Just when you thought it was safe to go back to reading--okay; skimming--David Brooks (and just when I was despairing over Bill Kristol's exit from the New York Times, feeling bereft of a dependable source of right-wing dishonesty), the man known in our house as "that idiot" delivers one more piece of semi-knowing, para-amusing, pseudo-droll drek offering more proof, as if any were needed, that he still, when he grows up, wants to be Tom Wolfe.
It arrives in the form of today's offering, "Ward Three Morality," in which, tongue planted firmly in cheek and head stuffed tightly up ass, Brooks takes issue with how the standards and values of D.C.'s Ward Three ("...a section of Northwest Washington, D.C., where many Democratic staffers, regulators, journalists, lawyers, Obama aides and senior civil servants live.") are being foisted upon the nation's "rich people."
First, there were those auto executives who didn't realize that it is no longer socially acceptable to use private jets for lobbying trips to Washington. Then there was John Thain, who was humiliated because it is no longer acceptable to spend $35,000 on a commode for a Merrill Lynch washroom.
You see where this is going: "didn't realize," "socially acceptable," "humiliating." Brooks is pretending (or he actually believes) that public condemnation of corporate extravagance, when practiced by executives the effects of whose bungling, ineptitude, greed, and malfeasance are being ameliorated by public money, is--entertainingly, faux-tragically--simply a matter of changing fashion.
The essence of the problem is this: Rich people used to set their own norms. For example, if one rich person wanted to use the company helicopter to aerate the ponds on his properties, and the other rich people on his board of directors thought this a sensible thing to do, then he could go ahead and do it without any serious repercussions.
But now, after the TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus package, the Fed rescue packages and various other federal interventions, rich people no longer get to set their own rules. Now lifestyle standards for the privileged class are set by people who live in Ward Three.
"Rich people no longer get to set their own rules." Oh, David, you wag! This is like saying that, having been sentenced to a twenty-year bounce upstate for armed robbery, I find myself forced to endure the "lifestyle standards" set--arbitrarily, in my view--by some so-called "warden."
You have to wonder: Does it go on like this? Does it get worse? Yes. It goes on like this and it gets worse:
Thanks to recent and coming bailouts and interventions, the people in Ward Three run the banks and many major industries. Through this power, they get to insert themselves into the intricacies of upscale life, influencing when private jets can be flown, when friends can lend each other their limousines and at what golf resorts corporate learning retreats can be held.
"Corporate learning retreats"--stop, you're killing me. Brooks thinks he's being amusing and, to the legions of right-wing sycophants, libertarian nitwits, daddy-worshipers, authority-catamites, Randroids, wing-nuts, and orc-conservative who embrace Social Darwinism but shun actual Darwinism, he may be. (One of these--go pretend to be surprised--is Jonah Goldberg, to whom Brooks' piece is "a great column with some real insights.") The rest of us wait, with saintly patience, for him come off it and admit that he has no real intention of devoting an entire column to a display of massive disingenuousness in order to pretend to be Christopher Lasch. Instead, we get this:
On any given Saturday, half the people in Ward Three are arranging panel discussions for the other half to participate in. They live in modest homes with recently renovated kitchens and Nordic Track machines crammed into the kids' play areas downstairs (for some reason, people in Ward Three are only interested in toning the muscles in the lower halves of their bodies).
Brooks probably knows one family with a Nordic Track in the basement, and that's good enough for him. (What? No Sub-Zero PRO 48 in the "renovated kitchen"? How hard can it be to do what I did--Google "Sub-Zero" and there's your telling detail.) But the brand-name hi-jinx is for the punters. The meat of the piece is, as always, in the psychological analysis:
In the first place, many people in Ward Three suffer from Sublimated Liquidity Rage. As lawyers, TV producers and senior civil servants, they make decent salaries, but 60 percent of their disposable income goes to private school tuition and study abroad trips. They have little left over to spend on themselves, which generates deep and unacknowledged self-pity.
Second, they suffer from what has been called Status-Income Disequilibrium. At work they are flattered and feared. But they still have to go home and clean out the gutters because they can't afford full-time household help.
Third, they suffer the status rivalries endemic to the upper-middle class. As law school grads, they resent B-school grads. As Washingtonians, they resent New Yorkers. As policy wonks, they resent people with good bone structure.
In short, people in Ward Three disdain three things: cleavage, hunting and dumb people who are richer than they are. Rich people have to learn to adapt to the new power structure if they hope to survive.
How "bone structure" leads to "cleavage" is best left for a future discussion of conservative pathologies. Meanwhile, like the interminable set of a bad standup, it goes on and on in the same vein. As usual with Brooks, we get sober, nicely-crafted sentences conveying a message of stunning dishonesty. His point is that the "morality" of the jealous, bitter, self-pitying bureaucrats is being shoved down the throats of their well-meaning, if now temporarily incapacitated, betters. And, as with everything Brooks writes, it's half true. It is a moral issue.
In fact, we note with amusement, it's the inverse of Ronald Reagan's legendary, and probably apocryphal, "Welfare Queen," that stupid broad who supposedly used food stamps to buy booze, and in so doing embodied the moral turpitude of a) the welfare state; b) some, or really many, or really most, or probably all, poor people; and c) Democrats.
Here, see, it's the other way around: Rich people being bailed out by the government should--morally--still be allowed to indulge in whatever they want. It's their lifestyle, you see.
David Brooks is the sort of conservative pundit, discredited by the last eight years but who still has to make a living, who can write this:
People in Ward Three have nationalized extravagance and privatized Puritanism. Under their rule, the federal government is permitted to throw hundreds of billions of dollars around on a misguided bank bailout, but if a banker like John Thain spends $1,500 on a wastepaper basket then all hell breaks loose.
Got that? It's "Puritan" to think $1,500 for a trash can (or $35,000 for a toilet) is excessive, but "extravagant" to try to forestall a depression. Then again, maybe Brooks truly believes all the above. Of course, it's likely that at this point he doesn't know what he believes, but still: Maybe some shortcoming, either in his moral education or in the wiring of his brain, prevents him from seeing that, when your failures are being mitigated by other people's money, you owe it--to your benefactors, out of respect to their sense of what is appropriate--to modulate the indulging of your desire for luxury. That's what makes it "luxury" in the first place.
Of course it's all relative. Of course one person's idea of living it up is another's idea of barely getting by. But unless the exex under discush are complete sociopaths--and they might be--they know full well what's being asserted by the critics Brooks sneers at. Or does John Thain think he'd mind if, having loaned a niece or nephew ten grand, the child spent it on crack? "But Uncle John, I need it." How'd that be?
Welcome back, David. It's nice to know that, even in the era of Obama, you and your kind will still be there to inform, to instruct, and to provide me with something to write about.
Cross-posted at What HE Said