$4 Trillion for Dignity?
The Democrats are apparently selling their omnibus spending package the wrong way.
In what seems like an odd argument from the New York Times‘ house conservative, David Brooks explains “This Is Why We Need to Spend $4 Trillion.” It begins, well, weirdly:
I’ve spent the last few weeks in a controlled fury — and I’m not normally a fury kind of guy. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and others are trying to pass arguably the most consequential legislative package in a generation, and what did I sense in my recent travels across five states? The same thing I sense in my social media feed and on the various media “most viewed” lists.
Have we given up on the idea that policy can change history? Have we lost faith in our ability to reverse, or even be alarmed by, national decline? More and more I hear people accepting the idea that America is not as energetic and youthful as it used to be.
I follow the news more closely than most and, while I’m not indifferent to the package in question, I’m not particularly excited about it. Mostly because it seems highly unlikely to be passed into law. But also because, while there’s much in it that I actually support, it’s a hodgepodge of policy ideas that haven’t been sold in a coherent way. While “Build Back Better” is a perfectly fine message, most of the money is going to things other than building and other than back.
It just doesn’t conjure anything like this for me:
I can practically hear the spirits of our ancestors crying out — the ones who had a core faith that this would forever be the greatest nation on the planet, the New Jerusalem, the last best hope of earth.
My ancestors were aspiring immigrants and understood where the beating heart of the nation resided: with the working class and the middle class, the ones depicted by Willa Cather, James Agee, Ralph Ellison, or in “The Honeymooners,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “On the Waterfront.” There was a time when the phrase “the common man” was a source of pride and a high compliment.
But Brooks sees it as a cure for what ails us.
Over the past few decades there has been a redistribution of dignity — upward. From Reagan through Romney, the Republicans valorized entrepreneurs, C.E.O.s and Wall Street. The Democratic Party became dominated by the creative class, who attended competitive colleges, moved to affluent metro areas, married each other and ladled advantages onto their kids so they could leap even further ahead.
There was a bipartisan embrace of a culture of individualism, which opens up a lot of space for people with resources and social support, but means loneliness and abandonment for people without. Four years of college became the definition of the good life, which left roughly two-thirds of the country out.
That’s rather typical Brooks. But the timeline makes no sense at all. The idea of college as the route to social mobility has been with us at least since the post-World War II G.I. Bill and Democrats have been dominated by the creative class who attended competitive colleges since, oh, Thomas Jefferson. (Or, if we start that party with Andrew Jackson, since James K. Polk.) And I suppose I’ll have to take Brooks’ word for it that loneliness and abandonment are more common among those without college degrees since I know offhand of no way to refute that.
And so came the crisis that Biden was elected to address — the poisonous combination of elite insularity and vicious populist resentment.
I thought Trump was elected to address that and Biden was elected to address Trump. But okay.
Read again Robert Kagan’s foreboding Washington Post essay on how close we are to a democratic disaster. He’s talking about a group of people so enraged by a lack of respect that they are willing to risk death by Covid if they get to stick a middle finger in the air against those who they think look down on them. They are willing to torch our institutions because they are so resentful against the people who run them.
The Democratic spending bills are economic packages that serve moral and cultural purposes. They should be measured by their cultural impact, not merely by some wonky analysis. In real, tangible ways, they would redistribute dignity back downward. They would support hundreds of thousands of jobs for home health care workers, child care workers, construction workers, metal workers, supply chain workers. They would ease the indignity millions of parents face having to raise their children in poverty.
So, I support the investment in social infrastructure—child care, eldercare, and the like—for a variety of reasons. Ditto the investment in more traditional infrastructure. But the notion that these programs are somehow going to bridge the cultural gap between the urban elite and the rural poor is nuts.
Look at the list of states that, according to a recent analysis of White House estimates by CNBC, could be among those getting the most money per capita from the infrastructure bill. A lot of them are places where Trumpian resentment is burning hot: Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota.
Biden had it exactly right when he told a La Crosse, Wis., audience, “The jobs that are going to be created here — largely, it’s going to be those for blue-collar workers, the majority of whom will not have to have a college degree to have those jobs.”
