Oh, No. David Brooks Thinks Social Security and Medicare Are State- and Local-Government Programs. Or Thinks We Do. Seriously. — APPENDED (twice)

The final problem is that, in an effort to reduce the economic concentration of power, the administration is concentrating political power in Washington. If the problem is that talent is fleeing blighted localities, it’s hard to see how you make that better if decision-making and resources are concentrated faraway in the nation’s capital.
This is not to make a partisan point. The Republicans do not have a better approach. It’s simply to say that the liberal agenda is not very good at addressing the inequality problem it seeks to solve. The meritocracy is overwhelming the liberal project.

The Great Migration, David Brooks, New York Times, Jan. 25

Brooks is right; that is not to make a partisan point.  It is to make a nonsensensical point. A point that Brooks makes again in his column in today’s Times, if in different words. 

It is, in any event, an inaccurate point.  

Okay, I admit it: I’ve become obsessed with David Brooks.  Or, more specifically, with the fact that a New York Times columnist who is regularly referenced by other big-name political columnists and bloggers, operates under a formula in which everything even remotely connected to politics/ideology–and I do mean everything, best as I can tell–falls within one or another breathtakingly broad factual category.  The placement into one or another of these categories depends not on whether the category placement is even remotely accurate as a matter of logic or even (sometimes) actual fact, but instead on which category whatever he’s talking about must fit in order to advance his preference for the decentralization of … well … everything, I guess, other than corporate power.  But especially of government functions.

This is so even when he’s arguing in favor of stronger centralization of government functions and of more government functions, but doesn’t realize it.  As, for example, his invocation of the public’s overwhelming support for Social Security and Medicare as … yup! … evidence that “Americans are still skeptical of Washington,” and so “[i]f you shove a big government program down their throats they will recoil.”  An accurate statement if the Americans you’re talking about are the ones who want the government to stay out of their Medicare!  Otherwise, though, there isn’t much evidence that there’s been an 80-year-long recoiling from Social Security and a 45-year recoiling from Medicare, and a populist push to privatize those programs or, to borrow a phrase from Mitt Romney (specifically when talking about emergency disaster aid and Medicaid, but, clearly, he had other programs in mind, too–like almost all federal programs that don’t directly aide, say, the oil and gas production companies–send them back to the states.  From which they didn’t come, in the first place.

The two indented paragraphs above come at the end of a column summarizing a new book called The New Geography of Jobs, by Enrico Moretti, with whom Brooks expressly agrees, point after point, paragraph after paragraph.  Until he adds a point of his own, the one he identifies as the final problem.  The one that Brooks thinks cannot be solved by federal money and decisionmaking, because that money would be concentrated in–by which he means, originates from–Washington, and because decisionmaking about how to turn this dynamic around, so that localities other than the big tech and finance centers prosper too, would, if the liberals have their way, be concentrated in Washington.  

Brooks sums up the problem. Sort of:

The highly educated cluster around a few small nodes. Decade after decade, smart and educated people flock away from Merced, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., Flint, Mich., and Vineland, N.J. In those places, less than 15 percent of the residents have college degrees. They flock to Washington, Boston, San Jose, Raleigh-Durham and San Francisco. In those places, nearly 50 percent of the residents have college degrees.
As Enrico Moretti writes in “The New Geography of Jobs,” the magnet places have positive ecologies that multiply innovation, creativity and wealth. The abandoned places have negative ecologies and fall further behind.

This sorting is self-reinforcing, and it seems to grow more unforgiving every year. One small study caught my eye. Robert Oprisko of Butler University found that half of the jobs in university political science programs went to graduates of the top 11 schools. That is to say, if you have a Ph.D. from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and so on, your odds of getting a job are very good. If you earned your degree from one of the other 100 degree-granting universities, your odds are not. These other 100 schools don’t even want to hire the sort of graduates they themselves produce. They want the elite credential.

Brooks is good at using other people’s fact-based arguments.  He just isn’t good at figuring out what they mean.  Or at least what they don’t mean.  Butler University is in Indianapolis, Ind. Presumably, Oprisko and all his colleagues live nearby.  The University of Michigan has a large branch in Flint.  The members of its political science faculty probably live within a relatively small radius of Flint.  So this wasn’t a good example of Moretti’s point, an all-too-valid one that highlights a huge national truth.  A truth that surely cannot be solved by removing whatever funds and help the federal government might offer.  

The federal government is not keeping Flint and the other, similar localities around the country, from doing things that might change the economics dynamic so that their young people will be better educated and will want to return there after receiving their degrees.  The federal government is being concertedly demonized as a beast, and starved–the result of the Republican dominance of Washington policymaking for so long.  And, for the same reason, the federal government’s entire fiscal policymaking apparatus has been prevented from attempting to deal with the problems Moretti discusses (and Brooks purports to discuss) by the capture of the public policymaking dialogue by people who want to end or prevent the federal-government’s role in, among many other things, the very sort of problem-solving that Brooks says is needed, except by … who?  Or by what?  Corporations? Local governments? Rush Limbaugh?

Brooks, as is typical of him, doesn’t say.  He just says, as always, that “centralized”–by which he means, federal government–power is bad. He doesn’t like it.  Too much like Europe, you know.  Very bad.

Brooks didn’t write a Sunday column this week.  I figured he just didn’t want me to mock another of his mindless rants about liberal/Obama government/centralized-headquarters-controlled operations that would undermine creativity and initiative–such as student-loan programs and public universities–so he took the day off.  But instead it turns out that he didn’t write a Sunday column because he was too busy attending various luncheons, dinners, and other meetings at this decade’s National Review review this past weekend about what the hell went WRONG last November, and what the hell can BE DONE to avoid such unfortunate turns of fortune from recurring repeatedly in the coming, say, century.

