Since New York Times columnist David Brooks is the very model of the sentient conservative, his acknowledgements of social reality are often more than just personal—they signal that a particular state of affairs has become incontestable to all but the epistemically shuttered. Writing today on President Obama’s new budget, Brooks applauds the president for proposing to reduce Social Security and Medicare payments, and wishes he’d boost spending on discretionary spending programs that might stem the collapse of working- (and much of middle-) class America. Conservatives generally—over to you, Charles Murray—now acknowledge that the American working class, very much including the white working class, is imploding, citing the decline in marriage rates and out-of-wedlock births. They note as well that incomes and labor force participation are tanking, too. But they usually resist the idea that there’s a causal link between the lack of economic opportunity and the decline in the number of “marriageable males” that is the key to the disappearance of stable nuclear families and relationships. (This argument was first propounded by the great social democratic sociologist William Julius Wilson when he analyzed the decline of the two-parent household in the African-American inner city many decades ago.)
But Brooks has pondered the problem of one-plus-one and, unlike Murray, come up with two. “Make men more marriageable,” he writes today, “by helping them earn a reliable wage.” It’s just a line in passing, but a revelatory one: The road to family stability, he notes, begins with a functioning economy. It’s an idea that many American conservatives have stoutly resisted, insisting that the nation’s moral regeneration, as they see it, can come even in the midst of economic dislocation. Brooks’s message to his fellow conservatives, brief though it be, is important: Get real.
He takes that apercu one step further by urging Obama to increase the spending in his budget proposal on projects such as infrastructure construction. It’s hoping for too much, likely, to wish Brooks would go further and call for a revived WPA, higher minimum wages, and a restoration of workers’ right to unionize—at least at a time when many mainstream liberals haven’t focused on these remedies either. Besides, Brooks’s idea for how to fund all this is to shift resources out of Social Security and Medicare. He praises Obama for beginning that process but wishes he’d go further: The president, he writes, “understands that entitlement programs represent a fundamental threat to the sustainability of the welfare state.” And if that reads as a tautology, well, it is. Indeed, that sentence can be completely turned around with no alteration to its meaning: The president understands that the welfare state represents a fundamental threat to the sustainability of entitlement programs.” X threatens X, even though X is equal to X. What we need here is a Y—for Social Security, a hike to the level of taxable income that could easily extend the system’s sustainability into the 22nd century; for Medicare, the cost controls that would come with a single-payer system or even just the establishment of a public option. Brooks’s tautology may be the very heart of establishment thinking on our budget conundrums, but at least his latter-day William-Julius-Wilsonism signals an establishment embrace of a huge social reality: A stable society needs a functioning economy.