January 25, 2005

Column 2005-1-25 Commentary:

Amazingly, Brooks manages to top the idiocy and naivete of his last column in this one. Taking a break from promoting rampant militarism, Brooks looks at the home situation and realizes, with a gasp, that all is not well. Shockingly, social mobility in the U.S. is limited! Amazed, Brooks calls on the President to take up social mobility as a new cause. Since this an economic issue, and thus something that Brooks is usually reluctant to touch, it is completely unsurprisingly that he achieves new heights (or perhaps depths) of foolishness in this column.

First, to get some perspective on Brooks's surprise at finding that there are serious barriers to upward social mobility in our perspective, note that there have always been such barriers, and social mobility in the U.S. has never been as pervasive as everybody likes to think (see, for example, this article. "Our favorite stories involve immigrants climbing from obscurity to success" Brooks says. Absolutely true. Americans also love stories about witches, dragons, talking animals, dwarves, and fairies, but that doesn't mean that such things exist. Of course, many immigrants certainly do achieve success from obscurity, but many, many more don't.

Brooks's belief in the widespread presence of upward social mobility in the U.S. is painfully naive. Consider this sentence: "That suggests that the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life." Not only is it a bad sentence (read it out loud, and ponder the "to"), and probably ungrammatical, Brooks is presenting as a surprising and disturbing discovery the deeply obvious fact that the class level you are born into has a major effect on the class level you end up in. Brooks's assertion that we are developing a hereditary class system is similarly laughable. We've had such a system ever since the country was founded. Sure, it's somewhat flexible, but it ought to be obvious that being born into a wealthy, and so most likely educated, family gives one significant advantages over being born into a poor and less educated family. The main reason we think of the U.S. as having so much social mobility are its immigrants. The children of the dirt-poor immigrants who come to the U.S. have always been (with the exception of slaves) likely to make more than their parents. Otherwise, the Horatio Alger stories are exceptions to the rule.

Furthermore, it is completely ridiculous that Brooks is making his appeal for more social mobility to George W. Bush, a man who symbolizes the hereditary upper class of the United States. Bush has been pushed by the family name and the family fortune on every step of his way to the Presidency. Despite the fact that he was a mediocre student at Andover, with a SAT score of 1206 and grades that caused his college admissions counselor to suggest that he might want to think about other schools than Yale (my source for this is his officially-sanctioned biography, written by Karen Hughes), he was admitted to Yale. Later, he used his name to get into the National Guard and then blow off part of his obligation so he could go to Harvard Business school. His failed business ventures were routinely bought out by family friends. He bought part of the Texas Rangers for a fairly small sum, and then made a huge profit when the team was bought by Tom Hicks, another Bush family friend. The only basis for his election first as governor of Texas and then as president was name recognition which his father and grandfathers had earned. Despite Brooks's assertion that we now have a "hereditary meritocratic class" in this country, Bush obviously owes far more to the hereditary part than to the meritocratic part. And this is the person that Brooks wants to start campaigning for more social mobility. Somehow, I don't think that this is too likely to happen.

Finally, the sheer awfulness of this column as a piece of writing is depressing. First of all, Brooks doesn't actually go anywhere in this column. He has no conclusion, no plan of action, no real point to make: he just wants to say that a lack of social mobility is bad, and it would be nice if the President could address it. He doesn't even suggest any ways to remedy the problem, though he does make sure to say that simply spending more money in trying to improve inner-city education is definitely not the way to go. He presents some statistics, makes some obvious points, and calls it a day. And his writing is poor. I've noted a couple of examples above, and there are others. Consider the last paragraph: "President Bush spoke grandly and about foreign policy last Thursday, borrowing from Lincoln. Lincoln's other great cause was social mobility. That's worth embracing too." Bush spoke "grandly and about foreign policy"? Well, that's grammatical, but what he probably wants to say is simply that Bush spoke grandly about foreign policy. Brooks also refers to Lincoln's other great cause, suggesting that Lincoln's first great cause was foreign policy, which is probably not the effect he wants to produce.

Some of these problems could probably be avoided if the NYT just got Brooks an editor. But I have a counterproposal: just get rid of Brooks. It would save the cost of an editor and at the same time improve the quality of the editorial page by about 200%