Thursday, August 03, 2006

The "Productive" Class

Note: Another political rant. What can I say? It's summer...the art world is slow these days...and frustration has been building up.

Back when I was blogging politics day and night (when Bambino, a notorious blog widower, coined the term "bullsh*t websites"), I had exhausted the contempt-conveying phrases in my vocabulary throughout a series of ultra-shrill tirades against New York Times columnist David Brooks. He remains my first example of a thoroughly loathsome pundit, displaying all the integrity of
Vidkun Quisling, but none of the charm.

Today, however, Brooks entered the realm of surreal self-parody (must be slow in the pundit world as well, although none of the pundits not working hard to deflect attention away from the Administration's accelerating spiral down past the nethermost position in American Presidential history seem to have any trouble finding topics to write on).

Anyway...The New York Times has deemed such drivel worthy of payment and hidden his column behind their "Times Select" firewall, so I'll have to retype the choice passages from the copy I purchased from my local vendor.

With the Middle East peace process in tatters, Iraq a literal hell on earth, killer heatwaves scorching the planet, and bin Laden & Co. still trotting the globe plotting, what does our Mr. Brooks decide his readers have to know he thinks? Why that rich people are overworked and horribly put upon and poor people are lazy, of course.

Through some screw-up in the moral superstructure, we now have a plutocratic upper class infused with the staid industriousness of Ben Franklin, while we are apparently seeing the emergence of a Wal-Mart leisure class ---devil-may-care middle-age slackers who live off home-equity loans and disabilty payments so they can surf the History Channel and enjoy fantasy football leagues.
Brooks' alarm over this was spawned by an article the Times ran earlier. That one is still free:
Millions of men ... men in the prime of their lives, between 30 and 55 — have dropped out of regular work. They are turning down jobs they think beneath them or are unable to find work for which they are qualified, even as an expanding economy offers opportunities to work.

About 13 percent of American men in this age group are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960’s. The difference represents 4 million men who would be working today if the employment rate had remained where it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. [...]

These are men forced to compete to get back into the work force, and even then they cannot easily reconstruct what many lost in a former job,” said Thomas A. Kochan, a labor and management expert at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So they stop trying.”

Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. It is a significant cultural shift from three decades ago, when men almost invariably went back into the work force after losing a job and were more often able to find a new one that met their needs.
Now I'm a workaholic, so I'm not sure I can relate to those following this trend, but to leap from this article to the conclusions Brooks makes reveals a classic case of fitting the data to support a predisposed position. Again, from Brooks:

Buy I try not to judge these gentlemen harshly. What I see is a migration of values. Once upon a time, middle-class men would have defined their dignity by their ability to work hard, provide for their family and live as self-reliant members of society. [Gee, I'm glad he didn't judge them harshly.] But these fellows, to judge by their quotations, define their dignity the same way the subjects of Throsetin Veblen's "The Theory of the Lelisure Class" defined theirs.

They define their dignity by the loftiness of their thinking. They define their dignity not by their achievement, but by their personal enlightenment, their autonomy, by their distance from anything dishonorably menial or cumpulsory.
GRRRRR.... One of the examples Brooks uses to make his case is that of Alan Beggerow, who got laid off at age 48 from the steel mill he worked in. That's right, Davie...steel workers typically have lofty delusions and distaste for menial work. Beggerow worked there until he was forty-eight! If, as my father did, Beggerow entered the steel mill about age 23, that means he performed a truly grueling, very physical job in hellish conditions for two and a half decades. Further, like my father, he most likely left that job with a series of serious health problems and a badly bruised, if not broken, body. After he got laid off, Beggerow taught math for a while at a community college, but when that ended he decided he'd rather live off what little he had accumulated than take a job he felt was beneath him. For Brooks to challenge that choice suggests he's never spent a day working in a steel mill, let alone 25 years.

What Brooks is really getting at here of course is why the uberwealthy are better than the poor (and you can bet this article about the "willfully" unemployed will weasle its way into some future column defending the tax cuts for the upper 1% of Americans). He's so remarkably deluded he actually laments:

[The lives of t]oday's super-wealthy...are marked by sleep deprivation and conference calls, and their idea of leisure is jetting off to Aspen to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski lead panels titled "Beyond Unipolarity."
Ahh...those unfortunate souls, jetting off to Aspen, celebrity panels and conference calls. Yeah, that's much tougher than filling out job applications at the local McDonald's when you're in your fifties. Why it's just not fair, I tell you. Let's not make them pay any taxes whatsoever. Clearly they're suffering enough already.

