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Shields and Brooks discuss how government can address economic inequality

January 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including the inauguration of New York's new Mayor Bill de Blasio and his pledge to address economic inequality, plus how new laws on legal marijuana signal a U.S. cultural shift.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.  That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is in New York tonight. 

Welcome, gentlemen.

First program of the new year, and I guess the political event of the week, David, as you’re in New York, was the inauguration of their new mayor, who sounds like he’s going to make inequality and doing something about it the theme of his leadership. 


JUDY WOODRUFF:  What did you make of him and his message? 

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, we have been waiting around for sort of a populist progressive.  I guess we had Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, but here is someone running a city on that agenda. 

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And to me, the question is, is it going to be a national agenda?  And I guess I’m not quite clear sure yet.  I mean, clearly progressive voices are going to blare very loudly in Democratic circles, in liberal circles, in the academy, because inequality is a genuinely significant issue. 

The question is, can they get a broad — a broad movement behind that?  New York is not America.  John Podhoretz in the New York Post today pointed out that it has been 117 years since a major New York City official had national office or even big state office, and that was Teddy Roosevelt.  So it’s been very hard to export New York politics nationally. 

And it could be that the distrust of government is so strong that even though people acknowledge that inequality is a big, serious issue, they don’t quite trust big government programs to take care of it. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mark, is this a liberal message that has legs outside of New York? 

MARK SHIELDS:  Yes, it does, Judy. 

First of all, a corrective item.  Franklin Roosevelt was a governor of New York when he was elected president of the United States in 1932. 

DAVID BROOKS:  Right, not New York City, though. 

MARK SHIELDS:  Oh, New York City?  OK.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t — that distinction.

The — yes, it does, Judy, and I would say this.  Lost in the results in 2012 because of the presidential race was the fact that we saw a populist revolt in California put to the ballot test.  Proposition 30, Jerry Brown, the governor pushed it.  The state was in dire financial straits and funding for education was way down.  Proposition 30 raised taxes on couples earning over $500,000 a year. 

Millions spent against it, $11 million by one secret group alone spent against it, and it prevailed.  It won; 89 percent of it is going to college colleges, community colleges, and K-12.  Bill de Blasio ran on this issue.  He didn’t just pull it out of his hat.  He didn’t discover it between winning and his inaugural. 

And David’s right.  Does it have its most intense support on the coasts?  Yes.  Probably in several academic areas.  But the reality is, this is a reality-based movement.  It’s everywhere.  Inequality is across the board. 

Just one figure, OK?  In the last four years, the last four years, since Barack Obama has been president, 95 percent of the wealth in the country that’s been created has gone to the top 1 percent, who own 33 percent of the stock. 

I mean, and I think anybody who accused Barack Obama of being a socialist owes him and us an apology, because it’s been — it’s been very, very good.  The stock market had its best year in 17 years.  Coincidentally, that was when another Democrat, Bill Clinton, was in the White House. 

So, I mean, it’s been very good, but it’s been very unequal.  And one of the things de Blasio wants to do is universal pre-K.  That is a radical idea.  It’s now the state law in Oklahoma and the state law in Georgia. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, David, what do you — what do you — I mean, what is the strength of — of liberalism in this country today? 

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, I think the problem is real.  Mark is absolutely right about that.  The inequality, the statistics are pretty — pretty overwhelming. 

The question is, it seems to me two agendas flow out of that.  One, which I do think is a majority agenda, is that — the argument that basically our economic system is working, but a lot of people don’t have access to it, and therefore you want to invest heavily in human capital, in pre-K, in community colleges, in education.  And you want to give people access. 

I think that is a majority agenda that is probably a center-left, even some center-right.  You could get an agenda behind that.  The second agenda that grows out of it is the argument the economic system fundamentally is not working, that we have deep structural problems that are leading to this widening inequality.  And you want to address the deep structural problems in the economy with much more redistribution, much higher taxes on the affluent, and therefore redistributing the money down. 

I do not believe that is a majority agenda, whether it’s justified or not.  I just think right now there are — I think there are seven Democratic senators running for reelection right now in states that Mitt Romney won.  I do not think those seven senators are going to be endorsing any sort of redistributive program or even much big government program this year or any time soon. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mark, what about that?  And connect it to what is president is talking about, because he said he wants to devote the rest of his presidency to inequality.  Is he going — what is he going to be able to do in that regard? 

MARK SHIELDS:  Well, I mean, there are steps. 

And the president is, in fact — I mean, this is an issue waiting to be galvanized, waiting to be energized.  I think there is no question, Judy.  First of all, minimum wage, very simple, very straightforward.  Three-quarters — according to the Gallup poll, three-fourths of independents favor raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. 

All right?  A majority of Republicans do.  Now, there’s a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives who don’t.  That’s where you come down to political skill, organizing, galvanizing public opinion to push that through.  The extension of unemployment insurance benefits to the long-term unemployed, who are suffering the most in this entire recession, and now all of a sudden…

JUDY WOODRUFF:  We’re waiting to see if… 


MARK SHIELDS:  Now, all of a sudden, it has become an article of faith on the part of Republicans in Congress that this has to be offset in spending. 

That wasn’t the case when George W. Bush, the last president to propose extension of unemployment insurance benefits, prevailed.  They didn’t insist then.  But it a different rule now.  I think that’s one where you could show an inconsistency, a contradiction. 

