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David Brooks Very 'Concerned' About Income Inequality Affecting Our Public Debate

NYT's columnist David Brooks really doesn't want President Obama talking about income inequality during his upcoming state of the union address.
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From this Friday's PBS Newshour, David Brooks really doesn't want President Obama to talk about income inequality in his state of the union address next week, or in other words, please Mr. President, don't talk about raising my taxes.

Apparently any substantive policy debate about what has caused the record income disparity in the United States, is just too messy and icky for David Brooks -- unless of course it's one that involves Brooks and his ilk trying to blame our economic problems on single mothers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we live in this rich country, Mark and David, but we have just heard kind of a remarkable report that Hari did from Orange County, California, about hunger. And then we just heard Raj Chetty, the economist, in this fascinating conversation with Jeff, Mark, talk about how the mobility, the ability of people to move up if they are the lowest level of the income ladder really hasn't changed. And, in fact, it's gotten worse in some ways.

What are we to make of all this?

MARK SHIELDS: I wish I had an answer for it.

I think there is no question we're talking about this being an issue and theme that is going to dominate certainly the president's presentation coming up. And it's -- Judy, the reality that he talked about, the income inequality, the economic inequality in the country, in a little over a generation, we have gone from the top 1 percent having 11 percent of the national income to 25 percent, and the bottom 90 percent -- that is 90 percent of the people -- instead of sharing 67 percent, down to less than 50.

So that widening income and economic inequality is real. And it has consequences that are social, that are political, and they're generational. And I was just blown away by the interview with Jeff. I mean, it just -- to me, it was so riveting, what he says and how he says it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how does this -- what effect does this have or should have it on our public debate?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm frankly a little concerned about the way it is going to affect our public debate.

Inequality is certainly widening. Mobility is something we have to think about as Americans. It is the American dream. But as a frame, it is a very broad frame. What Mark talked about, the concentration of wealth at the top, is caused by one set of problems, middle-class wage stagnation caused by another set of problems, what is happening in the lower 20 or 40 percent caused by a different set of problems.

So you have got a whole bunch of problems all intermingled. And my viewing, the political system I don't think can deal with all these different problems all layered on top. If I were President Obama doing the State of the Union address next week, I would say, where is the greatest injustice? Where is the greatest harm?

And I would say that's at the bottom 20 percent or the bottom 40 percent. You take kids, what do they have to do to have a pretty -- chance of a decent life? Graduate from high school at age 19 with maybe a 2.5 GPA, not get convicted of anything, not get pregnant. Only 37 percent of kids at the bottom 20 percent income scale are doing that, only 37 percent.

So that is where the greatest harm is. That is already a phenomenally difficult problem. And I would focus on that, with early childhood education, nurse-family partnerships, school programs. I would really focus energy on that, rather than this vast society-wide issue called inequality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So -- but do we think that he may do some of that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he will.

I think -- and David makes a very, very, very good point and a real point. But, Judy, when we just talk about family, and we talk about -- which I think has become sort of the dividing line, one side saying it's values that we have to do, the other side saying that there is economic war here, and I think that is something that is real.

And there are defined economic interests. And there is one side that has won and one side that has lost. And when we talk about children born to unmarried mothers, the country with the highest economic mobility in the world is Denmark with 55 percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers, you know?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Danish unmarried mothers are not like ours. They are living with guys and they're living decade after decade. They're just not having a marriage.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. But, I mean, you could say that marriage then as an institution in Western Europe has suffered.

But, I mean, just to simply say that this is the answer, I think it is -- it's Globalization. It's the decline of all these jobs that are in the industrial base of the country. It is a weakening of unions. There are a dozen factors that have contributed to it. But I think the fact that it's being addressed is important and urgent.

DAVID BROOKS: That is what makes it so hard as a political issue, because Mark is right. It is economic. It's the decline of low-skill jobs. It's de-industrialization. That leads to there are a lot of especially men who are not worth marrying, because they don't have incomes, they don't have wages.

And so they're just not going to get married. And so there is a clear economic cause there. There is also a cultural shift, as more people decide it's OK to have children before getting married. And these two interplay in an incredibly complicated way that is very hard to understand and probably differs person to person.

So my view is, it is already a phenomenally thick and thorny problem. And so by making it more thick, by putting all these society-wide things, I understand there is inequality, I understand the mobility problem. I just think when we're thinking about policy, it is really important to focus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, sometimes, we feel the two political parties are stuck in an argument, that one makes one argument, the other one makes another. Does this change what those arguments should be?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it -- the question becomes, does the economy serve the people or do the people serve the economy?

And I think that to me is the cleavage here. I mean, I'm sorry. People -- the economy exist, the economy is thriving, the economy is working for very powerful and influential people. We see it. We see it in the scandals every day in our American politics. People with the affluence have influence.

And it comes down to, I think, a fundamental question about what kind of a society you are, is, does the economy exist for people? And I just think we have got to figure out a way to let people participate and enable them do participate in this economy and to live a life of dignity and respect.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, another -- just another cleavage which I do not know the answer to, is the economy properly rewarding workers?

Democrats tend to say, these are productive workers and the economy is not rewarding them because there are fewer unions and things like that. Republicans tend to gravitate toward the issue, these are just not that productive workers and the economy is fairly rewarding them, and, therefore, the response is to increase their human capital through education and other things, so to make them more productive.

And that is sort of basic question. Is the capitalist economy right now working, or is it not?

And when -- as we said tonight, we reported the chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase making $20 million last year at a company that did have, what, 33 percent increase in profits, but also negotiated...

MARK SHIELDS: And paid $18 billion in fines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: If you are arrested as an axe murderer, you want Jamie Dimon to be bargaining for you. He has kept the company out of jail and profitable, and, I guess, so they double his salary.

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