Repent, You Lazy Spendthrift!

David Brooks has a 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' Moment

A Debit to The New York Times for David Brooks’s column identifying America’s spending habits as a “moral” problem, and attributing to that moral failing not only the credit crisis, but also class inequality.

We give columnists considerable leeway here at The Audit, because they are entitled to their opinions, whether or not we share them. But a poorly reasoned argument is just that, even in an opinion piece.

The fundamental problem here is that Brooks is more theological than logical. He doesn’t so much analyze our current economic condition as chastise us for self-imposed exile from that American Eden of hard work and frugality.

And so, typical for a story about a fall from grace, we first glimpse the good old days, when there was plenty of righteousness to go around. The Puritans and Benjamin Franklin parade by, trailing the expected virtues in their wake: hard work, temperance, frugality.

Thanks to this solid foundation, and a chorus of faithful parents, teachers, preachers and newspaper editors who spread the gospel of right-living, America was wealthy but unsullied for 200 years.

The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

But, alas, no longer:

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened.

We get a hint here that perhaps debauched individuals did not bring on this crisis all by themselves, but Brooks goes on to assure us that while there have been many “agents of destruction” in our midst, we must ultimately look to ourselves.

This column is a case of adding insult to injury.

Americans’ wages are stagnant. The costs of living are rising. Home-values are falling. Hundreds of thousands are being put out of their homes thanks in large part to the chicanery surrounding subprime lending.

Now they get to listen to Brooks accuse them of moral turpitude.

The Brooksian theory of cultural decline is based on assertion alone. There is no evidence to support it—or at least none is offered. Evidence of structural changes in the financial-services sector over the last three decades, on the other hand, is abundant. These changes, by the way, were driven by the financial-services industry itself for its own considerable benefit. Rather than probe these, Brooks blames individuals (with a nod at the bottom to the “role” the real culprits like payday lenders have played).

It’s disingenuous for him to blame high debt levels on excessive discretionary spending but it’s worse to blame such spending for class inequality.

There has been a moral failure here, but the average American is not to blame. The burden for that falls on institutions like Countrywide and Bear Stearns.

Indeed, Benjamin Franklin would not approve.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.