I’m not much of a David Brooks fan. I read his book Bobos in Paradise a long time ago and I thought it was an excellent bit of cultural observation. Brooks is a member of the managerial class, a layer of servants and aids to the ruling class. He knows his peers well and often does an excellent job describing their habits and world view. It is also why he sounds like a space alien when he addresses issues facing common Americans. Still, he scores with a column or two a year and this is one such example.
Many people join the political left driven by a concern for the poor. But, over the past several years, the Democratic Party has talked much more about the middle class than the poor. Meanwhile, progressive political movements like Occupy Wall Street directed their fervor at the top 1 percent. Progressive movies and books have focused their attention on conspiracy and oligarchy at the top, not “Grapes of Wrath” or “How the Other Half Lives” stories at the bottom.
This is natural. The modern left is led by smart professionals — academics, activists, people in the news media, the arts and so on — who tend to live in and around coastal cities.
If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.
You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them.
You see firsthand the explosion of wealth at the tippy-top. It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause.
And right there he touches on precisely why a hitherto unknown economist named Thomas Piketty is taking the beautiful people by storm. The people writing at the NYTimes, teaching at big state universities and carrying bags for elected officials have grown resentful of their masters. They look around at lottery winners like Mark Zuckerberg and wonder why he gets to live like an 18th century French royal, while they toil in his fields, so to speak. After all, they went to an Ivy League college too.
Back in December, Obama declared inequality is “the defining issue of our time.” Obama is a babbling idiot, but he is still a decent weather vane, telling us where the Cult is heading for it next crusade. His writers and teleprompter operators are members of the managerial class. What’s important to them will eventually come flapping from Obama’s gums in a speech. With an election coming and the Cult on its heels, it is a safe bet they will be pounding this drum for the rest of the year in an effort to change the subject.
I think there may be something else going on here that is driving the interest from the Left. If you look back at the last fifteen years, the period of this last Great Awakening of Progressive fanaticism, they don’t have a whole lot to show for themselves. In the 2000’s, it was mostly an extended tantrum about the unlettered rubes of the Bush administration. The Obama years have been a big disappointment to the Left. The great dreams of 2008 have been boiled down to one major initiative, health care, which has been a grotesque flop.
If you are a member of the Cult of Modern Liberalism, it’s feeling like 1972 in San Francisco. The Summer of Love is a distant memory and all the promise of that time amounted to nothing. More broadly speaking, this last fevered push by the Left never had much going for it. Health care is a math problem, not a moral problem. The rest of their agenda amounts to nothing more than silly fads cooked up by college professors with too much time on their hands. Otherwise, it has been a bunch of true believers looking for a cause.
The other side of the coin is the Right has nothing to offer at the moment. Conservatism in America has mostly functioned as a brake on the progressives. Every once in a while they come up with a good policy and aggressively promote it, but for the most part they are the party poopers telling the Left they can’t have what they want. Right now, the Left is exhausted and the Right has nothing to champion, other than singing old dongs from the Reagan era. Both sides are looking for a reason to get public attention so a fight over the super-rich is as good as any.
Ideologically, we are at a dead end. With no way forward, going back and re-arguing inequality suits both sides well.