Friday, September 10, 2010

David Brooks is Not a Serious Person

In his column today Brooks identifies a shift in cultural attitudes as the cause of the decline of America's industrial might. Before he does this, however, he proves he is a serious person by reducing a complex historical moment to a ridiculously simplified version of events.  In this case it is Britain's rapid rise to hegomonic status in the 19th century and relative economic decline in the 20th century.  He argues that this rise and fall resulted from a change in elite attitudes toward work, the first change good the second bad and kinda of sissylike.  He then identifies a similar change in elite attitudes in America towards work with the sissylike version and, hey presto!!, America's decline is the fault of Americans who would rather be do-gooders or make a fortune in finance.

Britain's relative economic decline, in Brooks' telling, had nothing to do with two expensive wars -- the first of which was pointless and cost more than Britain could afford and the second of which certainly wasn't pointless but it still cost more than Britain could afford, the rise of other industrial powers -- say Germany or America, decolonization with its loss of captive markets  -- like India, and other related whatnotery, like -- say -- the Great Depression or an ill-advised return to the Gold Standard at pre-WWI rates or Thatcher's industrial policy.  Nope not a bit of it.

Because if he did include these aspects of 20th century history, America's "decline" would be the result of ill-advised invasions and industries' drive for profit maximization, which means moving from here to countries with few or no labor and environmental laws, which-- in turn -- means that elites and others who might maybe want jobs in industry can't get them because those jobs no longer exist here.  Or China's rapid and successful industrialization.  And this would place the blame pretty squarely on the backs of the folks who made those decisions not some assumed changes in attitude of everyday and elite Americans toward work

In other words, when seeking to explain the reason there are so few jobs in industry in, say, Buffalo, Brooks concludes that it's the fault of people who don't want to work at the jobs that are no longer there because they've all lost their work ethic and now just want to lazy about as social workers or something.

Brooks writes:
As the historian Correlli Barnett chronicled, the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.
Barnett writes that
in this seminal period of 1870-1914 — the widespread lack of appetite of British employers, themselves often ill-educated "practical men," for recruits with formal technical qualifications, and their preference for people "trained" on the job by the traditional method of "sitting next to Nellie." Here was an abiding double bind: the British system proportionately turned out far fewer technically qualified personnel than, say, America or Germany, and yet more than British industry wanted.[quoted cited here]
See what Brooks did there?  He got the argument wrong; they wallowed so much in practicality, which was in fact a code for Palinesque "Common Sense," that they turned their backs on technocrats.  I can't find any hard copies at the moment but Barnett seems to argue that the "over-strained structure of British power swiftly collapsed" because of the "shock" of WWII. Dintenfass wrote a nice summing up of the debate of Britain's decline, which is -- go figure -- much more complicated than Brooks lets on.

Brooks also insists that
sometime around 1800, economic growth took off — in Britain first, then elsewhere. How did this growth start? In his book “The Enlightened Economy,” Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University argues that the crucial change happened in people’s minds. Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use. For example, entrepreneurs applied geological research to the businesses of mining and transportation.
 The implication here is that the "crucial change" occurred around 1800.  Mokyr, in fact, links it to the Enlightenment's Scientific Revolution, beginning with Bacon,  the Republic of Letters, legal innovations -- like patents,  and important technological developments all in the 18th century or earlier. Like most historians, what Mokyr does is discusses the Industrial Revolution as a series of stages that ought most properly be understood as a first and second revolution, the second enjoying the success of the first and finally able to move forward armed with great piles of scientific knowledge, and he seeks to privilege the importance of the first, which includes changed attitudes of mind, new institutions and legal regimes,  and technology plus the destruction of "mercantilism" as the dominant economic paradigm.  See it's more complicated then Brooks lets on.

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