Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Your point being?

So today Brooks spends practically the entire column essentially rehashing an argument from no less than Paul Krugman: that the US is increasingly becoming a class-based society as social mobility slows to lower levels than that in Europe. (Though of course he doesn't give Krugman credit.)

This is a pretty convincing and powerful argument, and goes to the heart of progressives' fear and fury at the prospect of four more years of the Bush administration. It's shocking that Brooks is raising this topic, given that virtually every effort in Bush's first-term domestic policy was devoted to increasing and solidifying the class gap: the vast tax cuts tilted towards the richest 1%, the elimination of the estate tax, et cetera. Though of course Brooks never mentions the ways the Bush administration has worked to strengthen the class gap and limit social mobility.

Anyway, there are two key questions here: why is this happening? And what do you propose to do about it? It should come as no surprise that Brooks doesn't blame regressive tax policy, failure to raise the minimum wage, underspending on education, and the demise of unions for the increasing class divide. Instead he blames meritocracy. "Now, the upper class doesn't so much oppress the lower class. It just outperforms it generation after generation." There is some logic to this argument, though it implies that "merit" includes the ability to pay for an Ivy League education.

Finally, we get to the part about proposing what is to be done. Or rather, we don't. Brooks doesn't actually propose doing anything to redress the growing class divide. He does say this: "We can spend all we want on schools. But if families are disrupted, if the social environment is dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help." So Brooks's grand proposal for promoting social mobility is to not increase public education budgets. Visionary!

But actually, this is all quite consistent in its own terms. The point of the article is to call on President Bush to make the same kind of commitment to social mobility in his State of the Union address as he did to promoting international democracy in his inaugural address. In other words, a purely rhetorical commitment, which he will then betray and undermine in his policy decisions.