Writers and Activists React to Bill’s Conversation With Arthur Brooks

  • submit to reddit

Arthur Brooks: The Conscience of a Compassionate Conservative
Hoping to open a wider debate on poverty beyond partisan politics and increasingly impermeable echo chambers, Bill invited Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to join him on the show last week. Brooks has written several books on poverty and free enterprise and has become the most prominent Washington champion of “compassionate conservatism,” which fell from favor during the latter days of the George W. Bush administration and, according to Brooks, is making a comeback.

After their conversation appeared on air and continued online, we got more than our usual amount of critical email. Some were angry at Brooks, others at Bill. Several of the skeptical responses to the case for “compassionate conservatism” appear below. After you read them, add your own in our “comments” section. We welcome all comers, of whatever persuasion.

Brooks Gets His Economics Wrong

Dean Baker
Economist; co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research
I don’t doubt Brooks’ commitment to helping out the poor, but unfortunately he gets many fundamental issues of economics wrong. For example, he repeatedly asserts that raising the minimum wage will cause job loss. An extensive body of research shows that minimum wage hikes have not been associated with job loss.

He also ignores the fact that having high unemployment is essentially a policy choice. We could employ people by additional government spending. Alternatively, a lower-valued dollar would increase our net exports and could create millions of jobs. The idea that the economy is just somehow given by nature, as opposed to shaped by government policy, is completely wrong and accepting this view will inevitably lead to bad policy.

We Do Have a Low-Wage Worker Problem

Saru Jayaraman
Co-founder, Restaurant Opportunities Center United; director, UC-Berkeley Food Labor Research Center
Arthur Brooks may believe that he is a ‘compassionate conservative,’ but his views and arguments show no compassion to the hundreds of millions of working poor in America today. He stated that we “don’t have a low-wage worker problem,” which is an astounding view, given that 1 in 3 working Americans lives in poverty, and that the largest and fastest growing private sector employers in the United States — restaurants and retail — are the lowest-paying sectors. As Bill so rightly pointed out to Brooks, government intervention is essential to ensure that corporations do not race to an absolute bottom, paying workers virtually nothing at all.

There is no better example of this than the extraordinary exemption from the federal minimum wage that the restaurant industry has won for itself, maintaining a minimum wage for restaurant servers of $2.13 an hour. This extraordinary exemption is the epitome of the corruption Bill referred to — corporations spending millions on lobbyists to be able to maintain far-below poverty wages for their workers.

Bring Brooks to Argue for the Public Interest

Jan Frel
Editor-at-Large, AlterNet
Arthur Brooks described how the money powers create “tension” in him and our political system in his interview with Bill. That strikes me as his fundamental selling point and special role in the constellation of corporate propagandists at the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks is willing to appear internally conflicted as he argues that a compassionate approach to society and the contemporary right-wing business state agenda have some area of common ground, rather than being irreconcilable. How long can Brooks sustain this sophistry on behalf of the money powers? I believe it comes down to a matter of Brooks’ own moral adjudication. Public rejection of his rhetoric might help accelerate his conversion to bringing his talents to argue on behalf of the public interest.

Sincerity Isn’t Enough

Greg Kaufmann
Senior fellow, Center for American Progress
Arthur Brooks’ sincerity is irrelevant to the 106 million Americans — more than 1 in 3 of us — living on less than $38,000 annually for a family of three. In the late-1960s, the minimum wage was sufficient to lift a family of three out of poverty. The labor force is now more educated and productive, but that same worker lives more than $4,000 below the poverty line. Brooks’ answer? A “moral reformation.” Great. Begin by governing in line with the values of a strong majority that wants the minimum wage raised and indexed to inflation. And stop the nonsense about consequent job loss harming the poor.

Capitalism Divorced From Facts

Robert Borosage
President, Institute for America’s Future; co-director, Campaign for America’s Future
Arthur Brooks heads the institute known as the megaphone of the Fortune 500. He loves the poor by championing “capitalism” as the answer to their lot. But his capitalism is divorced from what Bush aides scorned as the reality-based world. Fact is raising minimum wage doesn’t cost jobs as myriad studies show. Fact is if you allow today’s plutocrats to pass their fortunes intact to heirs as Brooks suggests in passing, democracy and capitalism will die. It is wholly expected but offensive that Mr. Brooks’ only suggestion for lifting the poor is to have taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart’s miserable raises. As Costco has shown, it is possible to pay good wages and prosper in the same retail space. Wal-Mart’s low road is a moral disgrace that Brooks, if he truly wants a moral marketplace, should be condemning, not praising.

Ignoring the Realities of Poverty

Mariana Chilton
Associate professor, Drexel University; Director, Center for Hunger-Free Communities
Arthur Brooks is wrong. He said raising the minimum wage would only help people like his teenage son and it would not help working people who are poor. This not only ignores the glaring realities of hardship among 18 percent of America’s workforce that would be affected by a minimum wage increase — by the way, this group cares for 15 percent of our country’s children, and almost 60 percent are women — but he also disrespects families by trivializing their experiences with homelessness, poor health and food insecurity. Until Brooks willingly spends real time understanding hardship from people who know poverty firsthand, his rhetoric will be no more than hot air through a stock mouthpiece with no horn and no music worth hearing.

No New Compassion Here

Sarah Jaffe
Independent journalist, In These Times, TruthOut, Dissent
Arthur Brooks purports to be a new, more compassionate conservative, but his arguments around the minimum wage are the same ones I hear day after day from the bosses trying to stymie their employees’ organizing. He says that raising the minimum wage is a good way to give teenagers a raise — yet 88 percent of the people who would benefit from a minimum wage increase are over 20. Brooks repeats the same old myths in the service of the same power about which he claims to be so skeptical. I’d love him to demonstrate his compassion by walking a picket line with striking low-wage workers for a few hours and then ask him some of these same questions.

“Pure Chutzpah”

Joel Berg
Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger
People, like Arthur Brooks, who proclaim that money can’t buy happiness usually have both. In 2012, Brooks earned $716,908 in total compensation from his American Enterprise Institute position alone. It’s nice that Brooks says that US poverty and inequality are too high, but, in this interview, he again indicates that he opposes every policy that actually reduces them. His claim that minimum wage increases kill jobs has been factually disproven repeatedly. It would be bad enough if he admitted that he opposes wage hikes because they harm his corporate funders, but it’s pure chutzpah to claim that they harm the people who get higher wages.

After the interview aired, over 1,400 viewers weighed in with their thoughts on the interview page, on Facebook and on Twitter. Take a look at some of their comments and add your own »

  • submit to reddit