Economy

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.”  

Indeed, the relationship between single parenthood and income inequality may go the other way around. As Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect notes, the influential sociologist William Julius Wilson argued that the decline of the two-parent family structure in the black community, and increasingly among working-class whites, resulted from the decline in well-paying, stable, blue-collar jobs, itself a result of deunionization and deregulation. 

And make no mistake: deunionization and deregulation have affected everyone, even those who aren’t members of unions. While the college-educated have fared better than those without college degrees, the status of even well-educated and upper-middle-class households is more precarious than ever. As Gabriel Winant wrote on Salon back in May, the cross-class alliances that progressives are trying to build now are based on increasing recognition that people from a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds are, as Winant puts it, “in the same fight”—the fight to protect jobs and benefits against the encroaching new norm of casual, part-time, and insecure work and consumption fueled by debt while upper management and administrative salaries continue to rise. 

This kind of analysis presents a problem for Brooks’ solution, which is actually not that Americans should be able to live a decent life without going to college, but that everyone should just go to college. Again, I’m not necessarily opposed to this argument—I don’t think you should have to go to college to get by, but I do think it should be possible for everyone who wants more education to afford it. But even I realize that increasing the supply of college-educated workers is not going to increase the demand for them. In fact, on its own, it’s likely to put even the college-educated at a greater disadvantage in the workforce, resulting in the same kind of hollowing-out that’s decimated the working class over the past 30 years.  

That’s why a living wage and decent benefits for all workers are essential to combatting poverty and inequality—and why organized political power and government regulation are essential to achieving those goals. This last point is not really in dispute: the story of inequality in America cannot be told without reference to the decline of political institutions protecting the interests of the working and middle classes—college- and non-college-educated alike—and the upper hand that accrued to the wealthy as a result.

As Kevin Drum writes, “It's a story about power. It's about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.” And that’s why it’s hard not to believe that pieces like Brooks' piece, and like Megan McArdle’s recent piece on the “rage of the almost-elite,” aren’t simply seeking to conquer and divide, to pit members of the 99 percent against each other with familiar tropes about elitism and snobbery, in order to divert attention from the actual problem at hand.  

To be sure, this isn’t the first time Brooks has written about structural economic issues—even very basic ones on which there has been a lot of research—as if they were simply the result of amorphous “values.” In past columns he’s described his vision of America’s future as one of an entire nation of the college-educated competing for exciting creative jobs atop the meritocratic pyramid; he seems not to understand that the accrual of ever more benefits to an ever-smaller number at the top is the result of just such an approach. If he’s ever thought seriously about what such a future holds for those who are left behind despite whatever educational opportunities they’ve had, he has yet to write about it.

That’s because none of this is really news. It's frustrating to have to repeat the same statistics yet again; to quote an exasperated Krugman, “Yes, college grads have done better than non; but inequality in America is mainly a story about a small elite pulling away from everyone else, including ordinary college grads. And we’ve known this for a long time! There is no excuse for getting it wrong.”

But excuses or not, the fact that Brooks’ column made it to the top of the Times’ most-emailed list means either that a lot of people are sending his piece around as an example of conservative cluelessness, or that there’s still a lot of work to be done in making the real causes of American inequality known.