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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Brooks on Morgenson on McLeod

by Tanta on 7/22/2008 09:07:00 AM

UPDATE: Please see the end of the post for a marvelous blast from the Brooks past.

I have never actually gone out of my way to read a David Brooks column; this one was directed to my attention by a reader (thanks, Pat!).

It takes on the same Morgenson article I went after on Sunday. In the process of doing so it makes a series of claims that are, I think, way more preposterous than Morgenson's tendency to see borrowers as primarily hapless, passive victims of predatory lenders:

[W]hat happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.
This nostalgia for the lost "culture of thrift" always gets on my nerves. America has always had both a "culture of thrift" and a "culture of conspicuous consumption." We have had our Gilded Ages before the year 1992. The "BankAmericard" (which became the Visa) was invented back in the "thrifty fifties," about ten years after economist James Duesenberry first popularized the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." Collapsing the history of America into a lost golden age of thrift contrasted to a degenerate present of consumption excess is a reliable sign you're in the presence of ideology. Like this:
Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.

Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

McLeod and the lenders were not only shaped by deteriorating norms, they helped degrade them.
Reactionaries and moral scolds have been carping about working people aspiring to "mass luxury" since at least the time of Adam Smith. Anyone who has ever read a nineteenth century novel has encountered the ubiquitous scenes of upper-class women bemoaning the increasing availability of inexpensive machine-made ready-to-wear clothing, which--horrors!--allowed the servant class to wear dresses and suits that were increasingly hard to distinguish from the clothing of their middle-class betters. Or the apocalyptic brooding over the sudden availability of affordable washing machines and gas ranges, which would lead to nothing but demands for female suffrage and public schools for the servant class. (Yep. They were right about that.)

And just when did the schools used to talk about the "sin and temptation" of shopping, and just when did they stop? Diane McLeod, the woman featured in Morgenson's story, is 47. She would have been only an impressionable teenager when Tammy Faye Bakker was all over the TV, preaching about sin and temptation and also appearing every week in a different outfit and shoes, not to mention the make-up and hair. If Tammy Faye was mostly concerned with keeping young women out of the perdition of spending Saturdays at the mall, I don't remember that part. I do remember first hearing that stupid line about the tough going shopping during the great moral awakening of the Reagan years.

Of course, "McLeod and the lenders" and those dratted secular schools weren't exactly the only parties involved in the rather complex dynamic of establishing the social respectability of recreational or "therapeutic" consumption. Brooks, writing in that influential arbiter of taste the New York Times, somehow fails to notice the role of the media in constructing popular standards for "risk" and "normal" consumption patterns. In Brooks' weird little world, Americans responded to "rising home prices" that they apparently directly perceived, without media intervention. It was those house prices that "gave people the impression that they could take on more risk," not the reporting on house prices or the columnists who solemnly opined that these prices meant that people weren't taking on more risk by buying or refinancing. How incredibly convenient that line is.

Some of us can have grave concerns about consumerist culture and excessive household debt without telling ourselves that "capitalism" is about to erase a couple hundred years of history and bring back Puritanism. We can also object to the way in which writers like Morgenson seem to want to erase the extent to which real people like McLeod are active participants in their own lives--in favor of seeing them as mere passive victims of lenders--without having to drag Calvinist notions of "sin and temptation" out of the cultural closet. But at least Morgenson's little secular morality plays do try to ground themselves in a set of empirical facts about lender practices as they exist today. Brooks' reductive fantasies about American history and the equation of spending and sin leave the world of empirical fact far, far behind.

Credit crunches and economic crises are bad enough, without having to put up with the endless cheap moralizing that always seems to accompany them. Unfortunately, we're going to have to put up with a lot of cheap moralizing from the media. At least this time around we've got the Internet and the blogs to make fun of it.

UPDATE: our 12th Percentile leaves us this jewel in the comments:
I would like to present David Brooks from 2004 arguing against David Brooks in 2008. From his NY Times article on suburbia, which has to be read to be believed:
These criticisms don't get suburbia right. They don't get America right. The criticisms tend to come enshrouded in predictions of decline or cultural catastrophe. Yet somehow imperial decline never comes, and the social catastrophe never materializes. American standards of living surpassed those in Europe around 1740. For more than 260 years, in other words, Americans have been rich, money-mad, vulgar, materialistic and complacent people. And yet somehow America became and continues to be the most powerful nation on earth and the most productive. Religion flourishes. Universities flourish. Crime rates drop, teen pregnancy declines, teen-suicide rates fall, along with divorce rates. Despite all the problems that plague this country, social healing takes place. If we're so great, can we really be that shallow?
The internet really does make it easy to show what idiots these people are.