For David Brooks, the Rich Are People, the Poor Are Numbers

America’s favorite get-off-my-lawn cultural conservative is too sheltered to talk to the millions of people he criticizes over and over again

Everybody gets on famed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's case for quoting cab drivers, but say this about Friedman: At least he talks to somebody outside his own house.

The same can't be said for his colleague on the Times editorial page, David Brooks, who with this week's "The Cost of Relativism" column has written roughly his 10 thousandth odious article about how rich people are better parents than the poor, each one apparently written without the benefit of actually talking to any poor people.

The column is a review of a new book by the academic Robert Putnam called Our Kids, about a widening gap in the way the children of different classes are raised in America. Putnam begins his book by telling a story about his childhood in the Fifties in Port Clinton, Ohio, when both rich and poor children grew up in two-parent households where the fathers had steady jobs.

Since, then, Putnam argues, deindustrialization has led to increasingly segregated communities for the wealthy on the one hand, and a sharp decline in stability for poor children on the other. Here's Brooks describing the findings:

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do… High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.

Brooks then goes on to relate some of the horrific case studies from the book – more on those in a moment – before coming to his inevitable conclusion, which is that poor people need to get off the couch, stop giving in to every self-indulgent whim, and discipline their wild offspring before they end up leaving their own illegitimate babies on our lawns:

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Brooks has devoted an extraordinary amount of his literary efforts over the years to this subject, focusing particularly on declining marriage rates among the poor. He wrote a piece last winter that ludicrously pooh-poohed the issue of income inequality, citing certain "behaviors" among the poor that "damage their long-term income prospects" and cause a "fraying" of the social fabric, single motherhood being an example ("The Inequality Problem," January 16th, 2014).

In 2012, he wrote a prequel to this week's Putnam column in a piece called "The Opportunity Gap," about a Putnam study released back then that seems to be the basis for this new book. Brooks described how rich parents spent more time with their kids, invested more money in their development, and generally speaking, did the work needed to turn their children into superior patriotic specimens:

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

Brooks hints at some of the causes of this divide, like for instance the evaporation of real middle-class jobs. And he's been critical of these "self-segregating" instincts of the rich (although not to the point of suggesting a change to that behavior).

But his conclusion then was the same as it is now, that many of our social problems are caused by irresponsible behavior:

Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world… Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it.

Conversely, the only advice he had for conservatives was to be prepared to pay a new tax or two to help push the poor to commence their needed behavioral revival. Brooks seldom suggests that the wealthy need to change at all, beyond making more of an effort to let the less fortunate see what awesome examples they are.

Take an article last September ("Snap Out of It," September 22nd), in which – without kidding in the slightest – he chided the rich to cut down some on the private ski weekends and the hot cars, decreasing the appearance of unfairness and therefore "striking a blow for social cohesion." Here, he describes these "duties" of privilege:

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

Brooks is far from the first conservative to articulate blame-the-poor theories in print. He's also far from the first pundit to suggest we stop taking the easy way out by whining about income inequality and white-collar greed, when we should be facing an "uncomfortable" truth about lax morals in the lower classes.

So there's no particular reason to pick on him here, except that his writing style provides such a perfect window into how these blame-the-poor narratives come into being in the first place.

When David Brooks writes about rich people, he's basing his observations on personal experience, describing the wonders of modern bourgeois culture he's seen with his own eyes.

But when he writes about the poor, he's pretty much always citing some scary academic study. The rich are people to him, while the poor are numbers.

Interestingly, he's spoken dismissively about stats and studies in the past. Take this passage from Bobos in Paradise, which the reader will remember was an entire book Brooks once wrote about how modern American Yuppies ("Bourgeois Bohemians," or Bobos) had achieved an unsurpassable pinnacle of perfection in the areas of taste, refinement, morals and culture:

A word about the tone of this book. There aren't a lot of statistics in these pages. There's not much theory. Max Weber has nothing to worry about from me. I just went out and tried to describe how people are living, using a method that might best be described as comic sociology.

In other words, Brooks spent about 300 pages in Bobos hanging out with other affluent New Yorkers, drooling over their amazing taste in Nordic furniture and their physical superiority ("Their teeth," he wrote, without irony, "are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture"), and dreaming of the advanced beings that would issue from the Bobo marriages he saw announced in the Times society pages.

The book is full of personal accounts from these people he calls "Resume Gods." Right from the opening pages, he talks about how these people earned their exalted places at the societal table by controlling their biological urges:

These are kids who spent the crucial years between ages 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders. Others may have been rebelling at that age or feeling alienated or just basically exploring their baser natures. But the people who made it to [the Times society page] controlled their hormonal urges and spent their adolescence impressing teachers, preparing for the next debate tournament, committing themselves to hours and hours of extracurricular and volunteer work…

Forget for a moment that for millions of kids in this country, making it not just to wealth but to the distant minimalistic dream of a self-sustaining income and maybe some benefits involves a long journey of many years – one with obstacles far more tortuous than simply showing well at debate tournaments and doing volunteer work for the benefit of admissions counselors (obstacles like gazillions of hours working off student debt by waiting tables, working registers, or cleaning fryolators).

The more important issue is perspective. You never see Brooks hanging out with a single mom working two jobs, in any attempt to see the world through her eyes, to understand the challenges of raising a child alone.

What you do see is him writing columns blasting that same mom for relying on condoms instead of "long acting reversible contraceptives" like IUDs, which he says would cut down on the number of "unintended births" and the number of "children with unready parents."

In this week's column, he describes one such child of an unready parent, a boy profiled in Putnam's book:

Elijah grew up in a violent neighborhood and saw a girl killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 4. He burned down a lady's house when he was 13. He goes through periods marked by drugs, clubbing and sex but also dreams of being a preacher. "I just love beating up somebody," he told a member of Putnam's team, "and making they nose bleed and just hurting them and just beating them on the ground."

Segregation is segregation, whether it's economic or racial. In America it's usually both, and it's a major reason why people like Brooks are so quick to come up with blame-the-victim narratives when they talk about inequality, the collapse of the family, racism and other issues.

It's impossible to have empathy without contact. It's easy to blame someone you've never met. Not one of us is perfect in this area, but you have to at least try, and it doesn't seem like David tries.