Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Putting Blame Where it Belongs

David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times acknowledging the fact that those who blame our societal woes on cultural issues need to recognize that our attitudes toward consumption and spending are a pretty significant cultural issue. This is no small concession from the point of view from which Brooks normally starts.

I was greatly dismayed, however, to see the list of culprits to whom Brooks assigns blame. In order, they are:

State Governments
Payday Lenders
Credit Card Companies
Congress and the White House
Wall Street

Brooks does not say that he apportions blame in direct correlation to placement on the list, but placement means something right? So in case you were wondering how our mass consumption culture became a potential source of our destruction, look first at your state government.

Yes, it is the state lottery that has put us on this course. Admittedly, the stat that families with incomes under $13,000 spend 9% of income on lottery tickets is staggering. But how can the state government, that generally most impotent of governmental institutions, possibly be put forward as the worst offender in “the deterioration of financial mores?” It would appear it is because Brooks believes that the government is the “guardian of order,” but it refuses to behave that way.

Never mind the fact that state lottery systems generally pay for government functions that could be funded through regular taxation were not for political actors so completely adverse to responsible taxation. Those actors, incidentally, would often be those with whom Brooks most closely aligns himself. The “beast” that many are so eager to starve seems to have found another way to feed itself, and now Brooks is left to complain that it is abetting our financial and moral ruin. Convenient.

Following the state come two parties who are certainly easily to blame, but are also aided by the aforementioned political actors. Deregulation of the credit card industry in the last decade has made possible many of the practices Brooks describes in the article.

The government then makes another appearance on the list. I have no problem with its inclusion, but once again the lead players go unnamed.

At the bottom of the list comes Wall Street. As a stand-in for corporate culture in America, Wall Street should be leading this list. I’ll get to that in a second. Brooks isn’t even referring to that culture, however. He is actually referring to the entity that is Wall Street, and the big bonuses paid to hedge fund managers. A problem? Yes. The problem? You’ve got to be kidding.

The order of this list as constructed is dreadful. The fact that state government leads the list and Wall Street finishes it are proof that Brooks has been unable to get beyond his preconceptions while legitimately (I think) trying to point out the problem. But the real downfall of this exercise is with the missing member of the culprit list. Suspect number one on any list of this kind has to be the cult of unregulated capitalism in this country.

Capitalism is the engine that has made this country the power that it has become. But much of the progress toward power was made in an era where government was seen as a legitimate check on the equally great power of monied interests. Over the last 30 years, that attitude has been replaced with one that sees government as the enemy of progress and oversight as the unnecessary evil that hinders our economic livelihood.

As this new attitude has taken hold, the government has moved aside in favor of a corporate culture that forgoes long term thinking in favor of short term profit. Without government stepping back into the mix, the problem has very little chance of being solved.

Brooks practically admits as much in his last few paragraphs. The most legitimate initiator of almost all of Brooks’ proposed solutions is the government. He mentions foundations and churches, and they could play an important role. None of these things happen, however, without government action. If he is serious about this issue, Brooks needs to think about that before he decides who to back in the fall.

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