Nel's New Day

July 14, 2012

Poor, Lazy and Undisciplined–Brooks

In late April when both Rachel Maddow and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos appeared on Meet the Press, part of the discussion surrounded the fact that women are paid less than men for the same work. A fact, that is, except for the Republicans, like Castellanos, who believe that women get equal pay. After this clash, Maddow pointed out that Republicans actually believe the outrageous things that they say. (This may be part of Mitt Romney’s problem: people think he is lying when he may believe his falsehoods.)

Last week, columnist David Brooks blamed the “welfare” state for the country’s problems, ignoring the housing bubble and the successes of the 1990s when people still received government help. This week, he tackled Chris Hayes’ new book, Twilight of the Elites when he claimed that the wealthy deserve everything they have.

Excerpts from Brooks’ column:

“[Hayes] argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy. Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.

“It’s a challenging argument but wrong. I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

“The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.

“The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

“The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.”

If Brooks believes that today’s elite do not perceive themselves as part of the meritocracy, he missed the example of the woman attending Mitt Romney’s fundraiser who asked, “Is this the V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.” As for the belief in stewardship of the elite a century ago, he needs to remember the abuses of labor that improved only after strikers and unions demanded laws requiring minimum wages, restricted child labor, and reasonable working conditions. George W. Bush is a prime example of the meritocracy when his position allowed him to dodge the draft after his family got him into a prestigious university.

The most egregious statement, however, is that the meritocracy are more hardworking and better organizing while spending much more money and time on enrichment. They do spend more money on “enrichment” simply because they are already wealthy, many of them inheriting money or cheating others to obtain it. But do they really work harder?

Teachers put in up to 80 hours a week in school and class preparation while still caring for their families, probably taking kids to piano lessons, and then attending classes to better their education. Picking strawberries is the hardest work in the nation, yet it doesn’t pay well. In fact, after the migrant workers left Alabama because of the restrictive immigration laws, farmers could not find anyone else to spend more than a couple of hours to do the labor that the migrants did. People waiting tables in a restaurant have one of the hardest jobs I know, both physically and mentally. Yet in many cases their pay is so low and the tips so bad that they work overtime just to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment.

Jason Linkins disagreed with Brooks when he compared his personal experiences between working “down the income scale” and writing “pithy jokes about politics for substantially more money than I ever did razing and remodeling apartment buildings with my bare hands.” He also passed along a tip.

“If you are chilling outside your kid’s piano lesson and taking a conference call, you aren’t ‘working long hours.’ You aren’t even working. I’ve been on thousands of conference calls. They are not ‘work.’ If your job involves a lot of conference calls, then congratulations, you are a winner in the game of life. Who is actually working the “longer hours” in the scenario Brooks describes? The person teaching his dumb kid how to play the piano.”

Dean Baker also addressed the issue of hard work.

“Perhaps Brooks can tell us what Erskine Bowles did for the $335,000 that he earned as a director of Morgan Stanley in 2008. That year might ring a bell, since that was the year that Morgan Stanley was at the center of the financial crisis. It would have gone bankrupt had it not been for a rescue by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke.”

I haven’t read Hayes’ book, and Linkins bets that Brooks didn’t either, at least completely. According to Brooks, Hayes proposed that we “upend the social order.” In fact, Hayes wrote,

“At its most basic, the logic of “meritocracy” is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of greatest responsibility and import. It would be foolhardy to toss this principle out in its entirety. You certainly wouldn’t want surgeons’ licenses to be handed out via lottery, or to have major cabinet members selected through reality TV-style voting. Anyone who’s ever worked in an organization of any kind has seen first hand that there are sometimes vast differences between individuals in ability, work ethic, and efficiency. An institution that pays no heed to these differences will almost certainly fare poorly.”

In one way Brooks is right: a half century ago, the privileged elites paid far higher tax rates, built businesses, and created jobs rather than gambling on the failure of others through hedge funds. He does, however, support the Republicans’ point of view, that people are poor because they are lazy and undisciplined. The irony is that many Republicans, particularly the evangelists, are poor. Do they realize what their leadership thinks of them?

Julia Child explained the fallacy of Brooks’ argument: “I was a Republican until I got to New York and had to live on $18 a week. It was then that I became a Democrat.”


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