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Now that I’ve been here a month I have started to form a more nuanced understanding of what it means to identify as a “liberal” in this town and by extension I have gained a kind of David Brooks-ian insight into the phenomenon/”appeal” amongst this particular psychographic ofDavid Brooks.
Maybe they live in Bethesda, maybe Alexandria, with their dogs and maybe one “late-blooming” son whom they have used their connections to score some sort of prestigious-sounding unpaid internship. On occasion they fantasize about “downsizing” and moving back into D.C., for the ethnic food and so they can vote for Fenty. Their default political affiliation is “liberal” because like hello they are human beings and also, they have serious reservations about torture, but they also identify on some deep-seated almost Freudian level with the idea of “fiscal conservativism” because they were never good at math. So when a guy like Brooks trots out a column chock-full of hard, intimidating numbers attesting to the ruinous legacy of well-intentioned (but predictably mathematically-challenged, silly liberals) policies of their fuzzy-minded intellectual comrades, you can totally hear their interior monologues as they nod along in agreement, pausing occasionally to close their eyes and rub their right temples when a particularly devastating quantitative indicator of the poor deluded Democrats’ reckless disregard of the laws of budgetary physics:
-Good heavens, New Jersey is $5 billion overbudget…because they pay 41% more for state workers’ health benefits than the average Fortune 500 company… -And some retired California state police officers receive 90% of their old salaries, and if it’s anything like New York City those “retirees” are sometimes younger than 50 –Oh dear and can it really be that California pays $100,000 salaries to prison guards who work overtime… -perhaps because the California prison guard union recently spent $200,000 to defeat a state assemblyman who had tried to reduce costs (which is no doubt just the tip of a very large iceberg) -Ah yes just as I feared, the public employees union gave $40 million to federal candidates between 1989 and 2004… –And can it really be that the government pays an average of $14 an hourhigher than the private sector. -O the cruel radiance of numerals! -O the humble quantitative courage of David Brooks!
Now, if you were reading this laundry list in, say, New Jersey, you might think, “Well, shit, I honestly don’t care if our public employees get 41% more health insurance than they would working for the average company on a list dominated by Wal-Mart, as long as they don’t stick the state with another $22,000 a day bill for a fucking ‘interest rate swap.'” In California, you might think, “Ha ha, yes, and this is why I am voting for Jerry Brown and not that union whore.” In New York, you might think twice before reaching for your $15 pack of cigarettes because seriously, mocking David Brooks is so five seasons ago.
But in D.C., where your average “liberal” boomer is still collecting some sort of measly government check from the days during which he/she made the valuable connections he/she is now exploiting to rape the federal government on behalf of the richest top hundredth of a percent, numbers like this—understandable, comprehensible numbers, that is, not the Fannie Freddie Fed “discount window” fantasy zero-laden numbers Tim Geithner has assured you do not actually mean anything—unleash all the “guilty” neurotransmitters comprising the guilty liberal conscience to induce a minor mental breakdown. All the life decisions—the law school in lieu of the MBA due to aforementioned math problem and stupid impractical liberalism; the generous vacations in pre-BlackBerry times during which they took the whole family to France of all places; the naive resistance to imbuing their children in the brutal truth that money is the only thing that matters—all the little choices that have conspired to render them happy, healthy middle-class Americans who just happen to have one unemployable loser son… come flooding back, settling into a creeping knot of suspicion that holy shit, we—all of us, anyone who has ever worked for the public sector in any capacity, lured in by its relative security and decent pay and lulled into a sense of false security by its promise of decent health insurance and a reliable retirement plan—are the problem! We should have tried harder in math.
And they are right, for without them, David Brooks would not be fooling anyone.