David Brooks: young Americans are poor because they want to be poor

A friend emailed me The Experience Economy, by David Brooks. Brooks is responding to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation in which, supposedly, Cowen says that the U.S. grew fast until 1974 by doing the easy stuff, e.g., exploiting our cheap land and other natural resources. When the growing got tough, the Americans stopped growing, according to Cowen, at least at the individual income level (the population has ballooned from around 200 million people to over 300 million, so of course the GDP is larger).

Brooks says that young people have become less materialistic. They are seeking “meaning not money” and that’s why they are so likely to be unemployed and poor.

I’m beginning to wonder what the qualifications are to write for the New York Times. Random bloggers don’t have paid research assistants, fact checkers, and all day every day to hunt down sources. So you might expect them to write something like this in 20 minutes and then head off to their day job. But for David Brooks this is his day job and he does have a lot of institutional resources on which to draw.

Why couldn’t he find “Is Materialism Rising in America?” from the September 2000 issue of Society in which Terry Nichols Clark says that most surveys indicate that “private materialism has risen since the 1960s among the young”.  Although there is some disagreement among sociologists, there is certainly no convincing evidence that materialism is on the decline. With the cost of a college education having risen so much faster than inflation, it isn’t even clear why one would expect a decrease in materialism. With the increased crowding of the United States has come a huge increase in the real cost of houses in nice neighborhoods that entail short commutes. When a young person learns that a prestigious college degree costs $250,000 and a desirable house less than a one-hour drive from work is $1.5 million, you would have to question his intelligence if he didn’t answer “financial success is very important to me”.

Nor does Brooks address the OECD study that found a 20 percent increase in per-capita hours worked in the U.S. from 1970 through 2002. Without citing any sources, Brooks says “For the past few decades, Americans have devoted more of their energies to postmaterial arenas and less and less, for better and worse, to the sheer production of wealth.” Perhaps he means that Americans are at work but they’re wasting time on Facebook instead of trying to produce wealth?

If this is the best that traditional media can do, I can’t figure out why the New York Times maintains that it is somehow higher quality than the average wordpress.com blog.


  1. Colin Summers

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:36 pm



    That was interesting to me. My children are unaware (they are too young) of what their home costs, but they do seem quite a bit less interested in acquisition than I was at their age. And continue to be. I also think that a lot of young people are aware that with the Interwebs at their fingertips their life remains largely the same no matter where they are in the country. So young people are flocking to Detroit, which is something I never would have done out of college because it is aware from anything worth acquiring.

  2. Dan Dravot

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:47 pm


    IIRC, the newspaper-biz slang term for a piece like that is a “thumbsucker”.

    Res ipsa loquitur.

  3. Dan Dravot

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:48 pm


    Colin: “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote”. It is the singular.

  4. Alex

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:51 pm


    David Brooks is pandering to people like himself who need to rationalize away the vast inequalities of wealth distribution in this country. Any idea, such as “people are poor because they want to be,” even if patently absurd, will serve this purpose nicely.

    Most media exists to confirm the biases of the target audience. Facts and accuracy are not really required to do this.

  5. philg

    February 17, 2011 @ 12:54 pm


    Alex: Why does he “need to rationalize away the vast inequality of wealth”? He isn’t rich, is he? It is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who married the billionaire heiress (a great example for young people!). Does Brooks have a side job on Wall Street? (I have seen studies that conclude that nearly all of America’s increase in income inequality is due to the financial services industry.)

  6. Alex

    February 17, 2011 @ 6:33 pm


    He does it because that’s his living. Sure, he’s no corporate magnate, but he makes a living confirming the biases of the wealthy, and he’s done well by it. Brooks is wealthier than most Americans:

    “Most days, he writes from home—a four-bedroom, 4,600-square-foot Cape Cod–style house in the upper-middle-class Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. On busy days, he drives into his D.C. office. He just traded in his black Acura—which he called “the car for people who don’t want to be showy”—for an Infiniti”


    I don’t begrudge him any of this. This is what pundits do. They generate some form of entertainment that makes some target audience feel good about themselves, be it conservative or liberal. Don’t confuse what he does with journalism of any kind. It’s entertainment.

