David Brooks is Horribly Wrong About Capitalism and The Cause of Poverty

Really, David Brooks is only interested in policies that sound like they'd help the poor -- otherwise he wouldn't identify as a conservative in the first place.
Ben Cohen
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Really, David Brooks is only interested in policies that sound like they'd help the poor -- otherwise he wouldn't identify as a conservative in the first place.
David Brooks

In David Brooks's latest column for the New York Time, he remarks on a recent speech by British prime minister David Cameron that appears to him to represents a modern, progressive conservatism he finds deeply appealing.

In his piece, titled "What Republicans Should Say," Brooks quotes Cameron's speech that outlined the role of government in 21st century Britain at some length. Called “Life Chances”, Cameron's talk was a seemingly noble attempt to bridge the ideological divide between conservatism and liberalism in Britain, with Cameron arguing for a new model of governance beyond the paradigm of capitalism vs statism. Said Cameron of the divide:

Talk to a single mum on a poverty-stricken estate, someone who suffers from chronic depression, someone who perhaps drinks all day to numb the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Tell her that because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty. Or on the other hand, if you told her about the great opportunities created by our market economy, I expect she’ll ask you what planet you’re actually on.

To address this seemingly never ending battle between ideologies and the victims of its failures, Cameron puts forward a "more social approach" to governance that moves "beyond the economic".  Cameron then goes on to outline a mishmash of policies, that include, as Brooks writes:

Shared parental leave and a tax code that rewards marriage. Widen opportunities for free marital counseling. Speed up the adoption process. Create a voucher program for parenting classes. Expand the Troubled Families program by 400,000 slots. This program spends 4,000 pounds (about $5,700) per family over three years and uses family coaches to help heal the most disrupted households.

So impressed with this thinking is Brooks that he states he would "Give a lung to have a Republican politician give a speech like that in this country," -- a reflection of his growing despair over the future of the party he has spent the majority of his professional career cheerleading. To Brooks, this whole focusing on economics thing is a waste of time, and we should all get behind fixing society. He writes:

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop.

The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives.

And herein lies Brooks' (and conservatism in general's) fundamental misunderstanding about how money and economic ideology effects society. Brooks is essentially arguing that the capitalist system is actually working brilliantly, it's just that poor people and broken families are not equipped to survive it. If only they were given assistance by the winners, all would be well and the system would chug on happily without any need to rethink it.

It doesn't require a huge amount of thinking to realize this makes no sense whatsoever, particularly if you have any understanding of history.

More likely than Brooks and Cameron's thesis is that the introduction of free market capitalism into American and British society caused the breakdown of the family structure and huge amounts of poverty in the first place. Harsh market discipline has been almost single handedly the largest contributor to widening inequality and poverty in the UK. Reported Oxfam recently:

The UK is the sixth richest country in the world.1 From 1993 to 2008 it saw 15 years of economic growth, underpinned by the socio-economic reforms of the 1980s. This shift towards market-based capitalism was characterized by financial liberalization, the erosion of social security and deregulation of the labour market. However, these reforms have led to a dramatic increase in the number of people living in poverty, which almost doubled, from 7.3 million people in 1979 to 13.5 million in 2008,2 and inequality reached levels last seen in the 1920s,3 driven by a growing share of income going to the richest, in particular the top one per cent. Since 1975, income inequality among working-age people has risen faster in the UK than in any other OECD nation, including the United States,4 such that the UK now ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the OECD.5 Indeed, the UK has a pretax income inequality index of 0.52, greater than the United States (0.49).

Poverty and inequality puts a huge amount of strain on the family structure, and it is no coincidence that the introduction of market capitalism has coincided with alarming breakdown of the family. There are of course other reasons behind the break down of the family (lack of religion, changing attitudes towards marriage and so on), but the relentless marketization of the economy and the cultural obsession with money cannot be understated. Organizing a society around the principle of attaining material wealth is never going to yield great results when it comes to fostering human relations, and "values" can't be slapped on last minute in an attempt to humanize what is essentially an inhuman system.

Bernie Sanders doesn't have the solution to all of this either, but his ideas are a hell of a lot more intellectually coherent and honest than Brooks or Cameron's -- who clearly don't have the foggiest idea what actual poverty is or feels like. Sanders' platform for a new economy at least gets to the heart of the problem -- that poverty is systemic, and market capitalism breeds inequality by design. Letting the government responsibly intervene in an economy gone mad is the least we can do in the short term to ameliorate the problems we have created for ourselves. Allowing the system to continue unchecked, save for the introduction of gimmicks like tax breaks for married couples, is a recipe for disaster -- as the conservative party in Britain has shown.

The statistics show that under David Cameron's radical market based policies and program of austerity, poverty has increased across the board, child poverty is set to grow from 2.3m children to 3.3m by 2020, the cost of living has risen dramatically, and more and more people are reliant on food banks to feed themselves. All the while, the rich have benefitted enormously from the economic reforms rammed through by the supposedly "progressive" Cameron  -- an inconvenient fact the starry eyed David Brooks is all too keen to ignore.

Really, David Brooks is only interested in policies that sound like they'd help the poor -- otherwise he wouldn't identify as a conservative in the first place.