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.

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 the circles of a right-of-center columnist for the New York Times.

[New York City] has never been better… 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 top 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’ list.#related#

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.”

 

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.”

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