July 10, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Let us give David Brooks credit for recognizing “The Opportunity Gap,” the subject of his New York Times column today. In outlining “the inequality of opportunities among children” in this country, Brooks seems to defy Mitt Romney, who has said inequality should be discussed only “in quiet rooms.” Though he never mentions Romney, Brooks seems to suggest that Romney’s approach would put the country on a path to “national suicide.” Brooks is troubled that “Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.” (I’m not sure what the first two concerns might be.)
Brooks introduces his subject by highlighting recent work by political scientist Robert Putnam, whose “data verifies [sic.!] what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.” Brooks then goes into a long litany of ways richer parents rear their children to take advantage of opportunities, while poorer parents do not. He points out that things were different in the good ole days when “working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents.” The result of today’s bifurcating parenting, Brooks writes, is that “behavior gaps are opening up.” Poorer kids don’t participate in school activities as much as do richer kids, and “Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached.”
What has led to all this bad parenting and bad behavior? Brooks writes,
A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.
Okay, parents. You didn’t get married. Mothers, you don’t have husbands. And, people, you are working too many hours and not making enough money. The single-parent bit is definitely all your fault, but Brooks isn’t saying just whose fault it is that you have lousy jobs. He conveniently employs the passive voice to inform you that “working-class jobs were decimated.” No telling who is responsible for that! At least, David Brooks isn’t telling.
But here’s a hint: maybe you parents should blame your own parents. According to Brooks, “The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.” Sounds like an excellent argument for death panels. Greedy geezers lolling around doctors’ offices in hopes of getting some unnecessary tests are robbing our children of their birthright.
Now watch Brooks define the problem downward: “If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.” Really? In Brooks’ model, the “affluent” are not just the one percent, or the top 10 or 20 percent, but the top 67 percent! The problem is not yours, dear readers; it is “those people” who don’t rear their children to take advantage of the nation’s many golden opportunities.
Somewhat hilariously, Brooks does not see any of this as a “class” problem. In fact, the very mention of class is counterproductive, in Brooks’ view: “Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them – less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem.” Shorter version: President Obama, quit picking on Romney the Quiet.
This advice comes near the bottom of his column, and – as is his custom – Brooks has strayed from his introduction, in which he credits Prof. Putnam for being among those who have raised the issue of unequal opportunity. At the Aspen Ideas Festival this year (where Brooks, by the way, was also a speaker), Putnam participated in a discussion in which he emphasized that “class … is the dominant – and becoming more dominant – dimension of difficulty” affecting social mobility.
So forget Putnam. To solve our problems, Brooks writes, “Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class. Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it.” Oh, thank you for a classic double-flipping false equivalency, Mr. Brooks. I don’t know of any conservative elected officials who oppose “benefit cuts” unless it’s cuts to their own benefits that are at issue. So on the benefits front, Brooks is simply advocating that conservatives keep on keepin’ on. Conversely, I cannot think of any liberals who have advocated against intact nuclear families. Isn’t one purpose of the gay marriage revolution – a largely liberal cause – so we can have more nuclear families? And so that those new families can enjoy the social and legal benefits that accrue to other nuclear families? (Brooks, to his credit, came out in favor of gay marriage in 2003.) If you ignore the false equivalency Brooks attempts to construct and distill out his prescription – what he is really saying, without owning up to it, is that conservatives will have to adopt family-friendly policies proposed by liberals: “programs that benefit the working class.” Maybe House Speaker John Boehner will compromise: accept tax increases in exchange for Nancy Pelosi’s standing in the well of the House and encouraging parents to get married and read Horatio Alger stories to their children.
