Tuesday, July 11, 2017

I'll have the genoa, cappicola, mortadella, and provolone. Hold the bullshit.

By A.J. Liebling
Meta-Content Generator

Any half-assed hack columnist can, especially in the dog days of summer and democracy, hit the b.s. trifecta.  But it takes a true overachiever like Professor David Brooks of The New York Times to spend 20 minutes churning out 750 words and in so doing hit the hack quadrafecta: lazy, mendacious, wrong, and reactionary!  Want to know how he did it?  Let's wade in.

His topic for today is an old favorite: how the suffering of the American working classes is due not to the rapacious 1% which has spent the last half-century working tirelessly to immiserate them, but to those overeducated liberals who do things like take them out to a sub shop for lunch.

I know that summary makes no sense whatsoever, but check out his effort for yourself.

Here's the proof (well, to be fair, he's got a couple of other equally lame data points we'll get to):
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Now Italian subs are a topic on which we know a thing or two.  For that reason we feel that our views on the subject are entitled to a great deal of validity.  We spent a lot of years at the late Giuseppe's in Nonantum and then at Salem Foods in Waltham ordering the sandwich specified in the title of this post.  Incredibly enough, we also went an elite Ivy League university located not far from those well-loved institutions.  We never got the two confused.  It's possible that the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard Univerity would head over to Salem Foods for a large prosciutto and provalone with everything, including hots, but we never saw him.  We saw a bunch of people of diverse backgrounds and incomes enjoying subs.  If you don't believe me, check out Antonia's on High Street in Waltham any weekday and ask the patrons if they are Fellows of Harvard College. 

Perhaps if Brooks lived in a city where whole-wheat bread was not regarded as an exemplar of an exotic food (unlike Washington), he might not associate Italian subs with (his own) insufferable elitism.  Perhaps his little anecdote would more properly be understood as the gaucherie of a man who didn't bother to ask his lunch guest what she'd like to eat before marching her into where he wanted to dine.

Umm, just taste the elitism!
But there's more.  First, he or his clerk read a book!  Good for him.  Too bad it wasn't Dark Money by Jane Mayer, because then he would have understood the real reason for the progressive decline and oppression of the working class.  Hint: it's not the group that has fought to ensure health care for all.  Instead he read a book that agreed with him.

The argument, such as it is, seems to run along the lines that the top 20% (that's code for upper middle class liberal Democrats, in case you just swam across the Rio Grande to escape gang violence in El Salvador, in which case you're probably not that worried about this crisis) monopolizes places in fancy universities to the detriment of the worthies below them.

The argument is utterly convincing except for two problems: 1) it's falsified by the facts and 2) it makes no sense on its own terms.

Not only did we attend a fancy Ivy League college, but, despite our protestations, our son went to the same college.   His parents paid his way.  Of his large circle of friends, exactly one fell into that category.  The remainder were on financial aid and in lots of cases it was a free ride because the little overachievers didn't have a pot to p*** in.  One of them grew up dirt poor, went to a fancy women's day school in Manhattan and then met her husband in college, a physicist who turned out to be a scion of a wealthy real estate family in New York.  If that doesn't prove the value of an Ivy League education, we don't know what does.

We perseverate on this because it fatally undercuts Prof. Brooks's lazy assertion that all Harvard undergraduates bribed their way in, like Jared Kushner.  In fact, the lush financial aid packages that elite colleges hand out represent an engine of social advancement, not an expression of liberal exclusion.  Further, he seems to believe that only the most elite colleges provide a path to economic security.  But believing something doesn't make it so; millions attend state colleges and universities in search of economic advancement.  Who advocated for building and financing those schools and raising the tax revenues to do so?  Hint: rhymes with "wiberals." Who doesn't give a toss if state colleges are adequately funded or if students have adequate access to fair low-interest student loans and grants?  No hints; you have to suss this one out yourself.

Let's see, we've dealt with two of Brooks's data points: Italian subs and colleges.  He's a got a third, and as usual he makes a hash of it.  According to Brooks, the economic decline of working class America is due not to the destruction of union rights at the hands of reactionary plutocrats or the pro-rich tax and anti-social welfare policies that have left ex-union workers with nothing to fall back on but a meth lab in the shed.  No, it's because those pesky liberals won't let real estate developers pave over every green field from Boston to San Francisco.

Here, he almost has a point.  We live in a pinko elite suburb of Boston where we have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of granola chomping ex-hippies resolutely opposing any new housing development on the grounds that such buildings would destroy the sylvan feel of a city that has two expressways, commuter rail, and a subway line running through it.  Some transit-smart buildings are getting permitted though so there's some progress.

Funnily enough, Prof. Brooks was never troubled by the lack of affordable housing enough to support public housing, a liberal dream since at least the New Deal (you could look it up under Housing Act of 1937).  Why is that?  Could it be he doesn't really give a toss about housing the poor unless he can blame his neighbors in Chevy Chase?

He cites work by two economists claiming that land-use regulation has cost the United States 50% of potential economic growth.  That seems like a lot.  Of course, like our star hack, I'm no economist, but I'd sure be interested in the views of other economists.  Here's one, who judging by his resume, is not affiliated with the Communist Party:
Every model has assumptions. To calculate a counterfactual -- how much would people earn and businesses make if they could move to San Francisco -- you have to do that. It takes a better model to beat a model.
By the way, have you been to San Francisco lately?  Does it look underdeveloped to you?  Does New York?  Maybe one obstacle to denser urban development is a lack of investment in public transit that for example is causing New York to approach gridlock.  What do you call people who advocate for more public funding for mass transit to allow for denser, more energy-efficient urban development?

You probably by now get our drift.  Also probably, without even having to contemplate the role of racism, sexism, and plutocratic government in fostering pervasive economic inequality, you get Brooks's, too.

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