December 23, 2011 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In his New York Times column today, David Brooks presents “The Sidney Awards, Part II.” If you missed Part I, you may want to start not with Brooks’ Part I, but with mine here at the New York Times eXaminer. There I illuminate who “Sidney” is and my best guesses as to what Brooks was up to when he chose what he considered to be the best magazine essays of 2011.
In today’s column, Brooks first choice is a New Yorker essay titled “Farther Away” by novelist Jonathan Franzen. Brooks writes,
Franzen’s theme is solitude. He writes about Robinson Crusoe, the emergence of the novel, the potentially isolating effect of the Internet, and the suicide of his friend, the writer David Foster Wallace…. Wallace emerges as a person who defined the extreme end of the isolation spectrum. Franzen is a bit down the scale, which explains what is best in his writing (his incredible powers of observation) and what is worst (his coolness toward his own characters). Many people with writerly personalities share these traits. You can also find a few of them, oddly, in politics.
Based on Brooks’ critique, it would seem he doesn’t much like either Franzen or Wallace. He wouldn’t. Franzen described Robinson Crusoe, “considered to be the first English novel,” as
the great early document of radical individualism, the story of an ordinary person’s practical and psychic survival in profound isolation. The novelistic enterprise associated with individualism — the search for meaning in realistic narrative — went on to become the culture’s dominant literary mode for the next three centuries.
Brooks, though a writer himself, is not a proponent of “radical individualism.” He is a social animal. When he attempted to write a novel, it was in fact titled The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Through his literary effort, Brooks was trying to figure out how people accumulated stuff (“achievement”), which would show they had “character” and gave them a shot at finding “love.” One of my favorite book reviews ever was PZ Myers’ take on Brooks’ so-called novel. Here’s a sample:
… I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness; it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations (have no worries, though: Like Barbie and Ken, no genitals appear anywhere in the book), while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is, and what is going on inside his dolls’ soft plastic heads.
Brooks is no Jonathan Franzen. Franzen’s essay is good, especially his analysis of Robinson Crusoe. If you are a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work (I’m not), and if you care at all about the author, you will appreciate Franzen’s unique first-person view of his friend David.
Enough with the literature. Brooks moves on to public-policy articles. Here, in a pretense of being even-handed, Brooks recommends George Packer’s “The Broken Contract” which appeared in Foreign Affairs. Brooks links you to a subscriber-firewalled page. Aw shucks, you won’t be able to read Packer’s article. I thought I had heard Packer elsewhere discussing the same topic, so I looked it up. You can read the essay here, and here you can listen to Packer delivering the lecture on which the essay is based (part of the Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture Series at the New York Public). Brooks has no comment on Packer’s lecture. He wouldn’t. The thrust of Packer’s lecture/essay is that the country’s business elites made an organized effort to break the social contract that “guaranteed that the benefits of the economic growth following World War II were distributed more widely, and with more shared prosperity, than at any time in human history…. Organized money and the conservative movement seized [a] moment back in 1978 to begin a massive, generation-long transfer of wealth to the richest Americans.” The economic inequality that resulted, Packer says, “is the ill that underlies all the others.” This little history lesson of “What Brooks’ Friends Did” is certainly something Brooks likes obscured behind a firewall. Read the article, or listen to Packer tell it.
After cleverly hiding the content of Packer’s article, Brooks next recommends “The Inequality that Matters” by Tyler Cowan, published in The American Interest. This is much more to Brooks’ liking. Cowan, a conservative/libertarian economist, says income inequality is no big deal. As Brooks tells us,
Cowen, for example, notes that income inequality is on the way up while the inequality of personal well-being is on the way down. One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller lived a very different life than the average wage earner, who worked six days a week, never took vacations and had no access to the world’s culture. Today, both you and Bill Gates enjoy the Internet, important new pharmaceuticals and good cheap food.
