Views on politics and current events

Friday, September 08, 2006

From Edward Winkleman

A comment about the article byDavid Brooks that can be found here

The "Productive" Class

Back when I was blogging politics day and night (when Bambino, a notorious blog widower, coined the term "bullsh*t websites"), I had exhausted the contempt-conveying phrases in my vocabulary throughout a series of ultra-shrill tirades against New York Times columnist David Brooks. He remains my first example of a thoroughly loathsome pundit, displaying all the integrity of Vidkun Quisling, but none of the charm.

Today, however, Brooks entered the realm of surreal self-parody (must be slow in the pundit world as well, although none of the pundits not working hard to deflect attention away from the Administration's accelerating spiral down past the nethermost position in American Presidential history seem to have any trouble finding topics to write on).

Anyway...The New York Times has deemed such drivel worthy of payment and hidden his column behind their "Times Select" firewall, so I'll have to retype the choice passages from the copy I purchased from my local vendor.

With the Middle East peace process in tatters, Iraq a literal hell on earth, killer heatwaves scorching the planet, and bin Laden & Co. still trotting the globe plotting, what does our Mr. Brooks decide his readers have to know he thinks? Why that rich people are overworked and horribly put upon and poor people are lazy, of course.

Through some screw-up in the moral superstructure, we now have a plutocratic upper class infused with the staid industriousness of Ben Franklin, while we are apparently seeing the emergence of a Wal-Mart leisure class ---devil-may-care middle-age slackers who live off home-equity loans and disabilty payments so they can surf the History Channel and enjoy fantasy football leagues.

Brooks' alarm over this was spawned by an article the Times ran earlier. That one is still free:

Millions of men ... men in the prime of their lives, between 30 and 55 — have dropped out of regular work. They are turning down jobs they think beneath them or are unable to find work for which they are qualified, even as an expanding economy offers opportunities to work.

About 13 percent of American men in this age group are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960’s. The difference represents 4 million men who would be working today if the employment rate had remained where it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. [...]

These are men forced to compete to get back into the work force, and even then they cannot easily reconstruct what many lost in a former job,” said Thomas A. Kochan, a labor and management expert at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So they stop trying.”

Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. It is a significant cultural shift from three decades ago, when men almost invariably went back into the work force after losing a job and were more often able to find a new one that met their needs.

Now I'm a workaholic, so I'm not sure I can relate to those following this trend, but to leap from this article to the conclusions Brooks makes reveals a classic case of fitting the data to support a predisposed position. Again, from Brooks:

Buy I try not to judge these gentlemen harshly. What I see is a migration of values. Once upon a time, middle-class men would have defined their dignity by their ability to work hard, provide for their family and live as self-reliant members of society. [Gee, I'm glad he didn't judge them harshly.] But these fellows, to judge by their quotations, define their dignity the same way the subjects of Throsetin Veblen's "The Theory of the Lelisure Class" defined theirs.

They define their dignity by the loftiness of their thinking. They define their dignity not by their achievement, but by their personal enlightenment, their autonomy, by their distance from anything dishonorably menial or cumpulsory.

GRRRRR.... One of the examples Brooks uses to make his case is that of Alan Beggerow, who got laid off at age 48 from the steel mill he worked in. That's right, Davie...steel workers typically have lofty delusions and distaste for menial work. Beggerow worked there until he was forty-eight! If, as my father did, Beggerow entered the steel mill about age 23, that means he performed a truly grueling, very physical job in hellish conditions for two and a half decades. Further, like my father, he most likely left that job with a series of serious health problems and a badly bruised, if not broken, body. After he got laid off, Beggerow taught math for a while at a community college, but when that ended he decided he'd rather live off what little he had accumulated than take a job he felt was beneath him. For Brooks to challenge that choice suggests he's never spent a day working in a steel mill, let alone 25 years.

What Brooks is really getting at here of course is why the uberwealthy are better than the poor (and you can bet this article about the "willfully" unemployed will weasle its way into some future column defending the tax cuts for the upper 1% of Americans). He's so remarkably deluded he actually laments:

[The lives of t]oday's super-wealthy...are marked by sleep deprivation and conference calls, and their idea of leisure is jetting off to Aspen to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski lead panels titled "Beyond Unipolarity."

Ahh...those unfortunate souls, jetting off to Aspen, celebrity panels and conference calls. Yeah, that's much tougher than filling out job applications at the local McDonald's when you're in your fifties. Why it's just not fair, I tell you. Let's not make them pay any taxes whatsoever. Clearly they're suffering enough already.

Brooks is working here, actually, off a myth that's been gaining ground among conservative bloggers. Its spin is that the wealthy are the "productive class," suggesting they do all the work and hence deserve the lion's share of the government's consideration. It's a notion I find so insidously mendacious, that it's hard not to punch someone offering it.

Then again, with the current Adminstration and its rubber-stamp Congress stacking the deck so heavily against the poor (slashing entitlement programs, refusing to raise the minimum wage, and passing truly evil bankruptcy legislation), is it any wonder that the poor take the advice offered in "War Games" that since you can't win, the only reasonable response is not to play? I mean, I know the Bush & Co are hellbent on creating a permanent indentured servant class, but they can't be surprised that folks aren't happy to both join it AND still have to clean their toilets.

One more aspect of Brook's article should be noted. It reeks of the foulest form of misogyny. Focused on the importance of the traditional role he feels men should play in society (ignoring working women in total), he ends his column on the following enlightened note:

The only comfort I've had from these distrubing trends is another recent story in The Times. Joyce Wadler reported that women in places like the Hamptons are still bedding down with the hired help.

He's attempting, one assumes, to be satirical. But who can tell, really?

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