May 09
Lorraine Berry lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, although it's her transplanted home. On weekends, she can be heard throughout the area, cheering on her beloved Manchester City F.C. When not writing at Does This Make Sense? or Talking Writing, she can be found hiking with her two dogs, hanging out with her two daughters, eating what her beloved Rob has cooked for her, or teaching creative writing at a small college in the area.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 17, 2009 7:06AM

Dear David, We need to talk.

Rate: 38 Flag

I don't think David Brooks gets it.

He lauds America's "manic energy" in the pursuit of wealth, and he calls it good.

He repeats the stories that have been handed down to us: work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, think of an original idea, and you too, will have wealth beyond all measure.

Yeah. That works for some people.

According to Brooks:

This energy was first aroused by abundance, by the tantalizing sense that dazzling wealth was available just over the next hill. But it has also been sustained by a popular culture that celebrates commercial ambition. From Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, through Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale, up until Donald Trump and Jim Cramer, popular figures have always emerged to champion the American gospel of success, encouraging middle-class people to strive, risk and make money.

(Um. David. Donald Trump? Really? How many bankruptcies has he been through? And Cramer? After THE DAILY SHOW last week? Are you kidding me?)

Brooks leaves out some history. If you subscribe to Max Weber's proposition, put forth in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, then you're aware of the theory that capitalism had succeeded in Protestant countries (the Netherlands, for example) because Calvinist theology argues that your going to hell status was determined by God either before (if you're prelapsarian) or after (postlapsarian) the Fall in the Garden of Eden. You've got no chance of changing God's mind. No good works. No good living (although you should live a moral life because it helps other Christians to do the same), no pleas, are going to get you into heaven.

But, said Calvin (according to Weber), God may give you "visible signs of election." What might those be? Well, if you're working hard and making lots of money, that was a pretty good sign that God liked you better than your slovenly, poor neighbors (you can see where this might go, right? In terms of how the poor get treated?) Anyway, Weber argued that it was ANXIETY about the state of their souls that drove those good Dutch Calvinists to work their fingers to the bone to prove that God loved them.
And who were the first settlers of the United States? Puritans, an off-shoot of Calvinism.

This country was founded by people anxious about acquiring wealth to make sure that God was smiling on them.

Brooks again:
This gospel gets dented during each of the nation’s financial crises, but it always returns with a vengeance. The late 19th century was a time of economic turmoil. Yet it was also a time when this commercial creed was preached most fervently. Andrew Carnegie published “The Gospel of Wealth.” Elbert Hubbard published “A Message to Garcia,” which celebrated industriousness and ambition and sold nearly 40 million copies. The Baptist minister Russell Conwell traveled the country delivering his “Acres of Diamonds” sermon to rapturous audiences more than 6,000 times.

“I say that the opportunity to get rich, to attain unto great wealth, is here now within the reach of almost every man and woman who hears me speak tonight!” Conwell thundered to his audiences. “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich ... Money is power, and you ought to be reasonably ambitious to have it. You ought, because you can do more good with it than you could without it.

Oh David. So, there were a few people writing about getting rich, and there were lots of robber barons, and there were no labor unions, and most of the people who got rich got rich off the backs of labor that they worked like dogs (or locked in their workshops so they couldn't get out so that when fire broke out at the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory, all those women jumped from eighth story windows to avoid being burned to death.) Yeah! Let's go back to the era of the Robber Barons!

Oh wait.

We're a little outraged by robber barons right now. You know? Those guys at AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and while we're at it, Haliburton.
You say there's no stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. Well, maybe a lot of people have woken up to the fact that many of these "fables" are told about men who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple. (I mean, even Bill Gates is the son of one of the most prominent attorneys in Seattle. He never wore rags.)

And apparently, our not-so-concerned-with-chasing-wealth president has got Brooks flummoxed. (I mean, sheesh, George Bush used the White House like some auction house to make him and all his friends wealthier.)
The president speaks passionately about education and health care reform, but he is strangely aloof from the banking crisis and displays no passion when speaking about commercial drive and success.

