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Why David Brooks Is Totally Wrong About Income Inequality and the 99%

Brooks' latest tries to dismiss the conflict between the 99% and the 1% -- here's why he gets it wrong.

When I saw that the most-emailed article at the  New York Times  a couple of days ago was a David Brooks piece titled “The Wrong Inequality,” my heart sank a little. After I read the article, in which Brooks claims that the focus on “blue state” inequality between the super-elite and the rest has crowded out discussion of “red state” inequality between people who have and haven’t graduated from college, my heart sank a little more. 

Brooks is peddling a premise—that differing levels of education are the cause of the most important inequalities in America today— that threatens to give ammunition to those who would seek to weaken the power of the 99 percent.

Brooks claims there are "two inequalities" in America today: "Blue Inquality," as experienced in big cities, where a tiny fraction of elites have zoomed ahead of everyone else, and "Red Inequality," as experienced in the rest of the country, where the main divide is between college graduates and high school graduates. While the Occupy protests have focused attention on the former inequality, Brooks argues, the latter is actually more important. 

Of course, it's true that there are significant differences in income and quality of life among the 99 percent that the slogan can obscure. The gap in opportunity between those with and without college educations remains problematic, even if it’s not growing anywhere near as fast as that between the 1 percent and the rest. Not going to college should not doom you to a lifetime of unemployment, poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare. It’s also true that family structure and educational attainment are often replicated across generations.

Usually, I'd be thrilled that Brooks is writing about this kind of inequality—that is, if he weren’t suggesting we forget about the “blue state” inequality between the 1 percent and the 99 percent in the process. What Brooks fails to mention is that these two forms of inequality fundamentally stem from the same imbalance in the American economy and political system--you don't have to live in the same city as the 1 percent to have been negatively affected by their meteoric rise.

Paul Krugman, though he doesn’t explicitly take Brooks to task,  totally dismantles his argument  with a couple of simple graphs showing that while the gap between the college-educated and the non-educated has risen slightly over the past 20 years, the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else has positively exploded. There’s a reason the slogan is “We are the 99 percent,” and it’s not just that snobby liberal arts majors in blue state cities (like, er, Houston?) are scornful of business-school types.  

Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson  explicitly made this point  in a largely sympathetic critique of Larry Bartels’s study of inequality and political power,  Unequal Democracy,  noting that while Bartels measured the growth in inequality between those at the 80th percentile of income and those at the 20th, the real growth was undeniably among the top 1 percent of earners. And as economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have emphasized, inequality gets even worse the higher you go. That is, the top 10 percent of the 1 percent earns an even more disproportionate amount of income, with the top .1 percent of Americans receiving an astonishing 7.7 percent of total income. And the gain in income among the top 1 percent  came almost entirely  at the expense of the bottom 80 percent--not solely at the expense of those without college educations. 

Plus, while Brooks trots out a favorite conservative explanation for income disparity—family structure—single parenthood bears basically zero responsibility for the massive growth in income inequality, as  Timothy Noah explained  in his excellent series on inequality at Slate a few months back. As Noah points out, a  2008 study  by Harvard sociologists Bruce Western, Deirdre Bloome and Christine Percheski demonstrates that while single parenthood did contribute to increased income inequality between 1975-2005, the effect was canceled out by the increased employment among single mothers, while within-group inequality rose regardless of family structure. As they write, “shifts in educational inequality, family structure, and women’s employment explain only a little of the growth in income inequality….no skill level or family type was spared from the rising heterogeneity of incomes.”  

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