I COME NOT...

I COME NOT TO BURY DAVID BROOKS... Last week I wrote extensively on the problems I saw with David Brooks' recent column on inequality. I thought it both dead wrong and totally misleading as to the views of Lawrence Katz, the Clinton economist Brooks brandishes for bipartisan cred. Folks can check out the interview I did with Katz here, rebutting much of it. That said, Brooks' follow-up piece, where he proposes some solutions to inequality, was actually quite good, and is coming in for some rather unfair criticism.

The Brooks plan has basically five elements: 1) favorable tax treatment for families with children (aimed at allowing one parent to stay home if they choose); 2) strengthening marriage by making urban single men more attractive mates through a heightened earned income tax credit for single males; 3) asset building; 4) universal preschool; and 5) more variety in schools. Brooks describes this as "an agenda that is socially conservative and economically progressive," which, I might note, is precisely what I predicted the GOP will soon adopt in my "Rise of the Republicrats" article.

This is actually a rather supportable set of policies. Brooks' problem is that he is reluctant to include any economic measures aimed at giving low-income workers more bargaining power and leverage. He's decided that the only dynamic driving inequality worth addressing is the meritocratic one, which strikes me as reductive and unlikely to work. Indeed, if everyone begins attending college, then college will become what high school was a generation ago (indeed, in some ways, it already is), and graduate school will become the new college, and the next David Brooks will be worrying about how everyone can get advanced degrees. That may be a good employment plan for pundits, but it won't reduce inequality by much. Indeed, as Katz argues, Europe also experienced many technical changes (the trend Brooks thinks education will fix), and they avoided rocketing inequality because their employees retained economic power and their safety net remained robust. Ours didn't, and you're not going to bring equilibrium to the economy without fixing that power and security imbalance.

Now, in his recent column, Brooks does get something wrong: He claims that single males aren't eligible for the EITC. That's not true. They are eligible, but barely. The maximum EITC for a one-child family is $2,662. Without a child -- i.e., for single males -- it's $399. That's a staggering imbalance. Contrary to Tom's implication here, the EITC has been remarkably effective at making low-wage labor more appealing to single mothers. There's no reason to believe a serious benefit wouldn't do the same for urban black males (and lord knows that, given the horrifying condition of that demographic, we should be trying everything we can). For now, their employment opportunities tend to offer a minimum wage that's currently at a 50-some-year low, and, for many, that's just not worth it for the unpleasant nature of the work. There are, uh, easier ways to make money. If the EITC were radically increased for this group (and it should be tenfold its current level), it's almost certainly true that employment would rise, marriage rates would lift, and incarceration rates would go down. This is a good liberal solution, and Brooks should be congratulated for arriving at it.

--Ezra Klein

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