Fortunately, Brooks was able to find an open link to Cowan’s article. Don’t bother to click on it. The article is the foulest excuse imaginable for the new Gilded Age economy. Actually, it is one I could not have imagined had I been unaware of its companion piece: a report by the Heritage Foundation that related how America’s poor are not as hard-up as you might think – they have teevees and refrigerators. I suppose this line of “reasoning” is what we can expect from Brooks’ conservative friends as they continue to push the envelope of inequality: the widening income gap between super-rich and the rest of us is of no consequence because we peasants have access to “good cheap food.” Brooks & Co. have no shame.
Brooks recommends Chrystia Freeland’s “The Rise of the New Global Elite” which appeared in The Atlantic early this year. Freeland describes these global elites as
… hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition — and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home.
Freeland goes on to extol the virtues of “philanthrocapitalism,” emphasizing how super-generous some of these super-rich are with their spare millions. She writes about “the zeal with which even emerging-market plutocrats are developing their own foundations and think tanks.” She does not tell us that these foundations and think tanks are tax dodgers, though later in the article, where Freeland is writing on an unrelated topic, one plutocrat lets the cat out of the bag: “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation….”
Freeland also explains why the super-rich “just don’t get it”: “… many American plutocrats suggest … that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault.” Wall Street CEOs do not blame themselves for the financial crisis because they see it as the fault of middle-class Americans who owned more stuff than they could afford and/or who purchased homes and investment properties via sub-prime mortgages. “It is this not-our-fault mentality that accounts for the plutocrats’ profound sense of victimization in the Obama era…. Blackstone’s [Stephen] Schwarzman … said an Obama proposal to raise taxes on private-equity-firm compensation — by treating ‘carried interest’ as ordinary income — was ‘like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.’” Freeland does conclude that “in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world.”
The next essay Brooks recommends is by neoconservative Yuval Levin: “Beyond the Welfare State,” which appeared in National Affairs, the neoconservative journal Levin edits. In his September 7, 2009 New York Times column, Brooks recommended the magazine, which had just published its first issue, and he has written positively about some of Levin’s other writings, including his doctoral dissertation. “Beyond the Welfare State” is an “intellectual” apologia for Paul Ryan’s plan to “end Medicare as we know it” – a plan later adopted by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. When Levin published his essay last spring, it received a lot of media attention, mostly from the right. What also received nearly as much mention was David Frum’s rebuttal to Levin’s article. (Both Levin and Frum worked in the Bush II Administration.) Frum wrote a series of posts examining Levin’s thesis point-by-point. Frum concluded that
… today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive…. Republicans … can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state? … Conservatism’s task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it.
To finish off Levin, Frum cited none other than Irving Kristol, the neoconservative godfather of whom Levin is an unabashed admirer and intellectual heir. Kristol, Frum reminded Levin, believed
The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind … they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.
Chrystia Freeland concludes in her essay on plutocrats,
You might say that the American plutocracy is experiencing its John Galt moment. Libertarians (and run-of-the-mill high-school nerds) will recall that Galt is the plutocratic hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. Tired of being dragged down by the parasitic, envious, and less talented lower classes, Galt and his fellow capitalists revolted, retreating to ‘Galt’s Gulch,’ a refuge in the Rocky Mountains. There, they passed their days in secluded natural splendor, while the rest of the world, bereft of their genius and hard work, collapsed…. [But], in the end, there can never be a place like Galt’s Gulch.
The irony, of course, is that should the plutocrats take to the mountains while the rest of the world collapses, they would not allow the likes of Yuval Levin or Paul Ryan or David Brooks past the gates of their enclave. There would be far fewer conservative apologists if more of them understood this. Sure, Levin and Ryan and Brooks have been yeomen for the super-rich. But that’s just it. They’re only yeomen: aides, assistants, attendants, facilitators, lackeys, water-carriers, hangers-on, sycophants. In the end, there can never be a place for David Brooks in Galt’s Gulch.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com