Sunday, January 27, 2013

Brooks's Paradox And Brownback's Panacea

Brooks’ Paradox And Brownback’s Panacea

David Brooks has an interesting piece in last Friday’s New York Times, "The Great Migration"  in which he writes about the lures beckoning the academically gifted from more rural and economically depressed communities.  Smart high school kids from all over the country end up going to top tier universities that operate at a different pace; harsher, more competitive, faster, more meritocratic.  Some are turned off, but most are brought into the vortex.  These same universities are feeders to the best internships, the best graduate schools, the best employment opportunities.

Brooks is wrestling with a central paradox in his desire for communitarian conservatism.  Unlike many Republicans at the national level, he accepts the obligation to care for those in need.  What he rejects is the Obama/Democratic approach, in which government always provides the safety net.  In Brooks’ view, the best places to deliver charity and community support are at the grass-roots, and the best ways to create the wealth that enables that charity is to unleash the private sector and to educate the talented. 

But, in practice, as he acknowledges, it doesn’t work.  Education creates intellectual and financial free agency; the smart kids from Nebraska, or Newark, or rural Ohio, leave the home team and take their talents elsewhere.  Their movement from a more socially egalitarian and supportive culture to one that is more focused on a “relentless quest for distinction” is transformational, and does nothing to solve the inequality problem.  The Great Migration perversely produces the opposite effect; when you’ve shown the Nebraska farm-boy Paris (or Davos) the livestock back home looks less appealing.  They simply join a new team, and they like it.

Brooks doesn’t make the direct connection, but this mirrors part of what Murray and Herrnstein were talking about in “The Bell Curve.”  We “smart” people, from all across the country, come together in the great universities, go off to graduate school and the professional world, and choose our friends and spouses from among the people we meet there.  We settle in communities with the same group, have kids, who then go to elite public or private schools together, then those kids go on to some of the same universities we went to, and the closed loop of education, influence, class, and genetics self-reinforces.

So, in American, land of the free capitalist, why is this bad? If we earned it, why we shouldn’t we enjoy the fruits of our labors?  More coarsely, who cares about income disparity if we have what we want, and, even better, can pay our politicians to make sure we get more? 

The problem, which Brooks understands, isn’t that we have elites.  We always have.  And it isn’t that we have the poor, who will always be with us.  But, when you join the ever-widening gap with a stretched middle class, a demographic time bomb, and a political system that is trapped in absolutist absurdities, you create the potential for serious disruption.  Income inequality needs to be addressed, not out of some do-gooder impulse, but because we have to.  There is no other way to expand our base of productive, taxpaying citizens, and, in the long run, there is no other way to maintain a stable society.

We are running headlong, eyes open, but apparently unseeing, into a declining future.  The Republicans like to call it “European” because it sounds more Socialist and effete--they being the manly party that knows how to say no.  In fact, we are less Europe and more Japan.

The Japanese have been in a two decades-long recession; too much incestuous cross-investing among business and the financial services industry, a calcified social system, excessive bureaucracy, antiquated work rules, and a rapidly aging population which needs more and more support, not because they are lazy or unwilling, but because they are unable.  The Japanese government has abetted all this, printing and throwing money everywhere to keep all levels of society quiet.  But there isn’t enough vibrancy in the private sector, or enough young people, to support the aging and the economically displaced, and fiscal policy may be reaching the end of the road.   Sound familiar?

How do we escape?  We probably do need a “Grand Bargain.”  That is where things get tricky, because we need to convince people that a little bit of altruism is actually in their self-interest.

In Brooks’ communitarian society, that should be self-evident. Communities take care of their own, providing economic support while encouraging Protestant work-ethic values that ultimately lift all boats.  

Brooks is right, at least in the laboratory of both ethics and smart policy. Subtle societal pressures plus training takes a needy person from eating the proffered fish to fishing himself.  But outside the laboratory, the reality is very different.  Brooks’ belief in civic virtue appears naïve; politicians conflate their own ideologies and ambitions with the public good, and many people prefer to take or keep rather than to earn or give.

In less myopic times, we would look for the problem to be addressed nationally in that Grand Bargain.  It is clear that is unlikely now.  Washington fails because neither party really grasps the scope of the problem, they merely use its existence as a boogeyman to continue stale policy prescriptions.  The Democrats seem to care more about creating a permanent fish-giving entitlement, while the Republicans prefer people to starve while they wait for tax cuts to induce a job creator to order a trawler.

Of course, with no compromises, both sides need a clean win to enact their program, and neither side has it in Washington.  But, at the state level, the opposite is true.  More than 35 states are completely controlled by one party or the other, two dozen by the Republicans.  If Brooks is right, Governors and state legislators will be more responsive to local needs, giving them more freedom to experiment to find a cure.  

Indiana is solidly Republican, notwithstanding Richard Mourdock’s self-immolation.  They dominate the State House (69-31) and Senate (36-13).  Outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels had previously been George W. Bush Director of OMB, where he earned the name “The Blade”, and not for Zorro-like looks.  The new Governor, Steve Pence, hard right as a Congressman, just gave his first Inaugural Address as Governor.  Pence noted that one in five children live below the poverty line, and then proposed a budget that while fiscally conservative, also increases funds for education, job training, transportation, veterans, child-protective services, and health care for the poor.  That is one approach.

Stronger medicine is being administered in Kansas.  There, Republicans have such a free hand that they are comfortable purging all but the most ultra-right in their midst.  Governor Sam Brownback, a social conservative and tea party darling, has cast his cold eye upon the land, and found both moral and economic sin.  His panacea for stagnant economic growth is not more investment in training and education (Kansas ranks near the bottom in several quality measures of education ) but to effectively eliminate virtually all income and business taxes.  He finances those cuts, in part, by a regressive higher sales tax, fewer basic services, and (naturally) significant reductions in school aid.  It would be redundant to point out that these changes are entirely on the backs of working and middle class families, who will, perversely, pay more and get less, while giving the top one percent of Kansas taxpayers an average tax cut of about $21,000 per year.  Brownback and his supporters claim this will bring businesses pouring into Kansas.

Brownback’s Panacea might play well politically in Kansas, which is deep crimson.  Democrats have only 9 seats of 40 in the State Senate, and 33 of 125 in the State House.  Will it, in fact, attract business, and will the promised economic growth do anything about income inequality?  I am not sure Brownback cares about the latter; he has a government that suits his philosophy.  Presumably, it will suit the majority of Kansans, who can always use the ballot to express their opinions.  I’m betting Brownback keeps his position, and Kansas’s poor and working class keep theirs. 

And that brings us back to Brooks’ Paradox.  Does the social mobility afforded by elite higher education benefit everyone, or is it merely transformative, taking 4-H kids out of their communities and placing them in cloisters of the good life?  Do they keep their communitarian values and couple personal success with continuing efforts for the greater good?  Or, do they just “forget where they came from” and invest in their favorite politicians to get more? 

If we are going to tackle the problems ahead of us, we are going to need an answer, and soon.  Power and money are neither moral nor immoral.  It is what you do with them when you have them that counts. 

David Brooks understands that as well.  If you read “The Great Migration,” you may find more than a little despair.

Let’s hope he’s wrong.