David Brooks waxes nostalgic about old-fashioned morality

In one of his recent columns, David Brooks restates several of his favorite arguments: Federal debt is the great problem facing us (for a counterview, see Krugman), so the government must “reform welfare” (which Brooks previously stated means cutting Social Security and Medicare, specifically); the voters don’t want government to do anything; and what’s really needed is a return to traditional Victorian morality.

Brooks’ specific point is that liberals want to resurrect the progressive crusades of the early 20th century, and this is a mistake: Our economy was young and vibrant then, but now it’s flabby and middle-aged, so we have to stimulate it with government spending. Oh, my mistake, we have to starve it because government spending is useless and wasteful, so there you are (the Daily Howler notes flaws on Brooks’ claims about education here). Plus, the progressive age had traditional Victorian morality so “there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn’t always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm. Today, that norm has dissolved. Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock. This sentences the U.S. to another generation of widening inequality and slower human capital development.”

For some of us, the connection between the current economic crisis and single-motherhood might seem oblique, but it fits with Brooks’ previous column arguing that the reason for rising unemployment, foreclosures, etc. isn’t Wall Street or government policy, it’s ourselves (ourselves being workers, not anyone rich or powerful or pundits who enable them). Of course, illegitimate birth isn’t the same as single-parenthood——as many as two-fifths of the 40 percent may be born to unmarried but pair-bonded couples——and single parenthood doesn’t automatically make you poor (although it is higher among the poor, IIRC), but Brooks is rarely bothered by facts (if you’d like some, check out Stephanie Coontz’s (The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are histories of family life).

A bigger problem is that holding up the era of 100 years ago as a moral high point is utter bullshit. Brooks is talking about an era when Jim Crow was in full swing; lynching was an acceptable tool for dealing with “uppity” minorities; rape victims were treated even worse than they are today; discrimination against the Irish, the Jews, Slavs, and pretty much against any non-WASP was acceptable; discrimination against women, ditto; and of course, we had exploitation of labor and the freedom to sell rancid meet and adulterated flour. Even sexual morality wasn’t that strict——it was perfectly acceptable for a wealthy man to have a mistress (Brooks carefully hedges that even on illegitimacy, the social norm may not represent actual practice).
Having lived in a community populated heavily by older conservatives, I’ve heard this a lot: The good old days, when people were moral and didn’t have sex before marriage/got jobs based on merit instead of race/didn’t ask government for help/respected tradition/everyone who wasn’t a WASP male knew their place. The 1950s was usually cited as the Golden Age, but the Victorians cropped up too.
Which is to say that Brooks is doing what oldsters have done since ancient Rome, grumbling about how everything’s going downhill and the younger generation’s morals stink. Literally since ancient Rome——the Roman poet Horace grumbled about having to listen to this “good old days” thinking. Only here, Brooks seems to be doing it consciously, with an agenda, pushing his argument that the real threat isn’t unemployment or poverty or foreclosure fraud, it’s the deficit (which means everyone has to sacrifice … except, apparently, David Brooks)
Were I not a gentleman, I might be inclined to state something quite rude about Mr. Brooks.

12 Comments

Filed under economics, Politics

12 responses to “David Brooks waxes nostalgic about old-fashioned morality

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