Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Response to David Brooks

Red inequality vs blue inequality. I ask myself, am I such a liberal elitist that I am looking up from a little below the really rich people and disparaging them for being dispassionate? Do I ignore the bottom 50%?

David Brooks has written a provocative piece concerning this issue in the November 1st New York Times. If you haven't read it yet, please do so before proceeding. Not much in this essay will make sense without Brooks' editorial.

Now I grew up in one of the most affluent towns in this country. I grew up hobnobbing with captains of industry and other movers and shakers. They were part of my world view. My father was both smart and lucky. He never finished high school, but started and ran a very successful business which my brother and I inherited (well, there was quite a bit of sweat equity also). I fit into Brook's classic “blue” liberal elite category without actually having the credentials – neither Mom or Dad had college educations and I did not finish college. But my environment was very upper class. Very exclusive. I do consider myself to be one of those people who “have it all” and can “help” those who are less fortunate than I. We were big fans of Camelot and the Kennedy family in my home.

Brooks claims that the “red inequality” is the real problem. The anger displayed at the Occupy Wall Street protests is misguided. Those protesters are angry that their college friends have got jobs on Wall Street making millions when they are merely making hundreds of thousands. Brooks claims that we need to address the issues of educational opportunity, family cohesiveness and obesity (to name a few) in “Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else”.

I am confused about Brooks' point of view. Does he believe that the typical NY Times reader see only “people similar to yourself, who may have gone to the same college, who are earning much more while benefiting from low tax rates, wielding disproportionate political power, gaining in prestige and contributing seemingly little to the social good”. In other words, that we don't see the bottom 50%? I don't buy it.

In Brooks' world view, I am part of the uninformed, but compassionate 49% who sit; sandwiched between the bottom 50% and the lucky 1%. I am part of the problem since I want to blame Wall Street. So let's look at who speaks for the bottom 50%.

How about the Republican establishment? Well, classic Republican thinking says we should let business run without restrictions. They have fought against the minimum wage, environmental laws, consumer advocate rules, universal health care and social security. Many of these “restrictions on business” have made America a good place to live if you are part of the lower 50%. It looks to me like the Republicans are not very helpful.

How about the Tea party? A quick search for “Maine Tea Party” bring up a web site whos' mission statement explains their three main positions - Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets. Free markets and “business without restrictions” are saying the same thing, so no help there. Fiscal responsibility and limited government may be laudable goals, but they will not benefit the lower 50%.

How about the Religious Right? Many fractures in society can be healed by a religious community. The trials and tribulations of life can become a shared burden. Joys and concerns can be experienced in community and that does make a big difference. But from a political point of view, the wars against abortion and gay marriage drive people apart. In some cases, even people from the same loving community. Sorry, I don't see the Religious Right as a great advocate here either.

How about the Democrats? Well, I could tell you that this is where it's at! Boy, these folks are the chosen people! Not so much. There is too much money and too much patronage in the game for the Democrats to be an advocate for the lower 50%. Well meaning (sometimes). Principled (to an extent). Caring and compassionate (sure). But not a true leader of the cause. Hell, if they were the true leaders, they would own this block of voters. They can barely talk folks like me out of staying home on election day. I don't think they really represent the bottom 50%.

So...who do we have left? In the polarized political world we live in, the options are few. Middle and working class Americans know that Democrats and Republicans favor Wall Street over Main Street. They know that neither party have their interests as their core guiding principle. Who will they/we turn to?

We could get lucky and a leader in the mold of Martin Luther King or Gandhi could rise out of our midst.

We could be unlucky and a leader like Mussolini or Mao could rise. Don't laugh, it as possible as any other scenario.

As a contrast to David Brooks', position I would like to introduce you to Richard Wilkinson. Please view his TED Talk here.

Wilkinson collected data on problems with social gradients, the kind of problems that are more common at the expectancy, math and literacy scores, infant mortality, homicide, prison rates, teen births, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness and social mobility. He then graphed it according to country. Since the study used only developed, wealthy countries, he could track the differences between the countries with the highest levels of income inequality vs those that were much more equal. I found the results stunning.

Income inequality and high rates of all the above social ills are closely related. If, on the other hand, you look at the GNP in relation to these issues, there is no correlation. It doesn't matter how much we make or how fast we grow our economy! It does matter that the society allows the rich to get richer. It damages the society overall.

Wilkinson explains that in some more equal countries, it's done by pre-tax methods. Japan, for example, starts with a more equal income distribution and has low taxes and a small welfare state. Sweden, on the other hand, uses after tax methods such as taxing the high wage earners and has a huge welfare state. Both have significantly lower levels of all the things David Brooks is concerned about here in America.

This is a great country. It was founded on the most noble of ideas. We have continually attempted to live up to those noble ideas. But I worry about the future the same way that David Brooks does.

So what do we do? Here is what I know I must do...

I know that I must spend every day approaching every person I meet with as much dignity and respect as I can. I must treat my fellow workers and my employees as my brothers. I should fight for their welfare and work for their place in the community.

I know I must collaborate with my fellow citizens to make my community a better place. I will talk; I will listen and I will work to build something that is larger than any of the individuals whom I collaborate with in an attempt to make mine the best community there is.

I know that I need to listen to my libertarian/tea party/fiscal conservative friends. I want to understand how the world will function after we tear down the social safety net. I don't mean this sarcastically – I truly want to probe the future so we can see where we are heading because that road seems to be the one we are going down whether I like it or not.

I need to reach out from my own very liberal religious community to those in my town who have similar beliefs about charity for the less fortunate and believe in our responsibility for stewardship of the earth. We have common cause and I want to develop that power and use it.

I need to be aware of my money – it's my power. Where I spend it and with whom. B of A or the local credit union. McDonalds or the local diner. Home Depot or with gramps down at our local hardware store (honest, that what he tells you to call him).

And above all, I need to elect honest representatives in my local, state and federal government. Representatives who will address the issues of education. Issues of health. Issues of family cohesiveness that will make a substantive difference in the lives of all members of the community. Not just the ones with the money.

In a word, I need to work at being a citizen. It's my town/state/country. It is a reflection of who I am and what I believe in. It begins and ends with me.

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