Brooks is working here, actually, off a myth that's been gaining ground among conservative bloggers. Its spin is that the wealthy are the "productive class," suggesting they do all the work and hence deserve the lion's share of the government's consideration. It's a notion I find so insidously mendacious, that it's hard not to punch someone offering it.

Then again, with the current Adminstration and its rubber-stamp Congress stacking the deck so heavily against the poor (slashing entitlement programs, refusing to raise the minimum wage, and passing truly evil bankruptcy legislation), is it any wonder that the poor take the advice offered in "War Games" that since you can't win, the only reasonable response is not to play? I mean, I know the Bush & Co are hellbent on creating a permanent indentured servant class, but they can't be surprised that folks aren't happy to both join it AND still have to clean their toilets.

One more aspect of Brook's article should be noted. It reeks of the foulest form of misogyny. Focused on the importance of the traditional role he feels men should play in society (ignoring working women in total), he ends his column on the following enlightened note:

The only comfort I've had from these distrubing trends is another recent story in The Times. Joyce Wadler reported that women in places like the Hamptons are still bedding down with the hired help.
He's attempting, one assumes, to be satirical. But who can tell, really?


Blogger ondine-nyc said...

I love it when David Brooks publishes. That means the next day the letters to the editor section has the best letters of the week.

The Times' readers write far better than Brooks and prove it on a weekly basis.

8/03/2006 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Mendacious # Lying; untruthful: a mendacious child.
# False; untrue: a mendacious statement.

Thanks Edward, my word for the day. Brooks is complete fluff, unfortunately he has a column in the Times and a weekly spot on the News Hour. It's of course a much deeper issue that is affecting these guys. As the wage gap grows even more the issue will also. Before we spread anymore democracy around the world how about a little more love and understanding at home. Is it too late in the season to hire on in the Hamptons?

8/03/2006 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is it too late in the season to hire on in the Hamptons?


8/03/2006 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger barry said...

Mr. Brooks could also bother to look at the news section of his own paper. Yesterday it had this headline: "Anxiety Rises as Paychecks Trail Inflation."

And don't even get me started on his promotion of the war in Iraq. The New York Times op-ed page is barely readable these days with him and Friedman.

8/03/2006 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

willu marry me edward

8/03/2006 10:59:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Brooks doesn't seem to understand the new American Dream of downward mobility. That's why he's so crtical of those who don't buy into it.

8/03/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger onesock said...

As a college teacher I witness the trend of so many older Americans going back to school rather than opt for the dead-end, lower wage job. Also, younger Americans staying in school longer. But with work-study programs, Pell grants, Perkin loans having been weakend or frozen, this renders "going back to school" more difficult. When I was a student in the 90's Pell covered about half or more of my tuition and books, now it seems it covers about a quarter.

8/03/2006 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

You know, I think I might very well be one of the men Brooks is writing about. I'm lazy as hell. I feel bad about it, too. Not so bad that I want to go get a job or anything, but it disturbs my afternoon naps.

8/03/2006 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger JD said...

Great rant, Ed. Brooks' bullsh*t reminds me of Reagan's whole "welfare queen" rhetoric: smear the most vulnerable part of the population, and turn truth on its head. We need another Hooverville in Washington; something to shame this administration, if they are even capable of feeling shame.

8/03/2006 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/03/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I'm lazy too, though I can be passionate when I do something I find really stimulating.


One day I'm gonna pay a workaholic to let me follow them all day and replicate all their actions. I want to see what it's like.

I'm pretty sure at the end of the day I'd say "ok, If I was you I would do this instead of that or why don't you do these two things together while taking a long bath". I dunno, I'm good at simplificating work.


Cedric Caspesyan

8/03/2006 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm pretty sure at the end of the day I'd say "ok, If I was you I would do this instead of that or why don't you do these two things together while taking a long bath". I dunno, I'm good at simplificating work.

It's not a matter of not being efficient,'s a matter of prefering to be busy...well, of boring easily actually.