But these places benefit disproportionately from pretty much any government program you can think of and yet they’re also where anti-government resentment is at its highest.
After a sop to his erstwhile conservatism, Brooks waxes poetic:
In normal times I’d argue that many of the programs in these packages may be ineffective. I’m a lot more worried about debt than progressives seem to be. But we’re a nation enduring a national rupture, and the most violent parts of it may still be yet to come.
These packages say to the struggling parents and the warehouse workers: I see you. Your work has dignity. You are paving your way. You are at the center of our national vision.
I’m honestly not sure that warehouse workers are actually at the center of our national vision or even should be. But I’m quite sure that they’re not going to get that message from this spending package.
This is how you fortify a compelling moral identity, which is what all of us need if we’re going to be able to look in the mirror with self-respect. This is the cultural transformation that good policy can sometimes achieve. Statecraft is soulcraft.
So, again, I think making it easier for people to go to work knowing that their kids and elderly parents are taken care of. But I’m skeptical, indeed, that we’re handing out self-respect with these programs.
These measures would not solve our problems, obviously. In many large Western nations, there are vast tectonic forces concentrating wealth in the affluent metro areas and leaving vast swaths of the countryside behind. We don’t yet know how to do the sort of regional development that reverses this trend.
We don’t know how to do “development” in a way that keeps the countryside the countryside. Development into an economic powerhouse tends to require a concentration of talent. A metro area, if you will. The Internet, satellite dishes, and all the rest have made rural areas much better places to live but they’re still, well, rural.
But we can make it clear that we value people’s choices. For years there was almost an officially approved life: Get a B.A., move to those places where capital and jobs are congregating, even if it means leaving your community, roots and extended family.
Those were not desired or realistic options for millions of people. These packages, on the other hand, say: We support the choices you have made, in the places where you have chosen to live.
That fundamental respect is the key scarcity in America right now.
Having witnessed my parents do this, minus the BA,* and then doing it myself, beyond the BA, I’m perhaps less sympathetic to this argument than most. Preparing for the economy and then moving to where the jobs are just seems natural to me.
But, sure, there are a lot of folks whose families have lived in a given town for generations and who never want to leave. But there’s little in this package that’s going to transform their lives, much less make them stop resenting those who are more affluent.
*My late father ultimately got his BA eight months after I got mine. But a degree is simply less life-changing at 45.
There are many on the right who get paid millions of dollars a year to sit in offices and behind computers who love to rhapsodize about the dignity and honor of low-paid manual labor. This justifies their constant attempts to slash any shreds of a social safety net and to help those who don’t have a job. We must eliminate unemployment insurance and social security, so that our bold brothers will go out and rediscover the dignity of work.
What this really means is they need people who will work a year for what they make in a day, and if they can’t persuade them with bullshit, they’ll punish them until they fold.
@wr: Brooks’ column has a whiff of that, yes. The more I’ve come to understand how much accidents of birth and sheer dumb luck has in success, the less I’ve believed in Rugged Individualism and the more I’ve supported social infrastructure. (I’ve pretty much always favored universal healthcare.) There’s doubtless dignity in having a safety net. But the notion that we’re going to radically transform our social structure for $400 billion a year is unpersuasive.
I don’t know many of those folks.
I’ve been spending the last year and half tracing the family tree and looking at and imagining their stories. Not one stayed on the farm. Or in the small town. After migrating from their small towns in Europe (mostly to Canada), they spent about 1 generation before they hightailed it to the city, in our case, Cleveland. My great grandfather took his family from the farm to LA in the 1890s, only to be crushed by the Panic of 1893. He went back to Ohio but not the farm. Everyone preferred the factories and urban businesses to the small town.
With respect to
I would highly recommend J. Lerner’s book Boulevard of Broken Dreams for the long history of repeated failure in both developed and developing countries to promote “rural entrepreneurship” and venture capital (and even venture capital outside of big cores most of the time).
