jimsleeper.com » Intellectual Usury Feels Good at First

Intellectual Usury Feels Good at First

David Brooks resorts to it often

By Jim Sleeper – July 22, 2008, 4:56AM

Occasionally people ask me why I’m so hard on New York Times columnist David Brooks, who some find quite insightful and others so irrelevant they can’t understand why I get angry at all.

At last, I’ve found a way to explain it. It’s all there in his column of today, “The Culture of Debt.” I’m sure that many of my correspondents will find the column reasonable on first reading. Yet it captures everything that is wrong with this man and his ideas — and maybe with readers who believe him.

Brooks, a self-described conservative and sometime practitioner of “comic sociology,” author of On Paradise Drive and creator of the all-American working-class “patio man,” knows he has to say something about the devastation raging through countless recently-viable neighborhoods like the one in Cleveland featured on Bill Moyers’ Journal last Friday night.

Brooks knows that millions of the very homeowners he’s been rhapsodizing may lose not only their present homes but any prospect of owning homes again. But he never comments honestly on information such as that presented by The Nation economics editor William Greider and public officials in Ohio, in one of the most riveting and instructive Moyers shows I’ve ever seen.

Brooks makes what we have to presume was an individual, moral decision to deflect the truth and, indeed, to lie. To do it, he shifts from comic sociology to pathetic sociology: With great sobriety, he wrist-slaps predatory lenders, but he really sticks it — more in sorrow than in anger, of course — to the hapless, desperate homeowners who sat in their own living rooms listening respectfully to smooth talkers they’d invited in to offer them fistfuls of “cash back” in return for signing their savings and hopes away.

Citing a Times story about a woman whose home was foreclosed in a tsunami of predatory lending, Brooks frets that Times readers posting comments on whom to hold accountable have been talking past each other: Blame the predatory lenders, one side says. No, says the other side, blame homeowners who lacked enough grown-up self-restraint to say, “I can’t do this deal,” or “I’d better not go there.”

Brooks, fresh from deep reckonings in sociology and political philosophy, announces a way out of this either/or debate by proclaiming a “third position… held in overlapping ways by liberal communitarians and conservative Burkeans.” (Whenever he does this, he’s about to drown some truths in euphemisms and plausible half-truths like the ones predatory lenders tell.)

Brooks’ truism-drenched “third position” starts “with the notion that… individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them. Decision-making — whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry — isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.

“According to this view, what happened to [the borrower who was dispossessed], and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.”

So blame the culture. Blame the individual decision makers. Blame both. And be sure to step back and remember that the individual and the society are interdependent. This is a shell game on the edge of an abyss, and since Brooks chatters on about our individual responsibility for eroding norms, let’s hold him individually responsible for his decision to play this game.

1. Brooks lies about how the devastation occurred. An “unspoken code has been silently eroded,” he reveals. Silently, David? Marketers of all kinds have spent billions for 40 years telling Americans they deserve a break today and that marketers from McDonald’s and credit-card companies to mortgage lenders will give it to them instantly.

This has been the most monumental, unrelenting, intrusive, mindless and therefore irresponsible campaign in history to destroy a culture, barring perhaps the fascist and communist propaganda juggernauts and worse of the 1930s. We are destroying neighborhoods. We are destroying hearts and minds. Our governments are in on it, not just via de-regulation but via lotteries and big bailouts to shareholders who are never held responsible for their individual decisions to back these scams.

What else does Brooks need to know before he’ll make his own responsible decision to write that decency hasn’t “silently eroded” but has been clamorously assaulted? Hello? Last year in New Haven, we wound up saying “Hello?” four or five times an evening during the dinner hour to callers from local mortgage lending companies. How hard is it for David Brooks to imagine that poorly-educated people, desperate for cash and barely meeting their mortgage payments, would take those calls?

Brooks makes sure to finger, ever so deftly, the specific, real-life weaknesses and moral lapses not of the people who made decisions to design, invest in, and conduct these assaults, but of the woman in the Times story, who, “after her divorce,… went on a shopping spree to make herself feel better.” He tells us nothing about shopping habits and decisions of her many white-collar assailants. Why not?

Ever since I wrote The Closest of Strangers after spending the better part of a decade in black north and central Brooklyn, I’ve had a reputation for not letting poor people off the hook for bad decisions that were ultimately, irreducibly matters of personal responsibility. Drawing from intimate experience you can read about in the book, I’ve rebuked some liberals for refusing to pay disadvantaged people the elementary compliment of holding them to the same standards of decency and self-control to which they’d hold their own children. I don’t need cheap sociology from Brooks; I need the candor of a talented writer’s honest reflections.