  7. philg

    February 17, 2011 @ 6:47 pm


    Alex: Thanks for the link. I’m still not 100% convinced. Most NYT readers aren’t Wall Street rich (in fact the whole point of “rich” is that few can attain that status!). A 4600 square foot McMansion (no Cape Cod house on Cape Cod was ever that huge!) in my original hometown of Bethesda! Sweet! I guess it explains how he got his NYT job. He wrote a book that an editor liked. I don’t know why he is characterized as “a conservative writer”. Let me look at his recent articles…

    He writes about how great Chicago is, despite “one of the biggest debt loads in the country”. I guess bankrupting the next generation is a policy that conservatives and liberals agree on.

    He writes about Egypt. What could he possibly know about the place? He says “it has some decent underlying structures. And, if led wisely, it has a reasonable shot at joining the normal, democratic world.” Let’s see if he invests there or in China.

    He has an article called “The Talent Magnet” where he says the government can foster innovation with “competitive tax rates, predictable regulations, and fiscal balance”. That sounds conservative, but then he says “the government has to work aggressively to reduce the human capital inequalities that open up in an innovation economy. That means early and constant interventions so everybody has a chance to participate.” Now the government that has cheated two generations of children and bankrupted taxpayers by paying ineffective teachers $10,000/month until age 50-something and then a wonderful pension is going to be more active in education? I guess it is “conservative” to suggest doing the same thing over and over, despite its demonstrated failure in the past.

    I don’t see how his perspective could be characterized as a conservative one. Brooks certainly has nothing in common with the folks writing on http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/

  8. DeAngelo Lampkin

    February 17, 2011 @ 9:28 pm


    “Brooks says that young people have become less materialistic. They are seeking “meaning not money” and that’s why they are so likely to be unemployed and poor.”

    That’s quite an interesting interpretation! An alternative interpretation of Brook’s article – younger people consume a lot of free/low-cost products that are produced by relatively few people, which results in less “wealth” being produced. These products provide a lot of “meaning”, a form of happiness that doesn’t require wealth creation.

    I couldn’t find anything about this being correlated with people being unemployed and poor.

    I think the disagreement is over the definition of “materialism”. Brooks makes a strained correlation between “post-materialism” and cheap technology (facebook, ipods, etc). I think he’s *trying* to say that young people are so satisfied with watching dog-farting videos on their iphones that they’ve gotten lazy and as a result, the Chinese economy has caught up. “Materialism” in Brook’s article is literally any work that produces a physical output (which presumably results in wealth creation).

  9. heroineworshiper

    February 17, 2011 @ 11:18 pm


    There was also “The weightless economy” which said the most advanced countries would start seeking meaning rather than stuff, beyond a certain point. It certainly seems new couples are going for experiences rather than buying stuff. Dad used to buy cars, pianos, & TV’s for girlfriends, back when cars were only 4 digits. Modern couples buy theater tickets, restaurant food, & getaways.

  10. philg

    February 17, 2011 @ 11:32 pm


    So if I have three cars, four TVs, and two pianos and then buy a one-week vacation at a $500/night Four Seasons hotel, I’m “post-materialist”?

  11. Mark Ciccarello

    February 17, 2011 @ 11:51 pm


    Brooks a talent for spouting reasonable-sounding drivel. Just watch him and his buddy/sparring partner Mark Shields having a reasonable-off on PBS any time. God, I want to throttle them. The only thing worse was when he was on with David Gergen.

  12. DeAngelo Lampkin

    February 18, 2011 @ 1:40 am



    If you did all that while working a dayjob as a museum fundraiser, then I’d guess Brooks would label you a “post-materialist”.

  13. stephenl

    February 18, 2011 @ 2:10 am


    bloggingheads.tv of Tyler Cowen discussing his Great Stagnation book is here:


    I think he feels there has been a science/technology slowdown, which has led to a slowdown in growth. Or that a lot of the advances that there have been have been felt mostly by the elderly but not by the median american. His big exception is the internet, but that has mostly helped the infovore.

  14. supermike

    February 18, 2011 @ 3:07 am


    So, given the demographic and economic facts mentioned above, is it not conceivable that an outspoken, articulate portion of the 20-something cohort might deduce that our economic and political environment makes striving something of a sucker’s game? Might they look at their grandparents’ and parents’ lives and see prosperity that they’re not likely to attain and just more or less give up? One might say that it’s a case of “sour grapes”, but it doesn’t diminish the sentiment.