8/03/2006 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that the blogosphere has reinforced for me is that there is too much talent, intelligence, and educatedness to go around these days--too much for all these gifted people to be able to make any sort of living at what they love and do well, in our narrowminded culture. There are all these bright creative people out there who don't have any possibility of real recognition in their chosen field once they get out of college--but the Pandora's box has been opened for them and they are forever acutely aware of their own possibility. It makes sense that they would eventually feel disaffected, after years of sacrificing for a family and so forth, when they are laid off. "Follow Your Bliss" has become such a maudlin cliche. I think that the ignorance of personal freedom and possibilty really was bliss at one point in our history. At least most people had a sense of purpose staying put where they were originally from. Now people feel invisible and turn to a world of fantasy--they become cynical and unambitious and feel they have no grounding in the world--because the world has no real use for them and their many capabilities.

8/03/2006 02:16:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Anonymous said...
willu marry me edward


8/03/2006 03:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>they become cynical and >>>unambitious and feel they have >>>>no grounding in the world-->>>because the world has no real >>>>use for them and their many >>>>capabilities.

I think the important thing is to never become "blasé". Too many people are blasé in the artworld, and when you go to a vernissage (that is why I hate them) you rarely see a smile (except between gallerist and collectors or some of the roaster artists).

Frankly I've had too many opportunities in my life that I've declined that I would merit no one ever handing me a hand anymore.
But one thing that I could never be though I will often sound like I am, is being blasé when comes time to see or discuss about art.
In fact I wish I had more time for it, they are so many other things that catch my attention.

I don't see why people should wait to be of use for the world, when they can just be simply of great use to themselves. Contributing to the world should be an extra activity that you're adding to your experience, people should really focus on being happy and enjoying themselves (even when they are on their own which can be a pretty tough thing to learn).

I'm sort of being magic when I believe that feeling good about yourself brings your greatest contribution to the world, but eventually trust me if you start from that ground you will discover their are millions of opportunities everywhere around you for you to simply catch.


Cedric Caspesyan

(ps, and that you are only able to catch when you get rid of all fears and axieties that hide behind your despair and cynicism)

8/03/2006 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Anonymous 2:16 has a point. Kurt Vonnegut wrote about this. He wrote, basically, that back in the days when humans lived in small groups of maybe a hundred or so, everyone had their purpose. There was the guy who could draw, the one who could tell stories well, someone who could sing, and so on. And each of these people made it a little easier for everyone else to live. These people were treasured.

These days, those people still exist. Except every day they're thrown into competition with the absolute best the world has to offer. It's like going out for a jog and being passed every day by Jesse Owens. Who can compete with the best in the world?

So all those people, whose talents and gifts would have been a great treasure two or three thousand years ago, are now essentially useless. And perpetually dissatisfied.

Robert Heinlein once wrote that he's not a genius, but he's close enough to know he isn't, and he's not interested in settling for second best. Which is why he was a writer and not a scientist.

I often feel that these two statements explain my life perfectly. I'm just not a genius. I'm a little bit short of that. And destined to be dissatisfied because of it.

Like a lot of people.

8/03/2006 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

I doubt anyone one on their death bed is gonna say "I wish I worked a lot more hours".

Chris Ryatt, you make a great example that work recognized is likely more valuable than work that is paid for...and the kind of life style you are describing of a group that has everyone making a living together and having well tuned respected postitions happened a little longer ago than 3,000 years ago. It was precisely 10,000 years ago in pre-agricultural society. It can be seen in hunter-gatherer economies still today, except they have very little room to make their livings and those few thousand varied groups of hunter -gatherers are just about pushed out of the way for the one dominant economy...farming.

When we take free food and water, lock it up and sell it back to ourselves, we set the stage for slave labour.

No wonder those men don't want to go back to the work force. I don't blame them, not everyone lives the life of an artist or poet...

Of course the rich are out there plugging away. Business owners, artists and the wealthy actually have a variety of job satifaction, but in common they each are some of the very few who experience deep reward for their labours.

Most other job positions are undermanagement, service, domestic, labour, teaching, publicservice are hassle based existential spiritual wasteland jobs that provide money that can barely cover the costs of housing, clothes, family expensises and retirement.

We have a screwed up sense of how to make a living in totalitarian agriculture.

I suspect the section of people Brooks is discussing have decided to cutback their consumption and superfilous spending for a simpler financial existence. Who knows, maybe in five years there will be a grassroots glut of creative types...?