I dunno. My sister got her degree in her late 30’s and it let her transition from being a grocery checker to being a social worker. That’s kind of a thing.
I do. I’m surrounded by them.
For some it’s a true love of the rural lifestyle (clean air, open spaces, hunting, fishing, boating), for other’s it’s roots (family has been farming this land for 150 years), for others it’s fear of what’s out there, and for others it’s a lack of ambition (why move to a big scary city when the factory down the road is hiring).
I live in the same small town where I grew up. But I left and came back to it–because I tried the city life, and I don’t like it. I’ve lived in Rockford, just outside of Fort Worth, in Norfolk, and in a “small city” of 2 million just outside of Shanghai.
I like small town life. But I also understand that I’m not going to be getting a million-dollar job here (I’m fine with that), and I’m going to be lacking in various forms of infrastructure (I accept that as the cost of open spaces), and I’m going to have to work a little harder at some things.
That’s an acceptable trade-off for me.
I believe that there’s dignity is hard work and a more simple life–but it’s not some holy grail, and I rather resent Brooks’ “noble savage” portrayal of me. (Especially since a lot of those “simple blue-color workers” are using some cutting edge technology to get the jobs done.)
@Mu Yixiao: To be fair, I think most of my relatives left in search of electricity and indoor plumbing. Which today’s small towns have.
And all those long ago relatives seem to all have 6-10 children, most of whom wouldn’t find mates if they stayed.
You tried different living situations and chose the one that satisfied you the most. You recognized the trade-offs and are making the best of what life is presenting. That isn’t the same thing as the dissaffected rural resident who hasn’t left or left and returned due to failure or fear of failure. Who resents the lives of those who have had a measure of success in metropolitan regions and blames them for their station in life.
You landed back in your home town, which provides connections to family and old friends, have you ever wondered if you would find your life as satisfying if you landed in a similar sized community where you were a total stranger on arriving?
Nope. Because I’ve done that, too. More than once.
Which are the last two in my list above. 🙂
I’d given up reading Brooks and you made me read another column. I may start reading him again. Trump hit him hard, but he’s evolving into an interesting psychology study.
Brooks has been a lifelong Republican activist. He’s presented himself as a moderate, but somehow his columns always ended up supporting the Republican position. He’s really been a Republican concern troll. His branding wouldn’t have survived supporting Trump, so he’s remained a conservative, but couldn’t support the Party. He responded by diving into pop sociology, wandering all over identifying real problems while carefully avoiding imputing any blame to Republicans.
But this column may be a breakthrough. He proceeds confusingly conflating respect, dignity, and money. Having more money does, indeed, enhance dignity, but that’s apparently too simple for Brooks. He speaks of bipartisan “redistribution of dignity – upward”. Apparently talking of income being driven upward would be too simple. He talks of “elite insularity and vicious populist resentment” as though FOX and GOPs didn’t drive the resentment. He completely distorts Robert Kagan’s column as being about populist resentment, when it’s about GOP elites exploiting that resentment to keep themselves in power.
But his opening paragraphs, which you quote, bemoan that people don’t believe government can do big things to help them. That’s quite a breakthrough for a lifelong Republican. And he offers good advice. GOPs stoke resentment and profit from it while paying nothing but lip service. Dems are working hard to actually help people, including the resentful. They should be able to message that more effectively.
We don’t need to bridge a culture gap, we need to address a societal structure that is moving back toward 25% of the country being ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed, and with the expansion of Head Start, ill-educated.
What I’m typically hearing in all corners of where I travel (including the corners of this commentariat) is ‘fwk those people.’ So be it. At least the revolution will not be televised.
Don’t forget resenting those less affluent. Manchin wants to means test the child tax credit, and a lot of the other benefits in the BBBA, which will help boost that resentment.
(And we shouldn’t forget resenting those with darker skin. And those who worship differently. It’s like small towns are basically run on resentment, at least based on the nut jobs they elect.)
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
I think the “fwk these people” notion gained a lot of traction with the covid. And the revolution may not be televised, but it will be fought with biological weapons.
