THE LIKABILITY ECONOMY....

THE LIKABILITY ECONOMY. To say a bit more about the economic fraud Brooks is perpetrating in his column, we've got to say a bit about meritocracy and how it relates to income inequality. Brooks would like you to believe that the driving force for inequality is a relative of skills-based technical change. That's what economists tend to call the adoption of computers, but Brooks appears to think it's currently about social skills. In his mind, the difference between the rich and the poor largely rests on having "high social and customer-service skills." The intent of this is that it justifies inequality. Instead of the maldistribution of income being something to fix, it's those who are losing income who are broken. Better yet, by relying on social skills rather than intelligence, Brooks makes the deciding factor mutable: a personality characteristic that we can change, improve, or develop.

To say that this doesn't support the facts is like saying Newt Gingrich is a tad hysterical. It's a wild understatement. The economist Lawrence Katz, who Brooks identifies as the propagator of this theory, is the main proponent of the "polarized" labor market thesis. In other words, he argues that inequality among the bottom fifty percent basically stopped increasing in 1987 -- the poor are not becoming poorer relative to the lower middle class. Among the top half, it's accelerated. Put another way, what's happening is that the super rich are leaving behind the rich, who are outpacing the wealthy, who are dusting the upper middle class. As that lefty rag The Economist puts it:

The figures are startling. According to Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty of the Ecole Normale Sup�rieure in Paris, the share of aggregate income going to the highest-earning 1% of Americans has doubled from 8% in 1980 to over 16% in 2004. That going to the top tenth of 1% has tripled from 2% in 1980 to 7% today. And that going to the top one-hundredth of 1%�the 14,000 taxpayers at the very top of the income ladder�has quadrupled from 0.65% in 1980 to 2.87% in 2004.

Think about that. Are you really prepared to believe that the top one percent now gets paid 16 percent of the total income in this country because they developed "high social and customer-service skills"? And that the top hundredth of a percent quadrupled their take because they developed them so much faster than the rest of the country's CEOs? And that CEOs, who in the �70s made 30 times the salary of their average workers, now make 300 times the salary of their average worker because they became that much more social and customer-oriented?

Of course not. And Brooks almost certainly doesn't believe it either. But since there's no way to justify the top percentile's tightening hammerlock over the economy, Brooks has to ignore it. Since no one believes they do double the work they did twenty years ago, Brooks needs another way to justify the grotesque chasm that now separates the haves from the have-nots. And his solution, elegant in its simplicity but unconvincing in its deployment, is that the top few percent are simply friendlier, funnier, more social people than the rest of us. In Brooks-land, riches come from being likable, and who could argue with that? All of us think of ourselves as likable, or at least imagine we have the potential to become so. And so all of us can clamber atop that massive income gap and become rich. It's a comforting fiction. To bad it's so wildly wrong.

--Ezra Klein

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