Krugman vs. Brooks

The Times’ columnists are brawling about Charles Murray’s new book. They are both wrong.

We don't wanna work?
We don’t wanna work?

Photograph by Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

Paul Krugman and David Brooks are titans of the columnist scene, the best and most influential pundits the left and right have to offer. They’re also co-workers at the New York Times, an institution that seems to prohibit its op-ed writers from directly engaging with one another. The result can be amusing.

On Jan. 31, for example, Brooks hailed Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 as almost certainly the most important book of the year. On Feb. 9, Krugman, without mentioning Brooks by name, denounced the book as “the heart of the conservative pushback” against Occupy Wall Street’s focus on income inequality. The real source of working-class woes, according to Krugman, are not the personal virtues cited by Brooks and Murray, but simple economic decline. Things reached the point of true absurdity this week when Brooks wrote a column about “The Materialist Fallacy” adhered to by unnamed “liberal economists” who’ve created a situation in which “the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975.”

It’s too bad Brooks and Krugman can’t—or won’t—engage directly, because if they did, they might see that they’re both making good points about each other’s wrongness—and that there’s little reason to give credence to either the liberal or the conservative narrative of decline.

Let’s start with a good point from Brooks, who rightly says “I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.” Indeed it does not. Which is presumably why most people don’t do it. If you follow Murray’s book in restricting your attention to white people, it turns out that educational attainment is clearly on the rise. Relatively little progress has been made in closing the gap between blacks and whites in high school graduation, but that still means the newer generation is doing better than the previous one. An influx of immigrants from Latin America tends to drag averages down, but these immigrant kids aren’t doing worse than their parents. You see a similar trend in test scores—whites, blacks, and Hispanics are all doing better, but the surging quantity of Latino students brings the average down. American education is not without its problems, but, as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz masterfully demonstrated in their recent book The Race Between Education and Technology, the issue isn’t that schooling has actually gotten worse, it is that the rate of progress has slowed down.

That’s not ideal, but it hardly amounts to a collapse of the social fabric. Indeed, Krugman’s appropriate first instinct was to simply deny the existence of a crisis, noting that teen pregnancy rates and violent crime are both falling sharply. For the past four years, even the incarceration rate has been falling. Brooks is right that materialist explanations for social decline are unpersuasive, but if the streets are safer and kids are doing better in school than their parents, then what is it that needs explaining?

Two related facts seem to trouble both Brooks and Krugman. Marriage rates are down, and so is male workforce participation. Brooks sees this as a cultural crisis that’s leading to declining material welfare, while Krugman sees declining male wages as driving both trends.

But what if this is a non-crisis driven by abundance? The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

As for labor force participation, Krugman must be right that poor labor market conditions explain the trend over the past few years. But the long-term decline has been going on since as far back as we have data. Male labor force participation rates were declining in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in the ‘80s, and now in the aughts.

Maybe the value of leisure is increasing? The past 70 years have seen the popularization of television, color television, cable, VCRs, mini satellites, video games, CD players, computers, DVDs, HDTVs, MP3 players, and a host of other fun gizmos. At the same time, it’s worth noting that stagnating real working-class wages are calculated by using a meaningless overall average rate of price inflation. Some things—college tuition, apartments in Manhattan, health care—have gotten more expensive much faster than average. This means that people who buy a below-average amount of those things are better off than the statistics show. A healthy person living in an unfashionable city with no student loans to pay off can get by on a fairly modest income. The flipside of the declining marriage rate is that fewer men are supporting families. To a certain puritanical frame of mind that views toil as a virtue in and of itself, this may seem unfortunate. But in many respects it’s a natural outgrowth of progress. On the whole, the American population has grown less desperate over time and less interested in working—an entirely typical pattern, globally and historically.

The short-term jobs situation is a real crisis, but the longer-term decline of work is an opportunity. If men want to tempt women back into marriage, they’ll have to use more of their free time to pitch in with housework and child care, building a more egalitarian tomorrow. If employers want to tempt people back into working, they’ll have to offer higher pay or more pleasant jobs. Most likely we’ll get some of both, and more loafing on the couch too. George Jetson, after all, only worked nine hours a week. Why should we aspire to anything less?