Much of the internet has piled onto New York Times columnist David Brooks for his recent musings on 'The Inequality Problem', and deservedly so.
Not only was Brooks timing spectacularly bad (British charity Oxfam just released a shocking report showing 85 people have as much wealth as half the global population), it was spectacularly offensive in a way that only Brooks knows how to do.
In a neat, 800-word column, Brooks divides the world into responsible rich people and irresponsible poor people, and postulates that inequality has nothing to do with the wealthy rigging the economy to maintain their wealth, but more to do with failed policies towards poor people, who just breed and won't work.
"The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work," writes Brooks. "It is that they are not working full time or at all. Raising the minimum wage is popular politics; it is not effective policy."
Yes David, poor people are poor because they just won't work.
According to Brooks:
There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility.
Amazingly, Brooks has never considered the possibility that single motherhood, low social mobility, high school dropout rates and the fraying of social fabric might have something to do with poverty. While David Brooks was able to raise a family in the cushy suburbs of Washington DC off of his salary as a grossly overpaid gossip columnist, many working Americans have to work multiple jobs just to stay alive. While making sure their kids stay in school, read interesting books, and go to college might be nice, putting a roof over their heads is usually a priority. Many Americans can't adequately raise their children because they simply don't have the time.
Also, as Robert Reich argues, the idea that poverty has nothing to do with the rich taking the lion's share of economic growth is utter nonsense. He writes:
When almost all the gains from growth go to the top, as they have for the last thirty years, the middle class doesn't have the purchasing power necessary for buoyant growth.
Once the middle class has exhausted all its coping mechanisms -- wives and mothers surging into paid work (as they did in the 1970s and 1980s), longer working hours (which characterized the 1990s), and deep indebtedness (2002 to 2008) -- the inevitable result is fewer jobs and slow growth, as we continue to experience.
Few jobs and slow growth hit the poor especially hard because they're the first to be fired, last to be hired, and most likely to bear the brunt of declining wages and benefits.
It's a point so glaringly obvious that it shouldn't need to be explained. Regardless, here's a quick illustration of how rich people make poor people poor.
Joe Briggs runs a big electronics company. He is responsible for delivering a profit to his share holders and is competing with other big electronics companies in the market. Joe figures out that he could save half his labor costs if he shipped his manufacturing plant to China. He finds out which politician in his state wants to relax labor laws and allow outsourcing, and he contributes to his/her campaign. He even gets together with other heads of his industry to lobby the local government, threatening to pull out of the state he lives in and move abroad. The government bows to his demands and 200,000 workers lose their jobs to lower paid workers in China. Not satisfied with the extra millions he is making from destroying jobs in his home state, Joe also realizes he can save even more money if he doesn't pay any tax. He figures out which Presidential candidate will give corporations big tax cuts and won't close existing loop holes, and he donates to his campaign. He also donates more money through his company to a Super PAC, (because under the law fought for by rich people, corporations are regarded as people and can spend as much money as they want on shadow political campaigns). The new President gets elected, slashes corporate tax, which then means money for things like education get cut. Americans then have to pay for their children to get a decent education, or send them to massively crowded public schools that have no money.
All of which make poor Americans poorer.
But according to Brooks, "the income inequality frame needlessly polarizes the debate." He continues: "Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness."
To recap, even though it's abundantly obvious that rich people are deliberately rigging the government to make themselves richer, we mustn't talk about it because it's 'polarizing'. Likewise, when Britain colonized West Africa, stole its wealth, and enslaved millions of people, we can't use that as an explanation for the regions desperate poverty because that would needlessly polarizes the debate. After all, Africans are just lazy.