These are just the first steps.  But David’s right that the system, our system produces great wealth.  It is lousy at re — at distributing it. 

DAVID BROOKS:  I would say..

MARK SHIELDS:  And that — go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  David, go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS:  I would just say it’s important to realize how deep the problem is. 

The structural problem behind inequality — well, there are a whole bunch of them — it is complicated — but one of them significantly is the education premium has gone up.  The rewards to education has gone up.  Women have gotten the message.  Women have increased their education levels commensurate with that.  And we are seeing some gains among women. 

The widening inequality of the wage stagnation, it is very significantly a male problem.  Men have not gotten the message.  They have not increased their education levels.  And, therefore, they are the ones primarily suffering.  That is a deep fundamental problem that is very hard to figure out how to address. 

A second sort of related problem is family structure.  If you have got a majority of kids under age 5 not growing up in two-parent homes, that too has a significant effect on inequality, because their educational outcomes tend statistically on average to be worse.  So, these are really deep things having to do with family structure, males not responding to incentives. 

And I’m for extending unemployment insurance, but that doesn’t get at the really core problems that are affecting not only the U.S., but in Europe and elsewhere. 


JUDY WOODRUFF:  Nor does raising the minimum wage. 

MARK SHIELDS:  No, I’m not saying those are cures.  But are they steps?  Yes. 

What we have done — and I think Michael Sandel of Harvard has raised this point — over the last few years in this country, we have taken the market and made it not an economic factor.  We have made it our system.  I mean, everything now has a price.  If you even think about pollution, Judy, if you want to spend enough money, you can pollute.  That’s because the law and the pattern of the land. 

We have monetized just about everything, including education.  Education — the genius of this country and its growth from the 19th century forward was universal public education, universal quality public education.  And that is a value to not simply to be esteemed and to be proud of, but is central to this country’s resurgence and restoring itself. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  All right, abrupt change of subject. 



JUDY WOODRUFF:  But there’s something else we saw — both of you, we saw this week, first week of the new year.  Marijuana is now legal, recreational use of marijuana, David, in a couple of states. 

In Colorado, we saw long lines of people waiting to buy their first legal marijuana.  What does this — what do you see about the future of this in this country?  Do you see this spreading to more states?  You wrote about it today in your column. 

DAVID BROOKS:  Right.  Well, I think we probably will see it decriminalized.  I’m not sure we will see it legalized.  I am not super in favor of all the arrests that go on for people using marijuana.

But I — we will see how Colorado — Colorado works out.  It is a good future of our system.  It’s an experiment.  We will figure out how it works.  I have to say, I’m skeptical of it and I am dubious and I wouldn’t have supported it for a couple of reasons. 

First, when you do get legalization, the price does collapse.  It tends to collapse.  You will get it much cheaper.  If you have got much cheaper marijuana, more people will smoke it.  And then you take away the legal penalties, more people are likely to smoke it.  And so we will have states where more people are using marijuana. 

Now, I’m not terrifically offended by it, but I do think there are a couple things to be worried about.  One is, more teenagers will likely to spend it — and the science behind the teenage effect of marijuana use is pretty severe.  It does have cognitive effects.  It does lower I.Q. points over the long term.  The addiction rates are much higher among teenagers than people who start as adults.

So that is a genuine health concern.  And then the second thing, it’s — most of us age out of marijuana use, because it’s not that exciting when you find more serious and more uplifting pleasures.  And so most people give it up as they hit middle age. 

And I just would make the moral status argument that getting stoned all the time is not the greatest way to spend your time.  And so it’s fine when you’re young.  You can try it.  And people want to try it periodically. 

But I think the state through its laws should encourage a culture that discourages the use of marijuana on both moral grounds and health grounds. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Where do you come down on that?

MARK SHIELDS:  I defer to David on the knowledge of the subject. 

And in his personal piece today, which I commend to all our viewers, I — John Denver was a little bit early on “Rocky Mountain High,” it appears. 


MARK SHIELDS:  I mean, this is too late.  The Colorado law is too late to save the iconic American brand Twinkies.  They’re — probably not help Doritos.  You have to think of the collateral these days.

I am amazed by this.  I will be very frank.  This is something I missed.  By a 6-1 margin, Judy, just 40 years ago, when Gerry Ford was president of the United States, Americans opposed the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana.  Twenty years ago, it was by a 4-1 margin.  And 10 years ago, it was by a 2-1 margin. 

Now a majority of Americans support it.  In a strange way, it is a little bit like the lottery, state lotteries, which I — and state gambling.  And that is, it’s free tax money.  That’s one of the arguments that was made, that raising revenues without raising taxes at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And getting those ballot measures.

MARK SHIELDS:  Getting the ballot — getting it done. 


MARK SHIELDS:  And I really — I have not thought it through.  I will be honest with you.  It’s not something that I would have spent my time on. 

I could understand same-sex marriage, because everybody either has a neighbor, a nephew, a relative, a co-worker, a friend who is gay and has been discriminated against.  This is one that kind of throws me. 



DAVID BROOKS:  But the tax revenue thing…

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Go ahead, yes.

DAVID BROOKS:  … can I just say, that’s a bogus issue, because the costs, the social costs raise costs for the government to more than compensate the tax revenue. 

MARK SHIELDS:  That’s a good point. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  All right, well, you both made fabulous points tonight.  Thank you very much. 

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.