Friday, July 21, 2017

Brooks underplayed the only cultural signifiers that matter -- "All you need is juice and a whole lotta money"

In recent years, I have become something of a compulsive Wikipedia checker. When I see a business story, I look up the industry. When I hear a politician make a particularly offensive comment, I look up his or her district. And when I come across someone who has achieved a high position in an extremely competitive field at a young age without displaying any special talent or intellect, I look up his or her background. In a plurality and perhaps even a majority of the cases, biography reads: well-to-do and well-connected parents; obnoxiously expensive prep school; elite university; dream job straight out of college.

Obviously, this is a very small group, more the 0.1% than the 1%. The chances against picking such a person random are vanishingly small, Nonetheless the institutions that keep us informed and often make our decisions for us are absolutely lousy with them. While we are not exactly talking about a lifeboat situation here, it is fair to say that in some cases smarter, more capable candidates were pushed aside to make way for Horace Mann School alumni.

This greasing of the skids leads back to our previous discussion of David Brooks' recent column. In all the brouhaha over Brooks' ill-conceived trip to the deli, a more serious flaw was largely overlooked. Brooks has a habit of starting a piece with a strong, clear-eyed examination of some substantial problem like income inequality or the rise of pseudoscience. He then, however, has a tendency to divert the conversation into distracting, trivial, and sometimes even dishonest arguments. The honest initial assessment allows him to maintain his standing as the conservative that liberals can love; the triviality and distortion allow him to avoid the logical conclusions of those premises. He generally ignores policies and attitudes that are likely to have a direct impact because those are not the sort of policies that a conservative (evening New York Times conservative) can get away with endorsing too often.

The now notorious sandwich column holds true to this formula. His opening points about upper-class entrenchment are valid and well presented. He then slides into a discussion of possibly valid but certainly secondary factors like zoning laws, before completely giving himself over to the food culture silliness.

The spine of this story is brutally simple. More money means more connections. More connections mean more money. Repeat. Policies that limit access to economic opportunity, that encourage greater and greater concentration of wealth and power make this situation worse. Furthermore, there is no great mystery as to what these policies are or how to reverse them, and the solution has nothing to do with introducing the masses to artisan bread, heirloom produce, or the healthful miracle that is kombucha (Gwyneth Paltrow swears by it).

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