On its face, David Brooks’ most recent column for the The New York Times is a policy-focused critique of Occupy Wall Street and the “We are the 99 Percent” movement. “If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement,” he writes, “it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.” But Brooks -- in a partial defense of those elites -- objects. The problems facing our economy, he writes, “implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.” By focusing on the wealthy minority, Occupy Wall Street handicaps its ability to offer real solutions to our problems:“If you think all problems flow from a small sliver of American society, then all your solutions are going to be small, too.”
Of course, this is complete weak sauce. Occupy Wall Street provides plenty of fodder for public policy. Over the last decade, the richest 1 percent of Americans reaped vast economic benefits while the remaining 99 percent made do with stagnant incomes, rising costs, and an otherwise sluggish economy. The Great Recession -- which was caused, in part, by the reckless malfeasance of the wealthy -- accelerated and exacerbated these trends, but they were long in the making.
If this strikes you as a problem, then something as simple as redistributive taxation works to alleviate some of the pain. Higher taxes on the rich -- perhaps, a return to Clinton-era rates? -- can finance public works, unemployment benefits, student-loan forgiveness, and a stronger social safety net. They might not deal with the medium-term debt, but in an economy with 14 million unemployed people, debt reduction should be low on the list of priorities.
The real way to Brooks’ piece is not as a substantive critique of Occupy Wall Street but as an expression of cultural resentment. The clue comes at the end of his column, which he ends with this quip:
Don’t be fooled by the clichés of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. Let’s occupy ourselves.
In other words, David Brooks doesn’t have time for fools marching in the streets -- it’s the dudes in suits who are the real radicals, man. Brooks’ reaction to Occupy Wall Street has less to do with their ideas and more to do with the fact that they remind him of hippies and other protesters.
To be fair to Brooks, his favored men in suits are radicals, just not in the sense that he thinks. The people Brooks admires, like House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, seek to dismantle the social safety net with draconian cuts to entitlements and other services. Yes, they’re radicals, and their goal is to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
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