Timothy Noah

When Did David Brooks Turn Into My Grandmother?

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My paternal grandmother was the most determinedly pessimistic person I ever met. She witnessed during her lifetime a Great Depression and (from her perch in the Bronx) two world wars, but had she been born into a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity I doubt she would have been a more hopeful person. On Nov. 10, 1989, I happened to be visiting my parents in California. Nana, then approaching 90 and in failing health, was sitting at the breakfast table when I came downstairs. Glancing at the front page of the New York Times, I resolved to make what I knew would be my very last attempt to change Nana's gloomy weltanschauung. Picking up the newspaper, I said:

"Nana, look! The Berlin Wall fell yesterday. Millions of people across Eastern Europe are breaking the shackles of Soviet hegemony and acquiring their freedom. Communism is dying. The Cold War is over."

"Isn't that ... great?"

Nana paused, sighed, and said: "Sooner or later, somebody's gonna get knocked off."

There are days when David Brooks reminds me of Nana, and not in a good way. Today is one of them. Paul Krugman, in his blog, announces that many people are urging him to "weigh in" on Brooks's column, says he's "not gonna do a tit-for-tat," then kind of does one anyway, because of course he can't resist. (The barely-polite warfare between Krugman and Brooks is one of the greatest ongoing entertainments in contemporary journalism.) 

Brooks in essence argues that we don't really deserve prosperity or income equality or anything else liberals want because the country is "middle-aged" and "self-indulgent." We fuck too much and we save too little. Or something. Brooks was a big promoter of Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation, which argued that all the easy innovations and productivity gains have been made and from here on in we'll have a long-hard slog. This is just as speculative, I argued in my review of the book, as the assumption (widely shared during the late 1990s) that we were on the verge of fantastic economic growth that would ripple down to all income levels. Just as speculative, and probably just as wrong.

The middle class is not doomed. We're a bit overloaded with debt, both public and private, but that isn't the catastrophe here that it is, say, in Europe right now (and even there the crisis will pass). We live in a democracy and the economic problems we face can be addressed. The unfavorable trends can be eased or reversed. They are not the result of unstoppable forces in the world economy or the laws of nature. America is not fated to suffer because David Brooks woke up on Boxing Day feeling dyspeptic and pompous. Even for Brooks, this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, David, if you're going to be my grandmother, the least you can do is learn how to cook up a decent batch of chopped liver.

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