Tuesday, December 14

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

David Brooks, "Ben Franklin's Nation". December 13

I DON'T know about you, but indolence is about the most exhausting pursuit I can manage. I wonder, sometimes, about the mental labor required to, say, make Al Hamilton, who never saw a smokestack, into a facilitator of foundries and prophet of Silicon Valley. Does Brooks have to train for this sort of thing? I need a nap just thinking about it. I know he makes a lot more money at it than I do (for one thing, he makes money), but the fact that there's not enough money in the world to get me to say shit like that isn't entirely due to the fact that I'm required to confront my own reflection every so often.

Today it's Ben Franklin: Champion of the Suburbite; we might note right off the bat that the case consists of Brooks declaring it, three-quarters of the way through the piece, and then steadfastly ignoring anything that might qualify as nuance, say, or biography, or evidence. I suppose it's possible Brooks at some point opened Franklin's autobiography, in which the great man comes across as a callow, money-grubbing young printer at a time when running a printing press was the equivalent of owning the rights to a wildly popular video game title today. That's not the Franklin we revere, or at least it's not the one we used to revere before Texas re-wrote the history books.

It's not important, because Brooks has about as much interest in Franklin--even the sort of Franklin who might be invoked the way another hack might put Don Quixote on Wall Street or Hamlet in the Republican caucus--as the Texas legislature has in History. No, we are gathered here today to hear the surprising tale of how Global Capitalism just keeps making the world better for everybody, especially the American Middle Class, which really needs to lighten up on the expectation of being paid more than Mexicans, but should stick with the Hard Work/Don't Ask Questions/Vote for your Betters program which got it this far.
After you read this column, go to YouTube and search “Hans Rosling and 200 countries.” You’ll see a Swedish professor describe the growth of global wealth and well-being over the past 200 years.

He presents an animated time-lapse chart. It starts in 1810, when the nations of the world were clumped on the bottom left-hand side of the chart because they had low income and low life expectancy. Then the industrial revolution kicks in and the nations of the West surge upward and to the right as they get richer and healthier. By 1948, it’s like a race, with the United States out front and the other nations of the world stretched in a long tail behind.

Proving the old adage "Anyone who found the two World Wars to be an enormity didn't own enough GM stock".
Then, over the last few decades, the social structure of the world changes. The Asian and Latin American countries begin to catch up. With the exception of the African nations, living standards start to converge. Now most countries are clumped toward the top end of the chart, thanks to the incredible reductions in global poverty and improvements in health.

Well, that, and the chart scale.

I know I may have said this before, but Th' fuck makes these guys go on about this shit interminably? And why are they so quick to chalk it up to the thoughtful generosity of 19th century English mill owners? The major improvement in the quality of life since 1810 is public health. Sewage disposal. Safe drinking water. Vaccinations. Food inspection. Y'know the entire litany of stuff the Brookses in this country oppose, obstruct, and applaud Ronald Reagan for gutting before turning the remnants over to industry groups to regulate for themselves. The sort of thing they spend half their allotted annual column inches trying to convince the lower classes to elect Republicans to prevent. The sort of thing they expect will be provided for themselves, gratis and regardless, of course.

Mine isn't a partisan argument--although the argument it opposes is--it's an epistemological one. Back in the perfect 50s we didn't teach children that All The Modern Advancements they enjoyed were due to a reasonable rate of return, free from confiscatory taxes. We taught them they were due to Louis Pasteur and Jane Addams, to Helen Keller and Joseph Lister and John Snow and Jonas Salk and Sara Josephine Baker. All of whom, nowadays, would apparently be running hedge funds or operating import/export businesses or social networking sites.
To be middle class is to have money to spend on non-necessities. But it also involves a shift in values. Middle-class parents have fewer kids but spend more time and money cultivating each one. They often adopt the bourgeois values — emphasizing industry, prudence, ambition, neatness, order, moderation and continual self-improvement. They teach their children to lead different lives from their own, and as Karl Marx was among the first to observe, unleash a relentless spirit of improvement and openness that alters every ancient institution.

Last year, the Pew Research Center surveyed the global middle class and found that middle-class people are more likely than their poorer countrymen to value democracy, free speech and an objective judiciary. They were more likely to embrace religious pluralism and say that you don’t have to believe in God to be good.

Although there has been a slight decline in "Sending their own sons off to fight brown people." Hey, times change.
To do this, we’d have to do a better job of celebrating and defining middle-class values. We’d have to do a better job of nurturing our own middle class. We’d have to have the American business class doing what it does best: catering to every nook and cranny of the middle-class lifestyle. And we’d have to emphasize that capitalism didn’t create the American bourgeoisie. It was the social context undergirding capitalism — the community clubs, the professional societies, the religious charities and Little Leagues.

What, red-lining real estate cartels, exclusive country clubs, de facto segregated Northern schools, and White Citizens Councils can't get any love?

Look, I understand where this sort of thing comes from: there's a helluva lot riding on the once-Middle class' continued delusion of the importance of keeping the congenitally wealthy in the style to which they are accustomed. I just don't understand what makes someone keep doing it after fifty. As Basho once said, How much better can ya eat?


bjkeefe said...

The major improvement in the quality of life since 1810 is public health. Sewage disposal. Safe drinking water. Vaccinations. Food inspection. Y'know the entire litany of stuff the Brookses in this country oppose, obstruct, and applaud Ronald Reagan for gutting before turning the remnants over to industry groups to regulate for themselves.

Not to mention workplace safety standards and emissions restrictions.

satch said...

Off topic, but might I suggest that you cuff some sense into Mona Charen? She seems to think that Mitch Daniels is just what we need in 2012.

R. Porrofatto said...

It's fascinating as usual that anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty writing about the rise of the middle class in this country after WWII would do so without once using the words "labor unions" or "productivity." Community clubs and Little Leagues didn't create the American middle class, or "middle-class dignity" for chrissakes, rising wages did. From the 40's to 1980, the median wage tracked almost in parallel with increasing productivity. The installation of Reagan by his Banana Republican backers initiated the reversal of decades of these gains, while enabling the Wall St. kleptocracy and elevating greed as our highest national and moral purpose.

Brooks wants to celebrate American values, but the set of values he's been pimping has put the middle-class into a financial death spiral. The consequent deteriorating quality of life for most Americans is no big deal for Brooks, our "aura" will pay the bills and telling the right story will put food on the table. And if that doesn't work, we only need to define ourselves by our "values" -- just read a few more rags to respectability stories penned by an authoritarian religious child molester, and all will be Grover's Corners once again.

Thank god we have such sermonizers in the pages of the NY Times to get us through these hard times.

Keifus said...

Yet another excellent post, DHR.

Brooks has a fundamental problem: once you start to use the "better lives for more people" metric to justify things like imperialism and the accelerated enrichment of our betters, then you start to invite "revisionist" analyses that actually look at numbers to evaluate those things in a universal way. Life expectancy has doubled since 1850 (for the reasons you mentioned), but our odds of intentional death (mostly from war and its results) have tripled. On one hand, the germ theory of disease, on the other, our modern societies have somehow managed to out-murder the ones from the colonial days, which is really saying something.

Augustus Mulliner said...

Walter Reuther. That's all; just Walter Effing Reuther.