars of General Motors . . . and of course, a world of professional athletics where commissioners, owners, and, in too many cases, fans will overlook egregious behavior if the player can help the team win.

“Stewardship” is a label rarely applied to America’s leaders anymore. The root word, steward, implies service or dedication to others — to put someone else’s interest or well-being ahead of one’s own. Doesn’t that concept seem strange in an era of university presidents making more than $1 million per year and nonprofit executives regularly raking in six figures? When retired politicians quickly jump to lobbying work, or leave their elected offices early to join investment banks, are they practicing good stewardship? Is a network news division serving the public trust when it hires a president’s daughter, at $600,000 a year for three years, to churn out a handful of puff pieces? Is an aspiring president practicing “stewardship” when she charges a public university $225,000 for a speech?

There are reasons for Americans to be optimistic: The birth rate is creeping up again; teen pregnancy, births, and abortions are down. According to the CDC, the numbers are going in the right direction for life expectancy, heart disease, and cancer death rate. We’ve made remarkable progress against cancer and AIDS. The scale of the U.S. energy boom is jaw-dropping.

The Pentagon is developing a hypersonic missile that can hit anywhere in the world in 30 minutes. They’re developing brain chips to treat PTSD. There’s some mysterious plane — allegedly a stealth transport — flying over Texas. University researchers may be on the verge of developing functional invisibility. And, as Kevin D. Williamson notes, brainwave-driven exoskeletons may help the paralyzed rise and walk.

The realms farthest from the reach of our political leviathan seem to be the ones enjoying the most innovation and breakthroughs.

Maybe America’s “responsible leadership class” has been hiding all along in energy industry, medical-research labs, defense-contractor companies, and R&D labs around the country.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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