Maybe we won't have an abundance of struggling artists but a group of folks who are bartering services and offering reasonably priced art works, community theatre and sharing childcare, house renovations and gardening within urban centers...?heh heh...almost sounds like a good way to make a living...

8/03/2006 04:18:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It's like going out for a jog and being passed every day by Jesse Owens. Who can compete with the best in the world?

Whenever I'm out for a jog and Jesse passes me, I yell "Jesse, you may be fast, but you can't draw worth shit." He doesn't slow down, but I can usually get a chuckle out of him.

8/03/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

I love John Steinbeck:

East of Eden (1952)
I don't know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose faces we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

8/03/2006 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Ironically, this is from the same newspaper that 52 percent of the country derides for being "hopelessly liberal."

8/03/2006 07:00:00 PM  
Blogger carla said...

Nick Cave:

Money, man it is a bitch,
the poor they spoil it for the rich...

8/03/2006 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Actually this perspective of running behind Jesse Owens I find is a very interesting one. You should paint that, I want to see how you envision this.

I think everyone is the backstage
to interesting human experiences.

Failure is beautiful,
it's the backstage of success and success wouldn't exist without mediocrity.

Cedric Caspesyan

PS..responding to Einstein..
Great spirits would have never occured if it's wasnt for mediocre minds. There you go, shut up Einst.

8/03/2006 08:00:00 PM  
Blogger onesock said...

Actually, if you were to ask Einstein's high school biology teacher, he may say that Albert was a mediocre mind, given that Einstein was so focused on physics and math (and violin) that he neglected his other studies.
which leads to: would you rather be a genius in ONE thing or proficient in MANY things?

ALso, whenver I long for the type of society many of you are describing I pop into the DVD player my bootlegs of STAR TREK: Next Generation!! Free food (fake but YUM!), everyone living their potential (hell, you can become a semi-god like Wesley Crusher!), and those communicators which are a lot like the bluetoothy things we see in everyones ears nowadays.

And yes I am a nerd.

8/04/2006 08:25:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

whenver I long for the type of society many of you are describing I pop into the DVD player my bootlegs of STAR TREK: Next Generation!!

I put on Sleeper. Different kind of nerd. :)

8/04/2006 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Alan said...


Alan Beggerow here. Yes, THAT Alan Beggerow. I've been scoping out comments about the Times article on the 'net. This issue has taken off more than I expected. If you Google my name, you'll get over 12,000 hits.

Brooks is indeed a conservative pundit that has no grounding, experience, or real interest in the workplace. To write a column praising the tireless labor of the economic elite while promoting the frame that others are lazy is nothing but conservative spin. The facts are there for anyone that doesn't have an agenda of promoting and continuing the lies being spewed about this great economy of ours.

I worked 30 years in the steel mill, started in 1971 when I was 18. I come from a family of steelworkers, as my father worked there for 41 years, a brother for 30 years, a uncle for 40 years. And I do have some physical problems. A ruptured disc in my neck, two bad knees, arthritis in my hands. I'm not complaining, nor do I have any regrets. Working at the mill was my choice, and I made a good living at it. But some of the comments I've read about my situation are pretty nasty, and mostly from the conservative side. How anyone can call someone that wroked in a steel mill for 30 years a 'welfare baby', 'lazy ass', 'moocher', 'sponge', dead-weight', is beyond me.

I had an interview with Tucker Carlson on the 2nd of August, and he really was a jerk. But that's nothing new. Some have asked why I went on the show, knowing full well how I would be treated. The answer? I've seen how the changes in the workplace have affected many people in the area where I live, and others around the country. This is a debate that needs to be kept in the forefront. American labor of all kinds has taken it on the chin for far too long. American labor is the backbone of this country, and like so many other aspects of our country has been brought down, trivialized and criminalized by the actions of the ultra-right neoconservatives. So I'm posting on as many places as I can (except the really nasty ones like 'Free Republic', a minnomer if I've ever heard one) to keep the debate going.

I've got a blog where I've posted some clarifications about the Times article, and other postings about the experience of being on the front page of the NY Times. There is much going on, and there just might be a book in me about the experience. I will devote at least a chapter to my new best friend (HAH!) Tucker Carlson. A link to my blog:

Keep on keepin' on!

8/06/2006 12:58:00 AM  

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