One of my favorite journalistic tropes is when a reporter goes on a vacation with his ideological enemy and tells us what he learned from the experience. The reporter invariably returns with his ideology unchanged but a modicum of respect for the people on the other side, at least on a personal basis. The New York Times recently sent David Brooks (that David Brooks) to spend time with their enemy du jour--the evil one percenters, and he dutifully followed the script.
The event was a 21-day around-the-world luxury trip that cost a cool $120,000 per person. The group went from locale to locale on a private jet, stayed in luxurious suites in top hotels, and had every single arrangement taken care of for them, to the point that the tour leader handed them spending money in the local currency at each destination.
Brooks admitted that he was initially skeptical of such a trip, assuming that he would have little in common with the sort of person who can afford such luxury and that being insulated from the day-to-day vicissitudes of travel would take some of the meaning out of travel. But he quickly came to realize that complaining about excellent service is petty and churlish, and that the people weren't so bad either.
He also discovered was that his fellow travelers did not inherit their wealth--most of them had started their own businesses and worked hard to earn their money. What's more, none of these people seemed truly rich. While a $120,000 vacation isn't a middle-class excursion, this trip represented a relatively large expenditure for most of the travelers and had a bit of a "trip of a lifetime" feel to it.
Brooks seemed genuinely surprised by how much he enjoyed the company of those on the trip, an interesting a priori assumption I would never have expected from one of the paper's token conservatives, although anyone paying attention to his column these days (and I can just barely bring myself to do so) recognizes that he's changed a bit. He devotes more column inches worrying about our souls than the missteps of government.
The people were gregarious and eager to make friends, and by the time Brooks joined the trip near the end of the excursion they seemed more content to socialize with one another than to push themselves to see the sights at each new locale. It was his perception of a lack of curiosity on the part of the travelers that ultimately bothered him the most about the trip. Here they were, he lamented, traveling in some of the most important historical sites in all Christendom, yet they all seemed more interested in chatting about their families and hometowns with the other travelers than learning more about the genesis of western civilization.
Of course, what Brooks chalks up as a character flaw happens to be an essential attribute for an entrepreneur. Being an extreme extrovert who can talk to anyone about anything--and feels compelled to do so--is an incredibly useful trait to have for someone running a business. While people may go on vacation to get away from work, extroverts don't become quiet and contemplative when they're away from their job. He also doesn't account for the fact that the 50 and 60 something couples he was traveling with may have been a bit piqued after the first two weeks of their trek that Brooks skipped, a cost measure I’m glad that Johnny Apple isn’t alive to read about.
The most interesting part of the piece was the ending, when Brooks conforms to the trope and declares that despite how much he liked his new friends his views haven't changed and that we all have a responsibility to reduce income inequality.
I hope that this coda keeps him in good stead with his Times colleagues, but I’m not at all prepared to accept his vacuous and banal charge. I would eagerly embrace the notion that reducing poverty is important and I’m affiliated with a think tank that’s devoted a lot of resources into thinking about that question. It has come up with a wide list of things to do about it, some small and no doubt shrinking fraction of which David Brooks agrees with.
But the gap between the wealthy and the poor is not a fight I’m signing up for, because in a world where the left gets to decide how to fight poverty, the next step after that fails is to reduce the wealth of the people on top, regardless of the outcome. And once the moral satisfaction from that dissipates we’re all worse off for it.