Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (Book Review #83 of 2016)

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks

I listened to this book on a long holiday drive at roughly the same time I finished reading JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016). Bobos in Paradise (2000) explains the rise of the meritocracy that Vance writes working-class whites have now rejected. I highly recommend reading one to help understand the other. Brooks himself reviewed Vance's book in June 2016 and almost connected the dots: "From 1945 to 1995, conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic. But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective, and segmented."

But Brooks clearly misses the point that Vance makes, namely that the door was never fully open for the "less-educated masses" to climb up the meritocratic ladder. The elites have designed a system with completely foreign rules that has the illusion (at least) of being unavailable to a huge swath of the American underclass, such as Vance's peers in Ohio, and this makes them angry. Vance writes his observations of the working-class growing deep distrust of institutions built and run by the Bobo elites-- corporations, banks, the media, universities. Bobos in Paradise not only explains the psychology behind the meritocratic movement, but also demonstrates how that system is defended. The backlash against the Bobos explains much of the 2016 Presidential election, how the bulk of the electorate voted for the two candidates that the establishment had rejected and told them not to vote for: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

"Bobos" are shorthand for the "bohemian bourgeois," the marriage of capitalist riches with free-spirited, expressive bohemian lifestyles. It is suburban moms in Virginia driving an expensive SUV to yoga class on Tuesdays. It's the government economist who scoffs at a $200 Rolex as excessive but doesn't hesitate to spend $800 on a tablet. It's the household of 2.3 people that spends thousands of dollars in camping gear to "get back to nature." It's the software consultant that flies thousands of miles and offsets it by buying "carbon offsets." Where did these people come from, what are their values, and what is their consequence? (This book was written pre-9/11, pre-Great Recession both of which put a strain on Bobo self-confidence.)

The author states up front that he can write loosely ("comic sociology") and unscientifically because he is not a scientist or psychologist, "Max Weber has nothing to fear from me." In one part of the book, he takes up residence in Wayne, PA and people-watches like an armchair sociologist; every anecdote supposedly explains something profound. Brooks offers a survey of literature and newspaper items that fit his story of America's transition from aristocracy to meritocracy, focusing mainly on social transitions in the 1950s and 1960s. He offers a simple explanation for how standardized tests arose as the hurdle to leap to get into the Ivy League, and then even public schools. (But he neglects to mention that such exams are similar to the public service exams that growing national and state governments used to test its applicants beginning in the late 1800s and well through the 1980s, though such exams have largely fallen out of favor today. The merit system began in the 1880s after President Garfield was assassinated by an office-seeker, and was eventually adopted by all states in some form. Public service had always been considered a noble endeavor, and what better way to prepare for that endeavor than receive education that might help you in that office? See, I can be my own armchair sociologist.)

This shift toward meritocracy showed up in other ways. The New York Times began publishing notable Jewish wedding announcements alongside those of notable white people's in the 1930s. The Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights movement demanded that all people be judged on merit and not race or gender-- no one should expect to be treated differently based on his last name. The steady, rapid growth of the American economy after WWII gave most households rising incomes and standards of living. Suffering that was seen in the war and Depression years were an unknown to a new generation. Restraint was cast aside (as Brooks explicitly figures out in his later work The Road to Character). People drove new cars on new interstates to new houses in new suburbs. The gains from the growing economy, however, increasingly went to the educated as America transitioned from a manufacturing to a service economy. The arms race to get into college was on. Soon, the difference in wages among college graduates versus high school dropouts began to yawn and the supply of college students rose. The fact that people typically choose mates from the same socio-economic class meant that there was a widening rich/poor gap and increasingly two different societies. The policymakers and influencers of all societies were increasingly drawn from the ranks of the Ivy League. Getting into such schools was the prize that showed you'd "made it," and the payoff was the greatest.

In college, the Baby Boom children were exposed to different ideas, bohemian culture, and joined in the revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, namely sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Creativity blossomed, as did an edge against the establishment (Vietnam, Watergate, etc.). But Baby Boomers married, found jobs at major corporations, climbed the ladder, and worked on getting their kids into Ivy League schools. These Bobos were rich beyond their parents and accumulated things to put into their suburban enclaves. But they also increasingly looked for ways to still signal their 1960s hipster credentials in the face of the capitalist accumulation they used to rail against.