Um. Can I say that I like a president who is passionate about something other than money?

Here comes David's new dream:

Somewhere right now there’s probably a smart publisher searching for the most unabashed, ambitious, pro-wealth, pro-success manuscript she can find, and in about three months she’ll pile it up in the nation’s bookstores. Somewhere there’s probably a TV producer thinking of hiring Jim Cramer to do a show to tell story after story of unapologetic business success. Somewhere there’s a politician finding a way to ride the commercial renaissance that is bound to come, ready to explain how government can sometimes nurture entrepreneurial greatness and sometimes should get out of the way.
Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.

So, what I find sad about this is that there's no acknowledgment of two crucial things in this essay by Brooks.

The first is the recognition that those people who chase wealth and get fabulously wealthy? They're a minority in this country, a tiny minority, and they already own the bulk of the wealth in this nation. And, their money often comes at the price of laying off half their work force but then taking some obscene multi-million dollar bonus for being "the best and the brightest."

But here's the even more sad thing that I don't think Brooks recognizes: chasing wealth does not bring happiness. Buying, obsessive buying, the belief that buying this thing or that thing is going to make you happy? That's not commercial enterprise, David. That's addiction. That grasping, deep need to buy something, even though you cannot afford it and will have to put it on a credit card but you convince yourself that  if you just own this one thing? That's insanity. Addiction. Not great for the human soul.

And even worse for the planet. Imagine if every time someone was feeling needy and shaky, they took a little walk by themself out in the fresh air. Noticed the trees and the wildflowers and the wildlife. Imagine if they took deep breaths and listened to the wind sough through the trees. Yeah. It's not going to change the difficulties of their lives, but it's a hell of a lot more healthy and soul-restoring than yet another trip to the mall. And you don't tear up the earth to partake of it.

And David? If God exists, I don't think he looks down and says, "Oh, I'm going to bless America, because they have so much money. Wow look at that speedboat and that Ferrari." I think, if I may be so bold, God might look around and see some poor child living in a stable in a war-torn area and think, "Hmmm. If only I could see her fellow human beings taking care of her, I might think that humans had figured out how to get to my kingdom."

I believe that MASTERCARD might call that, "priceless."

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This sounds almost like the tale of the American dream: Have more and God blesses you. Yeah. I just feel for the folks out there paying for dreaming.
I wish I could send you a huge hug for writing this.
Thank you, Mission. That's very sweet.
You nailed it, Lorraine. There's MUCH more to living a successful life than simply acquiring wealth. Isn't that type of thinking what got us into trouble in the first place?
Very often, Mr. Brooks' points are skewed off the mark by some gleam in his own eye. You've taken the time to pull the flaws out of his argument and illustrate part of the reason we're in this mess. Well done.
Ack, I'm gonna go read the Beatitudes for a little bit to balance out Brooks' column.

Back. Brought this with me:

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

I have never figured out how the Prosperity Gospel preachers manage to get "God loves rich people" out of that! The only conclusion I can draw is that they don't believe in God even slightly, because if they did, they'd be afraid to tell such lies about him.There's nothing sadder than a nice old lady on a pension sending half her food money to Kenneth Copeland.

Anyway. Even if I weren't religious, I wouldn't trade places with Donald Trump. Can you imagine what it's like to BE Donald Trump? Being trapped inside that poisoned shell?
Shorter David Brooks: When you have no new ideas, recycle and repurpose the old ones. Rated.
When I first started reading, I did one of those cartoon eyes-popping-out-of-my-head thing. I thought David was all about moral values. Since when is trying to get rick quick a moral value?
Excellent post Lorraine :)

Isn't there a study about the addictive personalities of traders and how their brains are hardwired for excess??? Why do I think that?