  15. philg

    February 18, 2011 @ 10:19 am


    Supermike: Economists have found that people who face higher tax rates will work fewer hours. So it possible that young people are looking at the enormous deficits being racked up by today’s middle-aged and figure that they’re eventually going to have to pay for it with 60 percent of their future income. But if that were the case we’d have heard about college students protesting the current $1.5 trillion federal deficits and also protesting the state governments for continuing to make pension promises. The kids would look at


    and be rioting. Instead, they’re out volunteering to support the very politicians who are bankrupting their future.

  16. Jesse

    February 18, 2011 @ 10:20 am


    Well, perhaps I was wrong. At minimum I think it going to come to a head. I think you will see some areas and states get their house in order and others fail. The world will and has become increasingly polarized as oppressed taxpayers continue to shell out for lazy, underworked government employees who feel entitled to your hard earned money for rendering services you never wanted, nor asked for and probably never used.

    It seems that they are trying to quash it.


    Interestingly check out this link which expains the current situation from the soft science perspective of “Socionomics”. Phil, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Socionomics if you have any. I actually find it quite compelling. It has many holes but in all honesty I think it is a far better explanation of the way our economies function than the news based traditional view.


  17. philg

    February 18, 2011 @ 10:48 am


    Jesse: I wouldn’t get too excited by these stories about politicians “cutting $X billion in spending”. Generally they’re talking about reducing the rate of increase and/or not spending money that they couldn’t possibly have collected without doubling tax rates. There is no plan to change the current system of taxing 67-year-old Walmart cashiers to pay 52-year-old government retirees and to pay for whatever health care their doctors want them to consume. Nor is any state legislature seriously considering abandoning defined benefit pensions, where they sign up the taxpayers of 100 years from now to pay unknown for today’s workers (an 18-year-old unionized public worker could easily be collecting a pension at age 118, in the year 2121).

    Unless you’re God and know how long people are going to live or you’re the federal government and you have a printing press for dollars (though it is maybe getting a little worn out during the Obama Administration!), how could you possibly imagine guaranteeing the kinds of obligations that the states are currently guaranteeing? That’s the fundamental hubris/madness and there is no sign of it stopping.

  18. Jesse

    February 18, 2011 @ 11:33 am



    While I agree with you to an extent. I also disagree somewhat. Fiscal madness seems to be fairly regional. Up here in Canada, the province I live in(Alberta) has no debt(Although the current idiots in government are doing their best to create one again). But the rest of the country that has been living on our hand outs for the past 50 years has IMMENSE debt(barring some select few provinces). So basically there are regional inequalities and fairly stark differences between ideologies. I “believe”(although not 100% on American state/federal interactions) that it is similar in the US ie. Texas is fairly prudent while Louisiana and California are absolutely drunken, bankrupt states. As per socionomic thought, the polarization in America is increasing(look at tea party vs poeople who hate corporations and want to nationalize them). I think this will inevitably result in some sort of conflict where the oppressed(taxed people paying for the welfare of others) eventually have had enough and whether by civilized means or violent will revolt against their oppressors.

    For example, in Alberta over the last 60 years or so. This province has net contributed(paid more in federal taxes than recieved in services) on the order of 260 billion dollars. While many other provinces leech off this and enjoy vastly better social services than us and subsidized tertiary industries. Meanwhile, we are unable to create new industries and innovate out of our resource based economy because any money available for such initiatives is taxed and given to lazy French separtists(see Quebec). Here is a story that lays it out briefly and quite well.


  19. D

    February 18, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  20. Fabian Gonzales

    February 19, 2011 @ 5:31 am


    I have recently come to the conclusion that “writer” should not exist as a profession. If you pay someone money every week of the year just to come up with some words, you end up with drivel like this. Frequently, the best and most insightful articles I read are from people whose primary day job is not to write per se. Their expertise lies in other areas, and writing articles (or books) is an attempt to profit from sharing their knowledge with others.

  21. Greg Boles

    February 20, 2011 @ 9:19 am


    Excellent points, but Cowen’s long essay is well worth reading.

Log in