A lot of what’s in this bill is going to be transformative, but invisible. Sure, a child tax credit can reduce childhood poverty by half, and that’s a good thing, but you don’t see it and say — “yup, America can still build things”.
We need a new WPA — create good paying jobs, where we need them (make Wal-Mart pay enough that their employees don’t qualify for public assistance by just competing with them for workers), to build grand monuments to government getting shit done. When you see that wind-farm, you should say “that’s impressive”
The racists knew what they were doing when they put a Nathan Bedford and a Robert E. Lee in every town and city across the south — they were marking their territory, and proclaiming that when people come together they can … well … do terrible things to brown folks.
We need to make it so people see the results of BBBA, and recognize it and feel proud. We need buildings and we need the WPA style of architecture. Why does the wind-farm have an administration building designed to last 600 years with murals of wind-power through the ages etched into it? Why does the community health clinic have a vast atrium? Because it’s awesome, that’s why, and we need more awesome.
That sounds like a great idea, and I’d support it as well, until you stop and think, or you see so many advocate withholding healthcare from those who don’t fall in line as has been advocated in comments here and elsewhere. Or that the stated opinion of a former and current candidate for governor of VA believes parents should not have a say in what their children are taught, individually or community-wise.
What the government provides, someone, eventually, will try to weaponize against those they disfavor.
Rural America is like the Confederate Flag in that you can find both of them in Staten Island. For example, La Crosse, WI is a town of 50K people. That’s not rural at all, but it’s rural in the way that Brooks means it. Brooks has always a brand guy–he had Home Depot Man and Applebee’s Man or something like that, I think. Now he’s going for Dignity Man. It’s all basically the same person, but tracking with American decline.
The history of labor conflict in this country has been forgotten, so that what’s good about work is the dignity of being a loyal employee rather than being part of something larger that has nothing to do with your boss or the company’s bottom line. Rural America does seem to buy into this, I think. It’s pretty sad.
This is something I encountered regularly when I was on the permanent staff for the Colorado legislature. One of the rural members summed it up for me, something like this: “Colorado used to be, on average, small, ruralish, and poor. Today, on average, it’s medium-sized, urban/suburban, and well-to-do. All the change is due to the growth of the urban/suburban Front Range. The rural folks want the same advantages in education, infrastructure, medical care, etc. They resent that they can’t afford it on their own. And they are very much afraid that some day the Front Range may stop sharing.
WR, this “What this really means is they need people who will work a year for what they make in a day, and if they can’t persuade them with bullshit, they’ll punish them until they fold.” is such a wonderful phrase. It does not matter if you came up with this phrase on your own or borrowed it, but yes, that is exactly what a lot of folks in this country would like to see happen.
A forced migration by job-seekers to the factories built by the “job creators,” so yeah…we would become a manufacturing powerhouse again, but only because folks were forced to work for peanuts due to having no social safety net. Yikes. We too can become a country where it is common to see large nets alongside the dormitories of factories to prevent suicides.
We (us Liberals/Progressives) really need to figure out a way to convey to the masses that this is what a whole lot of Republicans are trying to sell to their constituents.
Pull yourself up from your bootstraps in this country has turned into code for go to work in a job that will break your will, deaden your soul (I guess the same thing as breaking your will, lol), and physically break you inside of a year.
What’s that, injuries sustained on the job have you needing to go on long-term unemployment or declare a permanent disability, well touch luck you lazy bum. If you can’t work and were not able to save for a rainy day from the job that paid you peanuts, that is not someone like DeSantis’s problem, go live in a group home you rummy.
This is not good, and a bit scary that all too many folks are being snookered into believing that the hyper wealthy only have their best interests at heart, and folks like Brooks are not helping dissuade folks from believing in a future where the clock is turned back to a time when the man in the house would set out to a job that was secure and paid well and let them be the only bread winner in the family.
That so many folks believe in such a simplistic “fix” to what ails society as a whole today really is disheartening. I need to step away from my keyboard before I become too depressed, lol!
It’s also a college town. 🙂 Part of the University of Wisconsin system.
