David Brooks has taken heat from letter writers for his op-ed column about Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, in which Murray describes the differences between the succeeding fifth and the most-languishing third of the American population. Brooks says values were generally similar among Americans prior to 1963, and then a deepening schism caused the lower "tribe" to merely glare across the great divide to the productive and achieving upper "tribe."
Brooks got in trouble when he proposed a lame solution: national service that would "jam the tribes together" to expose each to the other's values and character.
The whole premise earns brilliant exposition as Big Lie Number 9 in Michael Medved's The 10 Big Lies About America. The Lie, which says "a war on the middle class means less comfort and opportunity for the average American," assumes that citizens are born poor and remain that way, stymied from escaping their fate. Medved shows that "the poor" refers to a group that has more than previous low-income generations could even imagine, and that, most crucially, people who start out poor tend to improve their status during life.
Reading Brooks' silly solution to differences brought me back to my own youth. My parents struggled financially, with my father, a civil servant in the California state employment office, failing to earn enough to keep up with inflation. My mom had to work as a secretary, and finally they had to give up their home when their combined income couldn't cover their rising property taxes.
I was on "4-4" in high school--four hours' class followed by four hours at a $1.65-per-hour job. After high school graduation, I was on my own, financially. As a student, I worked part time and lived on what I now see was poverty-level wages. My food budget was $4 per week. My rent was $110 per month. I never ate out, never went to movies, didn't buy clothes--I alternated between two pair of jeans and five tops. And never felt poor for a moment. Even as a child, hearing my dad scold my mom for buying meat we couldn't afford, it never occurred to me that we were in a "lower tribe." My parents had gone to college, as I knew I would, and therefore whatever scrimping we had to do was always seen as temporary. We'd get out of this; we'd be improving our lot, and, over the years, we did.
It's a mindset. A belief system. If, when in the midst of my low-income years one of David Brooks' "upper tribe" had condescended to "jam in" to my world, I wouldn't have fathomed that he was any different from me.
Under the heading "The Myth of Permanent Misery," Michael Medved quotes a Washington Post story headlined "Many Blacks Earn Less Than Parents, Study Finds." The reality under the alarmist newspaper title was buried way down in paragraph seven: "Overall, four out of five children born into families at the bottom 20 percent of wage earners surpassed their parent's income. Broken down by race, nine in 10 whites are better paid than their parents were, compared with three out of four blacks."
In other words, everyone's moving on up. Not only are the generations increasing in their wealth, but individuals increase their economic levels as they age. Anyone starting out earns less than he does with experience and greater expertise. Workers usually begin with little, and over time, accumulate and advance, commensurate with their ability and industriousness.
One uncomfortable but undeniable fact is that half of the population lives below the average. Still, more people are in the upper tribe (30%) than the lower (20%)--doesn't that in itself tell you that more Americans are succeeding than barely treading water? The gap between the "lower tribe" and "upper tribe" actually reflects that with dot-com opportunities, more young people can get rich quicker, moving from lower levels to the top more easily. That's good news--and given the statistical reality, somebody has to populate those slots in lower percentages; unlike the residents of Lake Woebegone, not everyone can be "above average."
We know a family with energy, optimism, faith and tenacity. The mom home-schooled their four children; the dad worked in sales. With the downturn, he got laid off. Despite his earnest efforts, he couldn't find a job; they fell into debt, just as their oldest child was to enter college.
On the precipice of destitution, they got to work. The mom and kids would recite multiplication tables as they delivered flyers to doorsteps, piecework they made into a fun adventure. Their college-bound daughter applied for scholarships and got a part-time job. The dad took stop-gap assignments for low pay as he kept searching for a proper job. Eventually he found something.
Were they the "lower tribe"? Of course not, but neither were they the upper, economically. But their values were what shaped them. And the difference between the "underclass" and those who are comfortable is the willingness (or not) to see oneself as a victim and entitled to others' support. It's a difference between remaining staunchly responsible for yourself versus relinquishing that control to expect others to be responsible for you.
This ridiculous, artificial distinction between "the 1%" and the other 99% is the vocalization of victimhood. People who are smart, motivated and capable will succeed; those who are not blessed with high intelligence still have the opportunity to succeed with motivation and dedication. In our YouTube age, you can build a business with little more than a great idea (or talent) and a laptop computer.
We don't need the upper and lower tribes to jam together--everyone's online; the ability to associate with others is no farther than your desk. It's mostly a matter of what people choose to do with their time that determines whether they end up as a success or not. And also how they decide to define success. Even as she was tucking flyers under doormats, the mom I mentioned was thanking God for the time with her children, confident that hard work can and will be rewarded, even if in unexpected ways.
David Brooks might want to refer again to Murray's book, because its point is that values are the root of these "tribal" differences. The solution isn't in "jamming together" tribes, but purposefully imitating the 1% in achievement and disseminating the formula that can bring everyone upward.