​David Brooks Says Real Inequality Is That Poor People Are Worthless

Self-loathing New York Times thought-leader David Brooks has an admonition for everyone today: You do not understand this "income inequality" you are all talking about. People assume that just because the very richest people have ever more money, and the much greater numbers of poor people have less money, this constitutes a systemic problem:

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them "inequality."

Rich people's claim on an unequal share of the money is so unrelated to poor people's unequal share of the money, in fact, that after this paragraph, Brooks never mentions the rich-people part again. Some sets of problems just aren't worth trying to do anything about.

But the poor! Afflicted as they are by "high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on"—what shall we do about them?

If you think the problem is "income inequality," then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.

Or, perhaps, incomes at the bottom could be increased by taking a greater share of money from the rich and giving it to the poor, directly, through progressive taxation and welfare? But that would imply that the rich and the poor are part of the same system, which we have already established they are not. The people who derive abundant profit from current economic conditions and the people who are unable to find jobs in the current economic conditions—what do they have in common? Nothing that David Brooks can see.

No, the problems of the poor are that they are trapped by "complex social, cultural, behavioral and economic problems," by which Brooks mostly means bad behavior: "single motherhood...high school dropout rates...the fraying of social fabric...behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects." These are "complex" (again!) "and morally fraught" issues.

The "fraught" part is that small-minded liberals still get mad when you blame poor people for ruining their own lives by being morally defective. This prevents everyone from being able to implement policies that truly help the poor:

Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we're going to pass bipartisan legislation, we're going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none.

(Since Brooks has taken a passing interest in the question of smarm, let's note that arguing that reasonable bipartisan legislation should start with one party's agenda topmost is definitive political smarm.)

"Human capital" is the thought-leader way to talk about moral inferiority without seeming to scold. The problem with the poor is that they just aren't valuable enough. They make poor decisions, like dropping out of school or being born to single mothers, which prevent them from being the kind of workers our society needs.

Oh, another problem is that there are "no jobs for young men." Brooks mentions this fact throughout his column—"de-industrialization," "they are not working full-time or at all"—yet never names a single policy that would directly address it, as part of his "policy revolution." The alternative to primitive economic thinking, it seems, is magical thinking.