Anyone who follows the New York Times probably noticed that within days of each other the nationally influential paper published columns by two icons of contemporary journalism: David Brooks and Paul Krugman. The authors, coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum each analyze the state of rural America.
The author’s diverging worldview are apparent from the start — just look at the respective titles. Brooks: “What America has to Teach Us.” And Krugman: “Getting Real About Rural America.”
While both are as insightful as they are instructive, it’s when examined should-to-shoulder that their value truly shines. An important message rests between the lines. Their opposing ways of thinking — and even more their differing conclusions should be seen as an asset.
The ever humble Brooks, with his politically right-leaning point of view, genuinely optimistic disposition and educational background in the Humanities, conveys a perspective emphasizing human values and hope. As East Oregonian publisher Chris Rush observed, Brooks “spent time with his subjects, got to know them, their motivations, their aspirations … .” Brooks challenges the contention that rural America is in a state of decline by reshaping the analytical framework.
Rather than emphasizing the decline in population or the lagging industrial challenges that face rural communities, Brooks tells a story of the strength of character and civic responsibly found there. He further notes the importance of community identity and the sense of place.
In contrast, the left-leaning, Nobel Prize winning economist, Krugman analyzes his subject in terms of numbers, data-points, empirical trends and comparative analysis. Admittedly more cynical that his counterpart, Krugman’s assessment urges a reality-check for rural America.
If, as Brooks asserts, rural America’s identity and integrity remain strong, the economist Krugman aptly observes that the industry driving rural economies is not. He observes that between the mid-1950s and now, the 6 million agricultural jobs have evaporated to 2 million. Coal mining jobs have dropped from 150,000 to 50,000 in that same time.
Contrary to the face-value of the two pieces, they shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive analyses. The two intellectuals observe their subject through varying points of view and value their research in different ways. The message of each author at their most basic level seem to be this:
Brooks and his optimism values human virtue and community engagement then asks: “How can we spread the civic mindset they -- in rural America -- have in abundance?”
Meanwhile, Krugman’s realism values the observation of concerning trends and concludes: “We can’t help rural America without understanding that the role it used to play in our nation is being undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop.”
What Brooks gets right and Krugman neglects is the unquantifiable values embedded in rural life: The grit and innovative drive in communities like Wallowa County, where residents take care of their neighbors — in good times and in bad.
On the other hand, Krugman’s analytical approach serves as a much needed sound of alarm for the overly optimistic among us. If rural America isn’t in decline, it’s trending tendency to lag behind its urban counterpart is more than a cyclical economic downturn.
If communities like Wallowa County remain asleep at the wheel and neglect to accept change now, Krugman’s grim warning will ring true in the history books.
Perhaps both provide an accurate assessment of rural America.
Through contemporary science we now understand that political disposition is largely a product of genetic brain chemistry. Think on that for a moment. Consider Brooks and Krugman: two unquestionably intelligent and thoughtful people; both well educated, incisive and accomplished with radically different ways of thinking, correlating to radically different outcomes.
We need to utilize the sometimes conflicting qualities for the common good rather than fight over their respective merits. If we do, through communication and dialogue we can solve the problems of today and prepare for tomorrow.