2. Brooks lies about the true sources of the devastation. With caveats and cameos, he keeps readers focused on the erosion of norms among us all. There were no “pushers” behind this process. But, in truth, it was unleashed by corporate capital and, politically, by the Republican Party, whose deregulatory, bailout, and other corporate-welfare tactics Brooks has defended shamelessly for a decade. (I’m not letting Democrats off the hook; Chuck Schumer, as a New York Senator, played a big role in deregulating Wall Street and the banks.)

3. Brooks lies about the fact that most of the individual decisions in this crisis were not made by homeowners. He’s fastidious in noting that the foreclosed homeowner hasn’t always behaved responsibly, be he doesn’t find a single instructive anecdote to illustrate the irresponsibility of those who sought her out and zoomed in on her.

Why not? Brooks might tell you that he was quoting a Times story that didn’t provide that information. (Surprise, surprise.) But I’ll bet that that’s not the reason. It’s that he didn’t even think of putting a spotlight on those people. This mental blank, astonishing in so astute a social observer, amounts to a lie, because it’s derivative of his lying about where and how to hold people accountable for the collapse.

Brooks doesn’t tell us about, say, the stressed and, yes, morally irresponsible telemarketer who signed on to accelerate the storm. Not a word about the individual irresponsibility of the mortgage executive and his consultants and lawyers who designed the campaign, or about the sharpie salesmen who visited the homes whose equity they were about to steal while sitting politely on the targets’ sofas, or of the bankers who bought up the mortgages and foreclosed. Nothing about politicians, fed by all these predators, who eased the miscreants’ way in more ways than I can count.

Didn’t these people make any of the individual decisions Brooks claims had ripple effects on social norms? How can a Burkean conservative be silent about this? When Brooks writes that a culture of responsibility has “silently eroded,” isn’t his own silence about that erosion part of the reason for it? What does he think his job is?

The closest he comes to telling the truth is in the following paragraph, which begins by blaming both sides equally, if euphemistically, for irresponsible decisions. But tell me who you think Brooks expects you to leave the paragraph blaming — and then watch the Bill Moyers Journal segment, please, and see how he is lying:

“McLeod [a foreclosed homeowner] and the lenders were not only shaped by deteriorating norms, they helped degrade them. Despite all the subterranean social influences, there still is that final stage of decision-making when individual choice matters. Each time an avid lender struck a deal with an avid borrower, it reinforced a new definition of acceptable behavior for neighbors, family and friends. In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act.”

Again, notice how this has been tilted. Brooks doesn’t wonder about predatory lenders’ and countless other marketers’ own shopping sprees, stealing sprees, or other compulsions. “Norms changed,” he shrugs, “and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about ‘retail therapy’…” Oh, so that’s what really happened.

On the Moyers show, William Greider offers a better explanation of how norms change and cultures decay: He describes the virtual repeal of laws against usury, the kind of predatory lending that, like loan-sharking, virtually enslaves desperate borrowers or squeezes them to death.

Brooks would rather keep us focused on the individual responsibility borne by homeowners and a few of the nastiest predatory lenders than he would make us notice the multi-billion dollar advertising campaign that promoted the culture of debt, or the massive deregulation and government bailouts that have made usury an unstoppable and devastating assault on the America he pretends to defend but on which he really just feeds, week after week. Where is the national greatness? Where is the social contract? Where, indeed, is the intellectual leadership?

The reason Brooks can’t do better is that he is an intellectual usurer. He palms off dollops of Burke and Oakeshott, swathing the people who are destroying the American republic — and all of us who are targets of their systemic depredations — in bromides about a kind of moral responsibility which Brooks does not himself exercise.

His pseudo-scholarly ruminations flatter some readers and make others deferential, but they are always suspiciously easy to follow. They’re the intellectual equivalent of “cash back” on an easy loan of false knowledge that leaves you feeling “had,” empty-handed, and politically paralyzed. That is how Brooks makes his living: He charms you up the garden path toward a politics that is nowhere.

What perversity drives him to it, I don’t know, but the crime itself cannot be doubted. How does this Burkean look at himself in the mirror? How do his employers and talk-show hosts look at themselves?