Thursday, February 17, 2011

David Brooks and a rosy view of the US economy

Here's an article from David Brooks. He argues that perhaps the slow economic decline of the US since the 1970s isn't such a problem, because people are shifting their values away from consumerism and towards other ways of enhancing their lives. I'm all for a shift away from consumerism, but Brooks's assessment seems silly and pollyannaish. Essentially he is saying that it's not a big deal that we have fewer jobs and stagnating incomes in the US, because people are valuing things that don't show up on a balance sheet. He gives the hypothetical example of an event coordinator that organizes intellectually-stimulating lectures and that gets a big kick out of his iPhone, adventurous vacations, and Facebook. Many of his pleasures cost little, so he doesn't need as much income.

In Brooks's world, the US is experiencing great gains in happiness that simply don't show up in economic figures. If this were the case, we would see subjective life satisfaction rising in the US over the past decades. But according to surveys, people are no happier today than in the 1970s. Furthermore, the hypothetical case that Brooks gives is of a well-off, educated person with a steady job, enjoying lots of high-tech consumer goods and things like regular vacations. This does not represent the norm in the United States.

So while I don't at all agree with David Brooks's diagnosis of our stagnating economy, I do see a promising career ahead for him. Brooks has a remarkable ability to paint the ugliest aspects of life in the US (consumerism, suburban sprawl, lack of jobs, a stagnant economy, debt) as if they were virtues or advantages. In a century in which our country seems determined to become mediocre, Brooks can become a great prophet of mediocrity, telling us that everything will be alright, that we shouldn't worry about things going to hell around us. All that decadence you see around you? It's really the sign of a great nation.

Lead on, great prophet...

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