Suicide rates in the factories arelower than in the general population. And the reasons for suicide are not about factory working conditions. It’s about pressure from parents to get married, have kids, make lots of money, and move home to take care of them.
May be just me, but seems this is the gov we have now. Each party knows it’s power may be fleeting and cram a jillion things into one bill, as you can’t address problems with individual bills, all have to be addressed in one giant one, pass it and pat each other on the back. Same on the other side with tax overhaul bills. Can’t we just legislate issue by issue? Is it dysfunction or laziness or what? I know dysfunction is next level nowadays
Count me in as a liberal who is ready to stop sharing. In the discussion on clawing back the $3.5T human infrastructure bill, one of the trade offs is expand Medicare or bring those who live in states that refuse to expand Medicaid under the ACA. In the past, I’d be all for expanding ACA coverage, but not any longer. F’em let them have the freedumb to die in the streets, give dental coverage etc, to even well-to-do seniors who can afford it on their own.
@Jay L Gischer:
Oh, absolutely. My dad had an officer’s IQ but, having dropped out of school at 16, enlisted in the Army and moved up the ranks rather fast. Along the way, he got his GED and his Associate’s. But he essentially got his BA so that he could have the credentials to continue doing what he’d already been doing as an NCO as a GS civilian, so it wasn’t really a lifestyle changer. More importantly, it’s not a worldview-changing experience at that age.
Given that several states and many hospitals are moving to a crisis standard of care — picking and choosing who gets care based on a quick guess of best chance of survival — we are already there.
The only question is whether we should have these decisions made by some kind of structure ostensibly answerable to the voters, or whether we should let it be an ad hoc set of rules and decisions that are more easily swayed by individual triage nurses instincts and biases.
Hospitals have never really been independent — they operate under a host of regulations, traditionally including a requirement that they cannot turn away someone who needs life-saving care.
Left to their own devices, they would turn away anyone who couldn’t pay — as you can frequently see them do with anything short of someone bleeding out, even when our healthcare system is operating normally. Also, they would cut ICU beds to a much lower level, as they are expensive, and an empty ICU bed is just money down the drain.
Where are these group homes? Do you mean tent-cities under bridges?
Group homes for those unable to work, and unable to afford shelter would be a big step up from the current reality. There’s a small number of them here and there, but massive waiting lists.
And those that do exist are primarily for the emotionally unbalanced, rather than the guy who worked in a factory warehouse until he herniated a disk. In fact, that guy’s best option might be to turn to drugs, get into trouble with the law, and then get committed to a drug treatment facility as part of their sentence.
And yet, they think “socialism” is a dirty word. Socialism would ensure that the folks on the Front Range never stop sharing.
I’m sorry. This made me laugh out loud. When I entered the AF in 1980 as a 2Lt, I was already surrounded by enlisted who had Associates and Bachelors degrees and above. They were almost uniformly smart. And boy, there were some dumb officers. Most of the software programmers were enlisted. For the AF in particular, it always made me question whether the Prussian model of officers and enlisted was obsolete. Especially since that model originated in the European class system.
Yes. Because the government spent 40 years drilling it into our heads that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were the enemy–the people who want to take away our way of life and possibly nuke us back to the stone age.
Progressives are stuck on using that word–despite the fact that it gains them absolutely nothing, and hurts them severely in places they could otherwise gain a foothold.
“Democrats have a problem with messaging”. Gee… never heard that before.
Here’s the thing: Remove that one word, and Dems could easily expand their base. Rural communities have what you would call “socialism”. We call it “charity” or “helping the community”. It usually comes from the community, not the government, but that’s neither here nor there.
Tomorrow, I’m buying some donation bags that the local grocery store made up special for the local food pantry. We had a city festival a couple weeks ago, and I pledged a $10 donation bag for anyone who volunteered under my name. I got four. The local grocer puts together $10 bags for the pantry and places them at the check-out counters. Anyone can grab one, pay for it, and put it in a cart after the checkout. They get thousands of dollars of donations every week. I asked the grocer to make up 4 “special” bags–things that are needed, but don’t usually end up in the normal bags.
