Take four bites of David Brooks and call me in the morning
If I were your editor, you’d probably ask for another one because I have this obnoxious habit of dropping on a reporter’s desk a copy of a story that makes me think about life in a more complex or clearer way–whether it’s on the reporter’s beat or not. I only did this with reporters who seemed interested in the world around them, the way you’d burn a CD for a friend who liked music but hadn’t heard a band that stirred you.
Today’s handout consists of four David Brooks columns in the New York Times, in which he tackles the issues of class and poverty, a subject he has been wrestling with for the better part of the year.
If we’re supposed to take the Internet as an onrushing Battle at Gettysberg, if we’re supposed to play to our strengths, we have to learn to be more interesting–to think more deeply. Columnists can lead the way, certainly, but reporters need to learn go deeper more often. Enjoy these.
TRUCK STOP CONFIDENTIAL
Last Saturday evening, I found myself at the counter of a truck stop diner in Caroline County, Va. I was sitting next to a weathered trucker whose accent betrayed an East Texas upbringing and a lifetime devoted to tobacco products. We quickly established that we were both celebrating birthdays. He was 68.
He’d been trucking for 46 years, away from home for nine months a year for most of them. He’d run through five marriages and now traveled with a little dog.
His son, who dropped out of school at 15, was also a trucker. His brothers and nephews were truckers. He’d tried to retire from trucking a few years ago, but he didn’t like fishing so now he is back on the road driving routes like this one, from Las Vegas to Newport News.
He wanted to be a trucker since he was a little boy. Several years ago, he calculated that he had driven more than 8 million miles.
As he talked, eating a dessert of sugar-coated strawberries, his love of trucking infused every sentence. He had rebuilt his own vintage truck from the radiator on back. He described the challenges of hauling saltwater from the oil fields and huge turbines across country.
He talked about the time two young women rear-ended him doing 110 miles per hour in a Camaro (they survived), about the dangers of marrying your secretary, about the introduction of power steering and about the two stints in the Army that interrupted his life on the road.
Karl Marx once observed that ”Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature.” Here was a guy who had found in trucking the activity of his essential nature. I don’t know what came first, the mystique of trucking or the country music songs that defined the mystique, but this trucker had been captured by the ethos early on and had never let it go. He wore the right boots and clothes. He had a flat, never-surprised way of talking. He didn’t smile or try to ingratiate.
He has one of those hard jobs, like mining and steel-working, that comes with its own masculine mythology and way of being in the world. Jobs performed in front of a keyboard don’t supply a code of dignity, which explains the spiritual anxiety that plagues the service economy.
As the trucker spoke, I was reminded of a book that came out a few years ago called ”The Dignity of Working Men,” by the sociologist, Michele Lamont, who is now at Harvard. Lamont interviewed working-class men, and described what she calls ”the moral centrality of work.”
Her subjects placed tremendous emphasis on working hard, struggling against adversity and mastering their craft. Her book is an antidote to simplistic notions of class structure, because it makes clear that these men define who is above and below them in the pecking order primarily in moral, not economic terms.
People in other classes may define the social structure by educational attainment, income levels and job prestige, but these men are more likely to understand the social hierarchy on the basis of who can look out for themselves, who has the courage to be a fireman, a soldier or a cop, who has the discipline to put bread on the table every night despite difficulties.
When Lamont’s subjects looked at professionals and managers, they didn’t necessarily see their social superiors. They saw manipulators. They defined themselves as straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip guys. People who worked in offices, who worked by persuasion, were dismissed for being insincere, for playing games.
This is why class resentment in the U.S. is so complicated, despite inequality and lagging wages. When it comes to how people see the world, social and moral categories generally trump economic ones.
This is why successful populist movements always play on moral and social conditions first, and economic ones only later. This is why they appeal to the self-esteem of the working class, not on any supposed sense of victimization. This is why their protests are directed not against the rich, but against the word manipulators — the lawyers, consultants and the news media.
The trucker I met Saturday in Virginia not only believed in the American Dream, he believed he had achieved it. He owned his own truck. He owned a nice house in Texas on a lake near the Louisiana border. His brother owned five trucks.
