I’m not sure what’s going on with David Brooks. It’s something, obviously, but I can’t put my finger on it. In any case, he thinks we should all cheer up because America’s cities are safer and more interesting than ever; poverty is down; and our global enemies are mostly just a “bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks.” Despite this, there was a lot of “despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling” floating around this summer. We have a leadership crisis:
This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite….Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.
I’ve never understood people who talk this way. I mean, sure, I’d very much agree that rich parents should avoid giving their teenage kids Ferraris for Christmas. But does anyone seriously think this is anything new? Stories of young swells out on the town are as old as stories of young swells. How many Victorian novels turn on the plot device of a young heir borrowing against his expectations and blowing it all on gambling and grand tours? Does the ruling class of Dickens seem like a group of people striking a blow for social cohesion? (Other than by main force, that is.) And by the time the Gilded Age rolled around, things weren’t much different in America. We just hadn’t had centuries to perfect quite the same easy tone of entitlement and snottiness.
The excesses of the rich are indeed unseemly. I’m perfectly happy to see Brooks try to shame this behavior away. But pretending that it was different in the past? Get real.