A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times broke through my normal defense against his irritating rambles through the foothills of intelligent thought. Usually I read the comments explaining the book or paper that launched the column and skewering his laughable misunderstanding; in this case that role is played by commenter Chris Grattan. Unfortunately for me, the topic of this recent Brooksian confusion bombing was irresistible: he was going to offer his understanding on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, right across the editorial page from Paul Krugman’s explanationof the outright terror the book inspires in the dark hearts of conservatives. If Brooks were the practicing conservative intellectual he plays on TV, he’d be embarrassed; no one could possibly think this up without the stimulus of money changing hands.
Here’s the first sentence: “Many people join the political left driven by a concern for the poor.” In bobo world, no one is motivated by concerns about social justice, or ideas about the best way for a society to organize itself, or religious/moral concerns about community, or a process of intellectual inquiry, or because your parents brought you up that way. Brooks notices that lately the modern professional left, the taste leaders and gurus of Hipster Intellectuals, is concerned not about the poor, but about the middle class. You see, it’s about taste in the culture of the intellectual professional left; and has nothing to do with actual policy preferences.
According to Brooks, modern young professionals in the coastal enclaves inhabit a world populated by the hyper-rich, fund managers, and other financial elites, and the unmentionable useless children of billionaires. The MYPs meet these rich folks at fund-raisers and school functions, and are envious and jealous, because not only are they rich, but the MYPs have to kiss their rear ends to hold on to their jobs or get grants or sell their art. No wonder they are so interested in the problems of the middle class: these MYPs are themselves middle class, and they are being patronized by the hyper-rich, despite the fact that the MYPs are the arbiters of taste and coolness. Snicker. Piketty’s book is sold out in hard copy on Amazon. Methinks more than a few hangers-on at the Dalton School are reading it.
Now for the faux-intellectual part: let’s bring Pierre Bourdieu into the discussion:
The situation is ripe for the sort of class conflict the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used to describe: pitting those who are rich in cultural capital against those who are rich in financial capital.
Brooks hasn’t read Bourdieu, any more than Piketty, which is to say he glanced at the table of contents and read a summary and a couple of reviews from trustworthy sources on the right. I haven’t read Bourdieu at any length either. I read the last chapter of A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, available on-line. It’s pretty tough going, and I like this stuff. That led to this post, and I bet Gillian Tettwas the source of Brooks’ bizarre interpretation, just as it was the basis of my post. If I’m right, Brooks missed the central point of Tett’s piece. Bourdieu and Tett think that there are spheres of allowable discussion, and that the way to understand reality is to look at the areas of silence. Brooks doesn’t want us to look at inequality, because that is one of the areas of silence. If we do look at it, it’s because we are jealous of the rich, because everyone knows that they have the money because they deserve it. And they deserve it because they are so much cooler than we are, have much better taste, and they earned that money so shut up shut up.
This jealousy created the Piketty Popularity, that Economic Beatlemania sweeping the world. Brooks knows nothing about economics, and it shows. He claims that Piketty wouldn’t raise taxes on income, which is false; he would raise taxes on the incomes of the hyper-rich. He makes claims about human capital that betray a complete misunderstanding of the term and the reasons Piketty doesn’t consider it in his text at any length. He claims that family fortunes won’t accumulate because Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give away vast sums of money, meaning that Brooks doesn’t understand the utility of untaxed family foundations. Here’s a good one: “Human beings are generally treated in aggregate terms, without much discussion of individual choice.” That’s actually the point of macro-economics, isn’t it?
And in case you had any question about Brooks’ utter failure to grasp Piketty’s ideas, we learn that conservatives should support consumption taxes, which Brooks identifies as a progressive idea and not as the regressive tax it actually is. He inserts the mandatory Reagan trope: “…counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift.”
Brooks thinks inequality is about “class rivalry within the educated classes”, and that’s why the book has such cultural cachet. In the real world, the book is popular because it invades the space of silence that Brooks and his tasteless oligarch clientele need to continue their wealth aggregation.
Alex Pareene is right. The New York Times needs a better class of columnists and this clown should be the first out the door. He could play the snooty George Will role on The Five on Fox.