Today’s Brooks Brothers twofer: our character and our policies are painfully intertwined

by Ryan Streeter on February 24, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Arthur Brooks and David Brooks (no relation) have complementary columns today worth reading.

Arthur postulates¬†in the WSJ that our inability to reform our entitlements, spending, and tax system is directly related to our growing collective interest in getting something for nothing (or less than its value). Arthur is right to point out that public policy generally has been moving on a trajectory at odds with our entrepreneurial backbone. Whereas enterprising individuals delay gratification, take on risk, and earn their success the hard way, public policy – whether it’s welfare for the poor or tax breaks for the rich – has for a long time been lessening risk and detaching risk from reward.

Arthur’s been one of the most consistently persuasive advocates of the idea that our personal character is important to our national character, and that “earned success” is an essential pillar of character without which the American experiment doesn’t make sense.

In his NYT column, David postulates that our welfare state already matches Europe’s. The difference is that the European model directly grants aids to individuals and organizations, whereas we use our tax code to offer all kinds of assistance on top of the direct grants we make. Thus the problem with our model: “And because they are hidden, many of the tax expenditures go to those who need them least, the well connected and established over the vulnerable and the entrepreneurial.”

David sees promising signs of a consensus on left and right, however fragile and underdeveloped, that special interests in the tax code need to be eliminated. Let’s hope he’s right. The biggest problem on this front is that when it comes to closing loopholes that cost the most, both sides of the aisle get quieter and suddenly don’t look too valorous.

Looking at both Brooks’ columns, two thoughts come to mind:

(1) American aspiration itself has been under assault for awhile, and the cultural reasons for this are intertwined with public policy but not fully explained by it. Three pillars of earned success – the family, habits of independence, and entrepreneurial activity – have been eroding awhile, as I recently wrote in this Star column. Public policy is a big culprit. But so is declining religiosity, confused values in our educational institutions, and the coarsening entertainment culture that affects the poorer and less-educated more severely than the better-off.

Reversing all this, then, has to be something more like a movement, not just a package of public policy initiatives. That’s the conclusion we should take from Arthur’s column.

(2) The rhetoric and idea of class warfare will only make things worse. Even if you think it’s just plain unfair that the rich have gotten richer so much faster while everyone else hasn’t, there is virtually nothing in the arsenal of words and (I hesitate to call them) ideas that Obama and the left use about “paying your fair share” that will make one iota of difference. The reality that Obama ignores is that the U.S. already has a more progressive tax system than other developed nations, as Lane Kenworthy has clearly shown. ¬†Upping the progressivity even more will result in capital flight and, actually, lower levels of public revenue over time. What’s needed, then, is as David says, is a reworking of our tax code altogether in a way that will affect everyone, not just the rich.

And that takes courage.

How odd that we are stuck in a public debate created mainly by our President about solving our problems by taxing the rich more, when over in Europe, you’ve got the head of the European Bank declaring this morning that Europe’s social model “is already gone.” Reform in Europe won’t be easy, but you’re starting to hear from its leaders the tough talk – we’re in this together, everyone will have to sacrifice and change expectations – that our political “leaders” are don’t have the courage to express.