Bobos had to "make the profane sacred": Shopping suddenly became connected to social causes; it's okay to buy more than you need if you're "buying local," or if some of the proceeds go to preserve a Brazilian rain forest. Where possible, the "intellectual-entrepreneurial dichotomy" was eliminated, Brooks writes. So, weekends reserved for surfing and meditation became a Bobo start-up for peddling surfing supplies or a Bobo marketing her new meditation retreat center. Rules had to be established about where money was spent. "Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch." Almost any expense can be justified if it's for a tool. A $5 shovel won't do the job, you need the $25 model with the ergonomic handle. Spending $1 on regular coffee is a waste, but a $10 cup made from fresh-ground Fair Trade coffee brewed in a $50 French press is a great value. Spending many multiples on your kid's tuition for a degree in Art History at Princeton that he could have received much more cheaply at State College is a great honor. Standing in line for a new $600 iPhone to repace last year's model is almost expected.

Entrepreneurs suddenly became the source of wisdom that intellectuals and academics used to be-- bestsellers were now by Fortune 500 CEOs and creative capitalists. Intellectuals (like David Brooks) can't just be good writers, they have to also look good on TV (Every Friday on PBS NewsHour). Politicians, likewise, had to be presentable (but this had been the case since the photograph was invented). The Bobos' gods are people like Steve Jobs who live like bohemians and buck the establishment but get rich thanks to American market capitalism. "Self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in."

Brooks writes that the Bobos have abandoned traditional religious ethics as the moral code and replaced it with "disease prevention." "Bobos are uncomfortable with universal moral laws that purport to regulate pleasure. Bobos prefer more prosaic self-controlled regimes. The things that are forbidden are unhealthy or unsafe. The things that are encouraged are enriching or calorie burning. In other words, we regulate our carnal desires with health codes instead of moral codes.” Work must be well-balanced with play. Sex is encouraged, but it must be "safe." Risks are fine but must come with insurance policies or money-back guarantees. "Fairness" and "tolerance" have become the sacred cows. "If you live in a society like ours, in which people seldom object if they hear someone taking the Lord's name in vain but are outraged if they see a pregnant woman smoking, then you are living in a world that values the worldly more than the divine."

The emphasis on tolerance and fairness in the Bobo-dominated Ivy League led to a new word invented by Bobos: political correctness. Bobo society has a way of determining what language is intolerant, and therefore offensive; which new ideas must be rejected, and which old ideas are okay to keep. The Bobos, writes Brooks, have moderated politics and curbed the excesses of both the Barry Goldwater right-wing and the George McGovern left-wing. We now have the centrist "variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic," as Brooks describes it in 2016. This was also reflective of the Great Moderation of 1980s-2000s in general. We had a two-term Democratic President who spoke the language of the Left but deregulated the financial sector, liberalised trade, and famously declared an end to the "Era of Big Government." He won his election against a President who is perhaps most remembered for the phrase "stay the course," and whose son seems to be representative of the Bobo class (Brooks claims him for such, writing as Bush had not yet won the 2000 election). This political centrism is what led analysis of the language used by candidates on the Republican debate stage in 2016 to show they were all indistinguishable from each other--save one.

That voters rejected the elite homogeneity in 2016 came as a shock to everyone (including Brooks), save those furthest from the Bobo class-- people like Middletown, Ohio. Brooks' book says nothing about the hollowing out of the "Rust Belt," the stagnation of inner cities, and the book was written before America was in a "forever war" in multiple countries against largely unseen enemies with a starkly religious ideology. But some of the seeds of 2016 are found in the end of Brooks' book when he describes something that a decade later would be part of a phenomenon called the Great Stagnation: the lack of aspiration toward grand ideas that so motivated previous generations. There is no "moon shot," and seemingly no entrepreneurs aiming for the next big invention. Brooks bemoans the lack of "aspiration," as the "innervated" culture turns to various entertainments to stimulate itself. (The Road to Character is critical of the narcissism that has arisen from this generation that has not suffered in life like previous ones.) Brooks optimism reaches for the man of aspiration to kick-start America again. Instead, we were left with a disastrous Iraq war and a financial crisis followed by prolonged slow economic growth that led the masses to increasingly resent the Bobos and distrust the institutions they built. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

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