Oh, No. David Brooks Thinks Social Security and Medicare Are State- and Local-Government Programs. Or Thinks We Do. Seriously. — APPENDED (twice)
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:
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:
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:
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 want to be sure that my criticism of the Times on this is not misunderstood.
This comment has been removed by the author.
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 at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/david-brooks-now-totally-pathological.html. It’s a don’t-miss.
“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–” “…..while never actually identifying specifics to support his claim of fact:”
And what does that tell us about the modern day political class? How does he reflect on the NY Times, to which I have written to complain too many times” No statement of facts, just smug criticisms of a world he seems to barely comprehend. No doubt he knows who butters his bread and why. He is the worst kind of so-called center-right opinion writer. He is slightly below the radar of extremism, but in so being he sets the ground work for the howler monkeys screaming their absurdities from the far right.
The best alternative is to make reference to his work without restating any of his actual words. Lay out the facts that dispute what he has to say and encourage the discussion of the reality of any topic he has chosen to distort.
It is easy enough to understand how he keeps his job at the NY Times. Read the ads on pages two through five of the first section each day. The management ot the Times seems to think that its readers are only from the One Percent. They still have not recognized that the sorry state of the NY Times own finances is the result of their myopic view of the world and what the average educated reader wants to know about. In the past ten years their stock value has fallen from about $54 to less than $10 recently.
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.
As for the paper’s ad revenues, I doubt that the Times’ ad buyers are more solidly upscale than they were in past eras. The problem for the Times is the same as the problem for the rest of the print media: the Internet.
off topic, but tangental; charles blahous is out with another post, this time suggesting that Social Security cost restraints may embody a rare “win-win” policy opportunity, if anyone is up to deconstructing it…
Hi, rj. I just sent out an email to the AB listserve, saying:
“rjs just posted a comment to one of my posts saying:
“off topic, but tangental; charles blahous is out with another post, this time suggesting that Social Security cost restraints may embody a rare “win-win” policy opportunity, if anyone is up to deconstructing it…’
“Since I’m utterly incapable of deconstructing anything much other than David Brooks’s columns and Antonin Scalia & Friends’ idiocies, I thought I’d pass it along to y’all.”
This damn system just blew out my comment regarding Charles Blahous and his persistent and single minded march to the forefront of the Social Security privatization industry since his having earned a PhD in Computational Quantitative Chemistry in 1989 and then going on to join up with Alan Simpson. To make a long story a bit shorter, “Charles Blahous is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center” The Mercatus Center you may recall is a stink tank bought and paid for by Koch. After the stint with Simpson Blahaus joined up with a mislabeled stank called Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, an organization funded by corporate America and without worker representation.
A chemist by educational training in the arcane art of computational quantitative analysis. He knows numbers and the statistical summarization of data. It’s an old expression that everyone who has ever studied statistics knnows, but still remains true, statistics don’t lie, but statisticians do. Charles Blahaus is what one might call a highly paid ambiguator. His “research”, that is his representation of data has been forthright in the service of the Social Security privatization industry. That makes him an ideologue rather than the scientist that his PhD would imply.
Well, at least that answers the question I asked myself when I read Rj’s comment. Which was: Who the hell is Charles Blahous?
the reason charles blahaus is a particular problem is that he’s a public trustee for the Social Security and Medicare programs…
It is interesting that Blahaus holds those positions given that he has had no position that represents the best inerets of the average worker and his positions have in all cases been funded by some sector of corporate America, including his current association with the Mercatus Center.
Reading through the linked article, which by the way contains very little in the form of data, it becomes very apparent that most of what Blahaus offers the reader are opinions combined with assurancees of the importance of his recommendations. It is never pointed out,for example,that there is no Social Security “short fall” in the pay-go character of the system for at least 20 years. Neither is it acknowledged that such a short fall may never occur if the economy improves enough so that unemployment is reduced. Nor is it suggested that the Social Security program could also benefit individual workers if medium earned income levels could be made to rise thereby increasing FICA revenue.
Bllahaus makes a strange, if I understand him correctly, suggestion that the big problem is that average worker post retirement income would be a higher percentage of pre-retirement income if that imcome were held stagnant and it would be an advantage to workers if their potential post retirment income did not increase thereby improving the replacement rate of the retirement income from Social Security. Admittedly I’m not sure that I understand the point he is making regarding retirment replacement rate as the explanation seemed either bizarre or too arcane. Maybe both. I’d sure like to read Bruce Webb’s critique of that aspect of the article.
ah, heck< jack i wrote a critique and everyone ignored it. Blahous has no real point except the idea that since “we” are paying “thier” benefits, we should never, ever allow their replacement rate to grow. but since we are paying our own benefits, and we are going to be living longer as a percent of our working lifetime, we ought to be able to increase the amount of our money we save for retirement. and SS is still the safest way ordinary people have to save enough of their own money to secure at least a minimally decent retirement at an age before you are ready for the hospice. the simple fact is that with wages rising as expected, the two to four percent shift from pre retirement income to post retirement income will still leave pre retirement income twice as high in real dollars as today, while, oddly enough, allowing a benefit that is also twice as high in real dollars as today. but that doesn’t make any sense to those who don’t think “the help” should be able to retire like quality folks.
Sorry, no slight intended when I referred to Bruce. How did I miss the critique you refer to?
What anoys me most about people like Blahaus is that he is one of “the help”
just at a higher rate of pay, and he sells his soul to his paymasters. He has no real expertise in the matter of Social Security any more so than Rumsfeld, Cheney or G.W. had expertise in military adventurism. They all just blather on and they are allowed to lie, cheat and steal. Yes, the selling of false ideologies is akin to felony theft. Beverly’s concerns regarding the ignorance of Brian Williams can be appropriately applied here. Never has the media failed more people in a more gross manner than it does now.