Allison Kilkenny: Unreported – David Brooks and The Centuries of Magical Thinking

My new Maureen Dowd is on a roll this week. First, he declared an end to the era of opulence based on the rantings of a southern Baptist megachurch leader. Bobo made this bold proclamation during a time of enormous wealth disparity, and after poor taxpayers just dropped a couple trillion dollars bailing out Wall Street tycoons, who BTW, handed out record bonuses during the economic collapse.

Now, he argues that we are the middle of a “jobless recovery,” whatever that means. At first, I assumed he was talking about the people who wrecked the economy receiving fat bonuses, while the starving masses squirrel away food stamps. You know, “the right people” are recovering – prospering, even – while the undesirables suffocate under a mountain of debt and disease. After all, there’s not enough money for universal health care, but there’s enough cash to supply two ongoing military occupations.

Or perhaps Bobo was referring to America’s two tier justice system where the underclass forever toil and barely scrape by, occasionally bearing the full brunt of the courts, which imprison and enslave the working class for petty theft and drug-dealing, while the CEO of a company that dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, along with poisonous chemical dispersants, gets to go yachting with his buddies.

Alas, Bobo appears to be talking about magical thinking. He writes, “After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.” In his revised history of the United States, sometime around 1800, the economy simply “took off.” Like a miracle.

Actually, the country’s wealth came from slave labor. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, and the invention revolutionized the cotton industry. Suddenly, the industry could produce fifty times as much cotton as it could previously, but they needed people to run the gins. Hence, the need for a whole lot of slaves, the actual human beings responsible for the labor and influx of sweet, sweet cash.

The 1800s were also the time of the robber barons, a disparaging term applied to the individuals who dominated industries and amassed lavish fortunes utilizing anti-competitive practices. Railroad tycoons like Jay Gould and Russell Sage were famous for preying on average citizens in order to extort their savings in shady speculations, not unlike the considerably more complex housing bubble deals that wrecked the economy this time around. (Railroads were also built using slave labor, and did not simply “take off”).

So let’s be clear: The reason the economy “took off” in the 1800s was because of slave labor, and it only really “took off” for the right players, like robber barons, who lied, cheated, swindled, bullied, and intimidated in order to hoard the wealth.

It’s true that poorer farmers were able to move to more fertile land in the Midwest during this time, but only because of government-created national roads and waterways like the Cumberland Pike and Erie Canal – the very kind of big gumbent projects Conservatives are currently fighting tooth and nail not to build right now.

Bobo addresses none of this, and instead declares that the nation’s brilliant minds have gone Galt (!!!)

America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.

I always knew the decline of America could somehow be pegged on nonprofit activism. I just couldn’t clearly see the path. But now I do. Thank you, David.

Apparently, “less productive” doesn’t entail the personal wealth of the Galts themselves. Lawyers and Wall Street tycoons make a shitload of money, though I agree that their fields don’t generate mass wealth. However, that’s really more a problem of regulation – another bête noire of Conservatives. It’s not enough to hope and pray that a few good egg Harvard grads go up to Alaska to pioneer that small manufacturing company in Akron Brooks created out of thin air. Even if they go do that nobel thing, their classmates won’t. They’ll go work at Goldman Sachs, and continue America’s rich tradition of pirate-like thieving. For that reason, the financial industry still needs to be strongly (sorry, Republicans) regulated.

Bobo claims Americans’ crushing debt on their desire to emulate the Huxtables rather than the Kramdens. The truth is, wages have been stagnant in the U.S. for thirty years, and the industrial sector has been completely gutted as corporations ship their operations oversees to exploit slave labor. Health care costs have gone soaring, and many people are just one illness away from bankruptcy. Americans have literally been surviving on cheap credit, which also appears to be at an end now that the housing market melted down and student credit seems like it will be the next bubble to burst.

Yet, corporations’ most elite players are thriving. That’s not because of their ingenuity or brilliance, but rather because of nepotism, inheritance, and a keen ability to exploit slave labor.

Bobo dismisses the lower classes with the tired declaration that bad parenting is the cause of their woes. Children are being raised in one parent households. Their neighborhoods are chaotic. Their schools are bad. Why? He doesn’t bother answering the question because it’s not essential to his thesis that America is not in decline…for the right people. From behind the gates of their private communities, America continues to thrive for the elites. But for the poor people, who have nothing and fight to survive on minimum wage and exhausted credit, America is most certainly in decline.

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– Allison Kilkenny


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