David Brooks’s Worst Column Ever

Well, this is getting to be a habit. Alert readers may recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Tom Friedman’s worst column ever, plugging efforts by a billionaire hedge fund friend to persuade college students that their enemy was Social Security. 

Now, Friedman’s colleague David Brooks has written an even worse column. It’s really hard to determine Brooks’ worst column ever, since he seems to turn out one every week. 

Brooks’ latest piece, in Friday’s Times, begins inauspiciously, “Suddenly, the whole world is talking about income inequality.” (Where has Brooks been, Jupiter?)

He goes on to argue that the inequality debate is miscast. Income inequality, according to Brooks, has two entirely different parts—the pulling away of the very top (he’s surely right about that); and the poverty of the bottom. The trouble with the bottom, says Brooks, is that poverty isn’t just economic; it has complex socio-cultural roots, etc., etc., and you don’t solve it with measures like the minimum wage.

Oy, where to start?

First of all, he leaves out about 70 percent of the population! Inequality isn’t just about the bottom and the top. It’s also about the declining middle. Wages have been flat or declining for the vast majority of workers for three decades.

The downward mobility of the working middle class is one of the great un-remedied issues of our time. Fixing it will require sharing the fruits of America’s growing productivity more equitably, so that the top one percent don’t make off with so much. Inequality isn’t just a problem of poverty.

As for the poor, right-wingers, like Charles Murray and George Gilder and Brooks in our own era have been blaming poverty on cultural deficits ever since slavery and the English apologists for poverty such as Bernard Mandeville in the early 18th century, who warned that coddling the needy would only lead to idleness. 

The funny thing is that whenever sensible policies produce episodes of full employment, as in the late 1990s, the long postwar boom, or the World War II economy, the supposedly feckless poor get decent jobs and their incomes go up. Cultural deficits are a handy alibi for bad economic policies.

Friedman, at least, used to be an able correspondent in the Middle East, and is capable of turning out a first-rate column when he writes about what he knows. It’s only when he turns to trade, the flat-earth, and the case for austerity that he sounds like an idiot-savant.

Brooks, on the other and, can be reliably counted on to write one fatuous column after another. He oscillates between the faux-thoughtful essay, and simple-minded right-wing propaganda, often in the same column. Brooks’ most useful contribution to the public debate is as foil to the estimable E.J. Dionne on NPR every Friday. Dionne reliably blows Brooks away.

Remind me why the Times keeps this blowhard?

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