Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 April 2008

Trade, Economics, and Ancient Rome

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece yesterday that left me deeply troubled. Here’s my open reply:

Dear Mr. Brooks,

I regard you as the dean of mainstream pundits, but your column yesterday missed an important point.

You chided Senator Obama for using free trade as an economic whipping boy. Although you barely mentioned Hillary doing the same thing, you were right to chide him. In the long run, free trade is a good thing. Damning it to score political points is demagogic and silly.

But the point you missed is just as important. Our generation’s college-and-laptop folk haven’t done nearly as good a job taking care of those less fortunate as their parents and grandparents did. John Edwards is right: we do have two Americas—those with college degrees and laptops, and the rest. But the economic dividing line is not free trade. Nor is it education. It is broken promises.

How many rural and small-town people born in the last century went to work in a plant or mill, rather than go to college? How many went because the pay and benefits from skilled labor were as good or better than those in white-collar jobs? They believed an implicit promise: that the skilled worker’s lifestyle would continue, at least for their generation. We broke that promise—perhaps through no fault of our own, but we broke it nevertheless.

We broke explicit promises, too. The miracle of bankruptcy allowed American industry to strip promised pensions and health care from millions of workers. Many more lost their jobs a few days, months or years before qualifying for benefits. We took their best years; then we broke our social compact.

Two big mistakes destroyed the Soviet Union. First, it got economics badly wrong. Marx and Engels were not scientists. They were creative writers who made their economics up. But the Soviets’ second mistake was just as important. They saw human society as a big machine governed by big theory, not a collection of people. They neglected the human factor.

It seems to me that your approach shares that second mistake. It’s unrealistic to urge education on people who have to work two jobs to feed their kids. Likewise, it’s unrealistic to ask people in their fifties and sixties, whose last experience with education was in high school decades ago, to learn entirely new skills and undertake new careers.

We have millions of these aging workers. They helped build today’s prosperity for all of us, including the college-and-laptop set. We owe them at least keeping promises.

Treating them shabbily is not only unjust. It’s bad economics. The pressure they now feel impairs their children’s and grandchildren’s advancement. It propagates poor education and poor social preparedness forward for another generation or two. In an increasingly competitive world, we can’t afford that setback.

The last world-spanning, democratic, multi-ethnic empire like ours was Rome’s. Its real secret was a simple social principle: anyone could become a Roman citizen, even a conquered enemy soldier or freed slave. By providing social mobility that the rest of the world could only envy, Rome remained an economic and military dynamo for several hundred years.

That social mobility ended when Rome used the Huns, Goths and Visigoths as cannon fodder and denied them true citizenship. Their mistreatment led them to sack Rome, and its fate was sealed. We’re dangerously close to repeating that mistake, with our all-volunteer forces taking tour after tour in Iraq, while the rest of us shop at home.

How we treat “the least among us” is a good test of any human society. We are failing that test. Not only do we abuse our troops and treat our poor and incapable worse than does any other advanced nation. In their old age we are stiffing the very people who built our modern prosperity after World War II.

Like the Soviets in their time, we use grand economic theory to justify our neglect. The lobbyists whom your piece exonerates are the means by which our fatal obsession with abstract economic theory becomes law, at the price of human misery, social discontent and ultimately national weakness. It’s no excuse that our theory is better than the Soviets’. We lose social cohesion all the same.

We beat the Great Depression and won World War II because we found a pragmatic middle course. We forsook the laissez faire capitalism of our Gilded Age and the muscular socialism of the thirties to forge the strongest society in human history. In just one generation, we rose from a largely agrarian, isolationist nation to the world’s greatest superpower.

We did so by giving everyone a fair shake, or at least the credible promise of one. We made the least among us strong, so we had the strength of all.

No society in human history ever had the strength of ours when World War II ended. Its real source was not the Bomb, but our unique social cohesion. Our credible promise of a fair shake got even our Japanese-Americans, whose parents were in internment camps, and our African-Americans, who lived under Jim Crow at home, to fight like tigers in foreign wars.

If we want to maintain that cohesion, we must renew the credibility of that promise. We are going to have to find a middle way again. Paraphrasing Marie Antoinette and crying “Let them eat education!” is no answer. Nor is the tepid socialism of Europe.

I don’t know what our new middle way will look like. But I do know how to tell when we’ve found it. When our poor are no longer destitute and workers in our lower middle class again feel pride in their roles and confidence in their lot, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.

We’re a long way from that path today. We’re beginning to look like Latin America, where the rich live surrounded by walls with broken glass on top and most of the rest live in shanties. We are not so crass as to use broken glass, but many from our college-and-laptop set live in gated communities.

If we continue along the path we’re on, some day that set will look over its collective shoulder and see no one following. Then the fate of ancient Rome will not be far away. Free trade won’t stop our social dissolution; it will just provide reason to envy or scapegoat foreigners and the immigrants among us.




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  • At Friday, April 25, 2008 at 1:27:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Did you get a reply from Mr. Brooks? I'd be very curious to know what his response is to your letter.

  • At Friday, April 25, 2008 at 6:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Eliot,

    I’m not sure David Brooks knows I exist.

    I’ve sent him several e-mails on various subjects, including some with links to this blog. But the automated replies always say not to expect an answer.

    I’m neither surprised nor offended. New York Times columnists must get thousands or tens of thousands of e-mails per day. I have no idea how they even read them all. I have trouble enough handling the 50 or so that I receive.

    I haven't sent Brooks a link to this particular post, although I had intended to. If you'd like to do so, please feel free. But don’t expect an answer.


  • At Monday, May 5, 2008 at 12:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger Carol McCullough said…

    Great letter! It deserves a response.


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