Friday, July 23, 2010

Bobos in Paradise

By Stephen Malpezzi, Professor and Lorin & Marjorie Tiefenthaler Distinguished Chair of Real Estate

Whatever your politics, discerning readers of the op-ed columns recognize center-right columnist David Brooks as one of the very best at his craft. Trained as a journalist but knowledgeable about a range of social sciences, his book Bobos in Paradise gave a popular introduction to “bourgeois bohemians,” a word Brooks coined to describe the nineties version of earlier “yuppies:” upper-class, educated, and ready to spend, but on goods (argues Brooks) like granite countertops or high-end electronics that are positioned as functional, rather than something expensive but frivolous from the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. (Colleague David Shulman recommended the book to me, and it makes my Reading for Life list.)

Brooks has written two recent columns that speak to me as we prepare for the year’s classes and an influx of students. The first column appeared in The New York Times on July 9th (“The Medium Is the Medium”). In it, Brooks nods to the many benefits of the Internet, email and the rise of social media, but he also makes a pitch for the importance of old-fashioned books. Readers of my introduction to Reading for Life will know this is a position I’ve staked out as well. Research by Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd, cited by Brooks, is the most comprehensive study I’ve ever seen on the impact of personal computers on student achievement. This study, “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” is still in working paper form but is destined to become a classic (I’ll address it more fully in a future entry). The take-away for the moment is this: simply providing your child a PC and an Internet connection is no guarantee that they’ll excel in school; in fact it may bring their performance down. Books, on the other hand, rule.

The other recent Brooks column that speaks to our educational mission is the July 13th “An Economy of Grinds.” Brooks describes “princes” as business people, often those at the top, who have great social skills, including an ability to integrate and “tell a story” about a situation. “Grinds,” on the other hand, are driven loners, often almost anti-social, ready to take a contrarian view. Both can be arrogant, but the grinds, while not always obvious about it, are often really arrogant. Citigroup’s Charles Prince (he’s even got the name!), “as long as the music’s playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,” versus Michael Barry, one of the first to get the MBS market right, rarely left his office and took poor investor relations to a new level.

But really, Brooks is not completely fair to either grinds or princes. The best business leaders combine both. Think Jack Welch, not Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. Or think of our own James Graaskamp’s oft-quoted statement that a UW grad should be a combination of da Vinci, Muir and Rouse.

At Wisconsin, our goal should be to turn out grinds who can tell a story, princes who aren’t in thrall to the latest investment fad. Our students and alums need to think independently but be able to communicate—both up and down the food chain!—inspire and persuade. In future posts, we’ll talk about some of the hard and soft skills we all need to master throughout a lifetime of learning.

“The result [of an academic program] should be a real estate entrepreneur with the creativity of Leonardo da Vinci, the sensitivity for the natural world of John Muir and the political humanity with cash management for profit of James Rouse.”
James A. Graaskamp (1933-1988), professor and chair of the UW-Madison Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics


  1. When students ask me about this book I say it is warmed-over Veblen. They then say "Who is Veblen?" Never mind, I say, just read Brooks!

  2. Bobos in Paradise should be paired with Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Both deal with the ways in which educated elites have separated themselves from the poor and both show the ways in which the extremes of the sixties have been transcended by elites while they have nearly destroyed the lives of the poor.

    Highly recommended.

  3. I love this book because it is so funny, so for me it is a clear five star book. However, if you yourself are outside the bobo class, I don't think you will find the book as funny.

  4. A totally enjoyable book. Great look at Baby Boomers and how they continue to change the social, political and economic situtation in US. He has some wonderful humor in the book. Every Boomer should read it to understand where they are in the American scene and how they got that way.

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