This morning’s New York Times includes another David Brooks jeremiad, “The Two Cultures.” Brooks cites a recent NBER macroeconometrics paper to slam the folly and naivite of liberal technocratic government, in implicit contrast to the more grounded, simple virtues of American conservatism.
How can we solve our problems by borrowing and spending more? The liberal technicians brush this away, too. Economics is a rational activity detached from morality. Hardheaded policy makers have to have the courage to flout conventional morality — to borrow even when the country is sick of borrowing.
… It’s become harder to have confidence that legislators can successfully enact the brilliant policies that liberal technicians come up with…. When you look around the world at the countries that have come through the recession best, it’s not the countries with the brilliant and aggressive stimulus models. It’s the ones like Germany that had the best economic fundamentals beforehand.
It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that.
I’m not in a position to evaluate that NBER paper. My own graduate-school knowledge of macroeconometric models was similar to my knowledge of Italian supermodels. I admired their elegance, but from a distance. I happen to be a relative deficit hawk among liberal policy types, for what that is worth.
I feel more confident assessing Brooks’s breezy commentary. Whatever one thinks about the stimulus package or the long-term dangers of public debt, he picks the wrong target.
Republicans have spent the past generation flouting commonsense, experience, and “conventional morality” through foolish supply-side tax-cutting that produced chronic deficits and widened social inequality. They encouraged us to neglect basic problems of education, the environment, and our society’s physical infrastructure. President Bush enacted a fiscally imprudent Medicare Part D program that accumulated trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities even as he embarked on a sadly misguided, in every way hugely costly war. It’s hard to imagine a worse set of policies to address our country’s long-term economic fundamentals. True, Democrats now favor large current stimulus efforts. Yet the resulting deficits are small when viewed in long-term perspective.
Meanwhile, Republicans’ current strategy is to pander to the wealthy, to pander to seniors unhappy about cost-control measures in health reform, and to pander to a variety of constituencies opposed to more effective environmental regulations. Brooks’ presumed contrast between “high savings, hard work, few distortions” conservatives and politically naive, spendthrift liberal technicians bears little relationship to American political reality.