My hope is that the $40 I spend–along with the publicity I can give it–will encourage others to help
Yesterday, the local (volunteer) ambulance crew hosted a “Brats for Bob”* event where you could buy food and drinks, give blood, or just donate money to help out someone who has a medical issue and needs help.
We’ve got these things happening a dozen times a year–in a community of 3,000.
There’s a resale shop that spends all it’s money on getting kids eyeglasses and hearing aids, as well as picking up prescriptions and groceries for the elderly, and lending a hand wherever the community needs it.
The Catholic church offers free rides to anyone who needs to get to the doctor, the pharmacy, the grocery store, or a family member’s house. The Methodist church has an annual bed building event–where they purchase the materials and build beds for kids in the community who need them.
If someone’s house burns down, I can guarantee you that they will have all the necessities–and a lot of the basic comforts–taken care of right away. And they’ll have a place to stay before the smoke clears.
Rural, conservative folk understand the concept of helping those in need. And we sure as hell don’t need someone in Washington telling us how to do it.
And this, right here, is where Democrats fail. They insist that Washington knows what’s right for every community. They insist that Washington will take care of everybody–better than their neighbors will.
You want to get your socialism into rural America? Stop calling it socialism, stop insisting that Washington knows best, and stop insisting that money will magically make everything better.
All that money you’re pumping into government agencies? Give it to community organizations. I guarantee you it’ll do what you want it to much better, and much more efficiently. A local food bank has brought in 5.9 million pounds of food from stores that would otherwise have been thrown away. With their resources, $1 becomes 3 meals.
You want people to have access to medical care? Give the money directly to the local clinics and let them do their jobs rather than spending wasteful time and money filling out government forms in the hope that they can get reimbursed. You know who gets the most out of Medicare? Big hospitals who can pay full-time staff to navigate the maze of rules required for reimbursement.
You know who would benefit most from Medicare for All? [ibid]
You want a social safety net that everyone can accept? Stop telling people what to do. Give communities the resources and let them use those resources in the way that best fits their needs and solves their problems.
Why is that so difficult?
* Not the real name, but you get the idea.
Just a question before I go to sleep:
In the last year, how much money and how many hours have you, personally, donated to help those in your community who need it?
@Scott: The Air Force and Navy bring in a large share of exceptionally bright folks who either can’t afford college or simply want to do something else before going to college. I encountered relatively few of those folks in the Army but there were definitely a handful who were smarter than most of the officers. (And 1980 may have been an especially odd period for officer recruitment; the Vietnam malaise had cured itself by the time I was commissioned eight years later and none of us had a personal memory of the draft.)
But, yes, I’ve been arguing for a long while that the officer/enlisted distinction has become obsolete. I think there needs to be a direct path to commissioning for the college-right-out-of-high school folks but I would eliminate senior NCOs and simply commission or issue warrants to those who would otherwise be selected for promotion to E-7.
You say that as if it is a good thing.
Perhaps Bob and everyone else needs better health care, and not to be dependent on begging for donations and hoping their medical problems aren’t considered moral failings by their neighbors.
When someone hurts their back in a Klingon-furry-bondage orgy, and can’t work for six months, and is behind in house payments… is the community going to rally around them, or question what they were doing being beaten with pain sticks while dressed like a cartoon wolf and hung from the ceiling like a piñata?
And in answer to your question about my charity — I do no volunteer work, but donate a lot of money to local food banks, particularly the one a neighborhood over that does a lot of homeless outreach (the goal being to encourage the homeless in my neighborhood to go over there). I’d have to check the numbers for last year, but it’s been in the range of $10,000-$40,000 most years, depending on how I am doing — usually a lump sum at the end of the year, often tax return as well.
(The $40,000 was when I deliberately got myself fired, and donated my severance to charity)
@Mu Yixiao: Also, I’m willing to bet that if you count the uses of the word “socialism”, you will find it is used on the right far more than on the left.
Spare me your “if only the bad democrats would stop using the swear word that makes reasonable people cover the ears and stop listening” shit.