He probably drew certain conclusions from the way I dress and talk. But if he was at all curious about what I did, he didn’t show it, or didn’t want to veer off into topics where he wasn’t in control. Instead, he talked about the things any guy would want to put at the center of his life: highways, engines, hauling, dogs and food.
I didn’t ask about the wives.
A REALITY-BASED ECONOMY
If you’ve paid attention to the presidential campaign, you’ve heard the neopopulist story line. CEOs are seeing their incomes skyrocket while the middle class gets squeezed. The tides of globalization work against average Americans while most of the benefits go to the top 1 percent.
This story is not entirely wrong, but it is incredibly simple-minded. To believe it, you have to suppress a whole string of complicating facts.
— The first complicating fact is that after a lag, average wages are rising. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years.
— The second complicating fact is that according to the Congressional Budget Office, earnings for the poorest fifth of Americans are also on the increase. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution noted recently in the Washington Post, between 1991 and 2005, “the bottom fifth increased its earnings by 80 percent, compared with around 50 percent for the highest-income group and around 20 percent for each of the other three groups.”
— The third complicating fact is that despite years of scare stories, income volatility is probably not trending upward. A study by the CBO has found that incomes are no more unstable now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
— Fourth, recent rises in inequality have less to do with the grinding unfairness of globalization than with the reality that the market increasingly rewards education and hard work.
A few years ago, the rewards for people earning college degrees seemed to flatten out. But more recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the education premium is again on the rise.
— Fifth, companies are getting more efficient at singling out and rewarding productive workers. A study by the economists Thomas Lemieux, Daniel Parent and W. Bentley MacLeod suggests that as much as 24 percent of the increase in male wage inequality is due to performance pay.
— Sixth, inequality is also rising in part because people up the income scale work longer hours. In 1965, less educated Americans and more educated Americans worked the same number of hours a week. But today, many highly educated people work like dogs while those down the income scale have seen their leisure time increase by a phenomenal 14 hours a week.
— Seventh, it’s not at all clear that the big winners in this economy are self-dealing corporate greedheads who are bilking shareholders. A study by Steven N. Kaplan and Joshua Rauh finds that it’s not corporate honchos who are filling up the ranks of the filthy rich. It’s hedge fund managers. Or, as Kaplan and Rauh put it, “the top 25 hedge fund managers combined appear to have earned more than all 500 S&P 500 CEOs combined.” The hedge fund guys are profiting because a few superstars are now handling so much capital.
— Eighth, to the extent that CEO pay packets have thickened (and they have), there may be good economic reasons. The bigger a company gets, the more a talented CEO can do to increase earnings. Over the past two and a half decades, the value of top U.S. companies has increased 500 percent, according to Xavier Gabaix and Augustin Landier. The compensation for the CEOs of those companies has also increased 500 percent.
— Ninth, we’re in the middle of one of the greatest economic eras ever. Global poverty has declined at astounding rates. Globalization boosts each U.S. household’s income by about $10,000 a year. The U.S. economy, despite all the bad-mouthing, is chugging along. Thanks to all the growth, tax revenues are at 18.8 percent of GDP, higher than the historical average. The deficit is down to about 1.5 percent of GDP, below the historical average.
All of this is not to say everything is hunky-dory. Inequality is obviously increasing. There’s evidence that global trade is producing more losers.
Instead, the main point is that the Democratic campaign rhetoric is taking on a life of its own, and drifting further away from reality.
I doubt there’s much Republicans can do to salvage their fortunes by 2008. But over the long term a GOP rebound can be built by capturing the Bill Clinton/Democratic Leadership Council ground that the Democrats are now abandoning. Whoever gets globalization right will have a bright future, and in the long run, the facts matter.
FUSION OF SOULS
Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. But at 42, his wife Carol died of a brain tumor.
A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at Carol’s picture. He describes what he felt in his recent book, I Am A Strange Loop:
“I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!’
“And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”
The Greeks say we suffer our way to wisdom. Hofstadter’s suffering deepened his understanding of who we are, which he had developed as a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.
Hofstadter already understood that the mind is not a centralized thing. There are dozens of thoughts, processes and emotions swirling about and competing for attention at any one time.
Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world. Even though Carol was dead, her habits and perceptions were still active in the minds of those who knew her.
Carol’s self was still present, Hofstadter sensed, even though it was fading with time. A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’ and Carol’s selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.
Most political and social disputes grow out of differing theories about the self, but I find Hofstadter’s theory very congenial.
It emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others.
It exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve through their own genius and willpower.
It exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being.
It explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. The habits common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and trust.
It illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty. The way specific individuals perceive liberty depends on context.
It lampoons political zealotry. You may be a flaming liberal in New York, but it’s likely you’d be a flaming conservative if you grew up in Wyoming.
Finally, it points toward a modern way of understanding how people fit into society. In the 19th century, Marx thought that people were organized according to their material interests and relationship to the means of production.
In the information age, it seems fitting that we’d see people bonded by communication. Hofstadter is one of hundreds of scientists and scholars showing how interconnectedness actually works. What’s being described is a vast web of information – some contained in genes, some in brain structure, some in the flow of dinner conversation – that joins us to our ancestors and reminds the living of the presence of the dead.
ON BEING OLD, THEN AND NOW
Last week, while driving from a campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, I stumbled upon a used bookstore that I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. I stopped in – even though I was rushing to catch a plane – and came upon a sad book published anonymously in 1911.
The book is called “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman,” and it’s a description of what it was like to be old a century ago. The woman begins by recalling the stages of her life: the misty days of girlhood; the precious years when she was raising her young; the rewarding times when she and her children were adults together and companions.
But then something changed.
“I do not know when the change came, nor do they, if indeed they realize it at all,” she writes. “There was a time when I was of their generation; now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a moment when my boys were more thoughtful of me, when they didn’t come to me anymore with their perplexities, not because I had what is called ‘failed,’ but because they felt that the time had come when I ought to be ‘spared’ every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household.”
She describes how her children baby her. They offer to give her rides in the carriage to run errands when she could just as well walk.
They try to prevent her from doing normal housework on the grounds that it’s too taxing. “You count the number of your years by the way your daughter watches your steps; and you see your infirmities in your son’s anxious eyes.”
She describes living in a different dimension. She sees and understands, but her counsel is never sought and she has no ground upon which to act. “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear before their feet.”
Though writing in the age of the gas lamp, she understands what the latest scientific research is now concluding. “Very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don’t understand and others that you understand only too well, for, like weeds, your faults come up and refuse to be rooted out . . .
“There came a time when I realized that every child on the street my child stopped to talk with had its share in bringing up my sons and daughters. One week in school was enough to upset all the training of years.”
The book is a lament from a person put on a shelf, bound by convention and by the smothering concern of others not to exert any power on the world, even while seeing more clearly than ever the way power can and cannot be exerted.
It’s a remarkable little book, and when I did some research, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t written by an old woman. It was written by 37-year-old Mary Heaton Vorse, using the voice of her own mother.
Vorse was a bohemian and a radical journalist who wrote for The Masses, hung around Eugene O’Neill, John Reed and Louise Bryant, and she helped found the Provincetown Players.
Using her mother’s perspective, Vorse wrote a sort of “The Second Sex” for the elderly of 1911. It is about a class of people unable to exercise their capacities.
And what she described was real. In “Growing Old in America,” the historian David Hackett Fischer writes that age was venerated in early America. But starting in the first half of the 19th century, the youth in America was venerated and age was diminished.
Thoreau wrote that the young have little to learn from the old. The word “fogy,” which had once meant a wounded veteran, acquired its current meaning. Dinner table seating was no longer determined by age but by accomplishment. Scientific knowledge gained prestige over experience.
American women, who had once rarely lived much past their youngest child’s marriage, now lived on with no clear role. The character in “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman” is a victim of all this.
I don’t know how many of her opinions will ring true to today’s oldsters. Now, elderly are richer, more active and more engaged than their cohorts of a century ago, but are they still living in a different dimension?
Is it now a dimension of their own choosing?
Suggested editors’ exercise: Find a reporter who would benefit from each one of these thumb-suckers and drop it on him or her. The reaction you get should be isntructive–for both of you.