Robert Whitcomb: Mr. Brooks finally discovers that the natives are restless


In an April 29 column by The New York Times’s David Brooks headlined “If Not Trump, What?’’ he writes that to understand Donald Trump’s GOP popularity (and by implication Bernie Sanders’s among Millennials):

“{I]t’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable….’’

“….Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that story isn’t working for people anymore, especially for people who think the system is rigged.’’

How little effort  much of the elite have made  to know the plus-90 percent of the nation who aren’t. You’d think that big-time journalists would try to talk more to “everyday Americans,’ at least for show. But media celebs such as Mr. Brooks are addicted to the money, privilege and ego-gratification that go with spending most of their time with the rich and/or powerful.  Meanwhile, many business/economics journalists have been fired to help maintain media outlets’ profit margins. So rigorous, data-driven coverage of socio-economic changes has declined in the media that American most look at in favor of, well, nonstop coverage of Mr. Trump’s latest insults. (I’m a former business editor.)

Mr. Brooks, et al., now seem to fear that massive social unrest is coming unless members ofthe “middle class’’ think that they will get a better deal.  (Of course, many low- and middle-income people could help their situations by, for example, avoiding having kids out of wedlock and other disorderly behavior linked to poverty. They could also vote.)

The nub of the problem:

Government data show that American economic productivity  in 1945 -1973 rose 96 percent and inflation-adjusted pay 94 percent; in 1973-2014 productivity grew 72.2 percent and inflation-adjusted pay 9.2 percent, with almost all of the growth in 1995-2002. 

This suggests that the folks owning and/or running companies have become  much less willing to share. At the same time, tax laws remain very skewed in favor of investment income over earned income. This keeps reinforcing a plutocracy based on inherited capital and privilege. The Sunday New York Times weddings section displays this crowd in all its glory.

Meanwhile, the elite’s  disinclination to share has slowed economic growth by constraining most Americans’ purchasing power.

The very rich have increasingly sequestered themselves from the poor and the middle class through, among other things, jet travel, globalization,  the Internet and gated communities. Thus they’re less likely to  see and be embarrassed by extreme divergences of wealth. Ever more large local enterprises are owned by far-away companies and/or individuals rather than by people in the communities where the companies operate. The local employees are mere numbers on a screen rather than people whom senior executives and major shareholders might awkwardly encounter on the street.

In some of the burgs where my family have lived over the past century, such as Brockton, Mass., when it was a shoe-making capital, and Duluth, Minn., an iron-ore and grain shipping port, my relatives  who were executives, factory managers and the like would encounter a wide range of the population daily, from rich to poor. Now, the descendants of these folks who have not yet drunk away the old money made in these places tend to spend six months and a day enjoying tax avoidance in Florida , and those who own and/or run largeenterprises with operations in places like Duluth and Brockton may never visit them at all.

Out of sight, out of mind.

But now there’s the glint of pitchforks in the sun. It’s too bad that the leading spokesmen for the new “populism’’ are con man Donald Trump (see: and a naïf like Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t understand the need to always encourage entrepreneurialism  to raise living standards.  As for the Clintons, all too often they act like establishment grifters.

Anyway, we need capitalism, but adjustments are long overdue.

Robert Whitcomb (, a former Providence Journal editorial page editor, a former International Herald Tribune finance editor and a former Wall Street Journal editor, oversees New England Diary and is a partner at Cambridge Management Group and president of Guard Dog Media, based in Boston.