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David Brooks: The Sloppy Hamiltonian

There is a huge contradiction at the heart of David Brooks' column this morning, although I got so caught up in his straw-man caricatures of political philosophies and his welter of small-bore policy proposals that I nearly missed it.

Early in the column, Brooks tries to explain why he isn't a "mainstream liberal." Liberal social programs, he asserts, haven't worked (let's debunk that one another time), and what's more, high taxes are needed to pay for them. High taxes are bad because "a pile of evidence" shows they lead to reduced working hours. And "in the face of Chinese and Indian competition, we don't need Americans working less." Let's let that stand and take him at his word: Brooks is not a mainstream liberal.

But Brooks is also not what he calls a "populist" because he doesn't believe that globalization is what's leading to the stagnant wages and vast inequality the nation is experiencing. So, Mr. Brooks, tell me again why we can't afford social programs? Something about competition with China and India?

That's just sloppiness. But I'm more interested in a larger failing in what Brooks calls the Hamilton Agenda, which takes its name not only from founding father Alexander Hamilton, but also from the modern-day Hamilton Project, a policy group that shares many aspects of Brooks' approach.

My larger quarrel with the Hamilton Project, and with Brooks' column today, is that, although they correctly identify many of the nation's largest political and economic problems, their proposed solutions too frequently represent a small-bore tinkering around the edges of failed policy -- proposals that are not, in the words of Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson "remotely adequate to the problem."

So if globalization isn't a significant cause of inequality, according to Brooks, let's look at the things that are, and what he proposes to do about them.

First, Brooks insists that inequality is caused by "a rising education premium." In fact, research suggests that recent increases in inequality can't be attributed to education, but there's no question that there is a tremendous income disparity between people with college degrees and those without. So what does Brooks propose to do about the 200,000 students who graduate from high school qualified for college but unable to attend for financial reasons? Or the many hundreds of thousands who attain a degree only by taking on a tremendous burden of student loan debt? All we get is a proposal for senior citizens to mentor college students "to keep them emotionally engaged during college years." That's certain to solve the problem.

The next cause of inequality and income stagnation, according to Brooks, is the benign-sounding "changes in household and family structure." Brooks has trotted this one out before and I've countered it: what this is really about is a nation that makes few social provisions for raising the next generation, creating a situation in which starting a family is too often the first step on the road to poverty and bankruptcy. Here Brooks has some more substantive policy proposals. I'm pleased to see him endorse an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit to help young families work their way into the middle class, and it's nice to see an endorsement of a proven policy like quality preschool (although if Brooks is serious supporter, he should acknowledge the critical shortage of public funding for preschool and champion efforts to make access to good early childhood education universal). And while his other policy proposal, visiting nurses to help struggling families, is all well and good, what about paid family leave that would actually allow parents to spend time with their newborns and sick kids without going broke?

Finally, Brooks argues that rich people work longer hours than those who are less wealthy, and that new salary structures "tied to individual performance" exacerbate inequality. In other words, we have inequality because rich people work harder and therefore deserve to earn astronomically more than everyone else. In an era characterized by the growth of the working poor, on the one hand, for whom long hours on the job still don't enable them to afford health insurance for their children, and on the other hand CEO pay so excessive it upsets even shareholders... this argument is too ludicrous to even discuss.

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Posted at 1:02 PM, Jun 08, 2007 in David Brooks critique | Economic Opportunity | Economy | Education | Employment | public services
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