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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Andrew Leonard v David Brooks

Further to my most recent post (titled LIBOR something or other), the "debate" between Brooks and Leonard is symptomatic of the problem I identified there.  Brooks seems to think that the lax morality of Wall Street is due to the flower-children counterculture of the 1960s, while Leonard says no, the problem was the deregulation caused by the Republican backlash to that counterculture.

Brooks imagines a time when the banking titans had the same opportunities but believed in "restraint, reticence, and service" and took moral responsibility for what their organizations did.  But the temptations just weren't there, and in any event they were not so dispersed.  With the global markets and computerized trading we have today, there are literally thousands if not tens of thousands of individual actors who can fudge something somewhere in order to skim a million or two off of the torrent.  It just wasn't like that back in the age of restraint.  You can't blame the Democrats or the flowerchildren for that.

And Leonard is just as far off the mark.  The Reagan deregulation was the start, but it coincided with the computer revolution AND in any event it was the Democratic Clinton administration that continued the deregulatory slide for the financial services industry.

Interestingly, Leonard takes Brooks to task for describing the elites as harder-working than the middle and lower classes, wondering whether Brooks has ever spent time picking strawberries or cleaning toilets.  But that misses the point too.  As I said in my last post, the financial services sector -- and I, like Brooks, will go so far as to say the elites generally -- work harder than others.  Yes, there are certainly people doing really hard work (e.g. in a slaughterhouse) for long hours and little pay.  But either that's because they are immigrants (illegal or otherwise) and didn't have the opportunities that we citizens get, or it's because they just didn't work as hard at school as the elites.  It's not necessarily their fault -- they might come from broken homes or cultures that either do not value or simply cannot assist in the educational process -- but the fact is, they did not work as hard at school as the strivers who became (or continued to be) the elites.  If they're working hard now, good for them, but if it's a a minimum wage job, it's because they didn't work hard enough early on.

And on reading Brooks's piece, I see that he didn't even characterize the elites as harder-working; he just said that they work much longer hours and invest more time and money than those lower down on the income scale.  I'm pretty sure that on average, that's true.

So, although I don't often agree with Brooks, and I don't agree with his overall point in this article, I have to say that Leonard's critique was unfair, superficial, and beside the point.

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