Brooks recounts pieces of arguments of speakers at the conference, and he concludes, surely accurately, that the Republican Party can’t win unless it develops what he calls a “Second GOP,” lead by new politicians who are not anti-government. These folks would develop federal programs that would address the country’s and individuals’ actual problems.  The quest for actual solutions, in other words, would trump anti-government ideology.  It’s just that, as standard bearers for the GOP, albeit the Second one, they would have to pretend that federal programs, like Social Security and Medicare, aren’t big government programs.  Or even small government programs.  They would pretend, I guess, that federal government programs aren’t federal government programs. State programs, maybe? Local-government programs? Chamber of Commerce programs?

This would work, remember, because most Americans “recoil” from big (i.e.., federal) government programs. Which is why they “cherish” Social Security and Medicare.  Just so you don’t think I’ve removed a sentence or clause from its context, here’s the full paragraph:

Americans are still skeptical of Washington. If you shove a big government program down their throats they will recoil. But many of their immediate problems flow from globalization, the turmoil of technological change and social decay, and they’re looking for a bit of help. Moreover, given all the antigovernment rhetoric, they will never trust these Republicans to reform cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare. You can’t be for entitlement reform and today’s G.O.P., because politically the two will never go together.

The Second GOP, Brooks says, “would be filled with people who recoiled at President Obama’s second Inaugural Address because of its excessive faith in centralized power, but who don’t share the absolute antigovernment story of the current G.O.P.”  People who, for example, live in Merced, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., Flint, Mich., and Vineland, N.J., and would be outraged if the Obama administration offered programs and federal financing to try to assist their cities in upgrading their education and infrastructure systems enough that they again become attractive to companies and startups and young professionals. Some of whom, recall, cherish Social Security and Medicare because of their lack of centralized power.

What exactly does Brooks think is an example of Obama’s excessive faith in centralized power?  The operative word here is, example. Even just one or two specific ones, please.  He doesn’t say; after all, generalization and sweeping categorization is his stock in trade. But if he can, and does, eventually provide an example, he might, while he’s on a role, consider identifying a couple of decentralized-power success stories, and explaining why Merced, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., Flint, Mich., and Vineland, N.J., don’t seem to have had similar options.  

Or maybe he can persuade the Second GOP to explain it. Without making too many of us recoil.  

UPDATE: Reader Jack and I exchanged the following comments in the Comments thread below:

Believe me when I say that I share your feelings about Brooks. He is one of the worst of the sycophants of the upper crust, and he is little more than the crumbs that make up that crust. However, the nearly total lack of response to your long post in the past several hours is the best response of all. He is not worthy of criticism. Posting anything he writes is like disposing of feces with your bare hands. Don’t dirty yourself by acknowledging that you’ve actually read some of his deceitful meanderings. When you see his column in print take that page and clean some crap off the sidewalk so that at least that page will serve a useful purpose.

If you must write about him then do so in a brief letter to the managing Editor of the Times and note that the Times should find a more fact based apologist for the takers in our society. Don’t multiply his words through the process of criticism. It serves no useful purpose because criticism is meant to correct or improve a point of view. He has no capacity for either.

My instinct is to just say, “But, Jack, you don’t understand.  This is an obsession!”  But I think it’s not a trivial matter that a very high-profile, self-styled “center-right” (as opposed to just plain rightwing), political columnist–someone whom politicians and other political journalists read and take seriously–keeps pushing a flatly nonsensical supposedly-factual, but generic “narrative”–over and over and over again–while never actually identifying specifics to support his claim of fact: that Obama and the congressional Dems are pushing for federal programs that would undermine creativity and initiative because they would be federal programs rather than state or local programs–or something–and that ongoing government programs such as student loan programs and state university systems do the same because they are government rather than private programs–or something.  

These are representations of fact, not statements of opinion.  They either are unpinned by empirical evidence or they are not.  And of course they are not.  So why does the New York Times allow him to keep asserting these things, in column after column, without finally asking him to identify specifics that support his generic claims of fact?  Yes, he’s an opinion columnist.  But these things aren’t opinion; they’re either fact-based or they aren’t, and if they aren’t, why is he allowed to use the Times as his forum to keep saying that they are, without ever actually identifying any empirical evidence to support them, or even specifying rather than merely implying) what programs he’s talking about.  

Two weeks ago, New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait wrote a delicious article there titled “David Brooks Now Totally Pathological,” hilariously deconstructing Brooks’s then-most-recent column in which he angrily blamed Obama for the Republicans’ fiscal-cliff and debt-ceiling embarrassments because Obama didn’t cave to them.  But that column of Brooks’s was, clearly, just opinion.  Hilariously and flagrantly ridiculous opinion.  It wasn’t a misrepresentation of fact. Quite the opposite; it acknowledged that the Republicans lost the substantive and political endgame on both.  It just said it was Obama’s fault.  Which is true.

Chait’s article is … a don’t-miss.
FOLLOW-UP: In response to Jack’s reply to me in the Comments thread in which he criticized the New York Times as basically a shill for the wealthy, I wrote:

I like the New York Times, generally. That’s where Paul Krugman’s column and blog are published, after all. And I’m not suggesting that the editors should censor their columnists’ opinions. But when a political columnist repeatedly makes sweeping conclusory statements of fact without ever actually specifying the supposed factual basis for the claims, and when it’s patently clear that no factual basis for the claims exists, it does seem to me that that crosses a line. …

I want to be sure that my criticism of the Times on this is not misunderstood.

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