God. I guess Ben and I decided when we were in Montreal that we would try to make fun of David Brooks more (I can’t remember, I was drunk the whole time). And so Ben’s going to see Ghostface tonight and today’s column has fallen to me. Yippee!
Why are nations like Germany and the U.S. rich? It’s not primarily because they possess natural resources — many nations have those. It’s primarily because of habits, values and social capital.
Okay, not really? But since I don’t want to shoot my load all at once, let’s continue.
It’s because many people in these countries, as Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has noted, believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible.
I can’t speak for the Germans (Ich kann nicht fur die Deutschen Leute sprechen),
aber but in America, we primarily pretend to believe in this formula. In reality, the formula reads: “Effort on behalf of the interests of rich people should lead to reward as often as possible; no one cares about your shitty novel, hippy.”
People who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at prosperity. Money should go to people on the basis of merit and enterprise. Self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not. Community institutions should nurture responsibility and fairness.
Okay, see? Without the context of a “David Brooks Column,” I agree with all of this. The trouble is that David Brooks has spent his entire life defending the exact opposite. People who don’t play by the rules (rich fraudsters, e.g.) get Brooks’s seal of approval, because they’re “job-creators.” Money should go to people on the basis of “merit and enterprise,” which is why Brooks cups the ballsacks of the people who tanked the economy. “Responsibility and fairness” should be “nurtured” as long as these virtues don’t interfere with the interests of the very wealthy. And on, and on.
This ethos is not an immutable genetic property, which can blithely be taken for granted. It’s a precious social construct, which can be undermined and degraded.
Right now, this ethos is being undermined from all directions. People see lobbyists diverting money on the basis of connections; they see traders making millions off of short-term manipulations; they see governments stealing money from future generations to reward current voters.
All of which I will happily defend in other columns, just not today, because today I am being David Brooks, and being David Brooks means being PRETTY OKAY WITH LOTS OF FUCKING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. Ahem.
The result is a crisis of legitimacy. The game is rigged. Social trust shrivels. Effort is no longer worth it. The prosperity machine winds down.
Yet the assault on these values continues, especially in Europe.
Over the past few decades, several European nations, like Germany and the Netherlands, have played by the rules and practiced good governance. They have lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values. Now they are being brutally browbeaten for not wanting to bail out nations like Greece, Italy and Spain, which did not do these things, which instead borrowed huge amounts of money that they are choosing not to repay.
“Complex international economic crises are reducible to a fifth-grade notion of schoolyard fairness.”
[Germans] are being asked to bail out nations with vast public sectors and horrible demographics. They are being asked to paper over fundamental economic problems with a mountain of currency.
But our sympathy should be with the German people. They are not behaving selfishly by insisting on structural reforms in exchange for bailouts. They are not imprisoned by some rigid ideology. They are not besotted with some semi-senile Weimar superstition about rampant inflation. They are defending the values, habits and social contract upon which the entire prosperity of the West is based.
No, they really aren’t. They’re defending what they think to be their own economic interest, because even though the Eurozone is an integrated economic entity, it’s still comprised of a bunch of different countries that haven’t always gotten along with one another. But, whatevs. What David Brooks would have you believe is that Germany is playing the role of the disappointed moral authority, reluctantly saying to Southern Europe, “Guys, you didn’t follow the rules. You’re grounded.” International relations: they’re just like you and me!
The scariest thing is that many of the people browbeating the Germans seem to have very little commitment to the effort-reward formula that undergirds capitalism. On the one hand, there are the technicians who are oblivious to values. For them anything that can’t be counted and modeled is a primitive irrelevancy. On the other hand, there are people who see the European crisis through the prism of some cosmic class war. What matters is not how people conduct themselves, but whether they are a have or a have-not. The burden of proof is against the haves. The benefit of the doubt is with the have-nots. Any resistance to redistribution is greeted with outrage.
“Which, of course, is why I’ve always stuck up for the haves. Who will defend the weakest in society if the weakest are the wealthiest? Huh? HUH?!”
The real lesson from financial crises is that, at the pit of the crisis, you do what you have to do…. And, as soon as the crisis passes, you move to repair the legitimacy of the system.
That didn’t happen after the American financial crisis of 2008. The people who caused the crisis were never held responsible.
IF THEY WERE, THOUGH, YOU CAN REST ASSURED THAT I PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BEEN ON THEIR SIDE!
The structural problems plaguing the economy remain unaddressed. As a result, the United States suffers from a horrible crisis of trust that is slowing growth, restricting government action and sending our politics off in strange directions.
You know what’s slowing growth? It isn’t a horrible crisis of trust. It’s a lack of fucking money! Nobody has any fucking money to spend! And the ones that do have money aren’t spending it, aren’t lending it, and aren’t giving it the fuck away, like they should be doing. Nah, they’re weathering the storm until the good times roll again (mix’d metaphor, I know). They’re horrible, miserly twits, and David Brooks will be back to defending their interests right after the previous paragraph.
Europe’s challenge is not only to avert a financial meltdown but to do it in a way that doesn’t poison the seedbed of prosperity. Which values will be rewarded and reinforced? Will it be effort, productivity and self-discipline? Or will it be bad governance, now and forever?
Economics is a morality play, you see. The poor ones, whether countries or people, just aren’t productive or self-disciplined enough, gosh darn it, and they need to be put in their place. The rich ones, on the other hand…
Well, I mean, hell. Who signs your motherfucking paycheck? The hobo down the block? RICH PEOPLE RULE 5EVER & ALWAYS, KTHXBAI, <3 DAVID BROOKS.