The two imagined cultures of David Brooks

David Brooks presumed contrast between “high savings, hard work, few distortions” conservatives and politically naive, spendthrift liberal technicians bears little relationship to American political reality.

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.

Brooks concludes:

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

7 thoughts on “The two imagined cultures of David Brooks”

  1. Apropos your earlier post about your own anticipation of the Frank Rich column, David Brooks is apparently picking up on, but not crediting, an essay by Steve Randy Waldman, of Interfluidity.

    http://www.interfluidity.com/v2/983.html

    Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias challenged the economic argument more directly a few days ago.

    http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/11/uncertahttp://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2010/11/uncerta

    Hope so many links don't get this comment into trouble, but it really is interesting to see a piece like the David Brooks column, in the blogospheric context. Krugman wrote on his blog about Brooks, too. And, Brad DeLong took exception to the S.R. Waldman essay, which led to an apologetic followup by Waldman. It's an interesting conversation.

  2. Brooks' delusion notwithstanding, it's too bad the NBER requires a subscription to view its working papers. Based on the abstract, the efficacy of another round of fiscal stimulus would likely be limited. The authors find four factors that limit the size of the fiscal multipier. Three of these four apply to the US: a flexible exchange rate, an open economy and high indebtedness. Even if you accept the prevailing paradigm among professional econmists, so what? Government spending would still put money into private hands that would then create demand, just what the economy lacks most at present. Demand then creates income and a real, employment-based, recovery gets underway. This paper doesn't seem to address this, but speaks rather to the question of how much demand would be created by the newly circulating money.

    Brooks' commonsensical approach may well work, but in what timeframe and at what cost to real people who are suffering right now? I suspect Brooks would answer along the lines of who cares about the timeframe and the cost would be measured more relevantly in higher debt (btw, you can't even see suffering from Brooks' neighborhood, so how can you even think of measuring it). But common sense has its obvious limits. To illustrate:

    Look, with your own eyes.

    The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, over and over again.

    Therefore, the sun revolves around the earth.

    It's common sense.

    Here's the thing, in a country that is sovereign in its own currency deficits need not necessarily be paid for with debt, or with higher taxes for that matter. Money can just be created with literal strokes on keyboards. This is true at any time and under any condition. It's also true that in doing so there are potentially negative ramifications, like inflation. But, when that country's economy is not operating anywhere near its capacity inflation is not going to happen. Under such conditions there is no economic constraint on deficit spending. Any constraints that do exist are purely ideological, as Mr. Brooks so ably demonstrates.

  3. I am amazed. Paul Krugman was too kind to Brooks. Much too kind to Brooks. I still haven't read the column (and I won't) but Brooks made a plainly false claim which Krugman neglected to denounce. German GNP is now further below peak than US GNP. Germany unemployment rose less largely because of an extremely invasive bit of technocratic intervention — workers work part time, are paid part time by their employers and the state pays the difference between that part time pay and full time pay. This is an intervention much too radical to be acceptable to the Obama economic team (I didn't say they wouldn't hope to get it throuugh congress I say that they have too much respect for the market system to think of doing such a thing — I note that Larry Summers was my PhD supervisor).

    In contrast a country which has done really well in the past two years is the PRC which implemented a huge stimulus (larger compared to GDP than the ARRA). Brooks should know all of this. He could have learned it without reading any pages which don't publish David Brooks as it is all explained on the NY Times op-ed pages.

    He decided to discuss a fantasy world ignoring the plain facts which should be known to everyone with a pulse.

    Then he accused liberal technocrats of refusing to deal with the messiness of reality.

    It is also true, as you note, that liberal economists are much less enamored of elegant models which ignore the messyness of reality than conservative economists. The liberals who mistook a theory for reality are Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin and, arguably, Larry Summers (he is arguably a liberal he certainly decided that the false theory was reality). Clinton signed Graham Leach Bliley and the Commodity Futures Modernization acts. He did that because he was determined to triangulate and because he believed that economists understand the economy and we said the bills were OK (because we are totally clueless).

    It is clear that Brooks is not willing to deal with reality. I understand his problem. He is not insane, but he has to pretend to be a Republican to keep his very desirable job. The stress has caused him to escape into a fantasy world in which the German economy has performed better than the Chinese economy. It has also caused him to pretend that liberals are Robespierre, because the only conservative he can name who hasn't since been proven to be a clueless lunatic is Edmund Burke.

    I pity Brooks. I'm sure he knows that he is writing nonsense. I hope some day he is brave enough to say so clearly.

  4. @Robert Waldmann

    I disagree with you when you say that Brooks' game is pretending to be a Republican. He is a Republican, who is pretending to be a conservative. He plays this game because his readership is thoroughly sick of Republican hacks, but is open to conservative thought. (Which goes beyond Burke, btw. Try Michael Oakeshott, if you want a high political theorist. Or if you prefer practical politicians, try the long and honorable line of German conservatives following Bismarck through Adenauer to Merkel, many of whom had impeccable anti-Nazi credentials. And it is easy to place George Orwell in the conservative tradition–at least the Red Tory line of it.)

    Brooks is a smart guy, and can often pull off the deception. But he is only so smart, and cannot stray too far from the Republican line. So he sometimes commits pure hackishness, such as the column at issue.

  5. @Robert Waldman

    I think you're making two mistakes. The first, of course, is assuming that Brooks has any significant traffic with facts qua facts, but the second is assuming (as economists so often seem to) that GDP is the appropriate measure to be using as a measurement of how well or badly a country copes with economic shocks. Especially in a country with as much income inequality as the US, unemployment, foreclosures, median income and so forth probably correspond much more sensibly with the ultimate health of the economy. The US choice to maximize output while letting distribution to the wisdom of the not-really-free market has pretty clearly failed even on its own terms.

  6. I'm not disputing the idea that the countries that weathered the recession best were the ones with the best pre-recession fundamentals, but since that doesn't describe the US, and we can't go back in time and change it, the real question is what policies would serve us well in the future. I'll admit that I don't know, but comparing us to a country that is in better shape seems futile.

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