Good of you to slap Brooks around a bit, he's entirely too big for his britches ... GREAT job!!!
Thomas Merton on success:
"A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. ... If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves."
Fuck Brooks. If he can't see the difference between greed and good and what greed has done to the commoners who carry all the weight, then just fuck Brooks.
No, your post is priceless and thought-provoking and revolutionary.....I hope that the powers that be get the memo. Rated
Damn skippy...perfectly said. There is this idea of "Jesus is Magic" these days...wish granter and favorite maker, that is attached to wealth.


As a funny sweetie is named David when I see these, got your email, etc, it always makes me giggle.
What is the status of David Brooks? (Not your DB, Persephone - tho, actually, we wouldn't mind knowing...) Like, is he only a columnist, and so essentially a groupie, slavering over *successful* business people? Or has he made himself a fortune in some *successful* business venture? Like, where's he coming from?

Anyway, for the bulk of us OSers, we'd hardly be sympathetic, given that so many are writers (well aware that only a small percentage make any money at it - see my post about my $50 publishing contract, haha), and spend hours blogging here and commenting on other people's blogs, a totally non-productive (monetarily speaking) activity if there ever was one.
How about cutting this to 800 words (take out some of his quotes, just reference) and sending this in as a Times Op-ed?
Well said! Here in the State where Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather preached about servitude and destined ordination in God's kingdom, malevolent greed exists as if the fortunate one's are pre-ordained to be the chosen few. --rated--
So if David Brooks really thinks the strength of America rests in the entrepreneurial drive to be economically successful, then I am sure he would be very much in favor of the estate tax (something he probably prefers to call the "death tax"), since it would prevent slothful heirs from living off the work of their forefathers. It's strange that I cannot find any editorials from him that support the estate tax, though.

Your summation in the final paragraph was powerful. Very powerful.
It's funny. I sent the Frank Rich as an op-ed; I sent the MoDo as a letter. I'm not sure they're all that interested in hearing what I have to say.
Thanks for the idea. I'll certainly give it some thought.
Dear Lorraine, Loved your post, particularly the ending where you turn to a solution to the rampant commercialism, telling us to take a walk in the woods instead. I've always thought we were living a giant ponzi scheme, because there never would be enough money or resources in the world to satisfy everyone's exponentially increasing buying habits. So, most of the world would be the have-nots. I feel that way a lot more today. Always enjoy your writing!
Right on the mark. The Calvinists have evolved, pun intended, into the core of the End of Timers which is one deadly combination....
Thank you, Lorraine! Great post yet again. I read Brooks on my way into work this morning and felt vaguely annoyed / nauseated but really didn't have the time to reflect too deeply on it. You hit the nail on the head and then some.

I particularly like this: "You say there's no stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. Well, maybe a lot of people have woken up to the fact that many of these 'fables' are told about men who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple." The myth of the self-made man has always been most pernicious to me. I hope you are correct that people have "woken up," but I suspect that Brooks might be correct that that particular myth runs too deep into our collective national DNA to be eradicated by the current Wall Street shenanigans going on.

Is it just my imaginzation, or is Brooks intellectually all over the place? I thought he subscribed to a certain de Tocquevillian ethos, agonizing over the social isolation ushered in (in part) by American-style capitalism (and its gospel of commercialism)? Have I misread his articles all these years (not that I pay that much attention)?
terrific piece--hope your insights reach a broader audience than just OS...
While I would never presume to defend David Brooks, who generally annoys me only slightly less than William Kristol did before someone at The Times asked him to leave, the sad fact is that our economy's state depends on more people striving to buy something than talking a walk instead. If we all still lived on farms and grew our own food and drove a horse-drawn buggy to the church social, we'd stand a better chance of getting by with less. Unfortunately, we're an urban-based economy, one that increasingly no longer offers decent-paying manufacturing jobs but only crap "service" jobs.

