Willy Wonkanomics

David Brooks is in fine form this morning (behind the Select firewall, of course).

You see, he’s been trying to get at the root of this whole “income inequality” thing. At first, he’s reluctant to concede that such a thing even exists, at least in its popularly-understood form (in which there is often “inequality” in levels of “income”). As he notes at the top of the column:

When you delve into this literature, you realize inequality is more complicated than some polemicists let on. For example, inequality is much lower when measured by consumption than by income because poorer people now spend much more than they officially report as income.

At some point in every David Brooks column, you reach the “has he ever…?” moment. As in, “has he ever actually met/seen/spoken to a representative of the group about which he is making wild unsubstantiated generalizations?” That moment comes rather quickly in this one — in the second paragraph, to be exact. Allow me to repeat that last bit for emphasis:

For example, inequality is much lower when measured by consumption than by income because poorer people now spend much more than they officially report as income.

What I believe he’s referring to, with this glib reference to inequality “measured by consumption”, is what the rest of us call “crushing consumer debt”. It is not “officially reported” as income because no one capable of rational thought would ever consider charging items on a credit card to be a form of income. But to someone like David Brooks, who undoubtedly pays off his credit card balance each month without a second thought, the consumer goods that poor families may buy on credit at usurious rates — let alone the necessities such as groceries that they may be forced to charge — represent some sort of undeclared income which at least partially negates the concept of income inequality.

Already, I’m banging my head against the kitchen table, and I’ve barely started the column.

Now, in the third ‘graf, Brooks does reluctantly acknowledge the obvious:

Nonetheless, certain conclusions are unavoidable. First, the gap between rich and poor is widening. It’s like global warming; you can resist the evidence for a while, but eventually you have to succumb

Or to put it another way, it’s like having your head up your own ass. You can pretend you don’t for awhile, but you won’t be fooling anyone but yourself.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a David Brooks column without a dizzying leap of logic that leaves you shaking your head and rubbing your eyes and wondering how, exactly, we managed to get from point A to point 3.14159265, and where the intermediate steps in the argument might have disappeared to — and this column does not disappoint. In two short paragraphs, Brooks dismisses the notion that income inequality is anything that can be addressed through economic or social policy:

Some economists believe we should reduce inequality by restructuring the economy — raising taxes on the rich and redistributing money to the poor. That’s fine, but it won’t get you very far. In Britain, Gordon Brown has redistributed large amounts of money from rich to poor regions, but regional inequality has increased faster under the current government than under Margaret Thatcher.

Income inequality is driven by human capital inequality, and human capital can’t be taxed and redistributed. You have to build it at the bottom to ensure maximum fairness.

And as you sit there slightly dazed, saying, wha– wha– what?, Brooks is off and running!

When you turn your attention to human capital formation, you begin by thinking about job training and schools. But you discover that while learning is like nutrition (you have to do it every day), earlier is better. That’s because, as James Heckman puts it, learners learn and skill begets skill. Children who’ve developed good brain functions by age 3 have advantages that accumulate through life.

That takes us to where the debate is today. How do we inculcate good brain functions across a wider swath of the 3-year-old population?

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, let me state up front that I stand second to no one in my dedication and commitment to good brain functions in very young children. This I believe with a startling lack of ambiguity: good brain functions are desirable and to be encouraged with all possible gusto!

Let us pause for a brief cheer: Hurrah! for the good functioning brains of children!

Nonetheless, you really have to admire this extraordinary feat of op-ed ju jitsu, with which Brooks begins a column about economic disparity, and within a few hundred short words, somehow makes it to this conclusion:

The problem is this: How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?

It’s like the op-ed version of ’24’. Jack Bauer himself could not lead us to a more unexpected finale.

If there’s one thing that leaps out of all the brain literature, it is that, as Daniel J. Siegel puts it, “emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain.” Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.

That’s why I’m grappling with these books on psychology and brain function. I started out on this wonk odyssey in the company of economic data, but the closer you get to the core issue, the further you venture into the primitive realm of love.

And there you have it. Attempts to address economic disparity with, you know, remedial policies are all much too complicated, and probably won’t do any good anyway — just look at Britain! They still have poor people there! No, to address the fundamental issue of inequality in this society, what we really need to do is make sure that parents love their children.

Or that somebody does. Or something.

And then all our problems will be solved, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

Who can take a sunrise
Sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Candy Man
Oh, the Candy Man can
The Candy Man can
‘Cause he mixes it with love
And makes the world taste good

Who can take a rainbow
Wrap it in a sigh
Soak it in the sun and make a groovy lemon pie
The Candy Man (the Candy Man can)
The Candy Man can
‘Cause he mixes it with love
And makes the world taste good