Thursday, February 05, 2009

Mr. Manners: David Brooks on Polite Behavior

I haven't done a piece about Brooks for ages, have I? His column "Ward Three Morality" is such a lovely thing that I can't resist poking at it. Brooks tells us that it's no longer polite for the ultra-rich to make their own consumption choices, because the new kids of Ward Three are now the sour-faced moralists who decide how everybody else lives. Honest. That's what he says:

The essence of the problem is this: Rich people used to set their own norms. For example, if one rich person wanted to use the company helicopter to aerate the ponds on his properties, and the other rich people on his board of directors thought this a sensible thing to do, then he could go ahead and do it without any serious repercussions.

But now, after the TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus package, the Fed rescue packages and various other federal interventions, rich people no longer get to set their own rules. Now lifestyle standards for the privileged class are set by people who live in Ward Three.

For those who don't know, Ward Three is a section of Northwest Washington, D.C., where many Democratic staffers, regulators, journalists, lawyers, Obama aides and senior civil servants live. Thanks to recent and coming bailouts and interventions, the people in Ward Three run the banks and many major industries. Through this power, they get to insert themselves into the intricacies of upscale life, influencing when private jets can be flown, when friends can lend each other their limousines and at what golf resorts corporate learning retreats can be held.

It's all about manners and also about some dreaded hidden Maoist ideologies of forcing everyone act like the peasants. Brooks goes on to explain why those Ward Three folks are doing all this:

In the first place, many people in Ward Three suffer from Sublimated Liquidity Rage. As lawyers, TV producers and senior civil servants, they make decent salaries, but 60 percent of their disposable income goes to private school tuition and study abroad trips. They have little left over to spend on themselves, which generates deep and unacknowledged self-pity.

Second, they suffer from what has been called Status-Income Disequilibrium. At work they are flattered and feared. But they still have to go home and clean out the gutters because they can't afford full-time household help.

Third, they suffer the status rivalries endemic to the upper-middle class. As law school grads, they resent B-school grads. As Washingtonians, they resent New Yorkers. As policy wonks, they resent people with good bone structure.

The Ward Threers are all just jealous and envious because they don't have gold-covered toilet bowls at home! No other reason for their disapproval of the behavior of the rich. And of course they can dictate now that they are in power!

Brooks doesn't give us any background on this astonishing change in the norms of polite behavior. We are never told that the rich who are doing all those expensive things are at the same time demanding tax payer handouts. It's us who are paying for the private jets soon, and it's therefore us who should have some say in how they are being used.

The rich do have a choice, after all. They can refuse subsidies and just stop being rich if that's what would happen. Then their golden toilet bowls would be their own business.