At the current rate of job loss, we're all going to have plenty of time on our hands to take a walk. Only my guess is that we'll be too worried about how to keep our kids out of a shelter to notice the trees and wildflowers and wildlife.

Materialism doesn't guarantee happiness. The unethical behavior and unabashed greed of many of those in power are to be condemned. But most people are not happiest when they are spending 24/7 worrying about how to pay the light bill. Would that we had a little more consumerism than we've got now.

As much as I liked the way you wrote this post, be careful what you wish for.
Today's robber barons are our own elected officials who have failed miserably in the last 35-40 years. They care not one wit about the populace other than how many ways they can get your vote. Yet we continue to elect them over and over again.

The american voters are ignorant. They have the power but they don't want to use it because that would mean they would actually have to do for themselves rather than the government be their nanny.

The dream is out there. Go get it and don't let the government get in your way.
Thanks so much for the comments. I've been at the doctor all day, and am only now getting back to this.

For those of you who point out to me that taking a walk in the woods won't pay the bills, I should point out that I've taken some huge lumps in this economy--including having my house foreclosed upon--so I know that money greases the skids of life.
But having said that, money is way down on my list these days. And I haven't seen a get-rich scheme yet that didn't wind up victimizing people. So Brooks' great hope that someone will "write a book" telling us how to get rich just strikes me as irresponsible.
The economy is going to have to change. We cannot continue to buy things. As George Carlin remarked, we now buy stuff to put our stuff in, and when we get too much stuff, then we buy a bigger house so we can start filling it up with the new stuff.
I've seen people I love go on shopping sprees because they're unhappy. I've watched people I love try to sell their ideas out there in the marketplace and I've watched them not get rich. I come from a line of working-class manufacturing folks, who came in from the farms in the late 19th century to get themselves some of that urban gold.
My family does not have two pennies to rub together. And yet, right now, I have never been happier. I have my writing, I have my job, I have my children, and I have my love. I have the beautiful countryside I live in. I don't own diamonds, furs, or even a house. And yet, I'm happy.
So, I'm not some naive flower child who thinks that all will be provided for. Instead, I consider myself a warrior who has taken a beating in the world of money, and along the way, learned that life has a hell of a lot more going for it than what I can buy or drive or live in.
What a pant load. You need to check into the Hotel Reality.
Most of us were born at a time when those ideas were proving to be false. While many have bought into it, most of us are well aware of reality.

I don't think that this man has enough experience with real people in the real world of America to be making sweeping comments about our beliefs and nature.

Good post, and well defined! Rated, of course.
Shortly into his tenure at the Times, Brooks proved that he wasn't intellectually up to the job. Just another empty suit parroting the latest lightweight thought that meanders into his ear.
Hey, Brooks is just doing the job Our Masters want him to, which is disseminating propaganda to support the basic premises of American capitalism - unmitigated self-interest, pure greed, moral superiority, and "infinite growth".

Bread, circuses, and ideological brainwashing - how else do you imagine empires maintain good population control? That Our Masters allowed their greed to run rampant to this point of destruction may be of use - if nothing else, perhaps a few more Americans will have finally seen the house of cards for what it is.

(great post -that sound you hear is me cheering you on)
besides, the swiss practice capitalism with great success, got rich with no natural advantages, and are largely catholic, not calvinist.
Superbly well written, especially the end. The myth that anyone can start from nothing and if they can't, they are lazy and worthless, is just that: a myth. This is the exception, not the rule, and has been for a long, long time. Scratch most very rich people and most of them were born into wealth, or had connections to wealth. There are very few self-made insanely rich people out there and in fact, there never were.
Nice analysis! I completely agree. BTW, Calvinists are still around -- they are now called "prosperity doctrine" preachers.

that people don't get what endless consumption must ultimately lead to is beyond me. It seems so obvious that it's a self-society-and-planet destroying model. I'm also relieved that we have a Prez who's not, ahem, buying into it.
Lorraine et al., Check it: