David R. Henderson  

Brooks's Hit on Capitalism

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In a widely cited column last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks put capitalism as the first cause of the lack of dignity in modern American society. He wrote:

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents.

There's something to that. The problem is that Brooks somehow links that, in one big smish smosh, with politicians cheating on their wives. But the two are at opposite poles. Think about what it means to manage your own brand. You make irreversible investments in a brand name whose value you can drive to zero with a few mistakes. To the extent we invest in our own brand, we have a higher incentive to avoid those mistakes.

Moreover, Brooks misses the day to day ways that our investment in our own brand promotes our dignity, ways that everyone understands and, for that reason, we tend to take for granted. I think about the first full-time summer job I had, at age 16 and at minimum wage, at a summer resort in Minaki, Ontario. I ran the dish-washing machine and was supposed to show up at 8:00 a.m. every day. For the first three days, I showed up at sometime between 8:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. On that third day, the chef, Rudy, seeing a pattern, confronted me.

Rudy: You need to set your alarm.

David: I do.

Rudy: For what time?

David: 7:40 a.m.

Rudy: That gives you enough time to make it here. What do you do when the alarm goes off?

David: I turn it it off and roll over and go back to sleep.

Rudy: You need to get up when it goes off. If you're late tomorrow, you're fired.
I was on time from then on. I learned punctuality, a tremendous market virtue, and, I think, I became more dignified.

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The author at Personal finance and investing in a related article titled Microsoft Understands Making Money the Hard Way - Earning It writes:
    Joel West submits: “Moderate” NYT columnist David Brooks apparently wrote a column last week [Tracked on July 14, 2009 7:58 AM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

I think for Brooks it is the combination of the four things he listed, not any one of them. All four together create the perfect storm. The managing of your own brand, by itself, should in fact make for more dignity, since dignity would be. I noted the piece on my own blog, and someone also objected to the capitalism bit in his piece. I saw it as one of four in a perfect storm. Here is what he's saying we do:

We promote ourselves without manners (aristocratic) or artifice (rules), emphasizing public confession of our feelings. Such a person is, to put it politely, a jerk. We are saying, "Look at me and how great I am", without providing any evidence that we are in the least bit great. Or good. Capitalism is wonderful -- just don't try to combine it with egalitarianism, libertinism, or postmodernism. Another way of putting it: capitalism and Rousseaueanism don't mist

Troy Camplin writes:

That is, "mix", not "mist".

Tom Dougherty writes:

David Brooks article is nauseating. He says he is searching for dignity in the American people and American culture but finds it wanting. One example of the cultural rot and lack of dignity are athletes doing goal line celebrations. This, of course, is the fault of capitalism. Luckily for us, in this wasteland of cultural decadence, he does find some examples of dignity. For example, according to Brooks, Tom Hanks is a shining example of dignity. That’s right, Tom Hanks. The shining star of dignity. Tom Hanks, the man who called Mormon supporters of proposition 8 in California “un-American”. Now that’s dignity. Tom Hanks, the star of the 80s movie Bachelor Party, with the tag line: “Shocking, Shameless, Sinful, Wicked. And the party hasn't even started.” That’s dignity.

David Brooks’ other example of dignity is not the womanizing Mark Sanford who has been in the news so much recently. No, of course, not him! Brooks’ other shining star of dignity is the other womanizer, Martin Luther King Jr., who was also guilty of extra-marital affairs. How Mark Sanford can be without dignity due to his extra-marital affair while the MLK can have dignity despite his extra-martial affairs is a leap in logic I just don’t understand.

Brooks’ other shining examples of dignity in a culture otherwise devoid of dignity are Ronald Reagan, Lauren Bacall, and Joe DiMaggio. These “dignified” individuals have had multiple spouses. This, in the dignified olden days, when divorce was not so dignified.

And of course the number one example of dignity today is the Dignity-in-Chief, President Obama. Insulting the disabled on nationwide TV is of course dignified. However, it is a good thing Obama has never done a goal line celebration lest he fall out of the dignified category and into the slime of uncultured America.


S Andrews writes:

In the end, one needs to remember that David Brooks is a neocon, that by definition who believes that he and his friends know what's best for the world. He just shows his true progressive roots in his writings. It's that simple. There is nothing to analyze.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"On that third day, the chef, Rudy, seeing a pattern, confronted me."

I think that Rudy saw more than just a pattern. I think he saw something positive in you that you as yet had not seen in yourself, so he decided to give you another chance. :)

Dave writes:

Minaki?! That's seriously remote.

It helps that the cost of being fired is quite a bit higher if you've got to make your way back to civilization afterwards.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear Cupboard is Bare,
Thanks. :-)

Dear Dave,
Not all that remote. Actually, earlier that month I was fired from the same resort from a part-time job (for telling the truth to a customer--that's another story) and I hitchhiked back to Winnipeg in 3 hours.

Dave H writes:

Am I on drugs? Obama dignified? Obama is quiet cool etc? I am so sick of this person and we still have three more years of him. You may agree with his policies, you may agree with his rhetoric, you may agree that its time to "take from A and give to B"; but please, don't insult my intelligence by trying to convince me how dignified he is. We all know Obama is Clinton 2.0 - the ultimate television personality as president, skilled in the perpetual campaing and reading teleprompters.

When did creating a cult of personality become dignity?

Niccolo writes:

Henderson,


What if someone likes that free markets bring about this type of self-promoting attitude of each individual? I personally do like it. I think it's fun, interesting, and generall entertaining to see different people promoting different talents in different ways. Further, I don't think it's demeaning at all, and even if it is... Well, it's just too fun to stop anyways!

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