David Brooks Actually Right About Thing, Wants To Build Back Better Too
They say even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but I honestly cannot recall a time when the New York Times's David Brooks has been right about anything. I have yet to recover from the time he thought gabagool and other Italian meats were beyond the ken of those without college degrees. I mean, I will be the first to admit that I have encountered people who have only ever seen Italian-American people on TV (and are sometimes a little weird about it), but that's geography. I'm pretty sure that regardless of their education level, they understood the concept of "ham." They might even know what capicola is, given that they actually do sell it everywhere and not just New York City.
But I digress! David Brooks is actually right this time. Sort of. He's about the most right David Brooks is capable of being. Brooks published a column yesterday about the Build Back Better reconciliation bill titled "This Is Why We Need to Spend $4 Trillion." It seems fair to say that if David Brooks, a man who cannot figure out how to politely say "It's ham" to a friend bewildered by sub shop options, can figure out that this bill is actually necessary, anyone ought to be able to.
I've spent the last few weeks in a controlled fury — and I'm not normally a fury kind of guy. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and others are trying to pass arguably the most consequential legislative package in a generation, and what did I sense in my recent travels across five states? The same thing I sense in my social media feed and on the various media "most viewed" lists.
Have we given up on the idea that policy can change history? Have we lost faith in our ability to reverse, or even be alarmed by, national decline? More and more I hear people accepting the idea that America is not as energetic and youthful as it used to be.
We've been told, for decades, by those with power, those with platforms, those like David Brooks, that it is bad and stupid and naïve to want things or to expect anything to change and that things being as terrible as they are is actually a wonderful, character-building experience for us all. The generations before us jacked up the price of college, refused to hire anyone who didn't go to college, kept wages as low as humanly possible (even for those who have college degrees), implemented right-to-work laws in order to kill unions, and then called us spoiled brats for not being able to pay back our ridiculous student loans and suggesting that maybe it is bad that we are all in horrible debt. They made rent impossibly high, houses impossible to afford, and then wrote snide articles about all of the lazy and childish millennials still living with their parents, not buying houses and not having children. It gets you down after a while!
David Brooks has called Medicare For All an "impossible dream." If the idea that maybe we could all go to the doctor when we are sick is just straight up laughable, I don't know how David Brooks expects too many people to really believe we can "reverse national decline."
I can practically hear the spirits of our ancestors crying out — the ones who had a core faith that this would forever be the greatest nation on the planet, the New Jerusalem, the last best hope of earth.
My ancestors were aspiring immigrants and understood where the beating heart of the nation resided: with the working class and the middle class, the ones depicted by Willa Cather, James Agee, Ralph Ellison, or in "The Honeymooners," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "On the Waterfront." There was a time when the phrase "the common man" was a source of pride and a high compliment.
Well, it's not the greatest nation on the planet. Other nations did things better than we did and made life more livable for "the common man."
Over the past few decades there has been a redistribution of dignity — upward. From Reagan through Romney, the Republicans valorized entrepreneurs, C.E.O.s and Wall Street. The Democratic Party became dominated by the creative class, who attended competitive colleges, moved to affluent metro areas, married each other and ladled advantages onto their kids so they could leap even further ahead.
Yes, this is true.
There was a bipartisan embrace of a culture of individualism, which opens up a lot of space for people with resources and social support, but means loneliness and abandonment for people without. Four years of college became the definition of the good life, which left roughly two-thirds of the country out.
And yet even that isn't a guaranteed ticket to the middle class. It's considered the bare minimum, like high school once was. Except it's a whole lot more expensive.
And so came the crisis that Biden was elected to address — the poisonous combination of elite insularity and vicious populist resentment.
Read again Robert Kagan's foreboding Washington Post essay on how close we are to a democratic disaster. He's talking about a group of people so enraged by a lack of respect that they are willing to risk death by Covid if they get to stick a middle finger in the air against those who they think look down on them. They are willing to torch our institutions because they are so resentful against the people who run them.
That is certainly A Thought but even I don't think that the kind of "respect" they want can be achieved through economic legislation or spending money on the right things. I do think that an economic climate where people feel ultimately hopeless is socially dangerous in that it has historically led to people being more vulnerable to radicalization, but I am not sure that is the problem with these particular people. But honestly I'm not going to dissuade people from thinking that it is, because hey, whatever gets shit done.
The Democratic spending bills are economic packages that serve moral and cultural purposes. They should be measured by their cultural impact, not merely by some wonky analysis. In real, tangible ways, they would redistribute dignity back downward. They would support hundreds of thousands of jobs for home health care workers, child care workers, construction workers, metal workers, supply chain workers. They would ease the indignity millions of parents face having to raise their children in poverty.
This is good. This is the part that is good and in which David Brooks is correct. This bill would restore dignity to a whole lot of people and that is a very good way of thinking about it.
In normal times I'd argue that many of the programs in these packages may be ineffective. I'm a lot more worried about debt than progressives seem to be. But we're a nation enduring a national rupture, and the most violent parts of it may still be yet to come.
Well, there won't be any debt because the package is spread out over 10 years and is fully paid for, but it is worth considering that you have to spend money to make money. This package will lead to Americans making more money, having more money to spend and therefore more tax revenue all over the place. If we don't invest in our country, if we don't invest in our people, in our children — if we don't make it possible for everyone to earn a fair living, we are not going to have a whole lot of tax revenue in the long run, which will lead to more debt. This is not a spending bill, it is an investment bill.
These packages say to the struggling parents and the warehouse workers: I see you. Your work has dignity. You are paving your way. You are at the center of our national vision.
This is how you fortify a compelling moral identity, which is what all of us need if we're going to be able to look in the mirror with self-respect. This is the cultural transformation that good policy can sometimes achieve. Statecraft is soulcraft.
Yes, yes and yes.
We have spent a lot of years in this country telling people that if they can't make it here, in a country we have made it incredibly difficult to make it in, that they are morally deficient and not worthy of any respect. We let things go too far, we let things get really bad for people, and it's going to take a lot of work to reverse that. The more we put it off, the more expensive and less sustainable it is going to get.
It is lovely that David Brooks is on board. He should be. Everyone should be. Hopefully some others can get on the ball and figure that out before it's too late.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse