David Brooks's Anti-Poverty Program: "Bourgeois Paternalism"

02/15/2012 07:52 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

In his latest column David Brooks argues against what he calls "economic determinism" in analyzing the underlying causes of poverty in America. After telling his readers he isn't going to blame the poor for being poor because of their bad behavior, he plows right ahead and blames the poor for being poor because of their bad behavior. Brooks's blend of snarky elitism and grand totalizing theories about human behavior is nothing short of class warfare for the arugula-chomping set.

Opinion pieces are normally expected to identify problems and offer potential solutions. Brooks fails on both counts. He doesn't understand the problem he claims to be analyzing, and the "solution" he offers, "bourgeois paternalism," isn't a solution at all.

We already know that everything Brooks writes serves power perfectly (hence his undeserved perch in the pages of the nation's "paper of record"), but for some reason he feels compelled to beat up on poor people who are clearly inaudible to him. Brooks writing about poverty is like a celibate writing about sex: it's something he knows nothing about.

Thrice in this short piece Brooks throws around the term "economic determinism" without bothering to define it. I found this line of reasoning particularly galling because it's clear that Brooks confuses "economic determinism" with "economic analysis." And I also was taken aback that he would venture into that kind of criticism after all of those columns he wrote extolling the virtues of George W. Bush's "ownership society." During the halcyon housing bubble days he used to argue that we could afford to privatize Social Security because so many people owned their own homes and therefore would have stable retirements because of home equity. (Sounds pretty "economically deterministic" to me.)

Even when the U-6 unemployment rate is hovering at about 16 percent, Brooks casts his "values" judgment against the poor -- not against their shoddy neighborhood services or against their plummeting wage rates or all the other dismal failures of the capitalist economy -- but against their behavior, because looking at any of the social class indicators, according to Brooks, automatically devolves into "economic determinism."

Instead, Brooks offers up Santorum-esque clichés implying that if we could only roll back gender roles to the 1950s, everything would be peachy. Coming on the heels of the Komen Foundation's attack on Planned Parenthood and the Catholic bishops throwing their cultural weight around on the issue of contraception, this is just so much red meat thrown to an aroused Republican base slathered with a hollandaise sauce of pseudo-intellectualism. "The share of Americans born out of wedlock is now at 40 percent and rising," Brooks points out. So while his ideological kinsmen do all they can to deny birth control coverage (or abortions) to low-income women and limit their reproductive choices he denounces these same women for their stupidity in having too many babies and having them out of wedlock. I must be missing something.

In a nuanced analysis from a clear-thinking source, such as the sociologist William Julius Wilson, acknowledging the cycles of behavior among the underclass fills out the statistics. But when Brooks or Charles Murray or Robert Rector deploy their behavioral explanations for poverty it's done because it's a great justification for the long-term right-wing project of tearing apart what's left of the social safety net. If poverty is the result of bad choices and bad behavior then who needs social programs? When these guys discount the outsourcing of jobs, the pummeling of labor unions, stagnant wages, and Gilded Age levels of inequality as nothing more than "economic determinism" they're being intellectually dishonest.

Brooks doesn't like "critics in the left-wing blogosphere" because he claims they have "reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism." I wish he'd define that term. Is it really that difficult for Brooks to understand that crushing poverty and economic insecurity contribute to creating desperate people who might behave in ways that a Manhattan millionaire might not approve of? Rich people make bad choices too, David -- they often get divorced (just ask Newt Gingrich) and they often abuse a lot of expensive prescription drugs. Yet somehow their behavior escapes the tsk-tsking.

"I don't care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn't make sense to drop out of high school," Brooks writes. But if you have to help support your family with a minimum wage job and your political "leaders" tells you daily that you don't matter and have no future, then it makes perfect sense to drop out of high school. James Baldwin said that the most dangerous thing any society can create is the person who has nothing to lose.

Then comes the piece de resistance: to "rebuild orderly communities," Brooks writes, it requires "bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly."

But maybe, David, these "organizations" and "structures" don't really need "paternalism" at all -- "bourgeois" or otherwise. Maybe strong labor unions that counter the downward pressure on wages can serve as "organizations." And maybe job opportunities through investing in public institutions and the public ownership of utilities and other public goods could be the "structures" to help lift people out of poverty. Instead of "bourgeois paternalism" how about "proletarian empowerment?" Brooks is blind to the obvious counterpoint to his little bullshit model.

Brooks's misguided article on the causes of poverty in America reminded me of something I read recently by the late Tony Judt. Judt shared some of his thoughts about his encounter with Brooks on the Charlie Rose Show and offered a couple of insights into his shtick:

"The mention of David Brooks recalls a . . . conversation with him on the Charlie Rose show. It was about what the U.N. could do to solve the Iraq crisis, rather than leaving it to America to just do its own thing. Brooks was arguing very smoothly that the U.N. was useless and couldn't be counted on to do anything forceful. He said: look at how useless it was in the Balkans. I went into some detail at that point about the resolution of the Kosovo crisis, and, in particular, the role of international agencies there - in catastrophic situations, I argued, it was still possible for international agencies to do good things, precisely because they were international agencies. And I expected Brooks to come back with: what about this, this and this. Instead, he just said: well, I don't know anything about that. And changed the subject." (Thinking the Twentieth Century, New York: Penguin, 2012, p. 312)

"And I remember thinking: you've gone on television, made ex cathedra statements against the whole idea of international action to resolve political crises in dangerous places, making a case for America to do its own thing because no one else can; and then when you're pushed on it, you say: well, I don't actually know what I'm talking about." (p. 313)

"Brooks is an interesting case because it's all done with mirrors -- there is no expertise. The apparent expertise consists of the capacity to talk glibly each week about any public event in a way that readers have gotten used to thinking of as a sort of enlightened commentary." (p. 314)

"Men like Brooks know, literally, nothing." (p. 313)