If Mitt Romney is interested in rectifying opportunity inequality, he is doing so in quiet rooms; perhaps he is hiding his solutions “in a secret compartment in subsection C in the third basement of his 12-car garage.” So with Romney’s secret solutions safe, let’s see how enthusiastically Romney’s House Republican colleagues are working out in the open to reduce the “opportunity gap”:
Today the House Agriculture Committee plans to roll out its “cost-saving” farm bill which cuts $16 billion from the food stamps (SNAP) program — “triple the cut the Senate approved. The House bill also imposes tougher income and asset tests that will disqualify hundreds of thousands of working-class households now getting aid.” Pat Garofalo of Think Progress writes, “According to the Congressional Budget Office, such a move would not only boot 1.8 million people off of food stamps, but would knock 280,000 children off of the free school lunch program.” Maybe some kids are “pessimistic and detached,” as Brooks describes them, because they’re, you know, hungry.
Hungry kids may not be healthy kids. Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act now “prohibits insurers from excluding from coverage children with pre-existing health conditions.” And it allows parents to keep their older children on their own policies until the children reach age 26. Also, at least until 2019, states will not be able to cut children from CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), which provides health coverage to nearly 8 million children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid. Given all that, “House Republicans launched an all-out assault Tuesday [today] against President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law, holding a series of committee hearings and other events ahead of a planned vote Wednesday on repealing the measure.” Here Romney has weighed in: embedded in his campaign speech is a promise to “repeal ObamaCare on Day One.” Romney does have a healthcare plan, Brooks assured us, and he is definitely keeping it in the third basement. (See video here.)
Meanwhile, Republican governors in states that account for more than a quarter of the nation’s population say that as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down part of the ACA, they will opt out of provisions for expanded Medicaid coverage. Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced yesterday that Texas would be one of the states opting out. According to a 2008 report, “There are 1.4 million uninsured children in Texas – more than one out of five children in the state (20.5 percent).” Maybe some kids are “pessimistic and detached” because they’re, you know, sick.
Meanwhile, cutbacks – particularly in states controlled by Republican legislatures and governors – are falling hard on programs and facilities that benefit young people: public education at all levels, libraries, parks and other public recreational facilities. These states are not just cutting jobs – the angle that is getting all of the attention right now – those jobs provided public services that Americans, including American children, had enjoyed for decades.
I’ve mentioned a few measures Republicans are directly aiming against the children of the poor, near-poor and everyone who can’t self-insure. Republican policies aimed against “the working class” are legion. It’s what they do – from imposing a tax code that favors corporations and the rich, to laws (and Supreme Court decisions) that hurt unions, to trade and tax policies that encourage offshoring of American jobs, to David Brooks’ deficit reduction fetish and his call today to “cut benefits” (that is, shrink the social safety net).
When David Brooks waxes nostalgic about the good old days, remember those were days when politicians, businesses and unions had signed onto a social compact that was structured to both ensure fair wages and encourage social mobility. Paul Krugman began his column in yesterday’s New York Times with this remembrance: “Once upon a time a rich man named Romney ran for president. He could claim, with considerable justice, that his wealth was well-earned, that he had in fact done a lot to create good jobs for American workers.” Krugman was not writing a fairy tale about a man named Mitt. He was writing a true story about Mitt’s father, George Romney, who as president of American Motors, “refused a bonus of $100,000…, saying that no top executive needed to make more than his $225,000 annual salary ($1.4 million today).”
It is not just that George Romney’s ethic has been lost on his son. It is that the Republican party leaders have devoted themselves for the past four decades to policies that purposely mitigated against George Romney’s preference for a reasonable level of wealth equality. Those laws and rulings I cited that reduce opportunity and social mobility are not accidental. They are expressions of a philosophy that intends to separate us into two classes: haves and have-nots. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, but the Marie Antoinette clones who attended Mitt Romney’s fundraisers in the Hamptons this past weekend are working overtime (in blue chiffon!) to bury the American dream and cement in its place an impenetrable aristocracy. What’s more, they are policies that – for the most part – reflect a governing philosophy that David Brooks espouses. In his column today, Brooks does say that officials should introduce some, unspecified new policies that would encourage social mobility. But he devotes a suspicious number of column inches to blaming the victims of our iniquitous system and identifying scapegoats: old people, single mothers, tired parents. King Mitt may be counting out his money in a quiet counting room, but out in the garden, David Brooks is a dickeybird sniping at the maid for not doing more for her children.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com